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A revolution in the evolution of Mormonism's 'sister missionaries'

Published October 9, 2012 4:18 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Some Mormons may think that lowering the age of the LDS Church's female missionaries to 19 from 21 is no big deal. Andrea Radke-Moss, who teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho, is not one of them.

To Radke-Moss, who teaches history, the move is nothing short of revolutionary — especially given how far the Utah-based faith has come in its approach to "sister missionaries."

Though the LDS Church's missionary effort dates to the start of the Mormon movement in 1830, throughout the entire 19th century there were fewer than 200 females pitching the faith full time, Radke-Moss writes at the Mormon history blog, The Juvenile Instructor.

The Utah-based church called its first full-time single female missionaries in 1898, Radke-Moss writes, "to counter persistent negative stereotypes about Mormon women, especially in the decade of the post-polygamy transition."

The number of female LDS missionaries ebbed and flowed, depending on what was going on in the male world, especially with military duties.

During World War II, some "missions closed and elders were called home," she writes, so sister missionaries "picked up some of the slack."

In 1945, for example, it was the only time the number of sisters outpaced the number of "elders," or male missionaries.

Six years later, the minimum age for women was set at 23. Then, in 1964, it was lowered again to 21, Radke-Moss writes, which allowed some spaces to be filled with women during the Vietnam War, when some Mormon wards were limited to only one proselytizing elder a year.

Next came a period of missionary work for women as a "fallback" if they didn't get married, giving rise to the stereotype of sister missionaries as "wallflowers."

In recent years, Radke-Moss writes, "many young men have actually 'waited for' their sister missionaries prior to marriage. Indeed, being a returned sister missionary is something of a badge of honor."

Indeed, the number of sister missionaries has grown to nearly 20 percent of the whole, or about 10,000.

The latest age change is even more affirming for LDS women.

The message "is clear," Radke-Moss writes. "Sisters are not an addendum or afterthought; they are essential to the program, even irreplaceable. ... This move goes a long way toward demystifying and de-objectifying young women, by increasing opportunities for healthy male-female interaction in a (hopefully) non- or less-sexualized environment."

No matter what motivated the change, she writes, "the implications are endless."

Peggy Fletcher Stack