Pragmatism and Progress: An Overview of LDS Sister Missionary Service in the Twentieth Century

October 8, 2012

Amanda Inez Knight was one of the first single sister missionaries called in the Church.

Professor Andrea Radke-Moss provides a fascinating overview of sister missionary service in the history of the church over at Juvenile Instructor, which proves to spotlight why Saturday’s announcement was truly revolutionary:

“President Thomas S. Monson’s announcement in  General Conference on Saturday, October 6, 2012, that young women can now serve missions at age 19 is no less than revolutionary.  This move might seem like a pragmatic attempt to boost global missionary efforts.  However, a brief historical overview of the last century’s changes for sister missionaries provides some useful context for how remarkable this  policy really is.
Nineteenth-century Mormon missionary service was almost exclusively male, with only small opportunities for wives like Louisa Barnes Pratt and Lucy Woodruff Smith here and here, to serve as companions of sorts to their husbands. Estimates place the numbers of female “missionaries” at fewer than 200 during the whole 19th century.  A major shift occurred in 1898, when the Church called the first full-time proselyting single female missionaries, Inez Knight and Jennie Brimhall. The Church needed public female representatives to counter persistent negative stereotypes about Mormon women, especially in the decade of the post-polygamy transition. Susa Young Gates recognized both the pragmatic and progressive virtues of missionary service for women: “[I]t was felt that much prejudice could be allayed, that many false charges against the women of the Church could thus be refuted, while the girls themselves would receive quite as much in the way of development and inspiration as they could impart though their intelligence and devotion.”
By WW I, sister missionary numbers increased as males dropped off to military service, with sisters peaking in 1918 at 38% of the total missionary force.  During these early years, age and length of service varied based upon individual circumstance, but the minimum age for sisters generally held at twenty-three.  During World War II, when missions closed and elders were called home, sister missionaries picked up some of the slack. The year 1945 was “the only year . . . in which sisters accounted for a majority of missionaries set apart.”Click in to Juvenile Instructor for the entire post.