Mormons and missions: Daniel Fleming, civilization, and the ?lady missionary?

By January 16, 2009

Inspired by Edje, I dug this out of the archives.  Originally posted in slightly different form here.  

By 1910, 55 out of every 100 American Protestant missionaries – a group numbering in the tens of thousands whose reach extended from the cities of the United States to Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America – were women.[1] Furthermore, the congregational associations who supported these missionaries were also dominated by women. Though it could be argued this merely reflects the historic gender gap within Christian congregations, such a boring sociological explanation was not how these missionaries explained themselves to themselves, or how their leaders lauded them.

Rather, it was commonly heard that women?s spirituality was superior to that of men. They had greater gifts in what was referred to as ?Christian nurture,? more talent in creating an atmosphere that enabled the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and presented the gospel in ways more conducive to the emotional, affective conversion experience.[2]

Mormons have heard this before, I think, but the argument?s never so far as I?ve heard been applied to the question of mission work in the LDS church. This is curious, given the pervasive presence of the greater-spirituality meme among the Saints. Indeed, when they have praised the efforts of sister missionaries, the single point General Authorities have offered was summarized by Gordon B. Hinckley in 1997: ?We need some young women. They perform a remarkable work. They can get in homes where the elders cannot.?[3] George Q. Cannon made almost exactly the same argument a century earlier.[4] However, despite their greater doorstep appeal, both Hinckley and Cannon cautioned that the numbers of sister missionaries should remain low; as Hinckley claimed, the tighter age restrictions on women existed for that purpose. In 1907 the Apostle Francis Lyman offered a reason: ?They have a work in the ministry, besides taking care of their homes and families; but of course they are almost entirely home missionaries.? As Rands and Lyon note, Lyman described the work of ?lady missionaries ?as an auxiliary to their domestic responsibilities? – a point most certainly made over the pulpit today.[5]

For turn of the century Protestants, however, the very gifts that made women saintly homebuilders also made them successful ambassadors of Christ. Though the argument was not made without dissension, these Protestants believed that the word and the work of God went hand in hand; that the gospel message was spread as much through service and education as through streetcorner preaching. Thus, mission organizations opened hospitals and schools, taught English in foreign lands, ran orphanages to care for and Christianize destitute children. These efforts coincided with more typical mission work – that of Bible distribution, tracting, and instruction in the Gospel – to make in the mission a microcosm of the ideal of ?Christian civilization.?

In 1925, however, this model of the mission was dealt a harsh blow by Daniel Fleming, professor of mission theory at Union Theological Seminary. In his Wither Bound in Missions? (New York: Council of Christian Organizations, 1925), Fleming argued that the ?ministerial? model of missionary had improperly overcome the ?apostolic? model. Missionaries, he said, were not ministers; it was not for them to found and run congregations or to engage in pastoral work like hospitals or schools. Rather, they were apostles, preachers of the word. The mission organizations, Fleming said, had grown top-heavy; their fundamental unit was the single missionary, and such large-scale organized efforts distracted from the true work.

Fleming, however, also called for a reconception of mission preaching itself. He dismissed terms like ?the mission field? or ?the foreign missions? – Christianity, he argued, had no geographic home, and such terms only conflated Western culture with true religion. When they taught notions of Victorian morality, gender and family norms, or wasted time on things like temperance or profanity, missionaries were teaching culture rather than salvation. Rather, he said, they should preach only one thing – Christ and him crucified. However, believing that missions should be conducted like sermonizing was a mistake. Missionaries could make a greater impact, Fleming argued, if they did not elevate themselves, but rather the message, and they could do that most effectively by serving those they taught, by showing charity and kindness, and exhibit in themselves the image of Christ. This, said Fleming, would draw men and woman to the missionary, and show them the power of Christianity better than telling it ever could.

Mormons, I think, would be sympathetic to the first part of Fleming?s argument – and this, I think, may be why female missionaries have historically been discouraged. This is not to say that Mormon missionaries do not seek to bring civilization as well as Christianity; of course they do.  Mormon missionaries bring a way of life structured around twentieth century middle-class Americanism in ways overt (white shirts; Western sacred music) and subtle (assumptions that most folks will not have to work evenings or Sundays; the nuclear family and Western courtship patterns). However, as Hinckley, Cannon and Lyman all make clear, the Mormon leadership conceives of mission work as a priesthood responsibility. The culture they seek to spread is a sacerdotal one, an all-encompassing church indistinguishable from the creation of a formal ministry. As anyone who has served a mission knows, male Mormon missionaries frequently become formal ministers in the area they evangelize – and indeed, erecting that hierarchy is, it can be argued, the primary function of the mission. Many missions suffer from a tension (to the extent that it becomes an issue) between the desire to preach to all who desire to hear the word and the need for men eligible to receive the priesthood. To this end, then, Fleming?s first objective seems impossible for Mormons – the conversion event is impossible to separate from the institution that surrounds it. And as far as these administrative demands go, men are the more important missionaries.

Lately, however, we?ve begun hearing about something called ?The Ammon Approach.? The General Authorities are quite aware that what Fleming calls the apostolic style of missionary work – simple tracting, street contacting and so forth – is increasingly less effective. Elder Ballard, the Apostle who has taken the point position on the issue, has encouraged new strategies in the way the Church relates to prospective converts: one that hinges upon presenting a positive image of the Mormon lifestyle to the interested. Mormons should build ?gospel-sharing? homes; they should maintain an active and positive presence on the Internet and in the public sphere. Similarly, a pilot experiment has appeared in least one mission, directing full time missionaries to devote much greater amounts of time to community service and humanitarian work than has previously been the case – a program that perhaps derives from the extensive – and positive – press coverage of missionaries? efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

This sort of work, however, seems to point us back to those ?lady missionaries? of the early twentieth century. If Mormon mission work continues this emphasis what might be called the ?civilizing? aspects of the faith; if missionaries do began to spend more time teaching English or working in homeless shelters; if the ?gospel-sharing home? becomes a primary selling point – and, importantly, if our cult of the spiritual woman continues -will Mormonism vault the sacerdotal hurdle? Will we began to understand the world as a household (to borrow a phrase), and hence throw wide the mission doors to the ?lady missionary??

[1]William Hutchison, Errand to the World (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1987) 101.

[2]See, for example, Patricia Hill, The World their Household (Ann Arbor: Michigan, 1985) 69-61; also Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility (New Haven: Yale 1984).

[3]Gordon B. Hinckley, ?Some Thoughts on Temples, Retention of Converts, and Missionary Service,? Ensign 27 (Nov. 1997): 49.

[4]Cited in Tania Rands Lyon and Mary Ann Shumway McFarland, ?Not invited, but welcome: the history and impact of Church policy on sister missionaries,? Dialogue 36:3 (Fall 2003) 71-103. Cannon noted that sisters could find listeners ?in some lands and under some circumstances,? particularly ?where the elders could scarcely gain a hearing.?

[5]Cited in Lyon and McFarland, 76.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Accommodation Comparative Mormon Studies Cultural History Gender International Mormonism


  1. Interesting analysis, Matt (and exactly the sort of comparative approach I was thinking of in my comment on Edje’s post). It will be interesting to see how things play out with sister missionaries in the years to come.

    Comment by Christopher — January 16, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

  2. Great analysis but i think there is a fundamental difference between Mormon and Christian missionaries.

    I think the regular lay member of the church is called to do a lot of what would be considered missionary work. This has always been encouraged. The RS do humanitarian service projects, strengthen families, etc. Everyone is encouraged to find people to teach and accompany the discussions.

    I think the missionary work has focused on the Elders because they administer ordinances, they teach the basic principles of the gospel, and often they serve in a leadership role in areas where the church is growing. While service is encouraged in some areas, “humanitarian service” missionaries are called and regular members are encouraged to participate. The classic missionary responsibility still falls to the Priesthood.

    That being said – I served a mission with the largest number of sister missionaries outside of Temple Square. At the height of my mission, we had about 60 sisters – about 1/3 of the total missionaries. They accomplished things the Elders did not but ultimately in proselytizing both are incredibly important. I could never baptize. I could never ordain. I loved my mission but sometimes I wish I had focused on service as a humanitarian missionary or in a non-missionary capacity, like the Peace Corps or something. One can do good Christian service anywhere. You don’t need a calling.

    Comment by Kelly Ann — January 18, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

  3. Kelly Ann – thanks for your comments, and I certainly agree that there’s a lot of service done by the church in general, which perhaps compensates for the focus upon the mission per se as a priesthood responsbility priesthood that your second paragraph (and my third to last) describes.

    Christopher – thanks.

    Comment by matt b — January 18, 2009 @ 8:27 pm

  4. Thanks Matt. This is a great post.

    Comment by Edje — January 18, 2009 @ 11:39 pm


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