Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Recognizing a Culture of Sister Missionaries: Who Are the Greatest Sisters of All Times?

Today in the car as I was driving to work I was thinking about topics for today post. I keep going back to a poll I tried to conduct on the Greatest LDS Missionary of All Times in which only nine people responded on who was the greatest missionary of the twentieth century. I had not included one single sister missionary which was a serious omission on my part. In Mormon culture young women are not encouraged to serve but still there have been tens of thousands which represents a significant segment of the membership. My exclusion was a sad commentary on my part rather than on the selfless service of sister missionaries who have been serving since the nineteenth century. There are varying accounts of who the official first sisters were.

Ardis Parshall sets the date as early as 1852 when Joahanna Tippett Porter and her mother trek the Isle of Wright. J. Stapley points out in various places that mission presidents wives did missionary work. Lucy Woodruff Smith had an official calling as a sister missionary to serve in the mission office of the Southern States mission in 1892. The first official missionaries according to some scholars that were sanctioned from the church leadership with official callings and certified proselyting sister missionaries were Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall to the British Mission.

Maxine Hanks in Women and Authority (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992) identifies the first official sister missionary as Harriet Horspool Nye, wife of mission president Ephraim Nye California Misssion from 1896 until 1901. President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a building in Sister Nye's honor in June 1994 at the Provo MTC. Hanks wrote about the issue:

The first known missionary certification of women came as a response to requests made in 1897 and 1898 by mission president Joseph McMurrin, who requested sister missionaries because “Our sisters gained attention in England where the elders could scarcely gain a hearing.”15 In April 1898 George Q. Cannon announced that “It has been decided to call some of our wise and prudent women in the missionary field. . . . [G]reat good could be accomplished by the sisters in that direction.”16

Certifying sisters created a shift in church policy. Prior to 1898 the church did not specifically invite women to serve proselyting missions; women served for circumstantial or voluntary reasons. With certification women were formally invited or called to regular full-time missions.

The first woman certified to serve a proselyting mission was Harriet Nye, wife of the California mission president. Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall were the first single proselyting sisters and served under McMurrin in England. Some of the elders “openly questioned whether or not the sisters callings were equal to their own”; but “the presidency of the mission made it very clear that the same authority which called the men on their missions also called the women.”17 Knight remembered that “We attended Priesthood meeting at which I was the only girl. I felt more conspicuous by the elders beginning their remarks, `My brethren and sister.'” She served for twenty-five months.18

In 1901 President Francis M. Lyman returned from the European Mission and “in all soberness declared `that the lady missionary is no longer an experiment, but an unqualified success. In the dawn of the twentieth century this fact has been demonstrated to the world. What will the future hold?” In 1921 Apostle David O. McKay noted, “Almost without exception, the women whom we have met in their `fields of labor' have proved to be not only equal but superior to the men in ability, keen insight and energetic service.” In 1928 Apostle Richard R. Lyman reported that another mission president had requested him “to send more young women into the mission field.”
I wondered if we really have been giving sister missionaries the recognition that they deserve. Calvin Kuntz attempted it in his BYU history master's thesis in 1979. I recently encountered an article by Sarah Jensen in Segullah Journal entitled “Women Proclaiming the Gospel on Missions: An Historical Overview.” She sets the earliest woman officially set apart for missionary work in 1850 when Louisa Barnes Pratt accompanied her husband Addison to the Society Island. She also says Lucy Mack Smith and Emma Smith had gone out to visit people in the 1830s. In 1865 thirteen women were set apart for home missionary service (See Maxine Hanks, Women and Authority: Re-Emerging Mormon Feminism [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1989], 318). She also settles on sisters being endorsed officially as Sister Knight and Sister Brimhall saying they did the same thing from that point forward as young missionary elders. An interesting note is that in the 1940s sister did not serve until 23 to give them ample chance to marriage it wasn't until January 1953 that the age was set to 21 for some sisters and institutionalized in 1964 to the current age. Sisters originally served for two years but that was cut to eighteen months in 1971. Another interesting detail is that mission presidents sons or daughters can serve as early as eighteen or nineteen.

A study of LDS policy was made by Tania Rands Lyon and Mary Ann Shumway McFarland Not Invited, But Welcome: The History and Impact of Church Policy on Sister Missionaries in Dialogue who claim it is a daunting subject hard to study as they explore church policy about the matter. Jessie Embry in the 1990s conducted 100 interviews of sister missionaries to make sense of their history and achievements as their foundation in her earlier Journal of Mormon History Spring 1997 piece "LDS Sister Missionaries: An Oral History Response, 1910-71."

The Church might one day want to rethink its present course since a mission makes a young woman a more attractive partner and if they reversed it more could serve than marry. Another thing that strikes me is that except for the early apostles serving we haven't even developed a culture of identifying exceptional elders who serve let alone sisters. We occasionally have a story of a star quarterback or basketball player or musical talent or missionary that served someone's life going but we never hear about a sister or elder that served generally. The Improvement Era and Elder's Journal used to give a paragraph or two that let us know the activities. This actually was a form of inculcation from about 1900 until the 1950s. The last few years the LDS News Room has been doing a few general pieces but it is limited in its readership and influence.

Back to the sister missionaries. If we could identify ten sister missionaries that were the greatest of all times what would be the things that we would measure. Would we look at the number of people they baptized, the positions they held, the conditions where they served? Would they be people who went on to success like Mary Ellen Edmunds as a speaker or writer. If I were doing a poll I would add her for name recognition and the fact she worked in the missionary field on a few occasions. Should there be a mission presidents' wife hall of fame too. They probably deserve recognition. This is just a few thoughts to get us started.

I don't feel that we have recognized the achievement of sister missionaries as openly as we should. Two studies in thirty years doesn't get at legitimizing their contributions and even understanding their accomplishments. I hope that Sarah Jensen will pick up the torch for sister missionaries as Jessie Embry did earlier on oral history and that she will begin compiling written accounts of their contributions through oral history and writing and publish books and articles. There is probably a good dissertation or two in the study of sister missionaries. We are losing a valuable part of our history by not knowing sister missionaries contributions. Much too little is made of their accomplishments. I feel that the Segullah writers need to step up to the plate and raise our awareness of the importance of sister missionaries to the overall LDS missionary cause.

Former sister missionaries have much to teach the thousands of future missionaries to come. Silence doesn't help the thousands of sister missionaries who come to my blog and other places to read about tips for sister missionaries and get a general idea of what they will be doing. Not publishing stories about sister missionaries in my mind has more negative results than positive. I find that sister missionaries are desperate to know what they are doing and to have role models to make their transition easier. Cute articles in the New Era and the Ensign have a place but we need to develop a richer cultural identity for celebrating and understanding the accomplishments of sister missionries. Their story is one that in my opinion needs to be told more.


Bored in Vernal said...

I liked this post. Someone should mention that you have raised all of your daughters to go on missions before they marry, and the three oldest have now done so. (So, as your wife, I will point that out!)

One of the great sister missionaries of all Mormondom has to be Mary Ellen Edmunds.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dr B.