“Who was the first sister missionary?” Ensign, Jan. 1981, 31–32
Calvin S. Kunz, director, Cuesta College institute, California That depends on the period of Church history and the degree of involvement we’re talking about. In my opinion, it was Inez Knight, set apart for a mission to Great Britain on 1 April 1898. But before that time approximately 220 women were involved in missionary activity of one sort or another. (See Calvin S. Kunz, A History of Female Missionary Activity of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830–1898, master’s thesis, BYU, 1976, p. 57.)
Between the 1830s and 1865, most Latter-day Saint women involved in missionary work went with their husbands; in most cases, missionaries were instructed to leave their wives and families provided for at home. (See Kunz, pp. 13–14, 16–17.) However, in 1840 Mary Ann Frost Pratt apparently became the first woman to cross the ocean accompanying her husband, Parley P., on a mission to Great Britain; her sister also went along. (See Kunz, p. 15.) Wives of Wilford Woodruff, Erastus Snow, and others also went on missions with their husbands.
In 1840, four men were called to the Society Islands to join Addison Pratt, who had been there for a year. His wife, Louisa Barnes Pratt, came with the four men and their wives, including her sister and brother-in-law, Caroline Barnes Crosby and Jonathon Crosby. Her diary notes that she was “blessed … , called, set apart, and ordained … to aid my husband in teaching the people” by Brigham Young.
Apparently, this was a most extraneous case since official missionary records do not mention the “setting apart” of any women, including the four women companions traveling with her to the islands, until twenty-five years later. (See Kunz, p. 19.)
Finally, in 1865, Sister Mildred E. Randall became the first of nine women to be called and “set apart … to go with their husbands on their missions” (Kunz, p. 30). Her husband became discouraged and left the mission field soon after their arrival, but Sister Randall served almost eighteen months in the Society Islands, and later returned in 1873, without her husband, on a second mission where she taught school and kept the mission home as she had the first time. (See Kunz, pp. 70–71, 48–49.)
However, the main distinction between the elders and these women seems to have been their official status, symbolized by a certificate identifying the missionary as an authorized representative of the Church. It was not until 1898, over thirty years later, that women were not only “set apart”, but also “certified.” Consequently, most of them previously seemed to think they were in the mission field primarily as wives and only secondarily as missionaries. Two probable exceptions were Louisa Barnes Pratt and Libby Noall, both in Hawaii, who diligently learned the language along with their husbands, addressed meetings, and explained the gospel. (See Kunz, p. 64.) Another was Catherine A. Love Paxman, serving with her husband in New Zealand, who helped translate the Book of Mormon into Maori.
Another distinction between the women and men missionaries of this time was the variety of reasons women were called on missions. Between 1881–97, thirty-four women were called on missions to do genealogical research; a few went to avoid antipolygamy persecution (among them Julina Lambson Smith, who accompanied her husband, Joseph F. Smith, to Hawaii in the 1880s; see Kunz, p. 46); several were called on missions before they visited relatives and friends so that they would explain gospel principles in the course of their visits; at least three—Mary E. C. Van Schoonhoven, Alice Louise Reynolds, and Viola Belle Pratt—were called missions before their departure to study at eastern schools; at least two women were called on missions when they went to New York to meet their husbands, returning from European missions.
In 1897, however, the status of sister missionaries changed. Elder Joseph W. McMurrin, a General Authority and president of the European mission, wrote asking that women be called on proselyting missions. After due consideration, the First Presidency authorized calling sisters, “as occasion might require” in a communication of March 1898 (Kunz, p. 35). The first woman to receive a certificate under this new policy was Harriet Maria Nye, the wife of California’s mission president, who was set apart on 27 March 1898.
The first single women to be commissioned and certified as “proselyting” missionaries were Amanda Inez Knight and Lucy June Brimhall, both set apart on 1 April 1898 on missions to Great Britain, where the mission president carefully explained that they had the same responsibilities as elders. (See Kunz, p. 54.) Since Sister Knight was called first, she is technically the head of that army of single, authorized, proselyting sister missionaries who have followed her into the field since.