In September 1900, thirty-three-year-old Mary Bennion bid goodbye to her husband, William, as he left to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Southwestern States Mission. Mary, pregnant with the couple’s seventh child, stoically noted his departure in her journal: “Wm left about 11 Oclock. We all feel very sad about his leaving us for such a long time, it looks a long time to be away from his family, but hope he will fulfill an honorable mission, return home a better man than when he left.”1
Five years later, in December 1905, thirty-year-old Catherine Stevens said farewell to her husband, George, as he left her and their four children to serve a mission in New Zealand. Catherine later recounted their parting with deep emotion: “The time had come to say good-bye and we all gathered just inside of our front room door and had a family prayer. Then George took me in his arms and smothered me with hugs and kisses; neither of us saw each other for tears. The children were tugging at his coat and legs, and crying.”2
Similar farewells to those reported by Mary Bennion and Catherine Stevens occurred thousands of times from the 1830s to the 1950s, a period when Church leaders routinely called married men away from their families to serve missions.3 Attention has long been focused on these missionaries’ sacrifices, but comparatively little attention has been paid to their faithful families. These supportive missionary wives and children are unsung heroes of the Restoration, who made sacrifices at home so that the gospel could go forth into the world.4
The Wives and Children’s Accompanying Mission Call
Although mission calls were specifically issued to husbands and fathers, it was widely understood that their wives and children received accompanying calls. Though the mission of the wives and children was simple in theory—to carry on while the family’s traditional breadwinner spread the restored gospel—the reality was regularly quite different, prompting one Utah newspaper to declare, “If anyone performs a mission when the head of the house leaves his family and goes out into the world it is the wife who remains at home.”5
To accomplish her mission, the missionary wife regularly had to add her husband’s responsibilities to her own already heavy duties, which in turn often required her children to assume greater responsibilities. Although a few families prospered financially during the mission separation, for most of those left behind, the mission call meant that they had to press forward with greatly diminished resources. As a result, those left behind regularly faced challenges and endured trials that were frequently more difficult than the trials experienced by the missionaries in the field. D. Arthur Haycock, who was five when his father left on a mission, recalled that it was all he, his mother, and younger siblings could do just “to keep body and soul together and support my father in the mission field.”6
The situation prompted one returned missionary to declare that he “would rather be a missionary than a missionaries [sic] wife” since “they had the hardest part of the mission to fill.”7 J. Golden Kimball, a member of the First Council of Seventy, which was responsible for overseeing the Church’s missionary efforts, echoed similar sentiments when he wrote local ecclesiastical leaders that “the missionaries’ wives must have our attention, as they have the greater burden and our hearts and sympathies go out to them.”8 In short, although the missionaries have long received the glory, the missionary wives, who had both the work and worry of home life, did the majority of the heavy lifting. The sentiments that Sarah (Sanie) Lund wrote in the midst of a mission experience were shared by thousands of missionary wives: “I think I have a pretty hard mission.”9
The Missionary Wife Era in Context
During the missionary wife era, the overwhelming majority of men did not initiate their mission call by volunteering to serve. While some received advance warning that Church leaders were considering calling them on a mission, such as an inquiry about their availability to serve, for others the call was completely unexpected. Some first learned of their mission when it was announced over the pulpit at general conference, while others first became aware that they had been called when they received a letter with the return address “Box B,” the Church’s Salt Lake City post office box.
Because mission calls were usually unanticipated, they seldom came at a convenient time. Olive Smoot Bean later told her children the circumstances of their father’s call: “Everything looked promising for us, and I felt that we were on easy road. . . . [Then] there came a letter to your father asking him if he could prepare to go on a mission. . . . Father said he could go so much easier a year or two later, [for] he had nothing much . . . to supply me with what we needed.”10 Recounting her father’s call, Myrtle Farnsworth Christensen wrote: “The ranch was secure, Father had a job in the Co-op store, and the future looked bright—when a call came. . . . The ranch was sold, Mother and we children (there were five of us now, the youngest six months old) were moved into an apartment in her mother’s home, and Father departed for a 30-month absence.”11
Many individuals endured the farewells and the extended separations of the mission experience more than once. During her first ten years of marriage to Brigham Young, Mary Ann Angell Young had to bear the realities of her husband serving seven missions, ranging from several months to two years. Henry S. Tanner was born while his father was on a mission and then as an adult twice left his wife, Lauretta (Laura), to serve missions, the first occurring just days after they had married. Sanie Lund likewise was born while her father was a missionary and then spent significant time as an adult raising her children by herself as her husband, Anthon, served four missions. When Clorinda Schmutz was forty-one years old, she bid goodbye to her missionary husband, Johannes (John), and then again when she was fifty years old.
So common were missionary wives and children that beginning with the first Latter-day Saint hymnal published in 1835, and continuing through 1948, Church hymnbooks featured a hymn, sometimes referred to as “The ‘Mormon’ Missionaries’ Farewell,” that included a verse that mentioned them:
Farewell our wives and children,
Who render life so sweet;
Dry up your tears—be faithful
Till we again shall meet.12
In the 1880s, during the antipolygamy crusades, Charles Denney wrote a song while in prison for cohabitation that was readily applicable to the mission experience. The first verse of “I Will Write to Papa” reads:
The house seems so lonely now papa has gone,
We feel quite forsaken, so sad and forlorn,
Perhaps he is lonesome: to make him feel gay,
Let’s write him a letter now he is away.
Yes, write him a letter, a kind, loving letter,
A sweet, tender letter, now he is away.13
Myrtle Christensen used to sing this song with her siblings while her father served a mission. “How Mamma [Harriet Farnsworth] cried as she accompanied us on her guitar,” Myrtle recalled.14
When Sanie Lund’s non–Latter-day Saint aunt learned that Anthon Lund had left his family to serve a second mission, she was aghast. Sanie informed her husband that the aunt “thought it was the awfulist thing” and then told Sanie that “we all must be crasy.”15 While Latter-day Saints could appreciate the aunt’s perspective—many undoubtedly expressing similar sentiments themselves—they also understood that there was an aspect to their actions that those not of their faith did not comprehend. Anthon spoke for most missionaries who left their families when he wrote, “Take our religion out of the question, and it would be an act I would not be guilty of . . . , but, as long as the Lord wants me here, I will try to do my duty.”16 Olive Bean reflected a feeling common among missionary wives when she wrote that she wanted “to do my share in rolling on our work, and if I can do it by giving my husband’s service to the cause, I am willing, and proud that he is worthy [of] the mission.”17
Although missionary wives were honored to be married to someone deemed worthy to serve a mission and were willing to do their part, accepting the call and facing the subsequent separation required the exercise of faith. “I cannot understand why this had to be,” Dorothy Pectol wrote, “but God knows best. We must submit to his will.”18 While Vilate Kimball was “perfectly reconciled” to Heber C. Kimball joining other members of the Quorum of the Twelve on a mission to England in 1839, she confessed, “I must say I have got a trial of my faith as I never had before.”19
Missionary wives were willing to endure the challenges of the mission call because they believed it was an opportunity for personal growth and for drawing closer to God. Along these lines Mary Bennion journaled regarding her own and her husband’s mission experience, “Hope we will look on it as something [that] will elevate us both to a higher standard.”20 Clorinda Schmutz wrote to her missionary husband, John: “We are trying to do right at home[,] trying to live near to the Lord that he may bless us all.” She noted her hope that their time “will not be spent in vain,” concluding that it would not be if John lived up to his duties.21
The arrangement of having husbands serve a “foreign mission” while their wives served what amounted to a “home mission” also had an impact on helping the kingdom grow. For every Jesse N. Smith who spread the gospel in Denmark, there was an Emma West Smith who continued as a contributing member of a community such as Parowan, Utah. Additionally, the dual mission arrangement was a missionary tool. One returned missionary reported that when missionaries “tell the people of the World, our Wives are willing for us to go, on missions . . . they say, we must be sincear [sic], for the sacrifice we make.”22
While hundreds of available records allow for extensive studies of the missionary program and provide insights into what it was like to be a missionary, by comparison only a handful of extant journals, letters, reminiscences, and histories recount what it was like to be the missionary wife or child left behind. Although relatively few in number, these records reveal that there were differences in their experiences depending upon such factors as where they lived and the makeup of their family. Thus, the experience of Sanie Lund in Ephraim, who had five sons, differed somewhat from that of Olive Bean in Provo, who had one daughter when her husband left and gave birth to a second while he was gone; from that of Clorinda Schmutz, who lived in St. George with her ten children, some of whom were married; and from that of Annie Hansen, a polygamous wife who shared a home with her sister-wife in Brigham City. These records also reveal common threads among these missionary wives and children that transcended differences in location, family makeup, and the time frame of the mission experience. Among these were faith, sacrifice, trials, and victories both small and great.23
Life without Their Husbands and Fathers
When Henry S. Tanner was called to preside over the California Mission, his wife, Laura, concluded that she would support her family by returning to Paris, Idaho, to teach, a position she had held prior to her marriage. Her father, however, would have none of it. “If I have a son-in-law that is worthy to be president of a mission I can take care of his wife and children while he is doing it,” he proclaimed.24 And he did, moving Laura and her three children to his home in Marsh Valley, Idaho.
When Will Bean was called on a mission to the southern states, Olive Bean declined her parents’ invitation to move in with them and chose to stay in her house in Provo and make ends meet the best she could. When individuals predicted she would have to give up living on her own and move in with her parents across town, she responded that she would show them what she could do “with the Lord’s help.”25 And she did, remaining in her home throughout her husband’s mission.
Whether they stayed in their home or moved in with or near family, wives and children almost always had to adapt to a new lifestyle. Arthur Haycock recounted that his father had had a good job prior to his mission, but during his absence the family “barely existed.” He likened their situation to being “orphans because our father was not there to look after us.”26
When Anthon Lund left to serve his second mission, Sanie Lund tried to make her first winter as a missionary wife in their new two-story brick house “as comfortable and cheap as possib[le].” Although she followed the common practice of heating only the bottom level of her home, that winter was not as comfortable as hoped. Without the family breadwinner, her supply of wood and coal ran out before spring arrived.27
As Matilda Hintze faced another winter during her polygamous husband’s fourth mission, she did so without “a bit of wood and coal.” On top of that, she noted that the children needed shoes and winter clothes, and her efforts to obtain money to buy those items had been unsuccessful. “I don’t know what to do,” she confessed.28 Somehow, she found a way to make it through that winter.
Those left behind also regularly faced changes to their daily fare, just as their missionary husbands and fathers did. Two months after Brigham Young left with other members of the Twelve on a mission to England in 1839, Mary Ann Young found herself without food to feed her family. Leaving her older children, she took her two-month-old baby and set off on a “cold, stormy November day” from her home in Montrose, Iowa, to cross the Mississippi River in a small rowboat to seek help in Nauvoo, Illinois. “Almost fainting with cold and hunger, and dripping wet,” she arrived at a friend’s home, where she left her baby as she went to the tithing office to procure a “few potatoes and a little flour.” She then rowed back across the river. Several times during the winter she repeated the trip just “to obtain the barest necessaires of life,” at times “in storms that would have frightened women of ordinary courage.”29
Hannah Smith Dalton reported that during her father’s mission, her family “did not have much to eat.” Breakfast usually consisted of porridge, while the dinner staple was potato soup, both made with milk from the family cow. Partway through the mission, however, the cow died. “When mother made the porridge and there was no milk to go into it, she cried like her heart would break,” Hannah recalled.30
During his father’s mission, five-year-old Arthur Haycock, having grown tired of eggs, threw them on the ash pile. His mother (Lily Crane Haycock), knowing that there was nothing else to eat, made him go outside, pick his meal out of the ashes, clean it off, and eat it. Arthur later noted, “I am sure mother . . . shed a lot of tears over the experiences we had during those two years.”31
Wives’ Expanded Work Responsibilities
For Catherine Stevens, food wasn’t the problem. Prior to leaving on his mission, George Stevens had employed men to help him with the farm work. Because Catherine could not afford to employ these men, she and her young children had to assume responsibility for the tasks that had previously been done by her husband and the hired hands.
Catherine had the sole responsibility to take care of the farm animals, tend two fruit orchards, and harvest the berry bushes in addition to her regular duties. A particularly onerous task was milking the cows twice each day and then getting the milk to the local creamery. Not used to milking, initially her hands and wrists swelled up until she could hardly use them. “It was all such heavy work,” she recalled of her mission experience.32
Clorinda Schmutz likewise had to assume responsibility for the family farm. “We have got so much work to do, we dont know what to do,” she lamented during her first year as a missionary wife.33 John Schmutz could only send his regrets that he was not able to help her and assured her that he would do the one thing he could—pray that she would “have health to do all [her] labor.”34
Charles Shumway, who began his missionary service in 1883, left behind two wives, Sarah and Agnes, who were also sisters. Regarding their situation, Sarah recounted: “We lived in the same house, raised our children together and lived in peace and harmony together. . . . We didn’t have too much money, but we did get along. We were willing to work and the people were willing to help us. They gave us work that they could have done themselves, but in order to help us [they] gave us something to do. We did spinning, knitting, sewing, quilting, and made lace. . . . We made many quilts; we quilted at night after the children had gone to bed.”35
When Franklin Seal began his mission in September 1899, he left behind his wife, Mary, who was pregnant with their eighth child. A Riverton, Utah, businessman, he had tried to ensure that his family was taken care of. The owner of a meat and vegetable business, he was owed more than two thousand dollars by customers and had secured a promise from each that they would pay Mary the money owed. The promised money, however, did not fully materialize. Because things didn’t turn out as they were planned, Mary had to take things into her own hands: “She took her little baby and went out working. She did washing by hand scrubbing on the wash board. She also sewed carpet rags. Just any kind of work she could get. She took care of women and their babies for just fifty cents a day. I have heard my mother say many times how she went to work only having a cup of ginger tea to drink for her breakfast. Sometimes her pay would be a little flour to make bread for her children.”36
To meet her family’s needs, Dorothy Pectol, whose husband, Ephraim, had been the local schoolteacher, took in boarders, kept bees to sell honey, sewed for other people, washed their clothes, fed their animals, and made and sold goods at Christmas. Her journal entry for November 4, 1907, noting that the day had “been a mixture” of “pig feed[ing], cooking, tending to the bee’s[,] house work, and all,” was similar to many other entries she wrote during her husband’s absence.37
Hannah Dalton recalled the work her mother, Emma West Smith, did to support her family. After working all day around the house and farm, Emma also worked nights spinning yarn to earn needed money. Hannah recalled, “How I would cry when I went to bed to think my little sweet mother had to work so hard.”38
The Children’s Expanded Roles
Because their mothers had to do more, children regularly also had to assume greater responsibilities. This meant that they had less free time and frequently had less opportunity to go to school.
Hannah Dalton, who was five years old when her father left on a mission, recalled splitting “fine splinters off from the pichy wood” during the day and then sitting with her mother in the evening tending her baby brother and “holding and lighting these pitchy sticks for her [mother] to see to spin by.”39 Catherine Stevens recounted that while her husband was a missionary, ten-year-old Ione was “a big help in the house,” especially “looking after the younger ones,” and that seven-year-old Kenneth “helped much with the outside work.”40
Nearly a month after Anthon Lund left on a mission, eleven-year-old Tony Lund reported to his father that he had spent the morning milking cows and sawing twelve poles for firewood. He then devoted the afternoon to picking rabbitbrush flowers and doing chores.41 Five days later he again wrote his father about what he had been doing:
Ma and [ten-year-old] henry and me cleaned out the cellar yesterday that was quite a job. Ma has not been without wood enough yet and its now bout a month. . . . I have been busy ever since you went I helped Parley [a neighbor] to haul his grain I loaded 11 loads and not one bundle fell off. He is going to haul ma some wood for I helped him. I worked in the tithing grainery and got 70 lbs of wheat and an order on the store for 1.20 cts. I have earnt one bushel of oats and 1 bushel of wheat working on the threshing machine. I have been working for Peter Kesko 3 days [picking potatoes] and got 30cts a day I gave it all to ma.42
A year later, Sanie noted that then twelve-year-old Tony did not start school with his younger brothers because “the old cellar” had caved in again and the fence needed mending, and he was needed at home to fix them.43 Although Tony was still helping out, the enthusiasm he showed at the start of the mission had waned, and Sanie had to spend more of her energy getting him and his younger brothers to do the needed work. This reality prompted her to write that “our garden looks nice or would do if we could rid it of weeds but the boys are not much at that unless I can go with them, and that is not often [for] there is enough to keep me busy in the house.”44 The reality prompted her to write Anthon, “You wonder that I get tired, but I think I have a very good reason to be tired.”45 She further noted regarding the outside work: “Wont I be glad when I can throw all this burden of[f] on to you[.] it is entirely to much for a woman with the cares of a family.”46
When Tony was able to attend school, his father’s absence affected that aspect of his life as well. “I cant keep up in my arithmatic so well as when I had you to help me,” he informed his dad.47 Tony was also not able to join the band since there was no money to buy a trumpet. “He will have to wait untill you get home and make lots of money,” Sanie wrote Anthon.48
Clorinda Schmutz had to turn the responsibility for the family herd over to thirteen-year-old Marcell. “I hate to keep him out of school but I will try to keep him studying whenever he has time,” she informed her husband.49 Watching the herd was a daily job, but on the Fourth of July Clorinda took over for Marcell so he could join in the day’s festivities.
In addition to everyday life, holidays, especially Christmas, were often different and difficult for missionary wives and children. Hannah Dalton later recounted her first Christmas with her father on a mission: “All of us children hung up our stockings. We jumped up early in the morning to see what Santa had brought but there was not a thing in them. Mother wept bitterly. She went to her box and got a little apple and cut it in little tiny pieces and that was our Christmas, but I have never forgotten to this day how I loved her dear little hands as she was cutting that apple.”50
Sanie Lund reported to her husband, Anthon, the family’s 1883 Christmas without him: “You hoped we would have a merry Christmas but it was the hardest day I have seen for a long time. . . . The boys missed Santa the children was so sick that I did not think much about it but I thought it would be to bad not to put something in there stockings I had bought a few little things and towards day light when the baby seemed a little easier I went and filled them. . . . [Tony declared] it was the worst Christmas he had ever seen.”51
During her first Christmas without her husband, Olive Bean wrote him: “In all the excitement and pleasure I feel lonely and isolated, thinking constantly of the true heart absent from me. . . . Oh! If I could only be permitted to look on your dear face once, and feel one clasp of your loving arms, and receive a kiss from you, it would be worth all the money spent in presents this Christmas.”52
Shortly after Henry Tanner returned from presiding over the California Mission—the second two-year mission he had filled during his six years of married life—his wife Laura was awakened by his crying in his sleep. When she awoke him to ask what was the matter, he replied: “I just had a nightmare. I thought I had to go and leave you and the children and I just can’t go and leave you.” Laura responded, “Oh yes you can you have left us before and you can do it again.” Later recalling this incident, she noted that it was a great lesson for her as she had “sometimes wondered if it was as lonesome for him as it was for us.”53
Enduring loneliness is a frequent theme in the journals and letters of missionary wives. In an era before radio, phones, television, and social media, and at a time when the nearest neighbor could live a distance away, the absence of the family patriarch left a big void. Additionally, although they were the ones at home, missionary wives wrote of being homesick. Noting that she was “not very well,” Dorothy Pectol concluded, “Perhaps it is homesickness.”54 For missionary wives, home truly was where the heart was—not just a place to live.55
Soon after Will Bean left on his mission, Olive Bean wrote him: “Oh! if I could only have a good talk with you today, it would make me feel braver and better. Sometimes I get heartsick and weary when I think of the many long days ere I will have sight of your loved face.”56 A few months later she wrote: “I get lonely and dejected sometimes. . . . You cannot realize how I miss your precious company. It seems as if there is nothing to live for in your absence, and time drags with me as it never did before. If it were not for our own precious Nina, I would have no heart to keep up. . . . I thank God that I am not childless, for it seems as if the loneliness would be more than I could bear.”57 On a later occasion she noted: “Oh! I am so homesick and lonely. No matter how many I am surrounded with, when you are absent, I am alone. And our home is not home without you.”58
Sanie Lund wrote to Anthon: “I did not realise how much my old man was in my life untill now he is so far away.”59 She further reported: “I find it kind of hard and lonesome but every body thinks it is nothing for me [since] I have such a nice house just as if one could not get lonesome in a good house.”60
Since Sundays were the day that missionary wives had normally spent the most time with their husbands, these were often challenging days. Olive Bean wrote: “Oh! Will, as I sit tonight, alone in our little home and think of the pleasant Sunday evenings we have spent together in it, I lose control of my feelings and am obliged to shed tears of loneliness.”61
Among her Sunday journal entries, Dorothy Pectol wrote:
[Oct.] 27 Sunday long lonesome day. . . . This my darlings is the day I miss you most.
Sun. [Nov.] 3 . . . We are all pretty well, but we all know what a long lonesome day sunday is.
Sun. [Mar.] 15 . . . What a long lonesome day it has been for me, it seemed there would never be an end.62
The responsibility of motherhood added to the loneliness and feelings of isolation. The month prior to John Schmutz leaving for Switzerland in January 1900, Clorinda gave birth to a baby girl. She subsequently informed her husband: “I don’t go out much[.] I have been to meeting some have not been to Relief Society [which was held midweek] many times, but I cant find time to go and some times it is to[o] cold to take the baby.”63 Sanie Lund noted in a letter to her husband: “The Baby was very sick all night[.] The nights are very lonesome no Anthon to call when the children are sick.”64 On another occasion she wrote: “Oh Anthon how I miss you when any thing is the matter with the children. It does seem more than I can stand, sometimes.”65
Weather and winter also magnified the aloneness of missionary wives. Sanie wrote in October 1883: “To night is such a dreary night it is blowing and raining, and it all helps to make me feel bad.”66 The following month she noted: “To night it looks as if we will have snow before morning and then we can look for winter for the next six months,” sarcastically adding, “thats cheering to a missionaries wife.”67
The loneliness and feelings of isolation that missionary wives experienced was magnified by the fact that they were largely trapped in the same routine while their husbands were meeting new people and seeing new places. Along these lines, Mary Bennion noted, “Did the same work over as it is the [same] old round, every day. it realy become monotonous.”68 Dorothy Pectol regularly wrote about her routine, as represented by the following entries:
[Oct.] 27  Sunday . . . . The most exciting thing at our house is pig feeding.
Fri [Nov.] 8 Nothing new transpires only the same old thing.
Dec 3 . . . Nothing has occurred today worth noting. Washed.
Mar 2  This day has passed as many others have and others will still.69
Shortly after John Schmutz left for Switzerland, Clorinda noted in a letter to him, “I cant turn any way but there is something to remind me of you. So I am always thinking of you.”70 Later she wrote, “You are always seeing something new and something of intrest that will pass the time away for you, and you can look back and always [k]no[w] where we are but we cant see where you are.”71 Sanie Lund wrote Anthon that time likely was passing faster for him “as you have a change. but to me it is the same thing week out and week in[,] worrying and working.”72
Regarding her situation as a missionary wife, Olive Bean wrote her husband, “When I feel like I do tonight, lonely and dejected, my only consolation is in the thought of our once more uniting in each others embrace, and I can assure you I will be able to appreciate your companionship more than ever before if possible.”73
Challenges Associated with the Absence of the Adult Male
In October 1900, Mary Bennion lamented in her journal that the events of the previous few days made her “feel like I need the assistance of a man to do such work.” Two days earlier, the sheep had gotten out, so she “had to fix the fence, worked at it for over two hours.” The following day after doing her regular work, she had to fix the fence again because the sheep had once more gotten out. “It made me feel very tired and sick,” she noted. She spent the majority of the next day working around the house before again having to fix the fence.74 Not only was she having to do a job that her husband normally would have done, but she was having to do it during the third trimester of her seventh pregnancy and wearing an ankle-length dress.
In addition to the physical work, the wives noted another challenge brought on by the absence of a male figure. Annie Hansen informed her husband: “We have been nerly frightned to death severl times this fall one night some body throoed a rock on the door and another night they stood by the gate for a long time. . . . nerly ever body knows that you ar not to home so they think they can scare us witch I think they can easy do.”75 Matilda Hintze wrote her husband: “If you were a woman and left alone with your children . . . and so many bad men and people around as we have, you could not feel very happy. . . . Many nights I can’t sleep until morning.”76
The challenge of watching after and caring for children alone was frequently noted by missionary wives. Matilda Hintze wrote her husband: “I hope you will be home some day to see what it takes to keep your family. . . . Your children were not big when you were home and did not take but very little. But it is not so now.”77
Sanie Lund noted: “I find I have all I can do to take care of the children and look after thing[s]. . . . Some days every thing goes wrong and other days it is not so bad.”78 On another occasion she wrote: “If theire is a hard mission on earth I think it is to raise a family[,] so much care and anxiety and work[.] I feel completly discouraged and tired out.”79 She further noted: “Anthon it is not all fun for me. I think you have sliped out of lots of care.”80 Later she wrote him:
I often think there can be no where you are needed worse than here. the boys are just the age to need a father to look after them they got so they dont care much for a mothers say so they want to do as they like and that is very seldom what I like. . . . they dont want to go to school. . . . and they both do to many chores and so it goes day out and day in that is all the change I get and it is enough to worry a person to death.81
She subsequently noted: “I may not write to suit you but Anthon I get so tired of being man and woman both.”82
Although husbands tried to be as supportive as possible, Anthon Lund’s efforts to cheer Sanie elicited a response from her that most missionary wives probably could relate to:
You tell me to look on the bright side of life. I try but I dont find any very bright side[.] I often wonder if you were tied at home with the children and work and sickness and had to stay with it night and day and me seven thousand miles away how bright the picture would be to you. . . . I wonder if you would feel as good as you do. I have my doubts about it. you would be looking around to find a wife to help you out. it is quite diferent with you. you can have it quiet and nice go to bed when you feel like it[.] Sleep good all night get up not a child to dress or bother with, and when you feel like doing so you can take a walk . . . no baby to carry with you. . . . it is all very well to write and say dont work, but the children must have clothes and food, and it takes work and they must be waited on in sickness, and it all wears out your Sanie.83
For the most part, however, missionary wives looked forward to and appreciated letters. Olive Bean wrote her husband, Will: “After receiving one of your sweet letters I feel almost as if I had had a talk with you, and it strengthens and cheers me for a few days until the time when I begin to look for another, and when it does not come as soon as expected, I soon get to feeling gloomy again.”84 On another occasion, she noted: “It is nearly ten days since I had any word from you and I am waiting anxiously for more. You can not realize of how much importance your letters are to me. They seem to strengthen me morally and physically, and my work seems lighter and spirits higher.”85
Dorothy Pectol, in her journal, likewise recorded the role that letters played in her life:
[Oct.] 26 . . . lonesome oh how lonesome and still no letter from my loved one.
Thurs [Nov.] 8  What a happy day, for oh joy I rec’d a conversation with my loved one for such it seemed to me.
Fri [Nov.] 15 . . . a letter from some one would be appreciated. . . . where oh where are you?
Jan 11 . . . no letter again to-day. Maybe you dont think it makes one lonesome to not get letters oftener. It is almost more than one can stand to be dissappointed so often.
Apr 15 . . . if we could have letters a little more often the time would not seem so slow.86
As much as wives loved getting letters, they often hated writing them. Given their circumstances, letter writing was often one of the toughest tasks missionary wives faced. Not only was it difficult to find things to write about, but while their husbands could take time from their missionary work to pen a letter, the wives had to make time.
Matilda Hintze wrote her husband, “I should have written long time ago but it seems such hard work to get at so I leave it off as long as I can.”87 She further noted, “I don’t know what to write. I never get away from here, so I don’t hear of any news.”88
Sanie Lund wrote Anthon: “I wish I knew what to write that would enterest you[.] your letters are always so enteresting . . . [but] I fear you get tired of hearing the same over and over.”89 On another occasion she penned: “I know that this is not enteresting but it is from home. I will be glad when I have written the last letter it is such a job and one that I hate so bad.”90
Regarding the physical challenge of letter writing, Sanie noted, “I never write a letter with out getting up about a dosen times to look after some thing or other.”91 On other occasions she reported: “I thought that I could get to write a few lines this afternoon . . . but I guess I will have to give it up as [two-year-old] Otha will be no other place than on the table and right on the paper[.] he has already tiped over the ink twice so you can see a little what dificultys I write under.”92 The following year she wrote: “Otha is standing [and] hiting me on the back with the drumstick because I will not stop writing[.] he says Pa dont want any more letter and he may be right so I will stop and please him.”93
Olive Bean faced similar challenges, informing her husband, “You must excuse all blunders as I have a lot of fruit on the stove, and have written this letter by snatches.”94 On another occasion she noted, “You must overlook the blotted appearance of this letter for [nineteen-month-old] Nina has helped me to write it, and I have been rocking the baby [one-month-old Virginia]; so you see I am writing under difficulties.”95 Regarding her challenges, Clorinda Schmutz informed her husband: “I will start now [since] it always takes me a day or too to write anyway. I have to stop and tend baby.”96
Because of the difficulty writing during the day, the wives often had to wait until after the children had gone to bed to write. Matilda Hintze reported, “In the daytime, I never get to sit and write for there is first one and then another comes in and wants something.”97 Writing at night was not the perfect solution either, as Sanie Lund noted: “it seems every time I want to write the childr[en] all want to stay up and make all the noise they can.”98
After struggling to faithfully write her husband, Matilda Hintze finally informed him that he “need not to look for letters from me more than once a month unless some is sick or something wrong for I never feel like writing.”99
Setbacks and Victories
Forced to take on new tasks that were traditionally reserved for males, missionary wives regularly had to “learn on the job.” In some cases, as their confidence in their ability to take on new tasks grew, they took on projects beyond just taking over what their husband had been doing.
Dorothy Pectol proudly noted while her husband was a missionary that she “harnessed [her] first horse.”100 Although she had previously had little experience with the financial matters, she proved to be so adept at dealing with the family finances that her husband concluded, “I see you have an eye for business and henceforth I will trust to you for these things.”101
After a horse became “tender footed,” Annie Hansen concluded that she needed to take it to the blacksmith to have it “shod.” Such new experiences prompted her to write her husband Willard, “Since you have been gon I have been jack of all traids but master of none.”102
Because missionary wives faced new situations, naturally there were mistakes. Sanie Lund thought she had planted clover next to the house but discovered it was actually alfalfa. “That was a joke on us,” she wrote.103 Although there were missteps, there were also great victories.
While Canute Peterson served a mission in the early 1850s, his wife, Sarah Nelson Peterson, had to raise the family’s wheat crop. Receiving no offers of help, she had to plow and plant her fields herself, only to be told after the fact that she had planted her seeds too late and too deep to raise a successful crop.
Soon all the wheat in the community was growing well except for Sarah’s, leaving her to anxiously wonder how her family would survive if there was no crop that year. During this time, however, a great tragedy struck the settlement. As had been the case with the first settlers in the Salt Lake Valley a few years earlier, “Mormon crickets” descended upon the fields. In spite of the settlers’ best efforts to fend off the invaders, most of the wheat crop was destroyed.
After the pests had moved on, Sarah’s wheat began to grow. Because her field of wheat was the only one that had not been devastated by insects, her crop took on added importance.
During one irrigation turn, the water suddenly quit flowing onto her fields. She told her five-year-old son Peter to “run up to the top of the field and see why the water has quit coming.” Soon afterward the water started flowing again. Her joy was soon tempered, however, when Peter did not return. With her baby in her arms, she frantically ran to find her son. To her relief—and concern—she found him sitting in the irrigation ditch where the dam had been, with water up to his chin.
When Peter had reached the dam, he discovered that it had broken. Unable to repair it and knowing how badly the wheat was needed, he plopped himself down in the ditch and used his body to create a dam to redirect the water to their fields. Lovingly, Sarah, who was known for her sense of humor, pulled him out of the ditch, held him close, and said to him with tears running down her cheeks, “Oh, Peter, what a good little dam boy you are.” Her attempt at humor was lost upon the five-year-old, who assumed his mother swore at him. “I was only trying to help,” he declared. To this she responded: “Oh, I know, you sweet little helper, but the water was getting so deep, you might have drowned yourself, and then what would I have done? You’re the only little man I’ve got to help me with Papa gone away on his mission. Promise me you’ll never wedge yourself in the ditch like that again.”
Sarah’s fields produced sixty bushels of wheat. Her and Peter’s efforts helped feed the settlement that winter. In spite of the fact that she gave away a portion of her wheat to others in the community, there was enough for her family. She even placed some of the wheat in a jar to serve as a reminder of what she had accomplished. That wheat became known in the family as “Salvation Wheat.”104
During Clorina Schumtz’s first year overseeing the family farm near St. George, her family harvested 338 bushels of wheat and 400 bushels of oats. She proudly informed her husband that she had harvested more grain that year than “any man in Dixie.”105
The mission call also meant that those left behind often had to deal with less-than-ideal physical circumstances. When Brigham Young left with other members of the Twelve for a mission to England in the fall of 1839, he had not yet been able to provide a house for his family following their expulsion from Missouri. Instead, Mary Ann Young and the family’s children were living in a couple of rooms in a deserted army post on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River. Shortly after Brigham left, however, Mary Ann was crowded out of the military barracks, and she and her children were forced to spend the winter in a stable.
Rather than enduring a second winter under such conditions, she took matters into her own hands and built a crude log cabin at Nauvoo. Although Vilate Kimball concluded that Mary Ann’s “house could hardly be called a shelter,” it provided protection from the elements and became the Young family’s first Nauvoo home.106
During the early days of Lehi, Utah, Ann Karren made two significant improvements to her log cabin while her husband, Thomas, served a mission to Hawaii. One night, Ann was awakened by rain leaking through the family’s dirt roof onto the bed where she and two of her young children were sleeping. With her dirt floor turning to mud, Ann took her children to the cabin of a fellow missionary wife, Sarah Peterson, to spend the night. In spite of Sarah’s hospitality, Ann spent a sleepless night “doing some determined thinking.” While she had patiently endured many challenges, that night she resolved that it was time her family had better housing. When Thomas returned from his mission, his family was “securely housed with a protective roof and an enviable floor—the first board floor in Lehi.”107
Sanie Lund oversaw the construction of a barn while Anthon Lund labored in Denmark. After watching her boys endure less-than-ideal conditions taking care of the animals the previous winter, she informed her husband: “I hardly dare tell you I am having a little barn put up[.] the Shed was not fit to Stack hay on. and we Suferd so with the cold last winter I thought it would be the best alround to have a little barn it is not a very costly one put up of logs. . . . I am doing it for the best. and hope you will think so.”108 Upon completion of the barn she wrote, “It seems so good to know that the animals are comfortable and it is so much easier for the boys to do chores.”109 After a winter using the barn she boldly told Anthon that it had “helped to save the hay” and that they “would have saved money if [they] had built one years ago.” She concluded, “I expect you to make fun of our barn for it is an ugly thing but in time you can better it.”110
When Ben Ravsten left for a mission in 1905, his wife, Clara, who was pregnant, now had a “large farm” near Clarkston, Utah, to take care of. Their daughter Sylvia later recounted what her mother told her. At the start of the mission, Ben and Clara “were in debt for land they had purchased and wondered how they would fulfill this calling.” Although Clara “had to work hard” during Ben’s twenty-six-month absence, she later told her children that “it was well worth the sacrifice.” She not only paid the debt and provided Ben needed financial support but also put “$800.00 in the bank.”111
Kindness of Others
In addition to their own labors, missionary wives also benefited from the kindness and assistance of family, neighbors, and ward members. During the infancy of the Church’s missionary program, Joseph Smith declared “that the Lord held the Church bound to provide for the families of the absent Elders.”112 During the subsequent years, Church leaders tried different plans in an attempt to ensure that missionary families were taken care of. In 1860, they started a fund to help support “the families of the Missionaries who have gone on Missions.”113 Later, they encouraged each community to establish a garden for “the benefit of missionaries’ families.”114
In addition to these efforts, President John Taylor asked the “sisters of the Relief Society” not to let their husbands rest until missionary families were taken care of and to “not spare the Bishop if they are not provided for.”115 While missionary wives reported receiving assistance from their local wards while their husbands were away, they also reported that the help varied and that it never met all their needs.116
When ward members gave Olive Bean six bushels of apples and six bushels of potatoes, she noted, “I felt delicate about taking them, but it was done in kindness and I could not refuse without giving offense.”117 Sanie Lund reported that her bishop not only gave her “children a nice bunch of grapes” but, having noticed a large mud hole outside her front gate, also sent someone to fix it.118 Catherine Stevens recalled that local ward members were “good to cut stove wood for us” but that she also personally had “to wield the axe to get more for keeping warm.”119
Dorothy Pectol received one hundred pounds of flour as a Christmas present from ward members, and then when town residents went to harvest ice, several individuals gathered ice for her. “I believe I have the most ice of any in the cellar,” she reported. “I am indeed lucky.”120 Earlier in the year ward members assisted her in planting her garden and doing outside chores and helped her with her laundry. They also brought her a load of wood that “was just in time.”121
Matilda Hintze’s local Relief Society, knowing that she didn’t get out much because of her young children, held a “picnic meeting” at her house. In addition to providing her a social experience, the event raised seventy-eight dollars, which was given to her.122
Sarah Shumway, who lived in the same house with her sister-wife Agnes, recalled a time when
there was nothing in the house to eat and Brother Casper Loosle came as our ward teacher. He talked to us and asked how we were getting along and if we needed anything. We told him we were getting along all right. He told us the bishop had instructed the teachers, when they were visiting the homes of missionaries’ families, that they were to lift the lid of the flour bin. So he lifted the lid of the flour box and his quick eyes looked at us and he said, “Well, I think you need something.” He put on his hat and went home; soon he was back with flour and a nice piece of mutton. It didn’t take long before we had something to eat. From then on Brother Loosle’s name was held in remembrance in our home.
Another ward member, Emily Bassett, upon learning that Sarah and Agnes did not have a cow, brought them butter. “We thanked her and asked the Lord to bless her and make it up to her,” Sarah recalled.123
Some missionary wives also reported miraculous happenings during their mission experience. After William Spendlove left the small southern Utah town of Tropic in October 1899 for his mission, his wife, Alice Isom Spendlove, moved back in with her widowed mother in her hometown of Virgin. During this time, she helped support herself and her four children by sewing.
Shortly before William returned in 1901, Alice moved back to Tropic. Soon, however, her supply of flour was used up. On the day she gave her children, ranging in age from two to eleven, the last of the bread, she told them that they needed to pray very sincerely that God would help them obtain more. After the children had gone to bed, Alice stayed up to finish sewing a dress, hoping she would be able to sell it the next day to obtain money to buy flour.
It was well after midnight when there came a knock on her door. She opened it to find fellow Tropic Ward member George Henry Mecham standing there. He explained to Alice that he was on his way home from the gristmill in Panguitch and noticing that her lamp was lit, decided to stop in spite of the late hour “and pay you that sack of flour I owe you.” When Alice protested that George didn’t owe her anything, he replied: “Oh, yes, I do. . . . I owe every missionary’s wife a sack of flour.” Because of George’s generosity, Alice and her children enjoyed bread every day until William returned.124
In December 1905, twenty-year-old Clara Ravsten, who lived on a farm some distance from her nearest neighbor, was in the middle of a long night of labor when she put a lighted lamp in her window and prayed that someone would see it and recognize it as a signal for help. Marie Anderson saw the light and, knowing that Clara was due to give birth to her second child and that the town’s doctor was away, rushed to the house in time to aid with the delivery.125
Rachel Simmons Willes recounted her own miracle:
My husband was called on a mission to England for two years , leaving me with five husky children and myself to feed, clothe and keep warm on $50.00 a month. I was thankful for this much and trusted in my Heavenly Father. I knew He would take care of us. . . .
My family were fond of potatoes and this vegetable was one of the main items of our diet in those days. I had been in the habit of laying in sixteen bushels in the fall which would just about last until spring. Well, on $50.00 a month I could not spare the money to purchase sixteen bushels, so I obtained three bushels, thinking they would last a month or so. But truth to tell, I went each day to the cellar where they were kept and all through the winter found enough potatoes for our dinner. The three bushels had gone just as far as the sixteen had done before. Now I know the Lord blessed me in this way just as He did the woman with the bag of meal spoken of in the Bible, and I thank Him for it.126
The Cost of Discipleship
The mission experience, including its victories small and great, frequently came with a price for missionary wives. Regarding the toll that her mission was taking on her, Annie Hansen informed her husband: “My sholder is not much beter and I dont think it will be beter till you come home because I have got to work so hard and cut a good deal of wood and I expect I will not have to cut wood if you war home.”127
John Schmutz did not have to be told the effect the mission was having upon his wife Clorinda—he could see it in a photograph she sent him. After receiving the photograph, he sympathetically wrote that she looked “reather poor” and concluded that she had had “quite a harde time of it.” The reality of the situation prompted him to urge his daughters “to see that your mother hase a little easear time than she hase hade in the past, thinck, that she can not last for ever, and that she is the onley mother you will ever have.”128
Nearly two years into a mission experience, Sanie Lund noted that her father had observed that it was wearing her “out to fast to have evey thing to look after and care about.” Regarding his observation, Sanie informed her husband, Anthon: “I feel the same. My healt[h] is not good. . . . [I] look five years older than when you left, and I feel twenty year older.”129 On another occasion, Sanie informed Anthon that when Peter Ovesen had returned from his mission, he found “every thing looking better than he expected” except for his wife Louisa, who “had growen so poor and old that it made him feel bad every time he looked at her. he said how he wish she had let things go and taken care of her self.” Sanie concluded that this was also “what my old man will say.”130
In addition to helping meet the daily needs of missionary wives, local Church leaders tried to include these women in ward activities such as concerts and picnics.131 However, it was often difficult for missionary wives to socially gather with married couples, since these events often served only to reinforce their situation. Regarding a lecture on “happiness in married life” held while she was a missionary wife, Sanie Lund noted, “I did not think I needed to go as I am not married just now.”132
Recognizing that missionary wives still needed socializing and diversions from daily routines, wards and concerned individuals sponsored events specifically for them. Regarding one such social, one newspaper reported, perhaps naively, that during the event the seven wives in attendance “were made to feel happy that their husbands were thousands of miles away.”133
Missionary wives, however, did find great comfort and strength in meeting with other missionary wives where they could compare experiences and commiserate together.134 To help meet this need, missionary wives in Lehi, Utah, organized a Missionary Wives Society. At the inaugural meeting, held October 22, 1897, eleven were in attendance, and the meeting lasted more than seven hours.135 Thus began a monthly tradition that lasted for years.136 These monthly meetings consisted of “music and conversation[,] experiences, & testimonies which all tended to make each feel more blessed and thankful to God for his kindness to us and the absent ones.”137
End of the Mission
Eventually, the missionary experience came to an end. A long-anticipated moment in the lives of missionary wives was the return of their husbands. Dorothy Pectol wrote in her journal on January 1, 1909: “I enjoyed myself to day better than a Xmas day—Shall I say why. Just because I knew or felt I was in the year that would bring my darling Home to me.”138 When a fellow missionary wife received word that her husband had been released, Olive Bean informed Will, “I know just how glad she feels for I know what my own feelings are when I think of your return.”139 Upon learning of John Schmutz’s impending release, Clorinda wrote him that she was “overjoyed at the glad news of your coming home,” then added, “I am to much undone to think of any thing.”140
Part of the joy of the reunion stemmed from the prevailing fear that there might not be a reunion. After her husband left on his mission in late October 1907, Dorothy Pectol wrote on the inside cover of the journal: “Dedicated To My Husband. May his eyes rest on the contents.”141 Clorinda Schmutz noted, “Every night she [Lucille] says her prayers and she always . . . wants me to say, bless my papa while he is on a mission so he can come home.”142 Because of real concerns that husbands might not return home alive, when Mary Bennion received word that her husband was ill and temporarily unable to function as a missionary, she could not “help but think he [William] is much worse than they have written. I must look upon the bright side and not worry; but instead must exeersise faith in his recovery.”143 Nearly two anxious months passed before she received word that his health had returned.144 Sanie Lund declared, “I do hope Anthon you will come home alright as that seems [it] will be one of the happiest days of my life.”145
Not all endings to the mission experience, however, were happy ones. In many cases the anticipated reunion never happened.146 Between the first and second scheduled meetings of the Lehi Missionary Wives Society, the members of the society gathered together because one of their own had experienced every missionary wife’s nightmare. Twenty-five-year-old Lewis Bushman had died while laboring in the Southern States Mission, leaving behind twenty-one-year-old Martha Spencer Bushman and nine-month-old daughter Ruth. Society members gathered at the railroad depot to meet his remains and accompany them to the cemetery for the funeral services.147
It was not just missionaries who didn’t survive the experience. In February 1896, Heber Naegle was released from his mission to Germany to return to his Toquerville, Utah, home because his thirty-year-old wife, Mary Bryner Naegle, had died from complications of childbirth, leaving behind five small children.148
Although James Peter Olson reunited with his wife, Anna Mary Nelson Olson, it was not a joyous reunion. Upon reaching his Ephraim, Utah, home, he found her confined to bed. She died shortly after, never having regained her strength. It was widely believed that she had “over worked her self” during his absence.149 Sanie Lund poignantly observed that James “little thought that his happiest day and darkest [day]” would be “so close together.”150
George and Catherine Stevens, whose emotional farewell was recounted earlier, also did not enjoy an earthly reunion. Catherine recalled that before George left on his mission, he had “worked on a double time basis to get everything accomplished that needed taking care of.” Catherine concluded, “This over-exertion in hard work and strenuous preparation, along with the emotional strain he felt, wore him down in strength and health.” 151 He died seven months into his mission.
William and Mary Bennion, however, did enjoy a happy reunion. Mary learned only hours before William reached home that he had been released after twenty-eight months of service. “I was so surprised that I could not believe [it],” she noted. “The children were so delighted to again meet their father, but baby did not want any thing to do with him.”152
Missionary Wife Era in Perspective
Shortly following William’s return, Mary Bennion spoke for many missionary wives when she penned: “[I] feel to thank my Heavenly Father, that I have been able to endure the sacrifice, know it has been a hard trial, but as all is over, we have no regrets, in so much that he has returned home a better and nobler man than when he left.”153 Later she wrote, “A person can talk about ordeals of this charcter not being a trial, but when such remarks are made, I only feel to pity, and say to myself, you know nothing concerning the matter. . . . While writing my heart is aching & the tears bedim my eyes, many silver drops have droped upon this page, not withstanding that My very being is stirred with emotion, I cannot help but exclaim, Father thy will be done.”154
Although missionaries, their wives, and their children largely accepted the fact that sacrifice was needed to build the kingdom of God on earth and to help make them worthy of a place in a kingdom to come, it is not surprising that they would question both before and during the mission what was being asked of them. In 1902, a woman who had “boys that do not understand” wrote President Joseph F. Smith describing a young missionary wife with “four small children” to raise and a husband who needed money; she asked, “How is she to do it?” This question had been asked countless times before and after that time, but she likely was one of the few who dared ask it of the President of the Church. While his response is not extant, on her letter he penned: “It is only when people have faith to do such things that it is possible.”155 What he left unsaid, but what many in the missionary wife era had learned firsthand, was that the faith he referenced required the heart, might, mind, and strength of those who were asked to exercise it. Not only did this faith need to be united with works, but it also included elements of sacrifice, patience to endure trials, and measures of hope and charity. This type of faith continues to be evident among Latter-day Saints today, a tradition passed down by generations of those who learned it firsthand—the husbands and fathers who left their families to serve missions and the wives and children they left behind.