'This Grand Opportunity': the origin of sister missionaries in the Church
At more than 20,000 strong, “there are more women serving missions right now than the number of women in the Church in 1847 when the pioneers crossed the plains,” historian Brittany Chapman points out in a new video being displayed on the website of the Church History Department.
Titled “This Grand Opportunity,” the video explores the origin of formal missionary service by women in this gospel dispensation. It is part of a package with related content on history.lds.org and can be viewed by clicking on a link from the website’s home page as part of the “Pioneers in Every Land” section.
Subtitled “Elizabeth McCune Helped Pave the Way for Sister Missionaries,” the 8 ½ minute video in part dramatizes the experience of Sister McCune in the summer and fall of 1897.
“Elizabeth McCune had been involved with various things, from early family history efforts in the Church to her acquaintance with people who had been active in the women’s suffrage movement,” Matthew S. McBride, web content manager with the Church History Department, said in an interview. “So she had lots of experience and then was able to become a unique voice for her faith.”
Her husband, Alfred, had become wealthy through his business interests, said Brother McBride, but had distanced himself from the Church over the years. Still, Sister McCune remained loyal to him and accompanied him on a business trip to Europe, including Sister McCune’s homeland of England.
Prior to the trip, she sought and received a blessing from Church President Lorenzo Snow. In the blessing, he said, “Thy mind shall be clear as an angel’s when explaining the principles of the gospel.”
Thinking that might refer to sharing the gospel with her relatives in England, she visited some of them.
But the most striking fulfillment of the blessing came from her visit with her son Raymond, who was serving a mission in England. She invited Raymond and some of the other elders to stay with the family in the home they rented. Sister McCune and her daughter Fay accompanied the elders to their street meetings in the resort city of Eastbourne. But, as quoted by Brother McBride on the website, she “ ‘sometimes had an ardent desire to speak herself, feeling that, as she was a woman, she might attract more attention than the young men and therefore do more good,’ though she worried that if she ‘had this privilege, [she] might have failed entirely, though [she] so ardently desired success.’ ”
Yet the opportunity soon came.
“In the 1890s in England, there were a lot of negative stereotypes about Mormon women,” said James Goldberg, a scriptwriter of the video. “ ‘How could a woman be a Mormon?’ — that sort of thing.”
In particular, an ex-Mormon named William Jarman had traveled throughout England, promoting his anti-Mormon book. As depicted in the video, Elizabeth was invited by the mission presidency in England to speak at an evening meeting and tell of her experience as a Latter-day Saint woman in Utah.
“It makes it really timely that we found some contemporary connection to the story,” said Brother Goldberg. “I think some Mormon women today feel some pressure to explain how being a thoughtful and independent woman fits into Mormonism.”
In his article on the website, Brother McBride wrote, “The effect of Elizabeth’s presence and words was electric. The simple sermon by a Mormon woman had done more to dispel the stigma fostered by Jarman than the best efforts of the elders.”
She was invited to speak at meetings elsewhere in the mission thereafter.
Impressed with her effectiveness, Joseph W. McMurrin of the mission presidency wrote to the First Presidency about Sister McCune's work in England.