Interview with Breanna Olaveson, author of Sweet is the Work

Sweet is the Work is a book published this year by Breanna Olaveson, and is about sister missionaries serving from 1830-1898. I was so excited when I heard about this book! Usually we hear a lot about early male missionaries of the church, and we don’t know much about the early female missionaries. I am grateful to Olaveson for working hard to bring about this much-needed book. This way, the stories of women can be brought to light.

To learn more about Sweet is the work, follow this link: 10 Things You Should Know About Sweet is the Work.

What follows is an author interview with Breanna Olaveson:

How did you come up with the idea for your book?

I saw a video about Elizabeth Claridge McCune that the Church History Library released. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about the women who paved the way for today’s sister missionaries. I knew there had to be more than just Elizabeth. After some digging, I learned there were a lot of great stories like hers that needed to be told. I was excited about being the one to tell them.

Tell us the story of one of your favorite missionaries in the book.

While they are all inspiring, I always come back to Libbie Noall. I really relate to her. Many of the women in this book were older when they served, but Libbie was only 20 years old and had been married less than a year when she and her husband were called to build up the Church in Hawaii. She still served as Relief Society president over the entire area, learned to speak Hawaiian fluently, visited many women on horseback with kids in tow, taught the women important skills, and even gave birth on the islands. I love her because she just jumped in and did the work even though she was young and inexperienced. I learned about her while I was serving as a young Primary president, and her story really empowered me in my calling. We also both named our second daughter Nora, and I thought that was a neat coincidence.

How did polygamy affect the missionaries?

The most obvious way was that it led to many mission calls. Some of the men who were practicing polygamy left the country on missions to avoid legal prosecution, and sometimes their wives came with them. In my book, the Paxmans were one of these couples. Katie Paxman even called her husband her “companion” in her journal rather than “husband,” just in case.

It also affected the missionaries’ success, and this is where the sister missionaries first became so valuable. In the late 1800s, women in England heard that women living in Utah were abused and dominated by their husbands. This was obviously a great detriment to missionary work. But when a lady from Utah, Elizabeth McCune, came and talked to them about life in Utah, the women listened.

The official end of polygamy also influenced the number of sister missionaries in the Church. It shifted the demographics of Utah so there were more single women who could serve proselyting missions, which led to an influx in sister missionaries.

How did you research the lives of these missionaries? Where did you go to find their stories?

The Church History Library is a treasure trove. I found most stories in the archives there. I got Katie Paxman’s journal directly from one of her descendants, who I got in touch with and who was able to email me digitized copies of her and William’s journals.

I learned while writing this book how important it is for us to tell our own stories. There were more than 200 sister missionaries who served between 1830 and 1898, but so few of them told their own stories. There are only 12 in my book, largely because they are the ones whose stories were recorded in detail. One of the greatest challenges of writing this book was a lack of information in so many cases. Some of the women in my book wrote their own stories; some had their stories written by husbands or priesthood leaders; some were interviewed about their experiences by other women. But many other women never told their stories, and we are all missing out on them.

What does your book teach us about missionaries? What is unique about sister missionaries?

My hope is that it will teach each reader something different. We can learn so many lessons from these first sister missionaries that it’s difficult to summarize. But the most important lessons that I learned are: 1) Good missionaries all look different. Our differences in personality, talent, age, and experience can be our strengths when we are all united in God’s work. And 2) women have a rich heritage of missionary work. We rightly hear a lot about Wilford Woodruff and Dan Jones and their great work as missionaries, but there are also stories about women who served valiantly and changed lives. I hope this book can help bring those stories into conversations about the history of missionary work.

Sister missionaries are unique in that they bring particular strengths to missionary service. As I mentioned above, women in England were understandably more likely to listen to a woman talk about what life was like in Utah than they were to listen to a man. The same is true in many cases today. Sister missionaries can teach some people — especially other women — with a certain understanding that others cannot duplicate.

Tell us anything else you’d like to share.

I was really impressed while writing this book with the women who did such effective missionary work without anyone requiring or expecting it of them. In those early days, they had very little direction from anyone except the Spirit — and they knew how to listen to it. These women were self-motivated and driven to share the gospel in whatever capacity they could. Some sought missionary opportunities, some had them thrust upon them, and some served by teaching in church schools or by talking to people while on genealogy trips. But it’s all God’s work, and this book shows that we women have a history of doing it extraordinarily well.

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2 Responses

  1. Caroline says:

    Thanks for this great interview, Dani! I appreciate work like this that recovers some lost heroines of Mormonism.

    • Dani Addante says:

      Me too! I was under the impression that there weren’t many sister missionaries in the early church, so it’s nice that there’s a book about them now.

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