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A statue representing womanhood — and women's role in raising children — is seen with the Mormon Temple in the background in Salt Lake City.
Hannon Young was listening with only half an ear during the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints earlier this month when Church President Thomas S. Monson started talking about missionaries. But then Young perked up — and froze, as Monson declared that women no longer have to wait until they are 21 to go on their missions. They can begin at 19, he said.
"You could hear an audible gasp throughout the whole conference center," says Young, a freshman at Brigham Young University. "It was just this wave of shock."
A moment later, Young, who turns 19 in July, began to laugh and cry.
"I wanted to go on a mission since I was 16," she says. "And the thought of waiting two more years was really difficult for me. So, it was such exciting news."
Young called her mother, Jane, in New Hampshire. Neither could speak due to their emotions — for Jane, it was a little bittersweet that this rite of Mormon passage was coming so soon. Jane Young says that with this change, the church is sending a signal.
"I do think what it allows is for women — Mormon women — to have it all," she says.
Here's why. At age 21, a woman is nearly finished with college, and historically there's been pressure to marry rather than set out on an 18-month mission, which is optional for both men and women.
That's what Jane Young did: She already had a "call" and was training to be a missionary when her boyfriend proposed. But taking time off at 19 is more like having a gap year; young women can then go on to college, career and marriage.
Jane says the new policy represents a philosophical shift in how Mormon women are viewed by the church — and by themselves.
"I think women will see themselves differently," she says.
"I think I do, because it's empowering to think that they want more women serving," she says. "It feels like a call to really join the ranks."
The church also announced that young men may start their two-year missions when they're 18, a year earlier. Seventeen-year-old Brendon Holland, a high school senior in Springfield, Mass., plans to sign up next year. He's thrilled — but he acknowledges that he'll be making a sacrifice. Holland was hoping to get a college rowing scholarship.
"When I come back, my form would be off, and I wouldn't be in as good shape," he says. "And I probably wouldn't be able to be accepted into a Division I program."
So Holland is trusting on God to provide.
"I know that if I go and do this thing, I will be blessed — and that I'll be able to find a different way to pay for college," he says.
Mormons line up outside the historic Salt Lake Temple before the church's general conference in 2010.
Don Hangen, a leader in a Mormon stake, or region, in New England, says it's not just teenagers who are pleased with this shift. So is the church, which has seen a surge in the most effective recruits.
"Some of the very best missionaries are the women missionaries," Hangen says. "and this just opens the floodgates for many more of these women to serve."
Published 10/31/ 2012
Some 4,000 young women applied in the two weeks since the announcement. Overall, applications have quintupled — and fully half of them are women. Until now, only about 20 percent of missionaries have been female.
Hangen sees another dynamic that could change as a result of the policy: romance.
"Culturally, there are many young women who are waiting for their missionary to come home. This is going to turn those tables a little bit," he says, laughing, "and now there will be men that will be waiting for their sister missionary to come home."
But now that missionaries will be essentially the same age, will there be more so-called mission romances? Lauren Bowman, an 18-year-old at BYU, says absolutely not.
"The purpose to go on a mission is to be on a mission; it's not to go out and find your eternal companion," she says. "It's to go and serve, and to talk to people and stuff. And you need to make sure that you keep that goal in mind."
The church hopes that Bowman and other new young missionaries will bring in thousands of new converts ... and accelerate the already speedy growth of the Mormon faith.