Though today’s LDS missionaries are mostly young, unmarried men and women, for more than a century the Church called married men on missions, requiring them to leave their wives to shoulder the burden not only of caring for but providing for the children at home.
The unsung sacrifice of these “missionary wives” was the focus of a lecture July 8 by Chad Orton, archivist at the Church History Library. His was the first in a five-lecture series on women’s history in the Church, sponsored by and presented at the library through November (please see accompanying box for a schedule of the four remaining lectures in the series).
“While the mission call was issued specifically to the husband, the wife received, in effect, a mission call of her own,” Brother Orton said. “While missionaries would suffer hardships and privations, the women who remained home frequently faced a mission more trying than those experienced by their husbands. The wife’s mission was to keep the family going while the husband, the family’s breadwinner, spread the faith.”
To accomplish her mission, the wife usually had to add her husband’s responsibility to her already heavy duties, Brother Orton said, and with greatly diminished resources.
“Given the wife’s responsibility, it is not surprising that one returned missionary would publicly declare that ‘he would rather be a missionary than a missionary’s wife, since they have the hardest mission to fill,'” he said.
Brother Orton shared selections from journals, correspondence and reminiscences of missionaries, their wives and children. The documents are primarily housed at the Church History Library. These, he said, give insights into the experiences of wives and children left behind.
He said the records, while reflecting varying circumstances and details, also reveal common threads, “the most dominant being sacrifice, endurance of trials, and victories, both small and great.”
For example, he said Sarah Ann (Sanie) Lund, wife of future First Presidency member Anthon H. Lund (counselor to Joseph F. Smith, then Heber J. Grant), used only the bottom floor of their house in Ephraim, Utah, during her husband’s term of missionary service, because the family did not have enough money to heat the entire dwelling. “In spite of her best efforts, their wood and coal ran out before the winter weather,” Brother Orton said.
The absence of the husband and father was keenly felt at Christmas and other holidays, and on Sundays, when husband and wife otherwise would have several hours together, he said.
He quoted this from a letter Sanie Lund wrote to her husband the day after one Christmas when he was away: “You hoped we would have a merry Christmas, but it was the hardest day I have seen for a long time. The boys miss Santa. The children were so sick that I did not think much about it, but I thought it would be too bad not to put something in the stockings. I bought a few little things, and towards daylight, when the baby seemed a little easier, I went and filled them. Tony [12 years old at the time] said it was the worst Christmas he had ever seen.”
Brother Orton related an incident that happened shortly after Henry Tanner returned from presiding over the California Mission and a two-year absence from his family. His wife, Laura, was awakened one night by his crying in his sleep. He had dreamed that he was called again to leave Laura and their children.
“I just can’t go and leave you,” he said.
“Oh yes you can,” she responded. “You have left us before, and you can do it again.” Recalling the incident later, 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.”
Loneliness, in fact, was a common theme in the writings of missionary wives, Brother Orton noted.
Clorinda Schmutz, after her husband, John, left for Switzerland in 1900, wrote: “I don’t sleep much the latter part of the night. Then my thoughts wander off trying to make out where you are and wishing I could see what you are doing. You are always seeing something new and something of interest that will pass the time away for you, and you look back and always know where we are, but we can’t know where you are.”
Despite the loneliness and hardship, stories of victory emerged from the wives’ experiences, Brother Orton said. The wives were able to take over business affairs and, in some cases, the husbands noted the wives had probably ended up doing a better job than they themselves would have.
Sanie Lund, for example, hesitantly wrote to her husband in Denmark that she was having a small barn constructed. As a result, their sons avoided illness from having to tend animals in inclement conditions. Months later, she wrote her husband that the barn had helped to save the hay, adding, “We would have saved money if we had built one years ago.”
When Canute Peterson was serving a mission in the early 1850s, his wife Sarah, Sanie Lund’s mother, was left to raise the wheat the family would need to survive the winter. She was criticized by men in the community for planting the seeds too late and deep, supposedly leaving no hope for a successful crop.
Later, a cricket infestation wiped out the wheat crops in the community — except for Sarah’s, which had not yet come up. “After the pests had moved on, however, the wheat in Sarah’s field began to sprout, and green spears to appear,” Brother Orton related. “The gloom and despair in the community was alleviated somewhat. Sixty bushels were raised, which Sarah divided with others in the town. It became the community’s salvation, for by careful, frugal management, it fed portions of the settlement the following winter. In spite of her having given a major portion of her wheat away, there was enough for her family.
“The following year she placed some in a jar to show her husband upon his return. It became known in the family as ‘salvation wheat.’ The family kept this little bottle as a reminder of God’s goodness and what Sarah was able to do for her community.”