Sister Edna Harker Thomas: Missionary and Mother in the First Japan Mission

Sister Edna Harker Thomas​​: Missionary and Mother in the First Japan Mission

Louisa Nuffer Greear

Louisa Nuffer Greear was a junior studying English language when this paper was presented.

“Oh Heavenly Father, make me feel better so that I can finish out my mission as I was promised when I left home—teach me how to keep well & strong at all times.”

Edna Thomas, June 8, 1912

In the five years that she served in the first Japan Mission, Edna Harker Thomas was truly a light to the other missionaries and those in the area. Despite various challenges, she proved to be an incredible influence for good on those around her. Her kindness, her humor, and her faith are made clear in her personal journals and the journals of those who served in the mission with her. Her journals also provide an interesting perspective on the culture of Japan and the interactions that the missionaries had with the Japanese people. Yet, in spite of this, there is almost no mention of Edna Thomas in any of the published secondary works on the first Japan Mission. She is not mentioned in Taking the Gospel to the Japanese, 1901–2001 by Reid L. Neilson and Van C. Gessel,[1] and she is mentioned only in passing in Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901–1924 by Reid L. Neilson[2] and in “History of the Japan Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1901–1924” by Murray L. Nichols.[3] Edna Thomas was an important member of the first Japan Mission, and it is a pity that she has not been given attention in these works. Edna Thomas’s work while in the first Japan Mission is certainly deserving of recognition, and the loving spirit she brought is worthy of emulation by any who wish to be better persons and better Saints.

Edna Harker was born on April 11, 1881, in Taylorsville, Utah.[4] From her childhood, she was taught by her parents, Benjamin E. Harker and Harriet Bennion, to be an active and faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After studying at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; University of California, Berkeley; and American University in Washington, DC, Edna taught in public schools in Salt Lake City, Utah. Edna married Elbert D. Thomas on June 25, 1907, in the Salt Lake Temple. Elbert would later become well known as a US senator. In September of 1907, a few short months after their marriage in June, Edna and her husband were called to serve in the first Japan Mission. Elbert served as the mission secretary for two years, then as the president of the mission for three years. While they were there, Edna gave birth to their daughter, Chiyo.

A Fami​​ly

It is clear from the journals of Edna Thomas and her fellow missionaries that the first Japan Mission was truly a family. Those who served there lived together in the mission home and enjoyed close friendships. Elder Jay Jensen wrote in his journal, “After meeting I talked with Sister Thomas and Elder Harris until 10:00 o’clock and then retired.”[5] The members of the mission talked, played games, walked, and worked together; they even comforted each other when needed. Edna certainly had close friendships with many of the missionaries, and they all shared their joys and sorrows. Elder Grant Ivins recorded in his journal, “Before I was up this morning Bro. Fairbourn came running into the room and told me that Sister Thomas had given birth to a girl. Bro. Thomas had just come from the hospital where he had been since yesterday at noon. Sister Thomas was feeling very well when the President left her this morning. He has just left for the hospital (11:30). He is the happiest man in all the world. In fact we are all tickled into childishness.”[6] The whole mission felt the joy that Brother and Sister Thomas shared at the birth of their baby girl, who was given the Japanese name Chiyo. The missionaries and local Saints alike doted on the Thomases’ beautiful little blonde, blue-eyed baby. In the journal Edna kept on behalf of her little girl, she wrote, “I took her [Chiyo] downstairs to see Bro. Emmett, who gave her a book that his mother sent to her. . . . Bros. Barton & Ivins also brot [sic] Chiyo home a dandy toy. . . . That is twice that Bro. Ivins has brot [sic] Chiyo home a toy.”[7] Edna even specifically called the mission a family in her journal: “16 of us now in family all the missionaries are here but Bro. Stimpson. Chiyo made friends with most of them by night but she cried at first.”[8] With her own little family to take care of, it could not have been easy to help take care of the mission as well, but Edna Thomas showed herself to be a part of the mission family as a whole. She was a mother in her own little family as well as a mother to the missionaries. Living in the mission home, a home away from home for all of the missionaries, Edna helped the place become a real home, rather than just a house, and a place where the missionaries and Church members could enjoy a family environment.

Edna’s musical talents also helped to bring a sense of hominess into the mission home. Elder Jay Jensen, who was teaching Edna to play the piano better, wrote that one day he “came home and studied a while and played duets with Sister Thomas a little while.”[9] Music was always part of Church meetings in the first Japan Mission as well, and Edna often stepped in and contributed her talent. In an instance recorded by Elder Ivins, Edna’s musical talent was clear, as was a certain bit of spunkiness and wit: “A very interesting and original program was given by the Saints and investigators. One of the numbers was a ‘take-off’ of an American dance. Mr. Tsuruki and Bro. Sato tried to waltz. Of course, they made the dance appear very ridiculous. Bro. Jensen played a waltz and the boys jumped about very awkwardly. Sister Thomas beckoned to me and I went over and, to-gether, [we] showed the natives ‘how it was done.’”[10]

Edna’s wittiness and humor are also noticeable in her personal journal of little snippets of everyday life in the mission, which she called “Things and That.” In one entry she described the different people they had to pay at the end of the month. In addition to the milk man, the fish man, the bread man, the vegetable man, the tofu man, and others, she recorded “the nasty juice man” in her list.[11] Clearly she was not fond of the juice he delivered. In another entry Edna’s humor is again manifest in her description of a “real fish story.” She wrote, “As we passed a fish store to-day, we saw a man cleaning a shark. While we stood there and watched him, he took thirty fish the size of an ordinary trout out of that shark’s stomach. That’s a real true fish story, for we saw and counted the fish as he pulled them out of the shark’s stomach.”[12] Edna’s play on the phrase “fish story” (meaning, of course, a story that is hyperbolized) creates a funny juxtaposition between the words “real” and “true,” and the fact that the story really is about an experience with fish. With her cheerful wit, Edna surely cheered many people in the first Japan Mission family.

Service a​nd Kindness

Edna Thomas was very aware of those around her who stood in need and did her best to help them. She visited members of Church, investigators, and neighbors in the area. She took an interest in the lives of all those around her, from the missionaries in the mission home to the cook to the neighbors, and the generous spirit she and her husband both had is evident. “I took my purse to have the handle re-sewed. The man cut, glued and handsewed [sic] it, taking about fifteen minutes in all, and when Tomie [President Thomas] asked him the price, he said 3 sen (1 1/2 cents). Tomie gave him 5 sen and felt cheap in giving him so little. At home the job would cost at least 25 or 50 cents.” As in this instance, President and Sister Thomas often gave a little extra to those who worked hard. In another example Edna writes about a lady they hired to tidy the yard “by pulling up all the grass (by hand) that would like to grow. For her two days labor she asked 20¢ but we raised it to 25¢.”[13]

Edna served in the mission in many different ways. She strove to learn the language, as is evident by the various Japanese words scattered throughout her journal and her mention of looking up proverbs in the dictionary.[14] She also helped with the “making” of tracts.[15] In addition to her service of keeping the mission home a nice place for the missionaries to stay and helping to spread the gospel, Edna taught the children in Sunday School every week. Grant Ivins praised Edna’s teaching in his journal: “I visited Sister Thomas’s Sunday School class for the first time. The children showed the effect of very good training. They behaved well and answered questions very readily.”[16] Edna seemed to be very gratified when people told her that they thought she was a good Sunday School teacher. She wrote in her journal, “Bro. Jensen gave me an encouraging compliments [sic] about my teaching in S. School that made me feel good.”[17] Her hard work teaching the children was clearly paying off.[18]

Edna and the other missionaries also found little ways to serve their neighbors, developing friendships with those in their community. Elder Ivins recorded in his diary, “Bro. Miller, Sister Thomas, and I also walked over to Sister Sago’s home to take the family dog home. We all three had to go because ‘Fuku’ would not follow me.”[19] Edna also often went on walks with her daughter to visit their neighbors and friends. These friends and neighbors always seemed so happy to see her and her little daughter, and were always kind and generous in return. She recorded, “I know we never again will be made as much over in America as we are here. So we had better be happy.”

A Strong Opinion

Edna’s journal provides an interesting perspective into the culture of Japan and the interaction of the Latter-day Saint missionaries with the Japanese people. Edna’s record provides a unique view of the culture and people in Japan. Often in her journal she described in detail the little things going on around her. In her journal “Things and That,” she described in detail what she observed of the method for processing rice. She also recorded the following: “For two days it was snowing outside, so they worked in our woodshed, and the poor little baby was in there with them. Talk about a tough life at yet whenever I went around, they all smiled and laughed and sang, as tho they didn’t have a care in the world.”[20] This shows an admiration on Edna’s part of the fortitude and perseverance that the Japanese people had, and also her compassion for the hard lives that some of them led. She seemed also to be impressed by how well the people covered up any negative emotions that they may have been feeling by doing things like singing to help them stay happy.

Edna Thomas not only observed the culture of the people in Japan, but she really immersed herself in it. When Edna gave birth to her daughter, she and her husband decided to give her a Japanese name, Chiyo, despite the fact that this was unusual for the time. Edna even groomed her little baby in a rather Japanese way. Jay Jensen recorded, “After dinner Sister Thomas wanted her baby’s head shaved Japanese style. Pres. Thomas was so nervous about it that I became head barber at Sister Thomas request. We put a bowl on the babys head and cut the hair around the edge and then shaved it leaving the round patch of hair on. She looked quite Japanesey.”[21] Edna also often dressed Chiyo in Japanese clothing. Edna wrote in her journal of Chiyo’s outfit one day, “She wore her blue silk stockings, black patent leather slippers, silk chan-chan, blue & white kimono, pink silk abi & white bonnet that her Grandma Carrie sent to her.”[22] It seems that as Chiyo grew up being dressed in a mixture of Japanese and American clothing, she also began to pick up some mannerisms that were rather Japanese. Edna recorded of one-and-a-half-year old Chiyo that she “was a foreign baby to-day. At the supper table she bowed good-night separately to each one around the table. Cute as could be.”[23]

Although Edna tried to merge her customs with the culture around her, she never let this stop her from standing up for her views on matters of gospel doctrine. One of the controversial topics of the time was polygamy, and even though President Woodruff’s Manifesto had abolished the practice of polygamy, there were still many people who had concerns and criticisms of the Church in relation to the topic. Polygamy was of particular concern to Japanese investigators. Jay Jensen recorded in his journal, “Later an old samurai Mr. Kato of Kojimachi called. He has been a Christian thirty six years and having seen newspaper articles about us called. Polygamy was the thing he wanted explained most. I had an hour and a half talk with him.”[24] Edna seems to have been quite opinionated concerning the topic of polygamy. She recorded an instance that happened one Sunday evening: “Last night after Church four of the English bible students were sitting around the hibachi gossiping just like old ladies. After a while I asked Mr. Okuma how may children the late assassinated Prince Ito had. He laughed and said he guessed he had about one hundred, all told, living in all parts of Japan. And yet these people brick at poligamy [sic]. Prince Ito has many concubines.”[25] Edna seems here to find it rather hypocritical that the Japanese would frown upon Mormon polygamy when one of their leaders had many children from different wives. It is certainly evident that she wondered at how these people could judge her religion for a custom that people in their country had also practiced.

Edna also had a very strong opinion when it came to her husband, Elbert Thomas. Like most mission presidents, President Thomas had to at times endure some criticism. However, Edna Thomas would let anyone who dared criticize her husband know exactly how wrong they were. Elder Ivins recorded that during a testimony meeting many of the elders praised President Thomas, “which was called forth by Sister Thomas’ having objected to the Elders’ kicking against the President. She said that when she heard any say any thing about [President Thomas] (whom she thought to be perfect) she wanted to go home. She didn’t say, because she was so angry but that was clearly the reason. We enjoyed a very good spirit.”[26] From this anecdote it is clear that Sister Thomas was not only very fond of her husband, but was fiercely loyal to him and respected him as the leader of the mission. She wrote in her personal journal, “Bro. Rasmussen said at the supper table that I certainly had a fine husband. I knew that already but it sounded good to hear somebody say it.”[27]

Faith

Being a young mother and a missionary was not without its challenges for Edna Thomas. She had many responsibilities and a heart that could not bear to give up any of these duties. There were times when she surely was very grateful to live in a home full of priesthood bearers. Grant Ivins recorded an instance when President Thomas was out of town visiting another area of the mission and baby Chiyo was sick. “About noon Sister Thomas called Bro. Cutler and told him that the baby was not well and that she would like us to administer to her. I was asked to anoint the baby. Before blessing the baby we (Brothern) [sic] had prayers. Never, I think did I feel so humble in the sight of God. I anointed the baby (the first time I had ever done such a thing) and Bro. Cutler confirmed the anointing.”[28]

In addition to having worries about the health of her child and the success of the mission, Edna suffered from various health issues. It seems from her journals that she had nervous complaints and other maladies, and that these often discouraged her. Often in her journal she would write down a prayer to her Heavenly Father, asking for help and guidance to strengthen her. In one entry, after describing the difficulties she had been recently facing, she earnestly pleaded with her Father in Heaven: “Oh Heavenly Father, make me feel better so that I can finish out my mission as I was promised when I left home—teach me how to keep well & strong at all times.”[29] Edna’s prayer was answered, and she did indeed finish out her mission, and her strength lifted not only herself but so many of those around her.

Conclusion: Going Home

When President and Sister Thomas and little Chiyo left Japan, it seems everyone they knew was sorry to see them go. Sister Thomas went and said goodbye to all of her friends and neighbors. She would miss every one of them, and they would miss her and her little family.

Our last Sunday in Japan is over I felt a beautiful spirit with the kiddies and we all cried together. I felt the same way when I said goodbye to Mr. Makins & Mrs. Suzuki. Mrs. Makins took both my hands in hers and her eyes filled with tear [sic] and so did mine. She is one of the nicest ladies that I have ever met. We went to 15 houses to-day and everywhere that we went the people were sorry that we were going and really seemed to mean it. Mrs. Tagem cried also when she was talking to me. Chiyo enjoyed going around giving away her photo to the neighbors. She gave one to the rice lady, the carpenter’s wife, the thread lady, the geta lady, the blind lady, the shoemaker, the tofu lady, the vegetable lady, the wood lady. . . . They all wanted her picture so badly, so we decided to give them one.[30]

From the journals of Sister Edna Harker Thomas and those who served with her in the first Japan Mission, it is clear that she was an exemplary woman—the kind of woman that members of the Church today should try to emulate. She was bold and faithful, while at the same time motherly and kind. Nobody was beneath her notice, even servants and the delivery men. She stayed strong even when faced with trials and difficulties, setting a standard as to what it means to be a truly faithful missionary. She was a mother to her little daughter and a mother to the mission. Her prayer to her Father in Heaven that she would finish out her mission and that she would be strong and a help to those around her was fulfilled.

There is more study yet to be done concerning the great impact that Edna Thomas had on the first Japan Mission and the importance of her role there in understanding twentieth-century missiology in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though she is not discussed in the extant secondary sources on the first Japan Mission, she is certainly worth noticing and emulating. If every member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints prayed as Edna Thomas did, “Oh Heavenly Father, make me . . . so that I can finish out my mission,” they would find, as Edna Thomas did, that Heavenly Father truly does answer prayers. Whatever the mission may be, whether abroad or at home, great or small, the Lord guides his children and helps them to accomplish their worthy goals, as he did for Edna Thomas.

 

Notes


[1] Reid L. Neilson and Van C. Gessel, eds., Taking the Gospel to the Japanese, 1901–2001 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 2006).

[2] Reid L. Neilson, Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901–1924 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2009).

[3] Murray L. Nichols, “History of the Japan Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1901–1924” (master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1957).

[4] All biographical information taken from Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia (Salt Lake City: The Andrew Jenson Memorial Association, 1936), 301–2.

[5] Jay Jensen, journal, February 21, 1909, in possession of Michael MacKay, owned by Diane Nichols.

[6] H. Grant Ivins, journal, December 26, 1910, H. Grant Ivins papers, MS 0362, box 1, folder 1, University of Utah Special Collections, Salt Lake City.

[7] Edna Thomas, “Chiyo Thomas’s 2nd Record Book,” May 20, 1912, Utah State Historical Archives, Salt Lake City.

[8] Thomas, “2nd Record Book,” May 21, 1912.

[9] Jensen, journal, April 14, 1909.

[10] Ivins, journal, March 28, 1911, box 1, folder 2.

[11] Edna Thomas, “Things and That,” October 31, 1909, Utah State Historical Archives, Salt Lake City.

[12] Thomas, “Things and That,” January 27, 1910.

[13] Thomas, “Things and That,” January 27, 1910.

[14] Sister Thomas wrote, “I just found this proverb in the dictionary.” “Things and That,” November 19, 1909.

[15] Thomas, “2nd Record Book,” June 8, 1912.

[16] Ivins, journal, May 14, 1911.

[17] Thomas, “2nd Record Book,” June 9, 1912.

[18] This experience teaching children along with her prior teaching education and teaching experience probably were very useful to Edna later on when she was a member of the Primary general presidency.

[19] Ivins, journal, December 14, 1911, box 1, folder 4.

[20] Thomas, “Things and That,” November 20, 1909.

[21] Jensen, journal, January 28, 1911.

[22] Thomas, “2nd Record Book,” May 24, 1912.

[23] Thomas, “2nd Record Book,” June 15, 1912.

[24] Jensen, journal, September 10, 1911.

[25] Thomas, “Things and That,” November 1, 1909.

[26] Ivins, journal, May 17, 1911, box 1, folder 2.

[27] Thomas, “2nd Record Book,” June 10, 1912.

[28] Ivins, journal, March 10, 1911.

[29] Thomas, “2nd Record Book,” June 8, 1912.

[30] Thomas, “2nd Record Book,” October 20, 1912.