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LDS Church News

'This Grand Opportunity': the origin of sister missionaries in the Church

By R. Scott Lloyd

LDS Church News

Published: Saturday, Aug. 9 2014 12:15 p.m. MDT

This and other reports from the field led to the decision on March 11, 1898, to call sister missionaries.

The experience of Sister McCune was not the only catalyst.

“About the same time, the mission president in California was asking about having women sent to that mission,” said Brother Goldberg. “So it was one of those things where the time was right. The time had come.”

Changing conditions in the Church helped motivate the innovation, Brother McBride said in the interview. The Manifesto was issued in 1890, leading to the end of the practice of plural marriage in the Church (see Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1). As a result, there were more unmarried women in their early 20s in the Church at a time when there was an effort to accelerate the directive to carry the gospel to the nations of the earth.

“At this time, we have a group of young women that are not only available, but educated and intelligent and articulate,” Brother McBride said of the 1890s time period. “They’ve been trained with opportunities through the YWMIA and the Relief Society to speak in public and to fulfill leadership positions. So there is this very talented crop of young women that are ready.

“So it’s like dry kindling, and we just needed a spark to set it off. The spark is what James alludes to here, which is that we’ve got perceptions about Mormon women that are erroneous and damaging to the missionary effort that are being spread by anti-Mormon pamphleteers in England. And the mission presidency in England and the local leaders in other areas begin to recognize that we can’t combat this with a bunch of 20-year-old men.”

Other resources on the web page explore other aspects of the early sister missionary experience. Inez Knight and Jennie Brimhall were the first two single sister missionaries. Serving in California, they were accosted by a mob on one occasion that pelted them with eggs and other objects. While at the local police station to make their report, they were glad to be able to engage in gospel conversations with people waiting there.

“That gives you a sense of it being a different sort of time period,” Brother Goldberg said, “and why there would have been some reticence by the Brethren to try [the innovation of sister missionaries], but we’re certainly glad today that they did.”

rscott@deseretnews.com