A Missionary Pioneer

by Katie Stanley

Sister Lydia Dunford Alder
Sister Lydia Dunford Alder

Lydia Dunford Alder (1846–1923) was a prominent but now nearly forgotten early-Latter-day saint writer, women’s rights activist, and missionary. Born in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, she became a respected member of the late-nineteenth– and early-twentieth-century Salt Lake City community, especially the community of women. She was the friend and colleague of such notable women as Eliza R. Snow (second general president of the Relief Society and Utah’s poetess); Emmeline B. Wells (the editor of the Woman’s Exponent, a leading LDS-woman’s periodical that ran from 1872 until 1914); Zina D. Young (third general president of the Relief Society); Hannah T. King (a distinguished Utah poet); and Ellis Reynolds Shipp (the first female doctor in Utah). As a prolific writer, Alder wrote over seventy poems and various prose pieces for the Woman’s Exponent and other periodicals, and she published a popular book on the Middle East entitled The Holy Land. For over thirty years, Alder fought for suffrage and women’s rights, attending and speaking at International Councils of Women and serving as vice president and president of the Territorial Suffrage Association of the Women of Utah. Deeply involved in the Church, she became one of the first female missionaries ever officially called to serve and the first widowed sister missionary.

Early Life and Immigrations

Lydia Dunford Alder was the firstborn of ten children to George Dunford and Sarah Jones. She was born on July 2, 1846, in Trowbridge. Lydia’s father was introduced to the Gospel the same year Lydia was born. George writes in his journal, “I was convinced of the Truth of the gospel at the first time I heard the Elders preech [sic]. . . . my whole nature and life seemed to be changed.” After George’s baptism in 1847, mobs often tried to prevent George and other members from meeting together, and one time, a mob tried to knock down the Dunfords’ front door. This persecution, combined with George’s belief that “in the Latter-days . . . [the Lord] would gather all things in Christ Jesus” led George to gather with the “saints” in Salt Lake City.

Despite George’s conviction that he and his family needed to emigrate to the Salt Lake Valley, it took over fifteen years for Lydia to permanently settle in Utah. The Dunfords attempted to settle in Utah twice, once in 1850 and once in 1853. However, due to chronic illness, they did not complete their journey to Salt Lake City in 1850 and due to interpersonal conflict, they only stayed in Salt Lake City for a year in 1853. Instead, after the failed immigration in 1853, George moved his family briefly to California and then to St. Louis, Missouri, where they lived from the end of 1856 until 1867. While living in St. Louis, Lydia met her future husband, George Alfred Alder—a convert originally from Cheltenham, England. In 1867, the entire Dunford family—including Lydia; her husband, George Alfred Alder; and her two children—finally again migrated from St. Louis to Salt Lake City. Lydia would call Salt Lake City home for the rest of her life.

Called to Serve

Lydia once wrote of her religion: “I love the Gospel, and I love all those who love the Gospel.” The Church provided Lydia with a strong community of other believers and comforting beliefs like that of eternal families. She also loved her religion because it brought her peace during her difficulties. She saw Jesus Christ as giver of that peace. She wrote, “I have been promised that I should meet my Saviour in our glorious Temple that he would take me by the hand and tell me why I have had to walk the thorny pathway why I had such great sorrows, and shed so many bitter tears.” Beyond simply loving her religion, she also felt a duty to serve it: “My desire is to do all the good I can, and help to build up God’s Church and Kingdom on the earth.”

In 1896, Lydia wrote that she had not yet performed the “great work” that had been prophesied that she would complete in the Church. This great work was realized three years later when she was officially called to serve as a missionary. Lydia’s two-year mission to England was by far her largest and most unique contribution to her faith. She began her mission just a little over a year after her husband died, serving from June 7, 1899, until June 18, 1901. She was 52 years old.

Lydia was one of the first sister missionaries to be asked to serve without her husband also being asked, the first unmarried sister missionary older than thirty, and the first widowed sister missionary. As a sister missionary Lydia was part of a missionary experiment for the Church. At that time, it was unusual for women to serve missions, but it was even more unusual for women to serve missions without their husbands. Although women had occasionally done missionary work with their spouses since 1840, they were rarely called by church authorities to serve and never “certified” as proselyting missionaries. Furthermore, the handful of women who had served missions without their husbands only did so because their spouses had left their mission early and the women had chosen to remain. Only in 1898, one year before Lydia began serving her mission, were the first single sister missionaries called by church authorities and certified as proselyting missionaries. Lydia was called to serve in the British Mission in May of 1899 and left Salt Lake City on June 7, 1899.

The novelty and importance of Lydia’s position as an unmarried sister missionary was not lost on her friends and church leaders, and they encouraged her to work hard so that she might foster future sister missionary efforts. Future apostle, George Q. Morris, a fellow missionary in the British mission, wrote to Lydia shortly after she returned home. He said that Lydia “did an excellent work withal, a better work than many a younger and stronger missionary.” He also encouraged sister missionary work overall: “Since coming in touch with the work of the sister missionaries, I have always been an advocate for them. In most ways they stand equal to the brethren; in many ways they are able to do more than the brethren ordinarily are able to do.”

Lydia’s friend and the editor-in-chief of the Woman’s Exponent, Emmeline B. Wells, wrote to Lydia during her mission, emphasizing that Lydia was a forerunner for future female missionaries and that she needed to be a success: “lady missionaries are an experiment now and I want you to adapt yourself to conditions; do not get discouraged and come home.” Emmeline did not need to worry; though Lydia was often sick, endured persecution and ridicule, and was even kicked out of lodgings for being a member, her “zeal in the work,” as George Q. Morris wrote, made her “conditions endurable.” At the end of her mission, Lydia remarked that she believed that “many people were converted as a result of their efforts.”

Lydia served mostly in England, but she also did missionary work in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and France. In England, she served in a variety of places; in order, the locations were London, Sittingbourne, London, Stratford, Watford, and London. Although she occasionally worked alone, she often worked with a companion. A Sister Farnsworth was her main companion, but her daughter May also served as an unofficial companion. During the mission, Lydia did “some street preaching . . . , besides much fireside work and considerable tracting.” Lydia focused less on conversion of people, and she mainly sought to serve others and proclaim the truth of the Church, regardless of whether or not the people converted.

At first Lydia felt unsure about her ability as a missionary. In addition to facing regular persecution, Lydia also battled illness during her first year, and she was even encouraged to return home by a member visiting from Utah. However, Lydia replied to this member that she would continue to serve “because I am sent on a mission and I am going to try my best to fulfill it.”

By the end of the winter of 1899, Lydia had found her feet. She writes, “I loved the work, and health slowly returned, despite some untoward conditions I had to meet in the world. The Elders taught me how to tract; took me with them to the street meetings, where I felt I could not speak, and encouraged me, until, like a little child, I could walk alone.” She grew in her confidence until she became the go-to sister missionary for difficult preaching assignments. Lydia’s mission president, Platte D. Lyman, specifically sent her to Watford, to help other missionaries who had been persecuted by mobs and an apostate. When she was asked to go to Watford, President Lyman asked Lydia if she was scared to serve there. She replied, “Not if you send me.”

Her confidence came from the love that she felt for the British members and investigators. She stated, “there are . . . Saints whom we have learned to love, to whom one’s heart goes out in sympathy for their ostracized condition.” She spoke about that same love for the non-members whom she hoped to convert. She was excited about even the smallest amount of expressed interest in the faith, and she attempted to conduct her preaching prayerfully and lovingly, with the focus on service rather than conversion. For example, she said that she was overjoyed when a woman asked Lydia to her home to meet her husband, even though the family was not converted. Additionally, Lydia wrote in a Woman’s Exponent article about a particular incident when she helped two non-members feel peace after their brother committed suicide. She recounts that she uttered “a silent prayer for wisdom and knowledge” about what to tell these brothers and told them that “the Gospel is tidings of joy . . . and of the love of God that encompasseth all things, and that He consigns not to endless torment. . . .” The belief that suicide is not automatic damnation would have been a highly unusual idea in the early 1900s. Although these brothers did not convert, Lydia wrote of this encounter as a success because she helped the brothers find comfort through Jesus Christ.

Another success story that did not end in conversion occurred in Stratford. While in Stratford and Watford, Lydia met several Christian ministers that rejected the Gospel message. In one such instance, Lydia met a minister who at first berated the Church, but stopped after Lydia attested that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, “straightway [declaring] that the calling of Joseph Smith was divine.” Her testimony seemed to work. Lydia writes, “I won. The spirit that always accompanies the declaration of the truthfulness of the mission of Joseph Smith filled the room and he quieted down.” After her testimony, Lydia left tracts for the minister and his wife to read. The next day, Lydia accidentally met the minister again, who asked for more tracts. Lydia writes, “His aged face was working convulsively, and his hand trembled as he stretched it out to me and said, ‘Have you some more tracts?’ The Spirit had borne witness to him of the truth.” He did not get baptized, but to Lydia, the mere acknowledgment of the Church’s truth was enough to make her encounter with this minister successful.

One way that Lydia could show love and concern for non-members and show the truthfulness of the Gospel was through healing sick women. Up through the early 1900s, women often healed family members or other women through prayer or through the laying on of hands. Lydia wrote that she had successfully healed at least three women. She healed a young non-member girl with tuberculosis through prayer and an administration of a healing blessing. The following day, the girl was well. The girl and her family did not convert, but Lydia’s healing caused the mother to believe the Church was true. Later, with the supervising male missionary’s permission, Lydia also healed two women with odd growths: a young woman with a large growth on the base of her toe the size of a walnut and a young woman with “a white swelling on her knee, about the size of an English loaf.” Both growths were gone by the next day.

Lydia also found humor in some of her missionary work, gently poking fun at some of the people to whom she preached. With a touch of humor, Lydia recounted an experience with a minister in Watford who wanted to pray for her:

[The minister said,] “You are a good woman, and sincere, but you are deluded; do you mind having a word of prayer with me?’ [I replied] “Not in the least!” So we knelt down and he prayed long and fervently that the Lord would lead me to his truth, and make his will plain to me from the error of my ways to serve him, etc. All this I could conscientiously subscribe to, so I solemnly joined in his “Amen.”

Lydia also wrote about another minister in Watford: “[He] took the tract from my hand, then seeing ‘Mormon’ upon it, slammed the door, saying, ‘Go home and take care of your wives!’ Opening the door slightly, he looked at me and discovered I was a woman.”

Lydia’s enthusiasm, faith, persistence, and humor lasted through the end of her mission in June of 1901. She even stayed on her mission for a couple of weeks longer than planned because even though she longed to return home, she had promised London missionaries that she would rejoin them after she went to a religious conference in Ireland. Knowing that she wished to serve in London again, President Lyman allowed Lydia to stay as long as she wanted, and had her mission release letter read, “to return home as you please after the sixth of June.”

During her mission, Lydia seemed confident about her missionary efforts. She later wrote that she had successfully “borne [her] testimony to the truthfulness of the Gospel in homes, halls and in the street in the lands and conferences we had visited.” However, at the end of her mission, Lydia worried about whether she had done enough good on her mission. She wrote, “Had I done all that I could for them; had I been patient, endearing, loving; had I strengthened the tender wheat, while their weak feet were being made fast in the gospel. . . .I could think of nothing I had left undone, but oh, I wished I had done more.” Noting her worry that she had not done enough, President Lyman assured her that she had done good work and that she was now called by God to “go home and labor among your sisters and the Saints,” instead of being called to be a missionary. Upon hearing her new assignment, Lydia no longer felt the need to stay in England much longer.

After returning home to Utah as a successful participant in the sister missionary experiment, Lydia praised sister missionary work as a way that God advanced women, and she encouraged other women to pursue missions. Two months after she returned from England, Lydia wrote the Woman’s Exponent article “Thoughts on Missionary Work.” In the article, she writes that sister missionaries are blessed and led by God to perform vitally important work—”They have had the privilege of speaking on the streets of many lands, or in the market places, have had the imperishable pleasure of seeing the sick healed through their humble administrations, and the Holy Ghost carry conviction to the hearts of those who have been under the sound of their voices; and some enroll themselves on the record of the Church, having entered in at the door, ‘Baptism.’” In this passage, Lydia emphasizes that female missionaries are equal to male missionaries. They preach, heal, convert, and even help others get baptized, just as male missionaries do.

Lydia’s mission confirmed to her that women could do anything as well as men could. In “Thoughts on Missionary Work,” Lydia saw women’s place as a “bread winner,” “leading out in affairs of both national and international interest.” Lydia was ecstatic that women were becoming professionals: “behold her stepping on the platform, or into the pulpit; the professor’s chair, or the doctor’s or lawyer’s office.” She was particularly enthusiastic about how the attitude toward women in education and the workforce had changed over the nineteenth century, stating that women went from “being either the plaything or the slave of man, not thought worthy of the higher education, if of any at all, see her side by side with him, in the schools or the colleges, oftimes carrying off the laurels or standing at the head of the class.”

Lydia credits this advancement of women in jobs, education, and status to the Restoration and the organization of the Relief Society. She says, “Why did more light come into the world in the Nineteenth century than all the other’s combined? Because the heavens were opened and God spoke again to man.” To Lydia, God designed women to “come from their former seclusion and shine as stars of a larger and greater magnitude” and believed God would give worthy women anything “pertaining to His kingdom,” including mission calls, jobs, skills, and intelligence. Thus, to Lydia, women’s equality became a God-given right.

Lydia’s contributions to female missionary work are often overlooked, but she paved the way for the vital work sister missionaries do today. She also saw missionary work as a way to advance women’s rights. Let us work together to continue her legacy by advocating for women and women’s causes through the Gospel of Jesus Christ.