Ann Sophia Jones Rosser was legendary for her tenacity in sharing the gospel. In a single day, the early Welsh convert was credited with distributing fifty tracts and selling seven copies of the Book of Mormon—labors that reportedly led to the conversion of twelve people. It was later written of her that she took “an active part in the gospel, always doing her utmost to announce its ‘glad tidings.’”
Yet Rosser, who joined the Church in the early 1850s, was never set apart as a missionary; her efforts to proclaim the gospel came decades before LDS women were called to serve proselytizing missions. Like so many women before and after her, Rosser didn’t need the call to do the work.
Rosser’s preaching may have happened as part of a plan similar to one laid out in 1851 by Eli B. Kelsey, president of the London Conference. Kelsey wrote to the Millennial Star in January about an ambitious plan to circulate 25,000 tracts—bought by the members—in his area. To do so, he called upon “every faithful, able-bodied Saint, whose circumstances will permit him or her to assist in rolling on the word of God.”
“What a glorious opportunity,” he wrote, “for the young men and maidens to prove themselves worthy. … The minds of all are fully prepared to enter into the good work with energy and zeal.”
In Kelsey’s plan, the men and women distributing tracts would be “confronted and called upon to give a reason for the hope within them.” Such a demand, he said, would lead the Saints to “study, to meditate, and to pray, that they may gain knowledge” sufficient to bear testimony as they worked.
Four months later, Kelsey reported to the Star that the members’ efforts had resulted in between three and four hundred baptisms. “And according to the monthly reports,” he wrote, ”the prospects are very bright indeed, for a far greater increase in the next three months. The number of tracts now in circulation in this Conference is twenty thousand; this number will be increased to over thirty thousand by the first of June.”
“[The women are] preachers, in a way; and they carried their sermons to the homes of rich and poor, to be read at the fireside by those who, but for this, never would have gone to hear an elder preach. ”
Women of Mormondom
Edward Tullidge reported in 1877 that “tracting societies” like the one Kelsey formed were a feature in towns and cities across the British Mission, where he claimed women “had much better missionary opportunities than in America.”
In England, Scotland, and Wales, the sisters distributing tracts were “preachers, in a way; and they carried their sermons to the homes of rich and poor, to be read at the fireside by those who, but for this, never would have gone to hear an elder preach.”
Thousands of women participated in these highly organized tracting societies, where monthly meetings, mapped-out districts, and regular reports were the norm. While few specific examples beyond Rosser’s have survived the years, Tullidge reported that, at one time, the women of the Church had circulated half a million of Orson Pratt’s tracts.
“In short,” he recorded, “the sisters, in the work abroad, were a great missionary power.”
In 1883, the tracting societies got a boost when the Church began purchasing the tracts intended for distribution “as a means of warning the people, making known our doctrines, forming new acquaintances and preparing the way for out-door preaching” in the British Mission. Along with being supplied tracts, local congregations were instructed to “organize tract societies where such do not already exist, among the members under their jurisdiction. These may include sisters as well as brethren, but they should be persons in good standing, whose character will not bring reproach upon the cause.” As before, the men and women distributing tracts were directed to “invite a thorough investigation of the principles treated upon in the tract, and proffer to answer any questions that might be asked for information relative thereto. The time and place of holding meetings might also be given, and an invitation to attend be extended.”
Not until just before the turn of the twentieth century were Latter-day Saint women given the mandate to work as set-apart missionaries. Before that time, some women in the Church were reluctant to usurp what they saw as a priesthood duty. Yet thousands of others wholeheartedly participated in tracting societies, engaging in what today might be called “member missionary work.”
"We each have a mission to perform,” wrote Elicia Grist in 1861, addressing the Latter-day Saint women of Great Britain. “There is ample opportunity afforded us for testifying and exercising the gifts of the Spirit. How many times have we been forcibly struck by the manifest power of God in our meetings? In many instances, when we have participated in these holy inspirations, our testimony may have caused some who have been present to reflect more deeply and closely upon what has been said. The same also may be done on other occasions, while in company with our neighbor or friendly visitor, who may, perhaps, have called on us, desiring the loan of some book. Here we may have the chance of conversing upon the principles of the Church, and disseminating the works of the Church also; and who knows but that in this way we may be the means of convincing some honest lover of truth, and showing him or her the way of salvation!”