Mary Frances Sturlaugson, First Black Woman to Serve LDS Mission, and the Merits of Black History Month

By February 19, 2019

In June 1978, President Spencer W. Kimball announced that “all worthy males” were eligible for priesthood ordination in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Although President Kimball made no mention of “worthy women,” Black women were now finally permitted to attend the temple and participate in ordinances that they had previously been barred from. Like Black men, Black women were also now eligible for missionary service.

The first three Black missionaries called on missions in the summer of 1978 were Marcus Martins, Jacques Jonassaint, and Mary Frances Sturlaugson. Martins was called to serve in his native Brazil. Jonassaint, a Haitian who joined the church as a student in Canada, was called to serve a Spanish-speaking mission in Florida. Sturlaugson really wanted to serve in Africa, and so she was disappointed when she found out that she was going to San Antonio, Texas instead. However, Sturlaugson wanted to extend the same kind of love to others that she received from the missionaries that taught her and she found ways to do that as a missionary in Texas.[1] According to one of her memoirs, Sturlaugson taught and baptized a woman who had once been a member and a secretary for the KKK.[2]

While Black History Month encourages institutions to tell the stories of African Americans who were “firsts,” it is critical that the gendered and real life experiences of these historical “firsts” are represented. It is also important that the efforts to remember and claim these Black figures—outside of Black History Month— are recognized as the public history efforts that they are.  As a scholar of race, identity, and womanist theology, Janan Graham-Russell commented that the “presence of Black women in the LDS Church is distinct and has been marked by both invisibility and hypervisibility.” This duality of being simultaneously seen and not seen informs the historical treatment of Black women in LDS history from the nineteenth century to the present. As the first Black woman to serve an LDS mission, Mary Frances Sturlaugson’s presence and works have been both invisible and hyper visible to LDS audiences. This post is an attempt to better “see” Sturlaugson as an important figure in LDS history.

Students of Mormon history might be more familiar with Marcus Martins than they are of Mary Sturlaugson, but she made sure that her story was not left up to the historians to tell. Sturlaugson detailed her incredible journey from being the first person in her family to graduate high school and enter college to joining the church as a student in South Dakota to finally fulfilling her dream of serving a mission in her memoir, A Soul So Rebellious (1980). Sturlaugson was born into a large family—she was the fifteenth of twenty-four children born to her parents, Frank and Corine Sturlaugson—in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a child, she hated the names that white people called her and the ways that they abused and humiliated her parents.[3] She resented Jim Crow and the “Whites Only” signs marking public spaces. While her mother was more attracted to the peaceful protests of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Sturlaugson was drawn to Stokely Carmichael and the message of Black Power and “Black is beautiful” that came out of the civil rights movement.[4]

By the time she enrolled at Wesleyan University in South Dakota in the mid-1970s, Sturlaugson held a lot of animosity toward white people and often made a point of telling them that. She was put off by the contrived sense of unity and togetherness that white people made a point of trying to show. “My feelings of resentment deepened,” Sturalugson wrote in A Soul So Rebellious. “Why hadn’t the white people thought about love and togetherness years ago instead of treating us like animals? It hadn’t mattered if I was good or bad; just being black was all they needed to dismiss me as a worthless nigger. No, the whites had better not ever give me that ‘trying to get along’ line when it was they who had practiced just the opposite.”[5] Through the course of her conversion experience, Sturlaugson felt that God worked a miracle in transforming her heart. Although she no longer held acrimony toward white people, Sturlaugson retained her commitment to standing up for herself and her experience as an African American. When she shared her testimony in sacrament meeting on the bicentennial in 1976, she channeled the spirit of Frederick Douglass:

“All around me, people have spoken of ‘freedom.’ People’s faces glow with the joy they feel for that freedom, but I don’t know or feel that joy. I don’t really feel a part of the freedom this country celebrates although I was born and raised here in America. My forefathers’ blood and sweat helped build this country; yet America has made me feel as though I don’t belong here. I’ve noticed how many other races of people come to this country and are made welcome, but I’m left to feel worthless.”

However, Sturlaugson did feel like the gospel gave her a sense of joy that filled the space of the dichotomy she felt as a Black woman in America.[6]

After publishing her first memoir with Deseret Book in 1980, Sturlaugson published several more books including He Restoreth My Soul (1982), Reflection of a Soul (1985), and Weep not For Me (1999) a work of historical fiction loosely based on the stories of her ancestors who were enslaved on a Southern plantation.

In addition to her written works, Sturlaugson spoke to large audiences, including at BYU Women’s Conference in 1981, and a Black History Month event at BYU in 1995 along with Martins and Jonassaint. According to the Deseret News report of the 1995 event,Sturlaugson felt like her fellow white members had a long way to go in understanding her perspective: “Questions about interracial marriage and whether God is white or black show there’s still some educating to be done. . . If you’ve been listening, then there’s no need to address those questions.”

Recently, Black Latter-day Saints have reintroduced Mary Sturlaugson to twenty-first century audiences. Camlyn Giddins portrayed Sturlaugson in a 2014 film created by her and fellow BYU student filmmakers called “Women of Faith.”  Black LDS Legacy, a group which hosted two conferences in 2018 centering on the 40th anniversary of “the revelation on the priesthood,” created a t-shirt featuring the names of several prominent Black figures in LDS history. Mary’s name is one of them. Dr. LaShawn Williams, an assistant professor of social work at UVU, is one of the founding committee members of Black LDS Legacy. Of the shirts Williams said, “We chose people for the shirt who were notable black Mormons and were the first at something, like first black sister missionary. The challenge for us is to know who they are, to know their stories and to carry their stories with us.”

In the month of February, well-meaning institutions often make compensatory efforts to acknowledge high-achieving African Americans, but fail to do justice to their lived experiences. Hypervisibility is perpetuated by limited discussion about Black historical figures beyond the accomplishment they are associated with and only during the short month of February. Sturlaugson’s visibility in Latter-day Saint history should be heightened, but in a way that is true to her lived experience as an African American woman who joined the LDS church while it openly practiced racial discrimination and the ways that she continually faced the vestiges of racist theologies before, during, and after her mission. In this way, Mary Sturlaugson’s name becomes more than a trivia fact about the Black LDS past.


[1] Golden A. Buchmiller, “3 Black Members Called on Missions,” Church News, 16 September 1978.

[2] Mary Frances Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1980), 87.

[3] Sturlaugson recounts one such experience in He Restoreth My Soul. To raise money to pay for some medical expenses, Mary’s father took her to a white neighborhood to collect bottles for recycling. At one of the homes, a white boy called her and her father racial slurs. Sturlaugson remembered seeing the humiliation on her father’s face. See Mary Sturlaugson Eyer, He Restoreth My Soul (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1982), 20–21. 

[4] Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 6–7.

[5] Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 29.

[6] Sturlaugson, A Soul So Rebellious, 59–60.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Fantastic work, Jessica! I’d never heard of Mary before, and this is definitely an important story. I love the idea of hypervisibility and invisibility as dichotomous ways to view marginal peoples. Thank you!

    Comment by Jenny Reeder — February 19, 2019 @ 11:29 am

  2. Thanks J., I don’t think I knew of Sturlaugson, and having this introduction in context of this month was very helpful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — February 19, 2019 @ 12:15 pm

  3. I remember her first book from 1980. Do we have any idea where she is and what she’d doing now?

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 19, 2019 @ 12:18 pm

  4. I second Kevin. Do we know anything more about Sturlaugson than those two books?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — February 19, 2019 @ 12:23 pm

  5. Thanks, Jessica. I remember that my parents had Mary Sturlaugson’s book in our home in Illinois, sometime in the early 1980s, and I think I glanced through it as a child but never read it completely. (Now I’m wondering whatever happened to it!) I appreciate your thoughtful look at Mary’s life in the context of scholars’ recent efforts to examine the unique effects of racism on black LDS women. I agree with you that visibility and representation are necessary in history, but not just for the sake of visibility alone. Your concluding statement is so important: “Sturlaugson’s visibility in Latter-day Saint history should be heightened, but in a way that is true to her lived experience as an African American woman who joined the LDS church while it openly practiced racial discrimination and the ways that she continually faced the vestiges of racist theologies before, during, and after her mission.”

    Comment by Andrea R-M — February 19, 2019 @ 12:38 pm

  6. Matt W posted about Mary Sturlaugson Eyer back in 2007 (it took a while to find because I didn’t remember which blog it was) and Mary commented there a few years later.

    http://www.newcoolthang.com/index.php/2007/07/no-more-limitations/408/

    Comment by Amy T — February 19, 2019 @ 12:44 pm

  7. Nicely done. Thanks, J!

    Comment by Jeff T — February 19, 2019 @ 2:14 pm

  8. Thanks, J!

    Comment by David G. — February 19, 2019 @ 2:48 pm

  9. I love this so much. That last paragraph hit me really hard.

    Comment by J Stuart — February 19, 2019 @ 4:21 pm

  10. Thank you for this. Mary Eyer is a hero of mine.

    Comment by Matt W. — February 19, 2019 @ 11:01 pm


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