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“To Appreciate Our Homes … When Once We Are Permitted to Return”: Sister Missionaries in Samoa, 1892

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 15, 2011

This letter written from Samoa in 1892 is interesting for its detail about life in the Samoan Mission at an early date, but I find it even more interesting for another reason.

Annie D. Christensen Stevens (1864-1932), the letter’s writer, and her companion in this incident, Sarah McMurrin Hilton (1870-1947), were the wives of two elders called to the Samoan Mission (Ransom Marion Stevens and Thomas M. Hilton, respectively). This letter discloses some of the hardship of mission life in that time and place, for two young women raised in Utah. From the perspective of 2011, it would be easy for us to be horrified by their attitude toward the people among whom they served – but I don’t think we should be.

Although they were very little older than the majority of today’s sister missionaries, there is very little else in common between their missions and those served today. These women would not have been called on their own merits or desires (no individual sister missionaries were called that early), but were asked to accompany their husbands who were called for all the reasons any missionary is called.

Although they had gone as supports to their husbands, Annie and Sarah shared quarters because their husbands were often gone on extended assignments, sometimes on other islands. There was of course no formal pre-mission language training for these women, any more than there was for their husbands, and they were left on their own to pick up Samoan as best they could, with whatever help was available after they arrived. Nor were there culture classes for missionaries, or anyone, really, to teach them how to cope with the differences between their old and new worlds – and certainly the differences between Utah and Samoa were much greater than the differences between Utah and any of the European or North American missions where most missionaries were called. There was no church structure yet in Samoa to support the women, either  — they were building from the ground up.

Both women were pregnant during their missions, without western medical advice and a world away from their mothers or other familiar assistance. Sarah had brought a tiny infant daughter with her, born in Salt Lake City, who died soon after the Hiltons arrived in Samoa. That daughter was quickly followed by two other children born and died in Samoa. After the Hiltons returned to the U.S., Sarah would bear seven more children; three would die in infancy, like their three oldest siblings, but Sarah would raise four to adulthood.

Annie’s husband caught typhoid fever after three years in Samoa and died. Annie returned home immediately; the evening she arrived in Ogden on her way toward Sanpete County, she delivered a son, who would live for only three weeks. She had borne two children who had died before her mission; she would have no more.

And those are only the differences I can guess at, between their mission experience and that of a young woman serving today. With an awareness of those circumstances, I hope we can be tolerant of their attitudes and squeamishness, and feel sympathy and perhaps even a little awe for their efforts and willingness to serve at all.

Fagalii, Upolu, Samoa

Sept. 11, 1892

As I sit here on this quiet Sabbath day and listen to the splash and roar of the ocean waves, my mind involuntarily reverts to a few brief months ago and in fancy I find myself in one of your cozy parlors, and would like to tell you something about the strange land and curious people I have seen since leaving Our Valley Home.Sister Hilton and I live together in a comfortable little cottage in the village of Fagalii.

This village – this cottage is the mission home and usually President [George F.] Browning and one or two other elders are there, while the rest of the brethren are dispersed over the islands in pairs and live with natives in their rude peculiar huts, sleeping on mats spread on the ground, and eating food which I don’t think you would consider at all tempting could you see it when spread out ready to partake of.

We have only two church members among the natives of Fagalii; both women who have embraced the Gospel recently and seem to be very sincere in their convictions. Besides these there are a number who are very friendly and may join us in the good cause ere long.

We visit our friends often and although we are unable to say much to them, they are ever pleased to see us and show their love by trying to make us as comfortable as is possible. Let me describe one of those visits to you. It occurred a few weeks ago when Sister Fetoai had been ill for a few days and was hardly yet able to sit up. She and another old lady were the only occupants of the house and as they saw Sister H. and I approaching Fetoai sat up on her mat-bed and hurriedly put on her mother hubbard [apron] that she might be ready to receive us. We had learned to walk slowly on nearing a house so as to give the people time to dress, so we found our friend looking tidy enough in her calico wrapper when we entered. A clean mat was spread for us to sit on, which we accepted and though finding it somewhat difficult tried to sit Samoan fashion. We inquired about our sister’s health in a few words which had been taught us before leaving home and which we had been repeating to ourselves on the way, and when she told us she was “malolo,” we did not know whether she was better or worse until we went home and got the interpretation of the word.

Our stock of words being now exhausted we remained silent, while a conversation was carried on between the two women, the import of which we soon guessed, for they began to hunt something for us to eat. We were not hungry but could not tell them so and were afraid to refuse to eat for fear of giving offense so we decided to try to get down a few bites. The first course was a ripe banana each, which we could have eaten with relish but for the peculiar smell of the place; next came a piece of baked bread-fruit and cooked green bananas. All were laid on the mat before us, and while endeavoring to dispose of the first banana, we sat gazing at our table and then at each other and wondering what we had better do about it. While we wondered the old lady took a large leaf from a basket in which we knew some delicacy was hidden, but oh! how we did hope she would not offer us any of it. Sister H. said “O dear, let’s go” but I did not see how we could just then so we remained sitting while she uncovered the dainty viands. Our stomachs literally turned over at sight of the mess; it was what the natives call “gau”; I do not know what it was composed of I’m sure; something they get from the sea when the tide is low – a kind of worm I would say – I think if you were to cut the entrails of a chicken up fine, gizzard and contents, craw and all and mix, you would have something resembling it in appearance and smell – cannot say as to taste for we did not eat the gau.

Taking a piece of the bread-fruit in our hands we took our departure, after thanking them for their kindness and bidding them “tofa.”

Returning to our home we related the experience to the brethren, who had a good laugh at our expense, for such meals are often spread before them and they are not at a loss to know how to act either, for they have learned long ago how to appreciate Samoan hospitality.

The Samoans prepare many varieties of food which are altogether unpalatable to us and in many of their customs and habits are very degraded indeed, but while this is a fact it is also true that there are honest souls among them and these our faithful elders are diligently seeking to find.

We hope to be able to assist a little in the good work and to this end desire the prayers and faith of all our good sisters in Zion. One lesson we are sure will be indelibly impressed upon our minds if we learn nothing more while we are here, and that is to appreciate our homes and their surroundings when once we are permitted to return. And not only will we appreciate our homes but how much will we learn to love and cherish the dear relatives and friends whom we have left, after being separated from them for a season!

May heaven’s richest blessings attend the sisters in Zion in all their efforts to do good, and may we all be enabled to fulfill our duties aright in whatever position we may be placed.

Ever praying for the welfare of Zion and her loving mothers and fair daughters, I remain,

Your sister in the Gospel,

ANNIE D. STEVENS



10 Comments »

  1. What a fascinating read. I sat here wondering what my reaction would have been had my young bride and I been called to serve in some far-off land when we were a young couple. That kind of sacrifice seems so far removed from my modern experience.

    But I did eat some weird stuff on my mission…

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — September 15, 2011 @ 7:53 am

  2. I did, too, MMM! Still, I think I was more willing to eat it because it was part of *my* calling. Had the call gone to my parents or husband, with me expected to go along as a comfort and support but without the call coming directly to me, I’m not sure I would have been such a good sport …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 15, 2011 @ 8:26 am

  3. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. And honestly, who hasn’t read an email from a missionary serving in a new place that doesn’t sound a little (or a lot) like this? We’ve at least left the “degraded” and “rude” parts behind, I hope, but the rest is familiar, whether it’s a sister, an elder, or a senior couple writing.

    Do you happen to know how their missions were funded? Did their families in Utah support them? Did the Hiltons also live in Samoa for three years?

    I think, most of all, that Annie and Sarah were lucky to have each other.

    Comment by Amira — September 15, 2011 @ 8:44 am

  4. Yes, both couples served approximately three years. I don’t know about mission funding in this time and place — I suspect, based on (perhaps stereotypical) impressions of Polynesia, that cash needs for transportation and a few other necessities would have to have been taken care of from home, but that the hospitality of Samoans, even without the added layer of church fellowship, would have gone a long way toward supporting the missionaries with food and shelter and other necessities that could be furnished by generous people.

    And yeah, we probably all have a lot to learn, even when we enter a new culture with the best of intentions and a desire to love and serve. Strangeness is still strange, and adaptation takes a little time.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 15, 2011 @ 8:59 am

  5. Ardis: For some reason I thought you went to France on your mission. Did they offend you with that horrible, third-world French Cuisine? How terrible for you!

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — September 15, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

  6. They sent me from the deserts of the Intermountain West to the Mediterranean coast with its myriad of mysterious sea creatures which surely God never intended me to find on my plate, no matter the amount of butter or fine sauces that disguised them.

    But yes, woe is me. I served in the Alps and on the Riviera. Quite the hardship mission, especially when you throw in the patisseries and the hospitality of the French at all levels. I was forced to declare my hips at Customs on returning to the States, for surely I had not LEFT the country with them!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 15, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

  7. Too funny!

    Comment by middle-aged Mormon Man — September 15, 2011 @ 6:11 pm

  8. if we learn nothing more while we are here, and that is to appreciate our homes and their surroundings when once we are permitted to return.

    …is another timeless lesson nearly all missionaries learn.

    That these sisters lost 9 of 13 children, and one husband, is a level of sacrifice I can’t even start to wrap my brain around.

    Comment by The Other Clark — September 15, 2011 @ 7:41 pm

  9. My grandfather was called to Samoa in January 1898. He also was there three years, but he was unmarried. He always blamed his stomach problems on the food he eat in Samoa. I have never been to Samoa, but have the same problems he had. I wonder if I can blame my stomach problems on his mission. He loved the Samoan people. Thanks for giving me some insight into his experiences.

    Comment by Jeff Johnson — September 15, 2011 @ 11:16 pm

  10. “That these sisters lost 9 of 13 children, and one husband, is a level of sacrifice I can’t even start to wrap my brain around”.

    Other Clark: +1. Incomprehensible, especially knowing it would most likely be impossible to visit the graves once you went home.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — September 16, 2011 @ 4:41 am

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