LDS missionaries working on the Isle of Wight, off the coast of England, found the Tippett family in 1859. It is unclear how many members of the family joined the Church, but 15-year-old Johanna and her mother Mary Ann were among the converted. It was a source of pride to Johanna throughout her long life that she had been one of the first sister missionaries, if only unofficially: Johanna and her mother purchased materials from the missionaries and spent many days walking the roads of their district, preaching the gospel and endeavoring to find neighbors who would read their tracts.
Although early European converts were strongly encouraged to emigrate and help build up Zion in the American west, Johanna was never able to gather with the saints. She remained in Great Britain, eventually moving from the Isle to the mainland. Her steadfast belief in the gospel and confidence in a prophet she had never met enabled her to remain faithful and to help build a permanent LDS presence in England.
As a young woman, Johanna acted as a midwife in the rural districts where she lived. Far from any professional medical help, and even more distant from any organized branch of the Church, Johanna carried a small bottle of consecrated oil among her midwifery supplies. On occasion, when a new mother or infant was in desperate need, Johanna would use the oil and pray that the Lord would bless her patients and guide Johanna in caring for them. She later told Church leaders that her prayers were always answered.
Johanna loved to read, and one of her favorite books was the Doctrine and Covenants. She read it many times in her long life. Her eyesight became very weak as she grew older. Nevertheless, she continued to read the Doctrine and Covenants, although she needed a magnifying glass and a great deal of time to slowly pick out the familiar words.
The Relief Society Magazine began publication in 1916. Johanna was already 72 years old then but, always interested in improving the lives of women, she eagerly subscribed. She read The Magazine from cover to cover every month with the help of her magnifying glass â€“ and continued to do so for more than a quarter of a century.
Johanna seems to have been one of those wise women who can share her wisdom without appearing to meddle or dictate. She became a great favorite with younger women; they dubbed her â€œGranny Porterâ€? and turned to her for advice with their children. She was respected as one of the original members of the Church in her district and, because of her keen mind and her diplomatic ways, they relied on her knowledge and scriptural understanding.
Granny Porter continued to serve her family, neighbors, and fellow Church members as an elderly woman. World War II came to England when Johanna was 93 years old. Nearly all English priesthood holders were called away into the service, so with other women of the Church, Johanna shouldered additional burdens to keep the Church functioning. Her role was small but she played it well, reaching out to worried wives and mothers and keeping in touch with them all.
Johanna lived to see the end of the war in the spring of 1945 â€“ she was 100 years old then, having passed the century mark on 5 October 1944, feeble, but still anxious to do what she could.
Johanna Tippett Porter, well on her way toward her 101st birthday, quietly slipped away on 17 July 1945, the oldest member of the Church in Great Britain. Sisters filled her home with summer flowers for the funeral. In the absence of local priesthood holders, still attending to post-war duties elsewhere, an elder traveled from London to pay tribute to Johanna. An American elder, a soldier stationed near her home, dedicated her grave.
(originally published May 2006)
Although there may not seem to be much point to this story beyond a sister getting older and older, remember that this was written for the sisters in my SLC ward, a good share of whom are elderly. I wanted to tell them that their earlier, more active contributions are remembered, and that their presence today — their testimony and wisdom — is still appreciated even if they have retired from the heavier burdens of a ward.
A recent Journal of Mormon History article presented some history of 19th century member missionary work in Great Britain. There was no mention in that article of women who performed such service, but Johanna and her mother are evidence that sisters did so, long before there were formally called full-time sister missionaries.
Also, you’ll note that Johanna anointed and blessed women in childbirth. I welcome discussion of those earlier women’s blessing practices in connection with this post, although I am by no means an expert and will probably have to defer to contributions from other readers. That line drew absolutely no discussion in my ward when this was published — possibly because I wrote the paragraph very carefully so that readers who knew about those practices would understand what was going on, while readers who were unfamiliar with those practices wouldn’t be unduly concerned. My ward Relief Society president read and approved the story before it was distributed, at my request.