On March 11, 1898, the First Presidency of the LDS Church held a regularly scheduled business meeting that would turn out to be of far-reaching significance. President Wilford Woodruff and his counselors, Joseph F. Smith and George Q. Cannon, had recently received a handful of letters from mission presidents around the world requesting women missionaries. One of these letters came from Joseph W. McMurrin of the European Mission presidency, who submitted “instances in which our sisters gained attention in England, where the Elders could scarcely gain a hearing.” He believed, the letter continued, “that if a number of bright and intelligent women were called on missions to England, the results would be excellent.”
“If a number of bright and intelligent women were called on missions to England, the results would be excellent. ”
Joseph W. McMurrin
European Mission presidency
After some discussion, the presidency concluded to call and set apart single sister missionaries and to provide them, for the first time in Church history, with certificates authorizing them to preach the gospel. The move opened the door for a new era in LDS missionary work, and a new era for women in the Church.
And without Elizabeth McCune, McMurrin might never have written that letter.
Born Elizabeth Claridge in England in 1852, Elizabeth was raised in rural Nephi, Utah. When she was 16, her father, Samuel, answered Brigham Young’s call to pioneer the bleak “Muddy” mission in what would become the desert of southern Nevada. When she returned north a few years later, she married her childhood sweetheart, promising young businessman Alfred W. McCune. A stunning series of business successes soon catapulted Alfred and Elizabeth to status as one of Utah’s wealthiest families.
This wealth, however, came at a price for Elizabeth. Increasingly preoccupied with his business affairs, Alfred distanced himself from the Church. Devastated by this development, Elizabeth remained a loyal companion to her husband, praying that he would eventually experience a revival in his faith. For her part, she considered her affluence a stewardship, ensuring that the family made generous donations to Church causes and provided support to friends and family in need. She also used the time her situation afforded her to serve in the Young Ladies' Mutual Improvement Assocation in her ward, and to become an astute genealogist.
A Tour of Europe
In February 1897, the McCunes prepared to embark on an extended tour of Europe. Their journey would take them to Elizabeth’s homeland of England, as well as France and Italy. While the family planned to do a great deal of sightseeing, Elizabeth viewed the trip, in part, as an opportunity to further her genealogical research.
“Thy mind shall be as clear as an angel’s when explaining the principles of the Gospel.”
Lorenzo Snow in a blessing to Elizabeth McCune
Considering this research as a spiritual endeavor, she visited President Lorenzo Snow for a priesthood blessing before embarking on the trip. His words to her suggested yet another spiritual purpose: "Among other beautiful promises he said, ‘Thy mind shall be as clear as an angel’s when explaining the principles of the Gospel.’”The significance of these words became even more striking to Elizabeth as the events of her European tour played out.
At the time of their trip, Elizabeth was a 45-year-old mother of seven. Her four youngest childrenaccompanied her on the voyage, and she looked forward with anticipation to a reunion with her 19-year-old son, Raymond, who was then serving a mission in Great Britain. Upon arriving in England, the McCunes rented a home in the fashionable resort town of Eastbourne. The house “was large and roomy, the grounds extensive and beautiful.” She invited Raymond and some of the other elders in the area to stay with the family.
Elizabeth and her daughter Fay regularly accompanied the elders to their street meetings on the beachside promenade in Eastbourne. They sang hymns to attract the attention of the crowd and held the elders books and hats while they preached.After these meetings, the elders invited those interested to call on them at No. 4 Grange Gardens, the McCune’s temporary residence. This inevitably elicited looks of shocked surprise. After all, Mormon elders typically dwelt in much humbler circumstances.
Her experience at these street meetings and in distributing tracts door to door with the eldersproved to Elizabeth that she could withstand an occasional contemptuous glance without fear. But she hoped to play a more active role in the preaching of the gospel. She said 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 good,” though she worried that if she “had this privilege [she] might have failed entirely though [she] so ardently desired success.” Such an opportunity would come, and sooner than she might have expected.
'The Notorious Jarman'
During the 1880s and 1890s, a former Latter-day Saint named William Jarman traveled throughout England promoting his recently published anti-Mormon book. His no-holds-barred attacks on the Church and scandalous claims about life in Utah not only caused a stir due to their sensationalism, but appeared to be bolstered and validated by his "insider" status as a former member. In short, he represented a major public relations problem for the Church.His assertions about Mormon women and their roles were particularly unflattering, and mission leadership found them difficult to combat with a force of young male missionaries.
As 1897 waned, the time for the semi-annual London Conference drew near. The saints in the London area gathered at the Clerkenwell Town Hall on October 28 to receive instruction from their local leaders. Elizabeth McCune was among those who attended the afternoon session. The hall was “filled with the Saints and strangers; some very distinguished people being present.” President Rulon S. Wells and his counselor Joseph W. McMurrin addressed the assemblage. Elizabeth was so stirred by their remarks that she felt “the whole audience must be converted by the power manifested.”
McMurrin spoke of “the base falsehoods which Jarman and his daughters had so industriously circulated regarding the Mormon women being confined behind a wall in Utah, and of their ignorance and degraded conditions.” Then, to Elizabeth’s astonishment, he said, “We have with us just now, a lady from Utah who has traveled all over Europe with her husband and family, and hearing of our conference, she has met with us. We are going to ask Sister McCune to speak this evening and tell you of her experience in Utah.”
She later candidly confessed that the announcement “nearly frightened me to death.” McMurrin invited all those present to invite their friends to the evening meeting to listen to “the lady from Utah.” Elizabeth continued: “The Elders assured me that they would give me their faith and prayers, and I added my own fervent appeals to my Heavenly Father for aid and support." She added modestly, "I said in my heart, ‘O, if we only had one of our good woman speakers from Utah to take advantage of this grand opportunity what good it might do!’”
'The Lady from Utah'
As the hour for the evening meeting drew near, the hall began to fill. The recorder for the conference noted, “Despite the fact that extra seats were placed in the hall and the gallery thrown open, people had to be turned away from the doors.”Word had spread and a curious crowd had gathered to hear this lady from Utah.
“Our husbands are proud of their wives and daughters; they do not consider that they were created solely to wash dishes and tend babies; but they give them every opportunity to attend meetings and lectures and to take up everything which will educate and develop them. Our religion teaches us that the wife stands shoulder to shoulder with the husband.”
“With a final prayer,” she recalled, “I arose to address the audience. … I told them I had been raised in Utah and knew almost every foot of the country and most of the people. I spoke of my extensive travels in America and in Europe, and said that nowhere had I found women held in such esteem as among the Mormons of Utah.”
Elizabeth went on, “Our husbands are proud of their wives and daughters; they do not consider that they were created solely to wash dishes and tend babies; but they give them every opportunity to attend meetings and lectures and to take up everything which will educate and develop them. Our religion teaches us that the wife stands shoulder to shoulder with the husband.”
The effect of Elizabeth’s presence and words was electric. This simple sermon by a Mormon woman had done more to dispel the stigma fostered by Jarman than the best efforts of the elders. After the meeting she was approached by several strangers. One said, “If more of your women would come out here a great amount of good would be done.” Said another: “”I have always had a desire in my heart to see a Mormon woman and to hear her speak. Madam, you carry truth in your voice and words.”Elizabeth concluded, “This incident opened my eyes as to the great work our sisters could do.”
President McMurrin, taking careful note of the outcome of that meeting, invited Elizabeth to accompany him to the Nottingham conference the following Sunday. She spoke in Nottingham along with her son Raymond. Her topic: “the conditions of the people in Utah.”She remembered, “After this, every branch wanted me to come and speak at their meetings. They said they could get crowded halls if I would.”
Her impending departure to Italy prevented further opportunities to speak, but the seed had been planted. President McMurrin was convinced that her efforts had been the “means of allaying much prejudice.” He wrote his letter to the First Presidency soon after the McCunes left. Other private letters from Britain to Church authorities in Utah echoed this missive, citing “the great weight that the testimonies of Utahnian ladies bore in this land” and the way they helped supplant “old erroneous ideas” with a more balanced view.
Setting the Plan in Motion
In the weeks following the First Presidency’s March 11, 1898, decision to call sister missionaries, word began to spread. At a reception held by the Young Men and Young Women Mutual Improvement Association boards, President George Q. Cannon announced, “It has been decided to call some of our wise and prudent women into the missionary field,”and spoke of the contributions of Elizabeth and others. Joseph F. Smith also spoke to the Young Women leaders about this “grand work that lay before the daughters of Zion.”
“It has been decided to call some of our wise and prudent women into the missionary field.”
George Q. Cannon
Counselor in First Presidency
At the April 1898 Conference, President Cannon announced to a broader church audience the decision to regularly call sister missionaries. He spoke of a woman that “was so pleased at meeting one of our sisters—an intelligent woman, and a woman that did not look as though she was a poor, downtrodden slave—that she entered the Church. No doubt, it was due to the fact that she had found that the women were as intelligent, as presentable and as ladylike in their sphere as the gentlemen were in their sphere.” Cannon noted that while these sisters cannot administer ordinances, “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.”
On April 1, 1898, Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall were set apart to be the first single, certified, female proselyting missionaries in the history of the Church. They were both assigned to the European Mission, and within three days of their April 21 arrival they began to speak in branch meetings, street meetings, and conferences, heralded as “real live Mormon women.” They gave particular attention to their duty to visit “strangers having strange ideas of our people.”Knight and Brimhall were the first of tens of thousands of women to serve as missionaries in a tradition that continues today.
Elizabeth McCune would have further opportunities to engage in missionary work in the coming years.She later offered this perspective on her experience as a forerunner : “While abroad I always had a burning desire in my heart to give our Father’s children what I knew to be the Truth. Wherever I went to visit and had an opportunity to converse with the people I would lead up to this the uppermost topic in my mind. Often I had the privilege of proclaiming the Gospel to people who had never before heard of it. I asked myself, at times, ‘Why do I feel so, I am not a missionary?’ I told my daughter one day that I believed the time was not far distant when women would be called on missions. I often felt if I were commissioned of God as the young men were, I could have gone into every house and entered into a quiet religious chat with the people; leaving with each one my earnest testimony.”