Southwestern States Mission: Discreet Sisters, Part 2

By April 21, 2013

In last week?s post I looked at the public linguistic context for the phrase, ?faithful, discreet sisters,? in Sister Carling?s mission call. This week I look at her private writings.

Nine days after arriving in the field:

?Prest. Duffin had to remind me that I must be more guarded in my associations with the Elders as I was acting a little too much like I was at home. O how badly it made me feel to think I had been indiscrete and the President had to speak to me about it. I was as inocent as could be and he said he knew it, but we must be more guarded, that we were not at home and it is quite different out here in the world. It almost broke my heart, although he gave it in such a kind brotherly way, and I took it in the manner which he gave it but, it made me feel badly to think I had acted in such a way as to make such advice necessary. It has, however made me a more thoughtful girl.? [1]

I have no way of evaluating Duffin?s concern, but since he and Carling reached a consensus about the inappropriateness of whatever it was, I will proceed as if it were well-founded. [2] At the time of this entry Carling lived, did office work, and proselyted at or near mission headquarters. ?The Elders? were the office staff, and they and Carling seem to have got on well. [3] In the first week she recorded that ?it almost made me shed tears to see how very thoughtful the Elders were of my comfort and happiness.? [4]

At the risk of reading too much into word choices, ?indiscreet? in this case seems to

  1. Involve relations between sexes;
  2. Depend on visibility rather than position: it was not that she was a missionary acting like a non-missionary but that she acted ?at home? while ?in the world?;
  3. Ignore intent;
  4. Be a partial antonym for both ?more thoughtful? and ?more guarded.?

Male/female missionary relations and notions of ?home? also appeared on Carling?s first day:

?Prest. Duffin? said ?now sister Carling, make yourself right at home for you?r home now.? It caused a queer sensation, and a feeling of lonliness for a minute just to think of being the only Utah girl around and so many men folks here; but I soon felt perfectly at home. The Elders all treat me so kindly, just like a sister.? [5]

The home/world trope appears three other times. [6] On Carling?s third morning her ?eyes opened to some of the ?ways of the world?? when she found her landlady and a male boarder in bed together. [7] Part of Carling?s exasperation—in all three cases—was the casualness of the sins? display: ?When I called at her door she came out as unconcerned as could be.? [8]

Carling and the Elders continued to interact after Duffin?s reprimand. If anyone objected to Carling appearing in public one-on-one with a series of different men, I haven?t noticed it. [9] Whatever ?discreet? meant for Carling, it did not seem to include hiding or avoiding male missionaries.

I close with a snow fight among Carling, her female companion, and a male missionary. After the ?battle? was over, Carling commented: ?We had a good laugh but we were so far from neighbors that no one saw nor heard any thing so it did not matter.? [10] The (metaphorical) list of acceptable activities was not exactly the same as the list of acceptable activities to be seen doing, and a ?discreet sister? knew how to use both lists.


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

[1] Carling, 1901 Jul 08 Mon, p 28-29. Carling is the only missionary in this study to use a variant of ?discreet? in her diary. She did so twice, once in copying her mission call letter and then in the cited entry. As noted last week, Duffin used ?discreet? variants in an interview in 1904, but not in his diary. I am curious whether Carling used ?indiscrete? independently or if she was following Duffin?s linguistic lead. Note that I am proceeding as if all the variants of ?discreet? had clear and fixed relationships, which is almost certainly not the case. The word ?indiscretion? seems to have already developed in the late 1800s an independent career as a euphemism for sexual misconduct. [Back to post]

[2] Duffin?s diary is silent on all of the cited incidents and I do not have any of the other missionaries? diaries. (I have Forsha?s a diary but it ends before Carling arrived.) I am willing to postulate that missionary ?misconduct? (whatever that was) ?hurt? missionary work, but I do not see any way of knowing whether the behavior Duffin identified would have led to negative outcomes. Four not-necessarily-exclusive ways of interpreting Duffin?s concern come to mind.

  1. Carling changed the sociality of the office and Duffin reacted to the change, but not in a way that could be attributed to a world-view—other than the fact that female guardedness came first to mind in a moment of stress. That is, the content of the conversation is secondary to understanding; we should meta-analyze instead of analyze. (We might call this a ?get-off-my-lawn? reaction: concern for the grass is incidental to what?s actually happening.)
  2. Duffin was concerned with semiotic differences between regions. I take his ?it is quite different out here in the world? to mean that since sexual norms in Kansas / Missouri were different from those in Utah, at least in outward presentation, non-sexual behavior might be misconstrued. Duffin was presumably concerned about the impressions of un-named third parties since Carling and ?the Elders? were from the Mormon Cultural Region and could interact without semiotic confusion. In this regard, Duffin fits the pattern of many small-town leaders concerned about the fate of their youth in larger cities, so a socio-economic or regional lens might be more useful than, or at least work in conjunction with, a religious one. Carling records being importuned ?boldly? for a date once, but I don?t see any evidence of signal misunderstanding. In Carling?s ?first real experiance in Missionary work? she and a local woman ?went out tracting and visiting? and then, at one of the houses, ?There was a man came in just before we left. When we had gotten a ways from the house, he overtook us and stopped us and insulted me boldly by flattering, and trying to make a date with me? (Carling, 1901 Jul 12 Fri, p 29).
  3. Duffin believed that the isolation and stress of mission life affected Elders so much that ?it is quite different out here in the world.? Social and professional interactions that would go unnoticed in Provo became significant and distracting to lonely missionaries hundreds of miles from the second-nearest eligible Mormon woman.
  4. Duffin was jealous. I see no evidence to support the idea of Duffin abusing ecclesiastical authority in this manner, but he and Carling did marry thirteen months later and it is possible that jealousy motivated some of his concern about her associations with other men. [Back to post]

[3] Carling mentions seven Elders by name in the first month: Allen, Bradshaw, Call, England, Forsha, Hamilton, and Walker. In present-day mission parlance some of these would be the ?office Elders,? though I have not parsed which Elder had which assignment. In my reading of her diary, Carling comes across as intelligent, religiously devoted, and companionable. Office Elders seem to have been selected, at least partially, for displaying similar attributes. I do not find it surprising that a group of young intelligent people working closely in a common cause should have ?associations?—whatever those were.

There are three other factors that I think need to be at least mentioned: Carling?s lack of companion, the missionaries? gendered homesickness, and the institutional vacuum.

  1. Carling had no companion and would not receive one for months. She, of necessity, spent much time with male missionaries and did not have a primary confidant or the emotional intimacy of a companionship.
  2. In a separate-spheres society with women dominating the domestic sphere, visiting with a woman ?from home? was different than visiting with a man ?from home.? Carling?s dress, vocal and speech patterns, cooking, perfumery, etc, presumably reminded the male missionaries of home in ways that no newly arrived male missionary would.
  3. A mixed-gender missionary cohort was a new experience personally and institutionally. Mission life was new to Carling and she was the first female Mormon missionary any of the male missionaries or president had ever worked with and possibly the first they had ever encountered in any capacity. There were no ?rules? or guidelines or even social templates about how Sisters and Elders worked together. [Back to post]

[4] Carling does not dwell on the relationships at length, but consider two of her entries from the first week (the quoted text is in the second entry): ?Monday morning I swept the rooms, and straightened things around a little and the Elders objected to my ?fussing around? here as they said they were able to take care of themselves, which I agreed to, but did not quite agree that they knew just how to keep house.? (Carling, 1901 Jul 01 Mon, p 23-24). ?As it is a holiday, the Elders can not work, so we all stayed at the office in the forenoon. In the afternoon, some of the Elders wanted a young lady, who came to see me, and myself, to go down town to have ice cream, but I thot it best not to go, so when the Elders went to dinner, they each one brought something back for me. Bro. Hamilton came first with a large glass of ice cream soda. Then the others came Bro. Bradshaw brought me a pint box of ice cream. Bro. Walker had heard me say I was fond of bananas so he brought a sack of banans some of the others brought apples and peaches so we had a good time. It almost made me shed tears to see how very thoughtful the Elders were of my comfort and happiness.? (Carling, 1901 Jul 04 Thu, p 25-27). [Back to post]

[5] Carling, 1901 Jun 29 Sat, p 22-23. [Back to post]

[6] ?On our way home, Elder England took me thru the Beer Garden just to let me see what was going on there. At hundreds of little tables, were seated ladies and gentlemen drinking beer. It made me shudder to see this, but is thought nothing of here in the ?world.? As I get more acquainted with the world, and its ways, my heart grows sick at the sights and I feel like I would to god that the people could understand the worth of the gospel. (Carling, 1901 Jul 17 Wed, p 31-32; it?s not clear if the event happened on Jul 16 Tue or Jul 17 Wed). ?It made our hearts ache for those poor souls, the old lady almost helpless and that sweet little child being brought up in such a condition. She told us her story which shows the nature of the Christianity in the world. She had been in good circumstances in years gone bye, and the training she has and is giving the little girls shows she is a woman of culture. She was an earnest worker in the Methodist church and contributed liberaly for forty years but when she could no longer work, and her means was gone it seemed that with wealth and health went also her friends and now she is old an almost helpless, when she is most in need of friends, she has been almost forgotten by those who used to be her warm friends in former days? (Carling, 1901 Nov 23 Sat, p 65-67). See below for the third instance.

In addition to talking about ?the world,? Carling mentions ?this world? twice. It seems a more generic description of mortality rather than a contrast between Mormon and non-Mormon areas. ?It seems so nice to meet a friendly person in this cold world.? (Carling, 1901 Nov 01 Fri, p 59-60; I don?t think I?ve mis-categorized the incident, but note that the ?friendly person? was from Utah.) ?I had been up late for some few evenings, so I spent the rest of the day until church, in reading and resting. I felt that it was a great blessing that the Lord had given us a day in which both body and mind could be relieved of the cares of this world and the mind could dwell on His goodness and blessings towards us.? (Carling, 1901 Nov 03 Sun, p 60-61). [Back to post]

[7] She changed lodgings that night. ?Well I am getting my eyes opened to some of the ?ways of the world.? The lady I was rooming with shocked me, and oh how it made my heart turn sick. I had felt uneasy there, but thot it only nervousness, but this morning I went to the door of the room I knew she was in, to speak to her. The door being left ajar, I happened to glance in and saw she was in bed with a man, one of her roomers. When I called at her door she came out as unconcerned as could be. She having just told me the day before of her being a widow, and of her husband?s death. It farely made me heart sick. O what a condition this wicked world is in. I wonder how long it will continue thus. ? That night I changed my rooming place, next door to the office, on account of the actions I had witnessed that morning and after seeing this I could understand why the cause of my uneasiness at that place.? (Carling, 1901 Jul 02 Tue, p 23-25). [Back to post]

[8] There might be a case to be made that in Carling?s linguistic world, ?discreet? and its partial synonyms were attributes of ?home? and ?indiscreet? an attribute of ?the world.? I am, of course, just conjecturing. Going further: it is not that ?discreet? people looked with indifference upon private moral failings, but that they saw Zion as a personal and a collective project. To be exposed in sin and act ashamed was to fail in a way common to all saints but that could be dealt with and could reinforce the social ties of Zion in the process; at the least, acting ashamed affirmed the common view as to what were appropriate and inappropriate actions. Contrariwise, to be exposed in sin and act unashamed was to deny the commonality and unity essential to the Zion project. There might be a useful analogy with Early-Republic honor culture in the American South. An alternate reading, with simplicity in its favor, is that Carling?s reaction to the ?casualness? is merely as a measure of how entrenched the ?sins? were. [Back to post]

[9] She spoke at meetings, visited, tracted, and so on, in various group sizes and compositions, including in company with one, two, or multiple male missionaries. She also conducted activities with mixed groups and with local women. Examples of ?couple? outings, ie, Carling and one male: ?In the afternoon Elder Allen took me out to ?Elmwood? Semetary to see the grand vaults and tomb stones.? (1901 Jul 04 Thu, p 25-27); ?After S.S. Bro. Forsha and I went home with little Josie Mc.Donald and spent the afternoon.? (1901 Jul 14 Sun, p 30-31); ?On our way home, Elder England took me thru the Beer Garden just to let me see what was going on there.? (1901 Jul 17 Wed [or 16 Tue], p 31-32); ?Friday was spent in studying and in helping Elder Call get his clothes cleaned up for his home trip. In the evening he took me out to visit some of his relatives. ? The time flew by until it was eleven o?clock, when we arrived home.? (1901 Jul 19 Fri, p 32-33); ?Sunday after S.S. Prest. Duffin and I went out to visit Sister Platts, took dinner with them spent the afternoon, then had a pleasant walk home. Stopped on our way at an ice cream stand and had a dish of ice cream.? (1901 Jul 28 Sun, p 35); ??I had a large grip to take with me. So Bro Forsha saw it and asked me if I was going to take it. He incisted on carrying it to the car for me. He accompanied me as far as Wallnut where I was to change cars. Bro. Forsha is so kind to me, he is a true brother. He said to me ?Now Sister there is one thing you haven?t learned yet and that is, that it is a pleasure for me to do any thing like this for you.? That made my heart glad for it is a pleasure for me to do any thing I can for him and it was pleasant to know that the feeling was reciprocated.? (1901 Jul 31 Wed, p 36); ?In the evening we went down town to hold street meeting but could get no corner, so Elder Brown and I went over to K.C. Kan. and arrived there just as the Elders were dismissing meeting.? (1901 Aug 30 Fri, p 47). Examples of Carling going out with two or more males but no female: ?We had a very good S.S. after which, I with Elder?s Hamilton and Allen, went to take dinner with some of the saints.? (1901 Jun 30 Sun, p 23); ?In the afternoon, I accompanied Elders Bradshaw and Hamilton to Kansas City Kansas, to attend a baptism.? (1901 Jul 02 Tue, p 25); ?Saturday I decided not to go out to dinner and that I would get lunch for the Elders in the Office Elders Forsha and Call. It did my heart good to see them enjoy that meal. They are tired of the Resturant fare.? (1901 Jul 13 Sat, p 30); ?In the evening I again went with the Elders to hold street meeting.? (1901 Jul 30 Tue, p 35-36). [Back to post]

[10] Carling, 1901 Dec 05 Thu. I have not yet made a specific study, but I recall some instances of male missionaries in this cohort of diaries who leave activities or don?t go to activities because of concerns about their propriety. In this vein, in the July 04 entry quoted above (?very thoughtful? Elders), which was a few days before Duffin?s reprimand, ?some of the Elders? invited Carling and another ?young lady, who came to see me? to go down town to have ice cream, but I thot it best not to go?.?  She did not write, ?I didn?t feel like it? or ?I was tired? or some such, which makes me think there might have been something about the situation that she used ?discretion? in avoiding. See footnote 4 above for the text of the entry. [Back to post]

Article filed under Miscellaneous Women's History


  1. […] my last few posts I have looked at discourse around early female Mormon missionaries. Below is the text of […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » From the Archives: Mission Presidents Talk about Sister Missionaries, 1904 — April 22, 2013 @ 12:01 am

  2. […] 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 @ 12:50 am


Recent Comments

Ben S on What’s in a name?: “Ah, never mind. Skimmed too fast past the beginning. How embarrassing.”

Ben S on What’s in a name?: “How did you create that display?! I’d love to do something similar. I’ve looked at timeline software, and it’s all either expensive or useless.”

J. Stapley on What’s in a name?: “I'm that same boat as Ardis with the Mules. Fascinating!”

KLC on What’s in a name?: “I'm 65 and the term 'Jack Mormon' was quite common when I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s. I always understood…”

Ardis on What’s in a name?: “Am I the only one who *never* before recognized that "jack" used this way is connected to mules?? That stuns me. And delights me. I also…”

Questions on CFP: 2020 MHA Poster: “Will MHA accept proposals from students who have already sent in a proposal for a presentation or panel? If so should the poster be a…”