By the late 19th century, with the Church firmly established in the secluded valleys of Utah, rumors about conditions among the Latter-day Saints were rampant in other parts of the world. Especially common were reports of oppressed women in Utah. These tales spread among populations who occasionally saw Latter-day Saint men preaching as missionaries but who could only imagine what Mormon women were like.
On a Saturday night in 1898 in Oldham, England, all that began to change. During a street meeting, a member of Inez Knight's mission presidency announced that “real live Mormon women” would be speaking in church meetings the next day.
Inez Knight and her friend Jennie Brimhall had just arrived in England as the first young, single female missionaries called by the LDS Church anywhere in the world. In part, their presence in England was meant to do exactly what was announced that night in Oldham: Introduce to the world a “real live Mormon" woman.
“The announcement that we were L.D.S. or Mormons & that a sister would speak drew a crowd & I talked about 15 minutes to an eager crowd. Crowd anxious for tracts.”
To do so was vitally important for the Church at that time. Just eight years had passed since the 1890 Manifesto that marked the beginning of the end of the practice of plural marriage in the LDS Church,a practice that had led to popular portrayals of downtrodden, enslaved Mormon women. In April 1898, President George Q. Cannon related the experience of an LDS couple visiting the Eastern United States who reported “frequent expressions among those who had not joined the Church to this effect: 'Well, we have seen the Mormon Elders, but we have not seen the Mormon women; we would like to see some Mormon women, and see what kind of people they are.'”
The Church hoped that sending some exemplary LDS women into the mission field would help counter the myths, and Inez must have known that her presence on that street corner was significant—prompting “a sickly feeling” when publicly reminded of all she would represent when she opened her mouth as a missionary for the Church.
Inez spoke the next evening, she wrote, “mid fears & tremblings but did surprise myself.”Two days later, Inez recorded that she spoke in a far less public forum, a cottage meeting, and mentioned no anxiety. But later that week she was again called upon to speak in a street meeting, and the jitters returned. Inez reported that the “crowd listened attentively but I did not detain them long.”
Through the first few months of her mission, Inez often experienced intense anxiety in her duties and confided her distress in her journal: “Attended and spoke in street meeting. Regular cottage meeting we took part in. Still it seemed to me I was worse frightened every time I was called upon to talk. Oh those fearful trembling feelings I shall never forget, if I ever am free from them.”
In a letter to the Young Woman's Journal printed in April 1899, Inez underscored the focus and faith that helped her rise above her trepidation as an ambassador for latter-day saint women: “One thing remains the same with me,” she wrote, “that is the fear and trembling which accompanies our work. The Lord is abundantly blessing us in our labors, and although we do not always have clear sailing ... yet we rejoice in the work.”
Inez demonstrated repeatedly that she was willing to act in spite of her fears, keeping her focus on the important good she was sent to accomplish. At a street meeting in the fall of 1898, she noted how the words of her male counterparts were largely ignored by the crowd. “So we sang again,” she wrote in her journal that night, and “the announcement that we were L.D.S. or Mormons & that a sister would speak drew a crowd & I talked about 15 minutes to an eager crowd. Crowd anxious for tracts.”
In time, Inez seemed to overcome her trepidation. Over the course of her mission, her journal entries continued to record her speaking assignments, but her nerves were not mentioned so often. In addition to experience, Inez also attributed her growing confidence to the faith of her fellow missionaries: “I spoke in the evening to large crowd, but was blessed with prayers of other missionaries,”she wrote. And her increased confidence came through to her audience.
In September 1898, Inez wrote about a street meeting in Bedminster, near Bristol. With a “good crowd” already gathered, she was called upon to speak. “With the help of the Lord,” Inez wrote, “I spoke 20 min. At the close one stranger said ‘God bless your good mission.’”