Women and Authority
Edited by Maxine Hanks

Chapter 14
Sister Missionaries and Authority
Maxine Hanks

[315] The calling of a full-time missionary is a paradoxical role for Mormon women. It grants women some ecclesiastical authority without priesthood authority; it confers the authorization to preach the saving “principles and ordinances of the gospel” but not to perform or administer them. Sister missionaries have less church authority within the same church calling as their male counterparts.1

I have talked with several groups of returned women missionaries, and almost without fail … someone will say with obvious relief, “Hey, I didn’t know anyone else felt that way. I thought I was the only one.” To me, that phrase is a most succinct definition of the major source of pain and conflict for women on missions: isolation, estrangement, alienation, fragmentation. The not-quite-missionary missionary … A young man is made to feel a natural part of the mission rather than an exception to it.2

What is a Missionary?

The Doctrine and Covenants does not use the word “missionary” but describes at length the commandments and qualifications for members “called … to my ministry” (24:1) or to build-up the church. “Go ye into all the world, preach the gospel to every creature, acting in the authority which I have given you, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son, and Holy Ghost” (68:8). “[A]s many [316] as shall come before my servants … embracing this calling … shall be ordained and sent forth to preach the everlasting gospel” (36:4-5). All references to missionary work specify either elders, those “ordained,” or those with priesthood authority to baptize and confirm. Because the scriptures are addressed to generic “man,” woman is implied, and thus directives to build the church apply to women and men.

The Doctrine and Covenants is clear that those who are “sent forth” to preach the gospel must be ordained: “Again I say unto you, that it shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by someone who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the head of the church” (42:11). Although this directive is universal, the LDS church distinguishes between the missionary callings of women and men.

Missionary work or preaching was originally tied to priesthood, specifically the office of elder. In 1831, a revelation announced that “Orson Hyde, was called by his ordination to proclaim the everlasting gospel … this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood, whose mission is appointed unto them to go forth” (D&C 68:1-2). Priesthood originally was “almost exclusively connected with the right to preach and teach the restored gospel” rather than the responsibility to oversee the church. In both the early Christian church and early Mormon church “apostles were originally seen as missionaries.”3

Sister and elder missionaries are called to preach the gospel full time. They are “called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority.”4 According to the current LDS missionary handbook, they “represent the Lord and his Church, the only church with the authority to baptize those who will believe and repent.” Though missionary work originally was a priesthood calling, today’s handbook defines the work as teaching and preparing people for baptism; it omits discussion of ordinance work such as baptism, confirmation, and blessings, which are described only in the church priesthood handbook (for men). Thus the missionary is now for proselyting only; preaching duties such as baptisms, blessings, and confirmations are limited to the ordained priesthood.

This essay explores the authority given to sister missionaries compared to that granted elders. A missionary’s authority comes [317] from the missionary calling which consists of four parts: a call to serve from the prophet/president of the church; “setting apart” by a stake president; the temple endowment; and a missionary/ministerial certificate to be carried by the missionary. In addition, men receive ordination to the office of elder—a vestige of the original missionary calling.

The Call

Currently about 20 percent of Mormon missionaries are women or “sister missionaries” compared to 15 percent ten years ago. The percentage of sisters has fluctuated anywhere from 1 to 40 percent during the 140 years since the first sister missionary served in 1850.5 The LDS church does not set goals for recruiting sisters but includes them in goals for total missionaries. Sisters are called to serve in nearly all missions.

In order for a missionary to be called, the ward bishop recommends her/him to the church hierarchy. The mission call, assigned by the church missionary department, is issued by letter from the First Presidency and signed by the church president. This letter is sent to sisters and elders as the official call and assignment of mission. The first line of the letter reads the same for sisters and elders: “You are hereby called to be a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” The language of the letter has changed somewhat over the years. For example, sisters were once called to be “a helpmeet to the elders” and later to “render assistance to the Priesthood in the proclamation of the Holy Ghost.”6 Currently the crucial difference in language is this: men are called to “represent the Lord as a minister of the restored gospel,” and women are called to “represent the Lord in proclaiming the restored gospel.” Both women and men are “official representative[s] of the Church.”7

Mormon women have done proselyting work since 1830 when Lucy Mack Smith accompanied members of her family on trips and taught others about the Book of Mormon. The same year, Emma Smith was “ordained … to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church” (D&C 25:7). Between 1831 and 1850 wives accompanied their missionary husbands and assisted proselyting to some extent. In 1839 wives who accompanied elders were blessed by Joseph Smith. But in 1850 Louisa Barnes Pratt was the first woman authorized to do proselyting work. She wrote, [318] “Brother Young blessed me. He said I was called, set apart, and ordained to go to the Islands of the sea to aid my husband in teaching the people.”8 Being “set apart” or “ordained” to do missionary work was essential according to the Doctrine and Covenants; setting apart sisters became church policy in 1865. Between 1830 and 1898 more than 220 women served as missionaries. Many of these were wives of missionary elders, nine were single women called to “assist the elders,” some were teachers, some were assigned to genealogical research, others were foreign travelers, visitors, or students.9 (By contrast, American Protestant women’s societies by 1900 “were supporting 389 wives and 856 single women missionaries.”10)

Mormon women also performed special labors which were considered to be “mission” work.11 When Louisa (Lulu) Green was asked to be the first editor of Woman’s Exponent in 1872 she requested that President Brigham Young approve and “appoint the duties of the calling” as a “mission.”12 In 1870 Relief Society president Eliza R. Snow appointed Bathsheba W. Smith “on a mission to preach retrenchment all through the South.” Snow added that Smith could preach “woman’s rights on her mission” if she wished.13 Between about 1867 and 1880 women also were called as “home missionaries” to teach other women in outlying Utah settlements about the church’s programs and organizations.14

The first known missionary certification of women came as a response to requests made in 1897 and 1898 by mission president Joseph McMurrin, who requested sister missionaries because “Our sisters gained attention in England where the elders could scarcely gain a hearing.”15 In April 1898 George Q. Cannon announced that “It has been decided to call some of our wise and prudent women in the missionary field … [G]reat good could be accomplished by the sisters in that direction.”16

Certifying sisters created a shift in church policy. Prior to 1898 the church did not specifically invite women to serve proselyting missions; women served for circumstantial or voluntary reasons. With certification women were formally invited or called to regular full-time missions.

The first woman certified to serve a proselyting mission was Harriet Nye, wife of the California mission president. Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane Brimhall were the first single prose[319]lyting sisters and served under McMurrin in England. Some of the elders “openly questioned whether or not the sisters callings were equal to their own”; but “the presidency of the mission made it very clear that the same authority which called the men on their missions also called the women.”17 Knight remembered that “We attended Priesthood meeting at which I was the only girl. I felt more conspicuous by the elders beginning their remarks, ‘My brethren and sister.’” She served for twenty-five months.18

In 1901 President Francis M. Lyman returned from the European Mission and “in all soberness declared ‘that the lady missionary is no longer an experiment, but an unqualified success. In the dawn of the twentieth century this fact has been demonstrated to the world. What will the future hold?” In 1921 Apostle David O. McKay noted, “Almost without exception, the women whom we have met in their ‘fields of labor’ have proved to be not only equal but superior to the men in ability, keen insight and energetic service.” In 1928 Apostle Richard R. Lyman reported that another mission president had requested him “to send more young women into the mission field.”19

From 1898 to the present, the percentage of sisters has fluctuated between 15 and 40 percent of the total missionary force. Women have served regular proselyting missions as well as health, welfare, temple, visitor center, and genealogy missions. In 1915 the First Presidency wrote, “We are greatly in need of lady missionaries in the United States Missions” wanting “good, steady, representative women, not too young, with a good education and knowledge of the Gospel.” Between 1913 and 1917 more than 650 women served missions, constituting 22 percent of the total force, although “they could not do as much as the elders because they were not in the Priesthood.” However, during World War II, approximately 40 percent of missionaries were women in spite of church advice to bishops not to call extra sisters in “the absence from the mission of brethren of the priesthood to take the lead in missionary service.”20 After the war the number of sisters dropped to 15 percent, likely reflecting the nationwide return to homemaking an motherhood; the number stayed at 15 percent until the early 1980s.

During the 1950s through the 1970s, missionaries were equated with men in official church discourse. The Improvement Era in 1948 [320] included advice to “Missionaries and their Girlfriends.” In 1951 church president McKay counseled leaders not to call women until age twenty-three because “the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ rests upon the priesthood of the church.” In 1960 Bruce R. McConkie called for “every worthy and qualified young man” to go on missions and made no mention of sisters. During the Viet Nam War in 1965, Apostle Gordon B. Hinckley lamented that draft restrictions limited the church to “one missionary per ward each six months.” A 1969 Improvement Era article counseled: “One reason why so few women are missionaries might be that [their] first calling is to stay home and write to them!”21

In 1972 a changing attitude was apparent in Elder Arthur S. Anderson’s observation that “Nearly any girl … will benefit greatly from mission service.” He acknowledged that sisters “participate in about twice as many conversions as … the average elder.” In 1977 Elder Thomas S. Monson noted that “Full-time mission work is primarily a priesthood calling,” which “every worthy, normal young man” should accept. He added that while marriage was a woman’s “foremost responsibility,” the church was “very happy to have them if a mission is their desire.”22

In spite of official discouragement to serve as missionaries and some negative imagery, sisters have continued to serve and to increase in numbers. About 1981, the number of sisters climbed to 20 percent and has remained there to the present. This may be due to changing attitudes toward sisters and cultural trends to delay marriage. The current age requirement is twenty-one for sisters (nineteen for elders).23 Mission leaders and trainers have observed that sisters are as successful in work as elders and often are unusually effective and dedicated. One sister trainer commented: “Sisters are there to serve in whatever way anyone will let them; they are more comfortable in the role than we expect and would willingly take on more responsibility, if it were available.”24

Setting Apart

“Setting apart,” according to the priesthood handbook, is a “laying on of hands by those who are in authority” to confer a church calling or position. It is a priesthood ordinance similar to ordination. [324] For missionaries it is usually performed by a stake president. After conferral a blessing is pronounced. The setting apart is identical for sisters and elders.

In nineteenth-century Mormonism the term “ordain” was often used in place of the term “set apart.” Women were “ordained” to officiate in the temple, administer blessings, and to take church positions. Emma Smith was “ordained” to serve as Relief Society president and she appointed two counselors who also were “ordained” to serve.25 Louisa Pratt described having been “blessed … called, set apart, and ordained” to teach. President Brigham Young even gave Pratt a bottle of consecrated oil before she left, and she became a noted healer in the Society Islands. She said, “They would invariably bring their sick children to me and request me to anoint them with holy oil, never doubting but a cure would be expected.”26 Elizabeth Ann Whitney’s autobiography refers to Joseph Smith having “ordained” and “set apart” “several sisters” to “administer” in “holy ordinances.”27

The Doctrine and Covenants specifies that those who preach must be “ordained”: “every man shall hear the fulness of the gospel in his own tongue … [T]hrough those who are ordained unto this power, by the administration of the comforter, shed forth upon them for the revelation of Jesus Christ” (90:11). In this century, Mormon sister missionaries continue to be “set apart” but no longer are “ordained.”

Temple Endowment

The temple endowment is required for all elders and sisters prior to missionary service. But this fact begs the question: Why is the endowment necessary for missionary work? Several LDS scholars have established that the temple endowment is intended to bring men and women into “the holy order” of Melchizedek priesthood.28 This endowment conveys the same privileges and ordinances to men and women.

Mormon scholars point out that endowed women receive the priesthood in the temple without ordination to specific office. A church calling that requires the temple endowment would seem to be predicated on priesthood power. When sisters are “set apart” to the calling or [322] office of missionary, this is one way women’s priesthood might be activated in the church. Interestingly, in 1852 Apostle Ezra T. Benson emphasized Mormonism as the only true religion by noting that even Mormon women had “power to heal the sick, by the laying on of hands” which ordained ministers of other sects had not.29

Missionary/Ministerial Certificate

The licensing of missionaries occurred early in Mormonism in order to provide credentials for preaching and ministering. The document was intended to convey confidence and legitimacy to its bearer, “a man of little education and skill.”30 These first missionary certificates or “Elders Licenses” certified one as an ordained elder and as such “duly authorized to preach the gospel.” They did not use the terms “minister,” “missionary,” or “administer ordinances.” Certificates ranged from handwritten “notes” to a printed license with formal language, but the essential elements remained the same.31 About 1865 the simple license became an elaborate “missionary certificate,” with the phrasing “This certifies that the bearer, Elder … has been duly appointed to a mission … to preach the Gospel and administer in all the ordinances thereof pertaining to his office.”32 This wording did not change until sometime between 1920 and 1940, when the shorter form certificate in use today was issued.

Sisters were not issued formal certificates until 1898. The missionary certificate for sisters differed from the elders’ certificate in one important way: it granted sisters the authority to preach the gospel but not to administer gospel ordinances. Thus, certification gave sisters a formal license but at the same time revoke their authority to perform ordinances such as anointing and blessing.

The contemporary missionary certificate authorizes sisters as “duly called and set apart as a missionary” with “authority to preach the gospel,” while elders are “duly ordained minister[s] of the gospel” with authority “to preach” and “administer the ordinances thereof.” As a “missionary” a sister may not administer blessings, nor can she perform ordinances such as baptism or confirmation.33

A minister is someone who has a certificate from his/her church, verifying authority, training, education, or degree. The [323] minister’s authority and privileges are defined by his/her church and usually include preaching, teaching, and testifying; performing marriages; officiating at births and deaths; visiting the incarcerated; visiting and blessing the sick; blessing people, homes, rooms, and other structures; giving last rites; presiding over religious services; administering religious rites and ceremonies; and baptizing, confirming, blessing, and administering communion or sacrament.34

Both elders and sisters perform ministerial tasks, however, most religious ministers are more like Mormon bishops than like elders. The distinction between “minister” and “missionary” seems intended to limit sisters’ authority rather than enhance the religious authority of missionaries; it also seems strange since church members refer to elders as missionaries, not as ministers.

The first official missionary handbook in 1927, the Elder’s Manual, addressed men (only) as “missionaries” and “elders” with no mention of “ministers”.35 Beginning in 1937 the handbook was termed Missionary Handbook but still addressed men only, again as elders and missionaries, with no reference to ministers.36

The contemporary Missionary Handbook (1970s to the present) addresses both women and men and generally uses nonsexist language, with the only gender distinctions relating to dress and grooming. None of the handbooks cite elders as ministers.37 However, women are termed “lady missionaries”. Given the careful wording on missionary certificates this term is inaccurate as well as potentially insulting. It adds yet another distinction between elders and sisters, removing women even further from ministerial authority. The church could simply use the certified titles of “minister” for elders and “missionary” for sisters; elder and sister are more commonly used.38

The dissymmetry between the ministerial duties and titles of male and female missionaries can be confusing for nonmembers. Many have observed that sister missionaries have the same “mantle” as elders—often expressed as a sense of divine authority. Investigators who request baptism are sometimes surprised that it cannot be performed by a sister, and on rare occasions have rejected baptism for this reason alone. A sister reported that “once in awhile, people asked why we couldn’t baptize them. But once we explained about the [324] priesthood they accepted it. We turned our baptisms over to ward members or to home teachers.” In fact, many sisters (and some elders) prefer to ask ward members to perform baptisms and confirmations.39

Ordination of Elder

Men called to serve a mission also receive the priesthood office of elder, which confers church permission to exercise the priesthood and perform gospel ordinances.40 The office of elder is granted to worthy eighteen-year-old males. Since this ordination is the essential difference between the missionary calling men and women receive, it raises a crucial question: Is the office of elder still implicit in the missionary calling, or has it become extraneous to it in order to restrict women’s administration of gospel ordinances? Are gospel ordinances now outside the purview of the call to declare the gospel and build up the church? The Doctrine and Covenants counseled, “Let them go two by two, and thus let them preach by the way in every congregation, baptizing by water, and the laying on of the hands by the water’s side” (52:10). Today this requires both a mission call and ordination to the office of elder. Does this mean that only men can truly fill the scriptural call to serve?

Mormon women receive priesthood power (or the power of God) in several ways: through the Relief Society keys (1842); through the temple endowment (1843); through the call to preach the gospel (1850); and through temple marriage and second anointing. Baptism and confirmation also convey God’s power to exercise gifts of the spirit, such as testimony, visions, and blessings.41 Women are heirs to the promise of the seventh Article of Faith: “We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so on.” In the twentieth century such gifts have been limited to the elders. Mormon women receive priesthood power but are denied permission to exercise it; sometimes the church denies they even have the power.

Linda King Newell has illustrated early precedent in the church for women to perform priesthood functions and ordinances such as prophesying, blessing by laying on of hands, and anointing the sick which are now male privilege. In the nineteenth century [325] some women were granted the titles of priestess, prophetess, deacon, and teacher.42 In 1885 Sister Libby Noall, on a mission in the Sandwich Islands, served as Relief Society president for the mission and “helped to anoint women in confinement, giving them a blessing as she did so.”43 An 1896 article in the Young Woman’s Journal reiterated a common belief that a missionary’s wife “bears the priesthood of the Seventy, in connection with her husband and shares in its responsibilities more closely and effectively than any other office of the priesthood entails upon womankind.”44

After the turn of the century at least one sister served as a branch president in her mission because there were no available men in the area. She was not granted the specific title but filled the role and functioned in the capacities of this priesthood calling similar to ward bishop.45 In the mid-1970s a branch in the southern states consulted a visiting general authority about a lack of men to “pass sacrament.” He instructed them to have sisters in the ward pass the sacrament. The stake leadership protested that “they don’t have the priesthood.” He pointed out that when deacons pass sacrament trays to members in the pew, each person is actually “passing the sacrament” to the person next to him or her. So the branch allowed the sisters to pass the sacrament.46 Around the same time a sister missionary in a southern mission reported that she gave some blessings to women she was teaching “if they requested them.”47 She said that she felt she had the spiritual authority of God after receiving her temple endowment.

Gender-based distinctions may feel unnatural and wrong to many women. Some women feel they possess both masculine and feminine qualities; some have androgynous traits. The arbitrariness of gender-based privilege in exercising priesthood is illustrated in one example from the late 1980s. A former missionary elder underwent medical tests and was discovered to possess the complete reproductive and sexual organs of a female beneath a superficial, non-functional male organ. She had surgery to restore femaleness. Her temple marriage was annulled. It was decided that her priesthood would not be revoked, but she was told she could not exercise it. It was also decided that the priesthood ordinances she performed [326] on her mission, including several baptisms, confirmations, and blessings, would stand as valid ordinances. When she was presumed to be male, she was allowed to exercise priesthood. People accepted her authority, felt the spirit of God, and considered her administration of saving ordinances to be valid. Yet she had the reproductive organs of a woman, not a man.48

The superficial distinction created by priesthood office is apparent in simple functions such as witnessing a baptism. A sister related that a woman she had taught was nervous about baptism and wanted the sister missionary to stand close to the witnesses. When the elder immersed this convert, a male witness could not see whether all her hair had submerged, but the sister missionary had a closer view and affirmed that the immersion was complete. Afterward the sister missionary was taken aside by the ward mission leader and chastised for presuming to function as a baptismal witness—a specific priesthood assignment.49

Sisters and Administrative Authority

According to the 1986 missionary handbook, each mission president “has two missionary assistants who help supervise the proselyting work” and “zones and districts supervised by zone and district leaders.” A zone is several districts; a district is several “proselyting areas”; an “area” is “a defined geographical area in which two missionaries serve as companions.”

These leadership positions of “assistant” to the president, zone leader, and district leader traditionally have been reserved for male priesthood holders. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, sisters headed schools and women’s or children’s auxiliaries in local congregations; they often served as office staff secretaries. Today leadership possibilities for missionary sisters are generally limited to senior companion, area leader and mission office clerical staff. Occasionally there have been all-female districts and zones of sisters with sister zone leaders and sister district leaders, especially in foreign countries. One sister reported that in her mission to Florida in 1962, there were four all-sister districts, each having sister district leaders.50 Another sister served as district leader of sisters in South America during the early 1970s.51 In 1992 two sisters in the [327] Salt Lake City mission affirmed the existence of sisters districts and sister district leaders in their mission.52

Administrative or leadership positions within missions, like administrative positions within the church, do not naturally depend on priesthood office.53 Women can perform administrative and leadership duties as well as elders. Assistants to the president generally are elders, who train all the missionaries. But if elders can train sisters, one wonders why sisters cannot train elders. Still progress is being made: increasingly sisters have been assigned as district leaders, zone leaders, travelling assistants, and sister coordinators to lead and train sisters. The existence of sister district and zone leaders, and especially sister assistants and coordinators, is not generally policy nor generally advertized. Women have been assigned to these positions in various missions due to necessity, situation, or experimental policy.

One sister who served in 1991 as a sister coordinator said that her mission president began using sister coordinators after the sisters heard about their existence in other missions and proposed the idea to him.54 He did not appoint sister district leaders or zone leaders but had the sister coordinators spend time training and teaching each sister companionship in the mission. Usually “sister coordinators” or sister “traveling assistants” lead and train the sisters in the mission, while the two male “assistants to the president” lead and train the elders. In rare cases sisters have served as district and zone leaders and assistants to the president over both elders and sisters. One sister and her companion served as traveling assistants over men and women in her mission in 1984. She had wanted to have the same opportunity as the male assistants and had approached her mission president about calling her. He did. Her experience was a positive one and succeeded because the sister had confidence, and a church leader who was open to change.55

It seems unfair to prohibit sisters from leading and presiding over men as well as women, especially since the reverse has been acceptable for 150 years. Leadership positions generally require management skills, interviewing and decision-making talents rather than performance of priesthood ordinances. Currently men interview women churchwide, but women do not interview men. This is particularly uncomfortable to women when questioned on their [328] worthiness, chastity, and personal morality. Also sisters enter the mission at age twenty-one and often have college experience, while elders enter the mission at age nineteen, giving sisters a potential advantage in terms of maturity and educational experience. In addition sisters demonstrate equal or higher competency in missionary work and duties such as teaching, relations with the community and with church members and investigators, work habits, and so on.56 For example, in 1979 a male district leader in a southern mission created an award for the monthly top teachers. For the first three months, the sister companionship in the district won the award. At the fourth monthly district meeting, the district leader discontinued the award “because the only ones winning it were the sisters.”57

It is estimated that perhaps 25 percent of sisters experience some dissatisfaction or frustration during their mission, and 19 percent express it in some way.58 Typically this manifests itself as concerns about “unrighteous dominion” among district leaders and other missionaries with whom the sisters work closely. This is contrasted by the attitude expressed by a recently returned sister who functioned as a sister coordinator in her mission: “The attitude toward sisters has really changed—it is very popular now to go on a mission; sisters are not looked down on. We got a lot of comments that we came across as more gentle and relaxed, not so pushy, less threatening, easier to talk to, and so on. Our stake presidents liked sisters, and families would request sisters. But I think it went both ways: some people preferred elders.” One stake president went so far as to declare that “the sisters are the ones that really carried the mission!”59

One trainer of sister missionaries commented that “there are more non-traditional and progressive women now going on missions; but once they’re in the mission, they seem to model themselves to the role and its limitations. Still, they find contentment because they really enjoy the work and having the calling.” Another trainer said, “Sisters value missions because they want to learn more theology and doctrine, have spiritual growth, get more life experience, have leadership opportunities; they also like the challenges of competition and the increased confidence they gain. They seem to feel that a mission puts them into a more egalitarian position with men in the church; it validates them, they feel they’ve accomplished something.”60

[329] In some missions the president’s wife functions to some extent as a mission leader for sisters. She sometimes conducts and presides over sister conferences and conducts interviews with sisters. One sister coordinator said that in her mission “the president’s wife coordinated with us; we reported weekly to her. He wanted her to be involved in our work; he finalized the major decisions, but we pretty much reported to her. She went out with us on training and worked with us.”61

Historically, some examples of women serving in a capacity similar to a mission administrator come to mind. Emmeline B. Wells was called by Brigham Young in 1876 to preside over the church’s grain saving effort, commonly termed a “mission.” “Wells, though overwhelmed by the size of the grain storage project, saw herself ‘a modern Joseph … in Egypt’ and asked for the support of the Relief Societies.” Relief Society president Eliza R. Snow appointed Wells “chair of the Central Grain Committee.” This program or “mission” developed into an extensive real estate and commercial enterprise churchwide; bishops later became involved on the ward level.62 Emmeline, who presided from 1876-1918, could be considered the church’s first female mission president.

In 1872 Eliza Snow was set apart for a mission to Palestine by Brigham Young. In company with seven other church leaders, she was asked to “observe closely what openings now exist, or where they may be effected, for the introduction of the gospel into the various countries you shall visit.”63 This type of assignment, to assist in opening a mission in a foreign country, is usually reserved for general authorities in today’s church.


As with most things, men and women tend to describe sister missionary work differently.64 As sisters articulate their own perceptions and desires about missionary work, their perspectives may obtain more authority. One sister missionary lamented:

[R]elationships are always well-defined on missions. Partly spoken in labels tacked onto name tags and sometimes written in rule books. When my bicycle broke down and the elders repaired it, we found ourselves in debt for a batch of brownies … I’m not saying that these [330] reciprocal services weren’t fair, but I did notice I always got the brownie end of the deal. More than that, I resented my own willingness to play the traditional rules at the cost of mechanical ignorance.65

Like elders, sister missionaries have been “called of God by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands” to declare the gospel. They have a license to preach as a representative of the church, they have been set apart or “ordained” to preach, and they have received the endowment of the Melchizedek priesthood. In short the church gives sisters authority to declare the gospel and the power of the priesthood, yet it denies them permission to exercise their priesthood. Church practice has withheld the administering of gospel ordinances (such as blessings, baptisms, and confirmations) from the missionary call, consigning such to the priesthood offices of priest and elder. This has effectively maintained gospel ordinance work as a male privilege. Because women are limited in priesthood experience, they are “denied the spiritual stretching that elders must do, including calling down the powers of heaven as Christ himself did … We are not trained for it, not prepared for it, and have been trained to believe ourselves not capable or worthy of it, and hence it seems frightening.”66

After being released from the missionary calling, men go on to assume further church administrative and priesthood assignments; but women lose one of the few ecclesiastical positions available to them in the church. The distinction between elder’s and sister’s authority widens into a much larger gap. Meanwhile, one sister dismissed the gender gap simply:

A sister missionary isn’t much different than most other missionaries. We love dinner appointments, member referrals, and preparation days. We hate rainy days, doors slammed in our faces, and rude elders. We love teaching the Gospel, sharing our testimony of truth, and receiving encouraging letters. We get discouraged and upset—but all that is forgotten as we watch someone we have grown to love enter the waters of baptism.67


Maxine Hanks served a full-time mission for the LDS church and worked with Curriculum Research and Development at the Missionary Training Center as a teacher from 1980-83. She lives in Salt Lake City. “Sister Missionaries and Authority” is previously unpublished. Many of the people used as sources asked not to be identified by name.

1. Many articles, talks, research, and other material either speak of missionaries as elders and ignore sister missionaries or speaks in gender-neutral terms, both of which overlook the sister missionary experience.

2. Kathleen Flake, “In the Mission but Not of the Mission,” Exponent II 10 (Summer 1984), 4:16.

3. Margaret and Paul Toscano, Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 163.

4. Missionary Handbook (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1986).

5. Vella Neil Evans, “Woman’s Image in Authoritative Mormon Discourse: A Rhetorical Analysis,” Ph.D. diss., University of Utah, 1985, 159. I relied on her discussion to ascertain trends in calling sister missionaries in this century.

6. Copy of 1960 call to a sister, copy of 1962 call to Sister Todd, copy of 1970 call, in my possession.

7. Copies of 1978 calls to elders and sisters, in my possession.

8. Calvin S. Kunz, “A History of Female Missionary Activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1898,” M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1976, 11, 18, 19, 20, 67.

9. Ibid., 30, 40-48, 51.

10. Evans, “Women’s Image,” 148.

11. Kunz, 30, 57.

12. Vella N. Evans, “Empowerment and the Mormon Women’s Publications,” in this anthology.

13. Judy Dushku, “Feminists,” in Mormon Sisters, ed. Claudia Bushman (Cambridge, MA: Emmeline Press Limited, 1976), 27; Edward Tullidge and Eliza R. Snow, The Women of Mormondom (Salt Lake City: N.p., 1965), 505.

14. Jill Mulvay Derr, Janath Russell Cannon, Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, Women of Covenant; the Story of Relief Society (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 129.

15. Kunz, “Female Missionary Activity,” 35; Evans, “Women’s Image,” 147.

16. Diane Mangum, “The First Sister Missionaries,” Ensign 10 (July 1980): 62-65.

17. Kunz, “Female Missionary Activity,” 37; quotation from “Missionaries,” in Susa Young Gates Papers, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City.

18. Mangum, “The First Sister Missionaries,” 62-65.

19. Evans, “Women’s Image,” 149 (quoting Woman’s Exponent, 1 Aug. 1901, 22), 150 (quoting Young Woman’s Journal 32:503; Conference Report, Oct. 1928, 72-73).

20. Ibid., 150-52 (quoting Messages of the First Presidency 4:335, 6:204-205; Improvement Era, 508-509; Young Women’s Journal 28:101). It would be interesting to look at the administrative and ecclesiastical authority sisters exercised during World War I and World War II when fewer men served.

21. Ibid., 152, 156 (from Improvement Era, 1948, 627); 153-54 (from Conference Report, Apr. 1951, 81); 154-55 (from Improvement Era, 1960, 930-31), 155 (from Improvement Era, Dec. 1965, 1144; Nov 1969, 69; May 1969, 56-57).

22. Ibid., 157 (from New Era, Mar. 1972, 30); 157 (from Ensign, Oct. 1977, 11).

23. In fact, some sisters have served at age nineteen and some elders at eighteen.

24. 1991 interview with women who train sister missionaries, notes in my files. See also Evans, “Woman’s Image,” 160.

25. See Linda Newell, “Gifts of the Spirit: Women’s Share,” in Sisters in Spirit: Mormon Women in Historical and Cultural Perspective, eds. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher and Lavina Fielding Anderson (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 115.

26. Kunz, “Female Missionary Activity,” 31, 64.

27. “Woman’s Image,” 146, 133 (from Elizabeth Ann Whitney, “Autobiography,” 15 Nov. 1878, 91).

28. See D. Michael Quinn, “Mormon Women Have Had the Priesthood since 1843,” in this anthology; Carol Cornwall Madsen, “Mormon Women and the Temple: Toward a New Understanding,” in Sisters in Spirit, 80-110; Margaret Toscano, “The Missing Rib: The Forgotten Place of Queens and Priestesses in the Establishment of Zion,” Sunstone 9 (July 1985): 16-22.

29. Evans, “Woman’s Image,” 131 (quoting Millennial Star 15:130).

30. Barbara Joan McFarlane Higdon, “The Role of Preaching in the Early Latter Day Saint Church, 1830-1846,” Ph.D. diss, University of Missouri, 1961, 39.

31. Ibid., 40; also James Woodward license, 1843, copy in my possession.

32. Emphasis mine; elder missionary certificates, typescripts, and copies, 1863, 1865, 1869, 1892, 1896, 1898, 1900, 1906, in my possession.

33. Copies of sister and elder certificates, 1940, 1965, 1978, 1980, in my possession; I found no sisters’ certificates between 1898 and 1940.

34. Ministers are not registered in Utah, but some states do require registration; interview with Rev. Bill Hamilton-Holway, 1992.

35. Elder’s Manual (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing, 1927).

36. The Missionary’s Hand Book (Independence, MO: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Co., Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1937).

37. Missionary Handbook (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1978, 1986).

38. These terms and other dissymmetries such as “man and wife” demonstrate power structures which articulate male/female relationships—in culture as well as in the church.

39. 1991 interview with K. M., a former sister missionary, notes in my files.

40. Again I am relying on the distinction proposed by Michael Quinn, and his historical explication of how such a distinction has played itself out within the Mormon experience. See Quinn, in this anthology.

41. See Newell, in Sisters in Spirit.

42. Maureen Ursenbach Beecher, “The ‘Leading Sisters’: A Female Hierarchy in Nineteenth-Century Mormon Society,” in The New Mormon History: Revisionist Essays on the Past, ed. D. Michael Quinn (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1992), 153-68; Newell, 115-16, and her essay in this anthology; Evans, “Woman’s Image,” 187; Madsen, in Sisters in Spirit, 90.

43. Kunz, 64; Matthew Noall “To My Children,” 72. It should be remembered that Sister Pratt also administered with oil and healed by the laying on of hands.

44. Newell, in Sisters in Spirit, 92.

45. 1992 interview with E. R., a former sister missionary living in Salt Lake City, who filled a mission in eastern Canada during the 1930s, notes in my files.

46. S. Dilworth Young related this incident in a stake leadership meeting in Colorado Springs in 1978. Young was the visiting general authority who instructed the branch to have sisters pass the sacrament. This incident from notes in the files of Tim Rathbone, who was present when Young related the story.

47. 1991 interview with M. P., a former sister missionary; see also Betina Lindsey, “Women as Healers in the Modern Church,” in this anthology.

48. Interview with anonymous source close to elder/sister, notes in my files. Nontypical expressions of gender may range from androgyny (masculine women), to chromosomal atypicality (XXY), to hermaphrodism. Varieties of hermaphrodism are more common than most people realize. See Duane E. Jeffery, “Intersexes in Humans: An Introductory Exploration,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Autumn 1979): 107-13. See also Wayne Schow, Ron Schow, and Marybeth Raynes, eds., Peculiar People: Mormons and Same-Sex Orientation (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1991).

49. 1991 interview with M. P.

50. 1992 interview with D. F., a former sister missionary, notes in my files.

51. 1977 interview with R. R, a former sister missionary, notes in my files.

52. 1992 interviews with sister missionaries in Salt Lake City, Utah, mission, notes in my files.

53. Meg Wheatley, “An Expanded Definition of Priesthood?: Some Present and Future Consequences,” in this anthology.

54. 1992 interviews with K. M.; with a former mission president; and with Missionary Training Center personnel, notes in my files.

55. 1984 interview with C. M., a former sister missionary, notes in my files.

56. 1992 interviews with women who train sister missionaries, notes in my files.

57. 1990 interview with M. P.

58. 1992 interviews with trainers of sister missionaries, notes in my files.

59. 1992 interview with K. M.

60. 1992 interviews with trainers and researchers, notes in my files.

61. 1992 interview with K. M.

62. Evans, “Woman’s Image,” 164; Jessie Embry, “Grain Storage: The Balance of Power Between Priesthood Authority and Relief Society Autonomy” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Winter 1982): 59-66, quoting Emmeline B. Wells, “History of the Relief Society,” Woman’s Exponent 32 (Sept. 1903): 29. See also Evans, “Woman’s Image,” 164.

63. Kunz, “Female Missionary Activity,” 65.

64. Ibid.

65. “Missionary Memoirs,” Exponent II 2 (Dec. 1975), 2:6.

66. Dorice Elliot, “Unto the Least of These—Another Gender Gap,” Sunstone, Apr. 1990, 49-51.

67. Jessie L. Embry, “Me, A Sister Missionary?” Exponent II 2 (Sept. 1975), 1:3.