Johanna Tippett Porter: In Active Service to the End

November 11, 2006 | 11 comments
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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 – 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 “Granny Porter� 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 – 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)

Notes:

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.

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11 Responses to Johanna Tippett Porter: In Active Service to the End

  1. Jim F. on November 12, 2006 at 12:55 am

    Ardis, you are too humble. There is more to the story than that older women continue to give service. As do several of your others, this story is of an “ordinary” saint, one who doesn’t do grand deeds for which he or she is later honored and yet is nevertheless a saint. We need those stories about ordinary (ordered /orderly) sainthood, and it ought not to be shocking that those stories are most often women’s stories. God rejoices in the ordinary; we should too.

  2. Mark IV on November 12, 2006 at 1:22 am

    Ardis, I’m interested to find out how you discover people like sister Porter. Do you just happen to find them while you are looking for something else? Common sense tells me that our people have stories like this by the thousands. Where are they?

  3. J. Stapley on November 12, 2006 at 1:58 am

    I’m actually surprised that they had a soldier come and dedicate the grave. At that point in time the dedication of graves was not yet a priesthood ordinance (that was formalized in the subsequent decade or so).

    I am actually quite pleased to hear about this indigenous sister saint (I may be pestering you for refs a little later, Ardis). The first account of such a women anointing in England is actually a letter from Eliza Jane Merrick in the 1849 Millennial Star. The spreading of this praxis outside of the core body of Saints is something that hasn’t received any attention.

    Beautifully written, Ardis.

  4. Herodotus on November 12, 2006 at 3:22 am

    I really enjoy these vignettes.

  5. J. Stapley on November 12, 2006 at 12:17 pm

    That should have read “the first account that I have.” I would expect that there are accounts dating back to the 1830′s that are waiting to be found or published.

  6. Ardis Parshall on November 12, 2006 at 8:30 pm

    Jim F.: What do you say to a series of stories about men, too? I mean, about their lives as individual souls apart from their formal callings? I’ve been thinking about the concept of men’s history, which I know sounds redundant to a lot of people who think that history focuses on men anyway, but the ordinary faithfulness of individual men doesn’t depend on position or calling. I’ll bet there are such stories lying all over the landscape, if I just open my eyes to them.

    Mark IV: Yes, usually I trip over these stories on the way to something else. When I scroll through a microfilm on the way to an item near the end, for instance, I often scan the materials filmed earlier on the reel, sometimes resulting in totally random discoveries. Or I’ll realize that a woman is tangentially involved in an event I’m researching for purposes aside from this series. Since I’m convinced that everybody has a story anyway, all I need is a dramatic hook to build an article around, supplemented by the kind of research you might do into the life of any of your ancestors. In Sister Porter’s case, I noticed a headline about the passing of the oldest member of the Church in Great Britain.

    J: I thought you might want some citations, and I’ll dig them out for you. Apart from routinely genealogical ones, the interesting sources are two or three letters written by a missionary sister to the RS Magazine and MStar. I didn’t know that dedication of graves was such a recent phenomenon — it seems like I’ve seen lots of references, but maybe I haven’t noticed the time period. Without realizing there was anything unusual there, I would just take such references for granted. I’ll notice from now on.

    Herodotus: Thanks. I’m enjoying your recent comments, too. It’s amazing what community can be built among strangers with common ideals, even despite the use of pseudonyms.

  7. J. Stapley on November 13, 2006 at 12:17 am

    Interestingly enough, grave dedications date back to pioneer times, but weren’t considered priesthood ordinances until the the mid 20th century and women were able to do them. I wrote a brief write up last year (I have better refs now, so forgive the incompleteness of it).

  8. Jim F. on November 13, 2006 at 12:17 am

    Ardis, men, women, children, bring ‘em all on. I think we need more history of the ordinary.

  9. Herodotus on November 13, 2006 at 8:21 am

    Blame my wife for the pyeudonym. I think she fears I’ll make a spectacle of myself.

  10. Dianna H. on November 15, 2006 at 1:41 am

    Thank you, I enjoy these stories so much. I agree that the lives of everyday, ordinary people can teach us so much. Few of us will become famous or acheive greatness in the worldly sense but over the years I have known women who inspired me to be a better person and have taught me gospel principles through their example. Please keep these stories coming.

  11. random me on November 16, 2006 at 12:12 am

    mother teresa said, “we can do no great things, only small things with great love.” i love these “ordinary” stories and hope i live a life conducive to someone someday writing such poetic stories about myself. “ordinary” as they may be, the women you’ve written about have been inspiring, perhaps in their plain-ness. this one in particular touched me and nearly brought a tear to my eye. i love that these great people (but aren’t most of us great in SOME way?!) are being given their moment to shine, even posthumously.