Missionaries to Dinner, 1854 Style

February 11, 2009 | 15 comments
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On June 20, 1854, Elizabeth Kane received a note from her husband that he had invited some “common men” for dinner. Elizabeth, then 17, had been married to Thomas Kane, her second cousin, for a little over a year. Raised in an upper-middle-class family in England, she had grown up idolizing her dashing and wealthy “Cousin Tom,” who was fourteen years her senior. After their marriage, she often found herself hopelessly adrift navigating the social customs of Philadelphia’s upper-crust society. She feared her lack of gentility would be readily evident to those in the Kanes’ aristocratic social circles and that her husband would come to resent her “ugly face” and “rude ways.” As she sat in the Philadelphia mansion she and Thomas lived in with his parents, she interpreted his note to mean that she should expect some of his “intimate friends,” so she ordered oysters.

To her disappointment, Thomas arrived with three “labouring men,” Mormon missionaries, “going penniless, to convert England.” A staunch evangelical, Elizabeth viewed her husband’s involvement with the Mormons with deep suspicion. Looking at the “hungry mountain countrymen,” Elizabeth decided that the oysters would be wasted on them and that they would not find adequate “nourishment” in her “kickshaw, strawberries, ice-cream, spring chickens and veal cuttels.” Consequently, she sent her servant to buy “Rashers of Bacon.” Another Mormon (a “cigar-merchant named Harrison”) and Thomas’s brother Pat also arrived for dinner.

Elizabeth described the missionaries in detail in her journal. James Ferguson, a former sheriff of Salt Lake County who had been a member of the Mormon Battalion that Thomas had helped raise, had “an open pleasant face, and a frank smile.” The other two missionaries–“a light-haired freckled-faced Yankee Wheelock by name” and a “Scotchman, named Dunbar”–were both from the lower classes and possessed uncouth manners.

While Harrison quietly “shovel[ed] the food into his mouth in prodigious mouthfuls,” Ferguson “talked and laughed and ate, in a natural and unembarrassed manner, and consequently nothing ridiculous appeared in his behavior.” The other two missionaries, however, “with many grammatical slips, apologised for mountain manners, declaring they had been so long unused to civilised life that they did not know how to behave.” Elizabeth scoffed to her diary, “I would not be inclined to disbelieve the stories of Mormon evils, were they the only ones among the Mormons whom I had ever seen. I would not be surprised to see these men in the Insane Asylum, or in the Penitentiary Dunbar for insulting ladies in the street, Wheelock for cheating.”

In Mormonism’s early days, missionaries often literally traveled without purse or scrip, relying on the generosity of the people they encountered for their lodgings and food. Perhaps many, like Elizabeth, were repelled by the missionaries’ poverty and lack of refinement. Even today, missionaries eat many meals in the homes of church members and others to reduce their expenses and to meet the local members.

Missionary dinners, as Elizabeth’s diary makes clear, have always been something of a doubled-edged sword. On my own mission in southern Brazil, I was always impressed at how the members shared their daily lunches with the missionaries. I hope that I did not do too many things to offend them (though admittedly I sometimes made things uncomfortable for newer American companions by declaring that, yes, indeed, they would like another helping.) As a selective eater (a term I prefer over picky), I quickly learned that I could eat almost anything as long as the ratio of rice to undesirable food was high enough. Living in Indiana over the past eight years, my family has often hosted missionaries. Most of these visits have been enjoyable. Others, not so much. Like the Elder who inquired as to how many children we desired and how exactly we would space them. Or the Elder who treated our infants’ toys as a footrest. Or the Elder who droned on while teaching us two principles out of Preach My Gospel, only to be stopped by our toddler careening down the stairs. So, what are your stories of missionaries’ meals?

(Source: Elizabeth W. Kane Journal, 20 June 1854, Thomas L. and Elizabeth W. Kane Collection, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, BYU)

15 Responses to Missionaries to Dinner, 1854 Style

  1. iguacufalls on February 11, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    I’ve never had any issues with the missionaries that have come into our home, thank heavens! I also served in sourthern Brazil and I remember trying to be polite when the sister placed Mondongo (or menudo as it’s called in spanish speaking places – or cow intestine soup, in english speaking places) but not being able to finish it.

    One of my favorite member meal memories was visiting a family that lived in a 12×12 shack, with a bed for the family (4 kids) that was leaned up against the wall during the day. The outhouse was over the dirty stream behind their patch of dirt around their house. This family that had virtually nothing was so respectful of the calling of a missionary that they would provide the largest amount of food I’ve ever seen whenever we came to visit. It wasn’t anything fancy, but all the food groups were covered, even the mayonnaise food group. Beyond the food, this family always had a kind word and a huge smile for us – they had fabulous attitudes on life! I know that the way they treated us didn’t have anything to do with my or my companion’s personality, only the fact that we were missionaries, and needed sustenance to do the work of the Lord. I’ll always cherish that simple faith. I’m still trying to work on emulating it.

  2. Adam Greenwood on February 11, 2009 at 3:06 pm

    Someday the Lord will send us missionaries who can stand green chile. We’ve been a long time waiting.

    I am fantastically grateful for the few dinner invitations I had on my mission. Even the pringao (blood sausage mushed with pig fat) or the hermana who made me jump up and down to make room for thirds.

    Having people over for dinner is civilization.

    I think we can excuse Mrs. Kane’s dislike for the missionaries. A rasher of bacon covers a multitude of sins.

  3. Eddie on February 11, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    We’ve had the whole range of experiences, but typically the missionaries are respectful and appreciative. The mission president and his wife often set the tone. For example, several years ago the Elders would not sit down at the table until my wife was seated, and they always cleared their own dishes.

    I think our favorite experience happened while we lived in Salt Lake City. We signed up to have the Elders over for dinner. After dinner they were about to leave when I asked them if they had a message or “spiritual thought” to share with us (on my mission we were told to never leave a member’s home without sharing a short message and prayer).

    The senior companion delved into some rambling sermon about agency, and concluded with the following words: “and that is why Brigham Young prophesied that Salt Lake City will become the most wicked city on the face of the planet.”

    This is honestly all I remember of the visit. Nothing like a cheery, uplifting, inspiring word from the full time missionaries! A classic.

  4. Mark B. on February 11, 2009 at 3:31 pm

    Nearly all the missionaries I served with or who’ve come to our home for dinner could probably fit into Mrs. Kane’s descriptions: “shovel[ing] food in prodigious mouthfuls,” “grammatical slips,” and “mountain manners” are apt descriptions.

    I remember the greenie companion in a small city in Shikoku who refused to eat most of the food that one family brought out for us. (In one respect, I don’t blame him. It was of unknown origin, odd flavor and gorge-raising texture.) So I ended up doing most of the eating, so we could save face. The key to success: stop any air flow through your nose, put the food as far back on your tongue as possible, chew as little as possible and swallow in a hurry. Then, grab a quick drink.

  5. Michelle Glauser on February 11, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    I don’t have any stories to share, but look here:

    http://granolasdodallas.blogspot.com/2008/12/short-title-new-guy.html

  6. bbell on February 11, 2009 at 4:39 pm

    Did anybody else catch that she was probably 16 when she married her 2nd cousin?

    Behavior of missionaries really depends on the missionary involved.

  7. Matt Grow on February 11, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    And 15 when they were engaged! It raised eyebrows, but wasn’t socially unacceptable.

  8. Ardis Parshall on February 11, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Do you have any idea what I would give for an hour — dinner or not — with James Ferguson, William Dunbar, and Cyrus Wheelock? Ouch!

    The church members, and the occasional non-member, who invited us to dinner in France always treated us as queens and gave us the very best they had, which was usually pretty good. My personal rule was to try everything served to me, which was sometimes an adventure — if it wasn’t some kind of sea creature in Marseilles that I couldn’t identify, it was some unusual mix of vegetables with a meat I couldn’t identify served by an immigrant from one of France’s former colonies. If I didn’t know how to open something, or which part of it to eat, our hostesses were always pleased to demonstrate. I dunno if they talked about us after we left as those uncouth Americans who couldn’t eat fruits-de-mer without help, but at least they couldn’t talk about us as those silly squeamish Americans who wouldn’t even touch the exquisite foie gras.

    I’m sure they giggled about our French. They didn’t wait for us to leave before doing that!

    Gosh, I miss those wonderful people and their meals.

  9. Steve Fleming on February 11, 2009 at 9:02 pm

    Matt, Kane’s statements about the Mormons and class (especially the city/country) divide are really interesting. I think we need more research on the implications of such in early Mormonism. I know that when Brigham Young referred to Joseph Smith as a Rough Stone Rolling it was in this context. At a conference in Boston (list in the HC 6 at the beginning) Young chastises a group of young elders that he sees and being urbane, and reminds them that although JS may be a rough stone rolling “we know by what power we have been called.”

  10. Mark Brown on February 11, 2009 at 9:07 pm

    I don’t remember ever having a bad meal in Germany, although some were better than others. I was very fortunate that my first area had a strong tradition of having missionaries over for meals because it helped me have a good attitude about the members and the country in general. Later, in an area where nobody fed the missionaries, the branch president stood up in church the Sunday before Christmas and asked for volunteers to have us over for Christmas dinner. Nobody volunteered — “Buehler, Buehler? Anyone?”

    Once a sister overheard missionaries talking about how much they enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner. In an act that has surely guaranteed her calling and election, she secretly wrote a letter to a missionary’s mother asking for recipes for Thanksgiving dinner, had it translated into English, and then when the reply came, had it translated into German. She made pumpkin pie from scratch, beginning with the pumpkin. It was kind of stringy, and she substituted goose for turkey, but the meal was made delicious by her love. A few weeks later I helped the bishop count the donations and I saw the amount she paid for tithing. I figure that she spent about a week’s worth of income on that meal. I imagine that holds true for many areas of the world where the members have the missionaries in their homes as honored guests.

  11. bfwebster on February 11, 2009 at 9:47 pm

    On my mission (Central America [Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama], 1972-74), we lived with local families in most areas, paying for room and board, so we did very little eating with members — usually just holidays or other special occasions. We had plenty of adventures in eating, but they were at our place of lodging for the most part. Ketchup covers a multitude of sins.

    The best food I had in my mission was during my first time in Costa Rica. My companion (Elder Allen) and I lived with a non-member widow (Doña Victoria) who was in her early sixties. She doted on us — she called us her “American sons” — she was a great cook, and she always had more food out on the table than the two of us could put away, which was saying something. Both of us put on quite a bit of weight. :-) Then I got transferred to Nicaragua and lost it all and then some.

    For the last 10 years, my wife and I have worked to have missionaries over for dinner on a regular basis; for a while in DC, we actually had both a pair of elders and a pair of sisters serving in our ward (DC Branch/Chevy Chase Ward), and we’d have each over for dinner once a week. Here in Colorado, we share a pair of elders with another ward, and so we only get to have them over for dinner about once a month, if that often. I honestly can’t remember any unpleasant experiences having the missionaries over for dinner.

    But I must confess that I prefer sister missionaries to elders, both having them over to dinner and particularly as a ward mission leader (which I’ve been 5 times over the past 35 years, including right now). ..bruce..

  12. Matt Grow on February 12, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Steve: I agree that we need more analysis of the role of class in nineteenth-century Mormonism. It’s definitely class that’s shaping Elizabeth’s response to the missionaries. When the Kanes had more cultured Mormon visitors–such as Apostle John Taylor and William Kimball–Elizabeth enjoyed their visits, writing, “How nice it is to see people so different from oneself.”

    All: Thanks for the memories of missionary meals. I love the stories of the sacrifices the Saints have made to make the missionaries honored guests in their homes. And I’m also very amused at the stories of missionary gaffes!

  13. bbell on February 12, 2009 at 10:21 am

    I am with Ardis.

    I would love to hear more about the role that class played in the early saints conversion and retention. I ahve one ancestral line that was upper class English. The father had abandoned a post as a captian of a ship in the Royal Navy and moved to Idaho in the late 1880’s. They were in shock at the class differences between themselves and the other Saints in Idaho.

  14. Rameumptom on February 12, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    We’ve also hosted missionaries in the 6 years we’ve lived in Indiana. I haven’t noted any particularly bad manners from any of them.
    While on my mission in Bolivia, many members would invite us to eat with them. Occasionally, it was an issue of praying twice over the food, once to thank God and another to pray it wouldn’t kill you….
    I knew an elder who would wear his wading boots to certain members’ homes, in order to drop undesireable foods into the boot, so as not to offend them. One, not-so-smart elder tried throwing food out the window, sadly to realize the window wasn’t open.
    My worst experiences include chicken soup with the head still in it, and the 12 course meal for Easter (one course for each apostle) which included a “healthy” sampling of very hot chili peppers that left me unable to finish the last six courses.

  15. Bill MacKinnon on February 13, 2009 at 11:54 pm

    Could Harrison (the “shoveler”) possibly have been the lad of that name who a few years later became a cook for the army’s Utah Expedition as it moved west and then opened up a Utah restaurant/inn to morph into the famous “Beefsteak Harrison”?
    James Ferguson, of course, left the Kane household to become a missionary in Ireland (he was from Belfast originally). Upon return he became adjutant general of the Nauvoo Legion (as a brigadier) and one of Utah’s scrappier lawyers as well as co-founder (in 1859) of “The Mountaineer,” a newspaper founded to counteract the new non-Mormon “Valley Tan.” In 1863 the talented Ferguson died an agonizing death at about age 35 from alcoholism.