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Women

of Conviction

‘They Can Bear Testimony, They Can Teach’

Pioneering Efforts of the First Single Sister Missionaries

Elizabeth Maki

Manchester Conference, British Mission

Inez Knight was a 22-year-old Brigham Young Academy student from Provo, Utah, in 1898 when she and her friend Jennie Brimhall decided to go on a European vacation. Inez's brother and Jennie's fiance, Will Knight, was serving a mission there as was Ray Knight, Inez's other brother. The trip would allow Inez and Jennie to visit Will and Ray and to see the sights.1

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Inez Knight

Yet as Inez and Jennie planned their initial stop in England, the timing was just right for their international holiday to turn into something much bigger.

Just a year earlier, in 1897, the presidency of the European Mission had appealed to the presiding authorities of the Church to send them some “lady missionaries.” LDS women had been set apart for missions since 1865, and many had served even before that with no more formal sanction than a blessing. Yet with few exceptions, those missionaries had been married women accompanying their husbands into the mission field. What the European Mission sought were dedicated female missionaries, citing “instances in which our sisters gained attention in England where the Elders could scarcely gain a hearing.”2

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Jennie Brimhall

Similar appeals were heard from mission leaders in the United States, and by the April 1898 General Conference, Church authorities had acknowledged their desires and given the plan a cautious sanction.

“There will be an opportunity, doubtless, for women who are capable and who desire to do good, to go out, under proper conditions,” President George Q. Cannon said in that Conference. “They can bear testimony; they can teach; they can distribute tracts, and they can do a great many things that would assist in the propagation of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”3

It was in this climate that Jennie's bishop, J.B. Keeler proposed an idea: What if their European vacation could be transformed into a call to serve the Lord? Jennie replied that she would serve if asked. Keeler soon wrote to LDS Church President Wilford Woodruff with the proposal, and shortly thereafter the women's stake president was sent a letter authorizing him to set apart Inez Knight and Jennie Brimhall as missionaries to Great Britain.4

The call may have been a surprise for the women; they had submitted no mission papers and prepared for just a few-month journey overseas. Moreover, there was no precedent for them to follow: Young, single women had never before been called to serve missions for the LDS Church.

Whatever their thoughts, the women accepted their calls and were set apart on April 1, 1898. The next day, they set out on a long journey to Liverpool. (Inez wrote that she “cried between Provo and Springville but after that was quite reconciled.”) The women received no formal training, and in her journal Inez never mentioned strict rules of the sort missionaries today know. Inez and Jennie were setting out on an adventure that—despite lacking much in the way of formal structure—would serve as a pioneering enterprise for generations of LDS women to follow.

Jennie Brimhall returned home to Utah after a few months, due to poor health, but Inez served in Great Britain for 26 months, usually with a companion but at times on her own.5 Initially, Inez had a hard time thinking of her mission as “being much more than a pleasure trip.”6 Yet, years later, a member of the European Mission presidency there when they served reported that the “lady missionaries” he had worked with in Great Britain completed a work that “was in every way satisfactory.”

“Whenever I had the pleasure of listening to one of them bear testimony to the truth of the Gospel, and talk of their Utah sisters, and defend the women of Mormondom, I felt their words were far more convincing than anything that could be said by the men. … I believe there is room for a good many sisters to do effective missionary service.”7

Footnotes

[1] Kelly Lelegren, "Real, live Mormon women": Understanding the role of early twentieth-century LDS Lady Missionaries (thesis, Utah State University, 2009), 23.

[2] Calvin Seymour Kunz, A history of female missionary activity in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1898 (thesis, Brigham Young University, 1976), 35.

[3] George Q. Cannon, Address, Official Report of the Sixty-Eighth Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 6, 7, 8 and 10, 1898 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1898), 6-8.

[4] Orson Whitney, History of Utah, (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, circa 1916), 614.

[5] Kelly Lelegren, "Real, live Mormon women”: Understanding the role of early twentieth-century LDS Lady Missionaries (thesis, Utah State University, 2009), 45.

[6] Inez Knight Allen, diary of Inez Knight Allen, 1898-1899, BYU Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections.

[7] Joseph W. McMurrin, “Lady Missionaries,” Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 15 (December 1904): 539-541.