Latter-day Saint women have participated in missionary work since shortly after the Church was organized, sharing books, tracts, and testimonies with loved ones and strangers alike. After the call of the first single “lady missionaries” in 1898, the woman missionary force began to blossom. By the 1930s, it had grown in size and evolved in its duties to resemble today’s sister missionary program.
This retrospective on the first century of sister missionary work in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tells the stories of individual women: some taking the initiative themselves, others responding to a call; some prominent, others obscure; some acting within established constraints, others pioneering new paths. Each found a way to fulfill the obligation to preach the gospel to the inhabitants of the earth.
Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s mother, was among the first women to engage in what we might today call proselytizing. In June 1831, she arranged to journey with her son Hyrum to Pontiac, Michigan, to visit her brother’s family and introduce them to the gospel. Accompanied by her niece, Almira Mack, Lucy taught and helped at least three individuals toward conversion.
Missionary service was considered primarily a priesthood responsibility, yet Lucy’s experience illustrates that women felt empowered, even obligated to preach the gospel from a very early stage. Women’s informal missionary activity focused typically on the conversion of family members. They labored in person as well as by letter, at times offering elaborate explanations of their beliefs in addition to heartfelt testimony.
Church leaders endorsed this spiritual impulse and encouraged women to cast an even wider net. In 1840, Apostle Parley P. Pratt wrote, “It is [a woman’s] privilege and duty to warn all, both men and women, of what God is doing in these last days, so far as they have the opportunity,—and invite all to come and submit themselves to the gospel of Christ.”
In the 1840s and 1850s, Latter-day Saint women in Great Britain began to participate more publicly in the Church’s missionary endeavor by participating in tract societies. Comprised of both men and women, these groups helped distribute pamphlets on various aspects of Latter-day Saint belief and invited recipients to meet and hear the preaching of authorized missionaries.
Nineteenth-century women Saints also contributed to missionary work by accompanying their husbands on proselytizing missions. Though this was at times discouraged,many women served missions in this way. These women kept house and cooked for their husbands and other missionaries, faced many of the same hardships as their male counterparts, and sometimes spoke in public meetings.
“We assure the young sisters of the Church ... that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome their service.”
Thomas S. Monson
Some of these women, including Louisa Barnes Pratt, taught at Church-established schools while their husbands preached. Louisa received a blessing from Brigham Young prior to leaving to serve alongside her husband, Addison, in the Society Islands (French Polynesia). Young promised her that she would be the means of doing “great good” while there. She taught important skills to the men and women of Tubuai for a year and a half and spoke in public meetings of the Church there.
In 1865, Mildred Randall became the first woman to serve a mission without her husband. Though at first she was set apart to go to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) with her husband, Alfred, he soon returned to Utah while Mildred continued to serve as a teacher at the church school in Laie for another year. In 1873, she accepted a call to return to Laie and resume teaching while Alfred remained home.
Mildred’s experience was an important first, but it remained the exception until women were set apart for individual, full-time missionary service in 1898. During the intervening years, a few women acted (and were set apart) as part-time missionaries while traveling for other purposes. Typically, these women also either attended a university or performed genealogical research.
A confluence of circumstances enabled the expansion of female missionary work near the close of the nineteenth century. The woman suffrage movement had begun slowly to undermine long-held prejudices about women’s roles. For decades, Relief Society and Church leaders had encouraged women to participate in the public sphere. As the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary organizations grew and developed, men and women recognized expanded possibilities for women’s contributions. These organizations trained and provided a generation of Mormon women with opportunities for leadership.
The practice and eventual demise of polygamy also spurred women’s participation in public life. For nearly fifty years the Church had clashed with broader American society over the issue of plural marriage. Women organized themselves to write, speak, and visit national leaders in protest when authors, journalists, politicians, and artists portrayed them as enslaved and downtrodden victims.
The 1890 Manifesto, issued by President Wilford Woodruff, heralded the decline of plural marriage in the Church. The fading of plural marriage not only signaled a change of tone in the Church’s dialogue with the world, but also led to a larger pool of single women available for potential service. However, the Manifesto did not spell an immediate end to the widely held negative stereotypes of Mormon women, which persisted as the focus of many anti-Mormon attacks.
In 1897, Elizabeth Claridge McCune, while traveling in England with her husband, was called upon to speak at a conference to counter scurrilous anti-Mormon claims about Latter-day Saint women. Her presence and impassioned speech led Elder Joseph W. McMurrin of the European Mission Presidency to write the First Presidency and request sister missionaries.
In response to McMurrin’s request and similar appeals from other mission presidents, President Wilford Woodruff and his counselors called the first single, female proselytizing missionaries. Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall accepted calls as full-time missionaries in April 1898 and served in England as examples of educated and capable Mormon women.
During the following decades, sister missionary roles continued to evolve as their numbers increased. By 1915, one mission acknowledged its satisfaction with female labor: “The idea of having lady missionaries is new in this mission, but is no longer an experiment. The faithful labors of these sisters have gone far in making the mission what it is today. Neither their devotion can be questioned nor their industry criticized.”
Today, full-time missionary service is considered a duty for all worthy young men 18 and older, but still a choice for women, beginning at age 19. In October 2012, President Thomas S. Monson stated, "We assure the young sisters of the Church ... that they make a valuable contribution as missionaries, and we welcome their service."
Diane L. Mangum, "The First Sister Missionaries," Ensign (July 1980), 32.
Tally S. Payne, "'Our Wise and Prudent Women': Twentieth-Century Trends in Female Missionary Service," in Carol Cornwall Madsen, ed., New Scholarship on Latter-day Saint Women in the Twentieth Century (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2005).
Calvin S. Kunz, "A History of Female Missionary Activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1898," (Master's thesis, Brigham Young University, 1976).
Kelly Lelegren, “'Real, Live Mormon Women': Understanding The Role of Early Twentieth-Century LDS Lady Missionaries," (Master's thesis, Utah State University, 2009).
Amanda Inez Knight, Diary, Perry Special Collection, Lee Library, Brigham Young University.