'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.
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.”