Southwestern States Mission: Discreet Sisters, Part 1

By April 14, 2013

Sister Carling?s mission call identifies ?faithful, discreet sisters? as candidates for missionary service. [1] Perhaps I have an idiosyncratic definition, but I think ?discreet? is ?prudently silent and/or unobtrusive,? [2] which seems odd as a primary descriptor for go-ye-into-all-the-world missionaries—and doubly so parallel to the ?faithful, energetic elders? in males? mission letters. [3] Below I will attempt to contextualize the idea of ?discreet? female, Mormon missionaries in the Progressive Era. [4]

?Discreet? and variants appear multiple times in The Young Woman?s Journal (YWJ) and General Conference (GC); overall, I think they emphasize the ?wise and prudent? aspect of discretion more than the ?secretive? aspect. For (outlying) example: ??we left the safe path the discreet people who had preceded us took?.? [5]

?Discreet? appears in the KJV Bible but in no other LDS scriptures; two instances refer to women but I detect no Mormon discourse based on them. [6] I found a few dozen usages of ?discreet? variants applied gender-neutrally or to males in YWJ and GC, including an 1898 reference to male missionary ?indiscretions? [7], but overall, I find no particularly Mormon, gendered, and/or missionary use of ?discreet.? [8]

That said, I did find four examples of Mormons applying ?discreet? to women. In 1896 Emily S Richards argued that suffrage in Utah had not led to ?a lowering of the standard of womanly propriety and discretion.? [9] A 1904 YWJ article quoted three mission presidents (including our own Duffin) discussing prospective female missionaries: ?intelligent, discreet young women? [10]; ?sober, modest and discreet? [11]; ?noted for their ability, discretion, faith and energy.? A line from a fourth president in the article summarizes the context: ?A good woman can accomplish much in the furtherance of the truth but one who is inclined to act in an unbecoming manner can tear down more than a dozen Elders can build up.? [12]

That three of the six US mission presidents should so speak suggests a female-missionary-specific Mormon valence for ?discreet,? but I have not yet found references from later dates.

?Conclusion? is too strong a word, but?

  1. ?Discreet,? applied to female missionaries, achieved proto-buzzword status from, say, 1901-1904. [13]
  2. ?Discreet? was partially interchangeable with ?prudent? and ?wise.? [14]
  3. Leaders repeatedly emphasized the importance of female missionaries not drawing unfavorable-to-the-church attention to themselves. That is, the reticence I have identified as part of the present-day connotation of ?discreet? was in force then also and was one of the driving concerns of mission leaders, even when they didn?t use the word ?discreet.?

Next week I?ll look at some hints about Carling?s experience with ?discretion? recorded in her diary.

The ?Southwestern States Mission? series (homepage) examines mission life in (mostly) Texas around 1900.

[1] Carling?s is the only early female mission call I have examined. I poked around a bit but found no female mission calls close enough in date to usefully compare and get no hits when I search ?faithful, discreet sisters? or its variants. I am curious as to how standard Carling?s mission call letter was and, if it were, how long the standard lasted.

[2] Another way of phrasing it is: ?smart enough and in-control enough to avoid either sharing information or drawing attention to oneself when doing so would work against your interests.? I resisted the urge to begin the post: ?Webster?s Collegiate Dictionary defines ?discreet? as?.? But, since you asked, since you asked….

[3] In partial support of my contention that ?discreet? has changed, I report that googling ?discreet women? yields a list with, um, non-sister-missionary-ish websites, as does ?discreet sisters.? In retrospect, I should have known. I also encountered ?Discreet Women?s Lifestyle Designer Sunglasses? from Oakley and the assertion that Sanibag (?for sanitary napkin disposal?) is ?preferred by discreet women everywhere? (ht: Laura Fingerson). After those initial forays, the balance of the post was written from within the sanctuary of Google Books and

?Discreet sister? appears in the title of an 1803 poem; in a novel about Goethe and Schiller; in a story about an adventurer; in scare quotes in a description of gender relations in the Oberlin dining hall; and in an ecclesiastical letter from the 1300s. Whitehouse Cowley, The Discreet Sister (1803); Luise Mühlbach, Goethe and Schiller: An Historical Romance, translated from German by Chapman Coleman (London: Chesterfield Society, 1867); ?The Sequel to The History of an Adventurer,? byline: ?D,? Southern Literary Messenger 6 (no 5, 1840 May): 354 (341-364); Delazon Smith, A History of Oberlin, or New Lights of the West (Cleveland: S Underhill and Son, 1837), p 27; Thomas Scott Holmes, editor, Somerset Record Society, vol 10, The Register of Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop of Bath and Wells, 1329-1363 (London: Harrison and Sons, 1896), p 684.

[4] My sources are (mostly) General Conference (GC) and The Young Woman?s Journal (YWJ).

[5] Most of the instances were more of a mix of prudence and secrecy but I think the overall trend holds. ?Up and down we went, over the hills of broken stone that compose this the lateral moraine of the Muir Glacier, and we left the safe path the discreet people who had preceded us took, and followed fragments of a broken plankway farther to the left toward the edge of the bay, even though there where sign-boards all along with the word ?Danger? on them in big letters.? Unsigned [presumably Hester Cannon], ?In Alaska with the President?s Party,? The Young Woman?s Journal 7 (no 8, 1896 May):350 (349-355).

Two other examples (emphasis mine): AW Cannon: ?What should we find among the youth of such a land? Souls of independent thought minds full of aspirations, hopes, high ideals; thoughts as pure as the waters of your mountain stream, as bright and luminous as the ruddy glow of your western skies as deep and discreet as your silent, lovely lake, as noble and strong and sturdy as your never changing mountains, as beautiful and poetical your starry moonlit skies. And of such a nature are the young men and the young women of Utah.? H Cannon: ?Every time I pass a certain window on the third floor of this hotel a whiff greets me that reminds me of Clover Point. Well the window is never open now, for the chamber maid has become discreet enough to keep it down.? Annie Wells Cannon, ?The Young Men and the Young Women of Utah,? an address delivered before the Salt Lake Stake Conference of the YLMIA, The Young Woman?s Journal 8 (no 11, 1896 Aug):505 (503-508). Hester Cannon, ?With the President?s Party in Alaska,? The Young Woman?s Journal 7 (no 5, 1896 Feb): 205 (cont?d from 178; 205-8). Four more examples: 1, 2, 3, 4.

[6] The KJV uses ?discreet? three times and ?discretion? nine, representing six Hebrew words and one Greek. All but two of these scriptures refer to the discretion of males and, in one case, God. Proverbs 11:22 says that ?a fair woman? without discretion? is ?as a jewel of gold in a swine?s snout,? while the one New Testament reference, Titus 2:5, expects ?young women? to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, ?? and so on. I haven?t noticed any references to either of these verses in Mormon periodicals in the late Nineteenth Century and the LDS Scripture Citation Index didn?t turn up anything that pointed toward a particular Mormon or gendered application.

As an aside: The collocation of ?faithful? and ?discreet? has some significance for Jehovah?s Witnesses, based partially on the New World Translation of Matthew 24:45, ?Who really is the faithful and discreet slave whom his master appointed over his domestics, to give them their food at the proper time?? See, Wikipedia, or, for example, ?Faithful and Discreet Slave,? Insight 1:805-6; ?A ?Slave? Who Is Both Faithful and Discreet,? Watchtower 3 (no 1, 2004): 8-12; the report from the 2012 Annual Meeting; and the publication database.

[7] ?There is one thing that has been noticed in the reports that have come from the fields, and that is, there is more diligence on the part of the missionaries and a better class of work is being done. There has been more care taken in sending out missionaries; more strictness observed to have men go out who would not bring discredit to the name of Latter-day Saint by their indiscretions or by their lack of faithfulness. It may be said, I, think, truthfully, that the standard is being raised.? George Q Cannon, Sixty-Ninth Semi-Annual General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1898 Oct 06-08, Thursday morning session, Oct 06, Conference Report, p 3-4.

[8] This conclusion reduces to the fact that I easily found many instances of (in)discre/-et,-etion, both Mormon and non-Mormon and I did not find many gendered and/or Mormon usages, and those seemed consistent with non-Mormon usage. As shown in the graph below, ?discreet? and ?discretion? have decreased in usage frequency in American language over the past two-hundred years. (I excluded 1851 from the General Conference series as unreliable since the word pool was so small.)

Davies, Mark. (2010-) The Corpus of Historical American English: 400 million words, 1810-2009. Davies, Mark. (2011-) The Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks: 24 million words, 1851-2010.

Acknowledging the blind-spots in the first fifty years of the COGC, the word ?discreet? shows up in general conference seven times from 1880 to 1920, voiced by four speakers; ?discretion? appears sixteen times, from nine speakers. None of the twenty-three instances referred specifically to females. Of course, there is more to Mormon language than general conference. I discern no particular Mormon pattern of usage other than the two words show up less in general conference than in more mainstream usage. Davies, Mark. (2010-) The Corpus of Historical American English: 400 million words, 1810-2009. Davies, Mark. (2011-) The Corpus of LDS General Conference Talks: 24 million words, 1851-2010. Accessed 2012 Mar.

[9] ?Woman Suffrage in Utah. Address delivered by Mrs. Emily S. Richards before the National Woman?s Suffrage Convention, at Washington, D. C., Jan. 27, 1896,? Deseret Semi-Weekly News, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1896 Feb 11, vol 30, no 103, p 1. Reprinted in ?Woman Suffrage in Utah. Address delivered by Mrs. Emily S. Richards before the National Woman?s Suffrage Convention, at Washington, D. C., January 27th, 1896,? Deseret Weekly, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1896 Feb 15, vol 52, no 9, p 257.

The phrase, ?womanly propriety and discretion? also appears in Julia Kavanagh?s 1851 novel Nathalie: A Tale. ??Strict womanly propriety and discretion,? continued the schoolmistress, ?were to be your chief attributes. …?? (New York: D Appleton & Co, 1891 [1st ed: 1851]), p 18-19; the discussion of feminine attributes runs pages 14-22.

[10] The phrase ?discreet young women? appears in a review of a poem (in The Current 7 (no 168, 1887 Mar 05): 314); in a description of biblical Ruth and Abigail (Thomas Chalkley in The Friends? Library, vol 6 (Philadelphia: Joseph Rakestraw, 1842), p 122); and in a 1762 English translation of Rousseau?s Émile. (John James Rousseau [Jean-Jacques Rousseau], Emilius; or An Essay on Education (London: J Nourse and P Vaillant, 1762), vol 2, p 234-235. I did not find the phrase in later translations; the original French does not require it: ?? mais qui est-ce qui remarque celles??  citation from 1782 ed, Book V, p 265. A clearer translation is in Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1979), p 389).

[11] The phrase ?sober, modest, and discreet? appears in texts from the 1600s and 1700s: on the comportment of music tutors; a poem ?To Content, An Ode? (?Come, meek-eye?d nymph, of aspect sweet, / Sober, modest, and discreet / ??); a religious dispute in Connecticut (?judge you, I say, whether he acts like a sober, modest, and discreet divine, well and duly qualified to be Arch-Bishop of New Jersey.?); and two  biographical descriptions: ?His youth, like his age, was very sober, modest, and discreet.?; ??a sober, modest, and discreet man he is I am sure, and they say able in his profession.? John French, 1759, as quoted in John Potter, Vocal Authority: Singing Style and Ideology (Cambridge University Press: 1998), p 78. Henry Green, London Magazine 42 (1773 Sep): 459; John Beach, ?History of the Church in Newtown,? cont?d, Chuchman?s Magazine 2 (no 9, 1822 Sep): 276 (272-7); Review of Life of Benjamin Silliman? in The Atlantic 18 (no 105, 1866 July):127; Letter to Sir Edward Hyde, 1657,  A Collection of Original Letters and Papers, Concerning the Affairs of England, from the Year 1641 to 1660. Found among the Duke of Ormond?s Papers. Volume 2, ed by Thomas Carte (London: James Bettenbam, 1739), p 123.

[12] ?For some time before we made a request for this class of missionaries, it had appeared to us a field was open to them that was closed to the elders, and that by the selection of intelligent, discreet young women many souls could be reached with the gospel truths whose hearts had been closed by prejudice.? (Duffin); ?No young lady should be sent, who will give way to levity of conduct. In private and public, she must be sober, modest and discreet.? (Nephi Pratt, Northwestern States Mission); ?If we undertook to school our girls as we do our boys, in the mission field, I think it would result in injury to the cause. But a few who had already been trained in the work at home and are noted for their ability, discretion, faith and energy, would be a great help to us.? (John G McQuarrie, Eastern States Mission).

In a fourth instance in the article, Duffin opines that ?In the selection of lady missionaries much discretion should be exercised.? Since missionaries were selected exclusively by males, ?discretion? could not have been an exclusively female trait. Duffin also used ?discretion? in a 1905 April General Conference address to explain how his fellow missionaries taught: ?We are not tender about teaching the revelations of the Lord to our brethren and sisters in the world. The eternal principles of the Gospel are brought before them in plainness; nevertheless, we seek to use wisdom and discretion in our teachings.?

The ?good woman? quote is from James A McRae, Colorado Mission. Joseph W McMurrin, ?Lady Missionaries? The Young Woman?s Journal 15 (no 12, 1904 Dec):539-41. McMurrin was one of the Seven Presidents of the Seventy and thus helped oversee all formal missionary efforts.

[13] By ?buzzword? I mean something like ?quiet dignity? in the late twentieth century. It would be intelligible to an English-speaker with no knowledge of Mormon culture but it had a specific and frequent usage for missionaries. I used ?proto-buzzword? because the penetration was far smaller than ?quiet dignity? achieved. As evidence: half the stateside mission presidents used ?discreet? for female missionaries, it was in the female mission call letter, and—come back next week for Part 2!—it?s in Sister Carling?s diary.

[14] I conjecture that ?discreet? dropped out as a proto-buzzword as ?discreet? usage declined in general use and as it became more associated with secrecy. Examples of statements that don?t use ?discreet? but seem just like ones that do: ?We do not want unwise women sent any more than unwise men, because they could do more injury than they could do good.? George Q Cannon, Sixty-Eighth Annual Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1898 Apr 6 ? 8, Conference Report, Apr 6, morning session, p 6-8 (2-9). ?At a recent reception given by the General Board of the Young Ladies? to the General Board of the Young Men?s Associations, President Geo. Q. Cannon said in the course of his remarks: ?It has been decided to call some of our wise and prudent women into the missionary field.?? Byline: ?J.? ?Biographical Sketches: Jennie Brimhall and Inez Knight,? Young Women?s Journal 9 (no 6, 1898 Jun), 245 (245-9).

Article filed under Miscellaneous Women's History


  1. Nice post.

    (FYI, per your previous post: I noticed that “discrete” is listed as a variant spelling of “discreet” in Webster’s 1828, even though the OED suggests a more rigid distinction by the 15th century.)

    Comment by Robert C. — April 14, 2013 @ 3:30 am

  2. Fascinating, Edje. So much of what we recognize as Mormonspeak goes back a long, long way — it tickles me that you have found another bit of it, but a bit that didn’t last to our day.

    I’ve spent some time today searching my databases of transcriptions, hoping to find something to add, but I haven’t. All the uses of “discreet” that I’ve been able to find have the ordinary, nongendered meaning of “unobtrusive” or “minding one’s own business.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 14, 2013 @ 3:31 pm

  3. Thanks for the extra info, Robert and Ardis.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 14, 2013 @ 10:35 pm

  4. Another data point (quoting J Stapley commenting at Keepa):

    In 1915, the First Presidency issued a call ?for lady missionaries of maturity?:

    We are greatly in need of lady missionaries?and would be pleased to receive from you the names of sisters who are physically and financially able to perform missions, and whom you can recommend.

    Care should be exercised in selecting lady missionaries. They should be good, steady, representative women, not too young, with a good education and knowledge of the Gospel, and who have had experience in the auxiliary organizations of the Church. (Messages, 4:335)

    The emphasis is slightly different but the basic gist is the same, though instead of “discrete,” “wise,” or “prudent,” we have “mature” and “steady.”

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 14, 2013 @ 10:39 pm

  5. […] last week?s post I looked at the public linguistic context for the phrase, ?faithful, discreet sisters,? in […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Southwestern States Mission: Discreet Sisters, Part 2 — April 21, 2013 @ 12:01 am

  6. […] 84 (82-86). Smith?s phrase, ?intelligent, faithful sister? makes me think of the ?faithful, discreet sisters? in at least one early missionary call […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From the Archives: The Young Woman’s Journal Reacts to the First Sister Missionaries — May 2, 2013 @ 12:49 am


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