The First Sister Missionaries

“The First Sister Missionaries,” Ensign, July 1980, 62

The First Sister Missionaries

“In the evening we [with the elders] went on the street for meetings. Oldham is a large manufacturing city and on the Sat. night the streets were thronged with people. …

“On a busy corner we formed a circle, sang a hymn, one offered a prayer then we sang again. A large crowd stopped to listen.

“The special meetings to be held next day were announced, and I recall a sickly feeling when Bro. McMurrin announced that ‘real live Mormon women’ would speak [the] next day” (Inez Knight, Missionary Journal, 1898–99, unpub., p. 16, Brigham Young University Archives, Provo, Utah).

The “real live Mormon women” were Inez Knight and Lucy Jane (Jennie) Brimhall, the first single, official, proselyting lady missionaries in the Church, set apart in Provo, Utah, 1 April 1898.

The sisters did speak the next day to the people of Oldham in northwestern England. Historian Orson F. Whitney reports, “The hall was crowded, and their remarks were listened to with rapt attention. The novel spectacle of two young and innocent girls—whose appearance alone betokened modesty and virtue, as their utterances showed intelligence and sincerity—declaring in words of soberness that Mormonism was divine, that it had made them what they were, and had sent them forth to bear witness of its truth, was a revelation to many” (History of Utah, 4 vols., Salt Lake City: Geo. Q. Cannon & Sons, 1904, 4:614).

Actually, we have record of missionary activity by more than 200 Latter-day Saint women prior to the 1898 calling of Sisters Knight and Brimhall. Many elders called to the Hawaiian Islands were accompanied by their wives, often even with an official calling. Some sisters were sent to teach in the mission school in Hawaii. Some traveled to other lands as genealogical missionaries, and some women were even given missionary callings before they traveled abroad or went to study at distant universities. However, none of these sisters was called in a strictly proselyting capacity, and none is listed on the official missionary records of the Church (Calvin S. Kunz, A History of Female Missionary Activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1898, thesis, BYU, 1976, pp. 40–54).

But in 1898, inspired by the unique contributions of lady missionaries in the field and the favorable impressions they made, President George Q. Cannon announced: “‘It has been decided to call some of our wise and prudent women into the missionary field.’ He spoke of the labors performed by Sister Elizabeth Claridge McCune in England and other sisters who had spoken in public places; and added that great good could be accomplished by the sisters in this direction” (In Young Woman’s Journal, 9:245).

The first woman called under the new policy was Harriet Maria Horsepool Nye, wife of President Ephraim H. Nye, who was then presiding over the California Mission. She was set apart 27 March 1898 (see Whitney, History of Utah, 4:611).

Shortly thereafter followed the setting apart of Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy Jane (Jennie) Brimhall, the first single women of the Church to be commissioned as certified and regular proselyting missionaries of the Church. The two Provo, Utah, friends had been planning an excursion to Europe. Both had completed studies at the Brigham Young Academy, Jennie, the daughter of Dr. George H. Brimhall (who was soon to be president of Brigham Young Academy, later Brigham Young University), and Alsina E. Wilkins Brimhall, was twenty-three and had recently quit teaching grammar school in southern Utah because of poor health. Jennie was also engaged to Will Knight, Inez’s missionary brother (see Inez Knight Allen, “Jennie Brimhall Knight,” Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1928, p. 645).

Inez was the daughter of local mining magnate Jesse Knight and Amanda McEwan Knight. She was twenty-two and had been deeply involved in family genealogical research in St. George, Utah. But when the call came to serve as proselyting missionaries to Great Britain, both accepted without reservation.

They left 2 April 1898 for Liverpool, England, with a group of other missionaries. They traveled by train for seven days to Philadelphia, where they boarded ship, arriving in Liverpool April 22.

Each of the sixteen new missionaries was assigned a conference or area in which to labor, Sisters Knight and Brimhall being appointed to the Chiltenham area. With other missionaries, including President McMurrin, the sisters went to Oldham, in northwest England, where they encountered their first nonmember audiences. Street meetings were common, despite the noise of the workers’ clogs on the stone-paved streets that “sounded like horses running wild in a band.” After five street-corner meetings in one night, Inez wrote in her journal:

“Most of the Elders wear tall silk hats and good black clothes and as they stood like brave soldiers on the street that night, and different young men in all humility and yet with intelligence told the people Gospel truths, I was never prouder to know that I was numbered with the L.D. Saints” (Missionary Journal, pp. 17–18).

The sisters then traveled to three Conferences, often speaking in meetings, before proceeding about 150 miles southwest to their first permanent assignment in the city of Bristol. There they began tracting.

“Public speaking I knew would try me, but tracting I had an idea would be very easy,” said Sister Knight. “My first day at that was in Bristol. At three houses they took my tract and spoke civilly to me, but at the fourth, a woman asked me who I was, and learning that I was a Latter-day Saint, she said, ‘You don’t know as much about them as I do, or you would not carry their trash around.’ I told her I had lived among them all my life and ought to know. She then asked me if I knew Mary ________. I answered no. ‘Well then you’re a liar; you either did not come from Utah, or else you know her, because Mormon Elders took her out six years ago.’ She followed me to each gate through the street, to inform them at each house who I was. Girl-like, I went home and cried.

“At a majority of the houses, however, we received .civil treatment, but much indifference” (Whitney, History of Utah, 4:611).

The tracting statistics in Sister Knight’s journal are not particularly complete, but it appears that in the month of August 1898 she distributed 523 tracts, visited 295 houses in tracting, visited 14 homes by invitation, had 22 gospel conversations, and distributed two books (see Missionary Journal, pp. 174–75).

Inez carefully noted with delight the day she went tracting and “for the first time in my life I was not refused one tract or spoken unkindly to.” Though she realistically added, “But when I go with second tracts they will then know I am Mormon and I do not expect all kind treatment. I like my work very much and I feel as if I don’t care how long I am required to labor as an ambassador for Christ, but I do not always feel the same” (Missionary Journal, p. 129).

Her journal also notes that they often drew an “eager crowd” when they were speaking, though on occasion they were joined by a few local citizens more eager to disrupt than listen. The entry for Thursday, 15 September 1898, simply states, “Attended regular meeting in the evening. Much disturbance, had to call a policeman to clear the hall.”

In November 1898 Sister Brimhall was honorably released from her mission to return home because of concern for her health. Sister Liza Chipman replaced her as the companion of Inez Knight. Sister Brimhall traveled home with a group of recently released missionaries, including Will Knight, whom she later married.

Some thirty years after her release as a missionary, a Relief Society Magazine article commented on the effectiveness of Jennie Brimhall’s mission. “So effective was her testimony that after twenty years an unbeliever who listened to her speak wrote, saying he could never forget her sincere, guileless expression and was led further to investigate and receive the blessings of membership” (“Jennie Brimhall Knight,” Dec. 1928, p. 646).

By January 1899 trouble was increasing for all the missionaries in Bristol. Stimulated by a group called the Anti-Mormon League, one night a crowd gathered outside the conference headquarters where Sisters Knight and Chipman were to meet a family for an appointment. As they arrived, the crowd shouted and hurled stones and trash. “The pelting continued until the street windows were badly broken.” The mission president asked Elder Ray Knight to slip out the back door with the sisters and escort them to their apartment, a forty-five minute walk away. However, they were discovered and the mob followed them through the streets.

“We escaped being hurt, Save in our feelings, though our clothing was badly soiled and our hats were somewhat crumpled. The noise made by our pursuers drew people out of shops and buildings for some distance ahead of us, and as we at home stand to view a circus parade, so they watched us pass along, all save one man who accompanied us most of the way, endeavoring to protect us. About five minutes before we reached the police station we met Brothers James and Haddock, with three policemen, who at once stepped between us and the crowd, which, however, had so increased by this time that it was impossible to turn them back. Arriving at the station, we were at once hurried into a back room, and after waiting there about an hour (in which time some tears were shed and a Gospel conversation held) the chief of police took us out of the rear entrance and saw us safe home” (Whitney, History of Utah, 4:612).

After another instance of stone-throwing, Inez noted with a little indignity in her journal about being “so treated in a civilized nation.” But despite such experiences she again and again records the friendships made and the sacrifices of the British Saints on the missionaries’ behalf.

“We went to stay all night with a sister who slept on the floor to give us a bed. I am always uncomfortable when I know people are inconvenienced, on my account. I could not enjoy my breakfast next morning because two hungry children could not have what we did but had only dry bread and cheese” (Missionary Journal, p. 137).

There were occasions when being the first sister meant being the only sister for Inez Knight. One journal entry states: “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.’

“Many good instructions were given, among them the missionaries were counselled … not to try to make long sermons just to take up time” (Missionary Journal, pp. 101–102).

Since these were the first lady missionaries, no set time had been established for their service. In March 1899, when European Mission President Lyman approached the sisters about their releases, Inez Knight had served eleven months and Liza Chipman six months. “Sister C. and I are both willing to remain until the Lord calls us home,” Inez wrote (Missionary Journal, pp. 141–42).

Inez Knight in fact continued her labors for another fourteen months. She worked in London, in Ashford, Kent, and finally in North London. She sailed for home from Glasgow, Scotland, 19 May 1900.

Following her mission Inez returned to Provo to serve as matron, or Dean of Women, of the Brigham Young Academy for two years. In 1902 she married Robert Eugene Allen in the Salt Lake Temple. They had five sons. She later served as president of the Utah Stake Relief Society and also served on the General Board of the Relief Society. Active in civic and political affairs, Inez Knight. Allen initiated the Community Welfare Department in Provo, was active in the Red Cross organization of Utah County, served as a Utah delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 1928, and was elected to the National Women’s Democratic Committee that same year (see Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saints Biographical Encyclopedia, 4:177).

Jennie Brimhall married J. William Knight in the Salt Lake Temple, January 1899. She then moved with her new husband to Canada where they helped found the town of Raymond, Alberta. The mother of two sons, she presided over the Taylor Stake Young Ladies MIA in Canada for five years and after her return to Provo, she served as the Utah Stake Young Ladies MIA president for eight years. From 1921 to 1928 Jennie B. Knight served as first counselor to the general president of the Relief Society, Clarissa S. Williams. She was also active in the Red Cross and the Utah Women’s Council of Defense. In 1925 she attended the International Council of Women Conference in Washington, D.C. (see Jenson, 4:190).

Photographs courtesy Church Hist. Dept. and BYU Archives

Amanda Inez Knight.

Lucy Jane Brimhall.

Liza Chipman.

Elizabeth Claridge McCune impressed George Q. Cannon of the First Presidency with her missionary efforts in England.

Harriet Maria Horsepool Nye, wife of a mission president, was the first woman called after the 1898 decision to call proselyting sister missionaries.