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The Influence of American Missionary Women on the World Back Home1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 June 2018


No churchgoer born before 1960 can forget the childhood thrill of hearing a missionary speak in church. The missionary arrived in native dress to thank the congregation for its support and, after the service, showed slides in the church hall. The audience sat transfixed, imagining what it might be like to eat termites in Africa, or beg on the streets in India, or study the Bible in a refugee camp. The usually mundane Sunday service became exotic and exciting, as the world beyond the United States suddenly seemed real. In an age before round-the-clock television news, and the immigration of Asians and Latin Americans even to small towns in the Midwest, the missionary on furlough was a major link between the world of North American Christians and the rest of the globe.

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Copyright © Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 2002

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An earlier version of this paper was delivered on June 3, 1998, at the conference on “The Missionary Impulse in North American History,” sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts. By focusing on missionary women, this paper does not imply that parts of the following analysis cannot apply also to missionary men. A discussion of the influence of missionary men would overlap with this study, but would also highlight political leadership, public preaching, sacramental roles, and other traditionally “male” activities.


2. Beaver, R. Pierce, All Loves Excelling: American Protestant Women in World Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968)Google Scholar. For an overview of how the study of women missionaries fits into the historiography of the American mission movement, see Dana L. Robert, “From Missions to Mission to Beyond Missions: The Historiography of American Protestant Foreign Missions since World War II,” in New Directions in American Religious History, ed. Harry S. Stout and D. G. Hart (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 362-93.

3. Welter, Barbara, “She Hath Done What She Could: Protestant Women's Missionary Careers in Nineteenth-Century America,” American Quarterly 30 (Winter 1978): 624-38CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brumberg, Joan Jacobs, Mission for Life: The Story of the Family of Adoniram Judson, the Dramatic Events of the First American Foreign Mission, and the Course of Evangelical Religion in the Nineteenth Century (New York: Free Press, 1980)Google Scholar.

4. See, for example, Flemming, Leslie A., ed., Women's Work for Women: Missionaries and Social Change in Asia (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Jolly, Margaret and Macintyre, Martha, eds., Family and Gender in the Pacific: Domestic Contradictions and the Colonial Impact (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hill, Patricia R., The World Their Household: The American Woman's Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1985)Google Scholar.

5. See, for example, Hunter, Jane, The Gospel of Gentility: American Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984)Google Scholar; and Porterfield, Amanda, Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)Google Scholar.

6. See Tucker, Ruth A., Guardians of the Great Commission: The Story of Women in Modern Missions (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1988)Google Scholar; Robert, Dana L., American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; and Robert, Dana L., ed., Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers: Missionary Women in the Twentieth Century (Maryknoll: Orbis Press, forthcoming 2002)Google Scholar.

7. Quoted in E. D. G. Prime, Forty Years in the Turkish Empire: Or, Memoirs of Rev. William Goodell, D.D., Laie Missionary of the A.B.C.F.M. at Constantinople, 8th ed. (Boston: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1891), 46. The first section of this paper is based on Robert, American Women in Mission, chap. 2.

8. Leonard Woods, A Sermon, Preached at Haverhill, (Mass.) in Remembrance of Mrs. Harriet Newell, Wife of the Rev. Samuel Newell, Missionary to India, Who Died at the Isle of France, Nov. 30, 1812, Aged 19 Years. To Which Are Added Memoirs of Her Life, 4th ed. (Boston: Samuel T. Armstrong, 1814), 7.

9. Ibid., 24.

10. Augustus C. Thompson, Discourse Commemorative of Rev. Rufus Anderson, D.D., LL.D., Laie Corresponding Secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Together with Addresses at the Funeral (Boston: ABCFM, 1880), 13.

11. Missionary men have been honored with physical monuments far more than missionary women; for example, the statue of Marcus Whitman outside the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia or the plaque of Horace T. Pitkin in Woolsey Hall at Yale University. Deborah Kirkwood notes that the marginality of missionary wives extended even to having smaller tombstones than their husbands. Deborah Kirkwood, “Protestant Missionary Women: Wives and Spinsters,” in Bowie, Fiona, Kirkwood, Deborah, and Ardener, Shirley, Women and Missions: Fast and Present (Providence/Oxford: Berg, 1993), 2342 Google Scholar. But the memories of missionary women have been kept alive in the names of institutions such as the Isabella Thoburn College in India, the Ann Hasseltine Judson Collection of Mission Studies at Andover-Newton Theological School, or the Vera Blinn Chair of Missions at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. The Blinn chair was the first theological chair named after a woman. It was endowed by women of the United Brethren Church upon the premature death of their General Secretary of the Woman's Missionary Association, Miss Vera Blinn, at age thirty-one in 1920. Mrs. Smith, J. Hal, The Radiant Life of Vera B. Blinn (Dayton, Ohio: Otterbein Press, 1921)Google Scholar.

12. Quoted in Baker, Frances J., The Story of the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, 1869-1895 (Cincinnati: Cranston and Curts, 1896), 36 Google Scholar.

13. Brumberg, Mission for Life, 14-17.

14. Robert, American Women in Mission, 46-47n.

15. Birmingham, Alabama, Baptist Press Story, April 9, 1998. For a biography of Lottie Moon, see Allen, Catherine B., The New Lottie Moon Story (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980)Google Scholar.

16. The secret attempts by the Foreign Mission Board to copyright the women's mission offering received severe criticism by Southern Baptists. In the end, a compromise was reached whereby the Woman's Missionary Union copyrighted the names of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering with exclusive licenses granted to the Foreign and Home Mission boards, respectively. Such licensure effectively keeps all mission money under the control of the convention and out of the hands of either dissident “moderates” or the women of the church. The fundamentalist power structure even produced a “sanitized” version of Lottie Moon's life that downplayed her strongminded leadership. See the following: Robert Dilday, “FMB will delay trademark application on Lottie Moon offering, Rankin says,” Associated Baptist Press, May 18, 1995; Teresa Dickens and Robert O'Brien, “FMB drops trademark application for Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” Associated Baptist Press, June 6, 1995; “Trademarks, national training top WMU executive board meeting,” Baptist Press, January 20, 1998; Catherine Allen, “Shifting Sands for Southern Baptist Women in Missions,” in Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers, ed. Robert.

17. Brown, Peter, The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981)Google Scholar; Orsi, Robert A., The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Hartem, 1880-1950 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985)Google Scholar. For a current African case study of the struggle between popular female sainthood and male ecclesiastical control, see Hodgson, Janet, “Mantsopa: Popular Religion and the Anglican Church in South Africa,” in From Missionary to Bishop Moses: Essays on AICs, African Religions, and the Activism of Inus Daneel, ed. Cuthbertson, G., Pretorius, H., and Robert, D. (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, forthcoming 2002)Google Scholar.

18. Mrs.Taylor, Howard, The Triumph of John and Betty Stam (Philadelphia: China Inland Mission), 1935 Google Scholar.

19. Elliot, Elisabeth, Through Gates of Splendor (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), 253 Google Scholar.

20. The Elliot volume is still in print, as is Hitt, Russell T.'s classic, Jungte Pilot: The Life and Witness of Nate Saint (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960)Google Scholar. Recent articles on the Auca martyrs include Stephen E. Saint, “The Unfinished Mission to the ‘Aucas,’” Christianity Today, March 2, 1998, 42-45; Stephen E. Saint, “Did They Have to Die?” Christianity Today, September 16, 1996, 20-27; Kenneth D. MacHarg, ‘Martyrs’ Lost Plane Recovered in Ecuador,” Christianity Today, August 15, 1994, 57; Marion Ford, “Drama Honors Martyred Missionaries: ‘Dayuma’ Celebrates the Life of Missionaries Killed in 1956,” Charisma, January 1996, 27-28; Rick Wood, “Fighting Dependency among the ‘Aucas,’” Mission Frontiers Bulletin, May-June 1998, 8-15. A number of Web sites keep alive the memories of both the Stams and the Auca martyrs. For example, International Teams “Two for Missions” advertises “reader's theater scripts on lives of Jim Elliot and John and Betty Stam.” In Touch Ministries of Dr. Charles Stanley has a portrait and description of Jim Elliot. The mission agency SIM has a biographical sketch of Elliot at its Web site. A number of individuals have meditative reflections or sermons posted on the life of Jim Elliot.

21. Even the larger, non-Christian culture has drawn upon the convention of missionary woman as adventurer, if not heroine, in popular films such as The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman as Gladys Aylward, Deborah Kerr as a missionary nun in Black Narcissus, Katherine Hepburn as Methodist spinster in The African Queen, Audrey Hepburn in The Nun's Story, and Madonna in Shanghai Surprise. For analysis of missionaries in fiction and film, see Alan Neely, “Images: Mission and Missionaries in Contemporary Fiction and Cinema,” Missiology 24, no. 4 (October 1996): 451-78.

22. Harkness, Georgia, “Helen Emily Springer: An Appreciation,” in John Springer, I Love the Trail: A Sketch of the Life of Helen Emily Springer (Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1952), 8 Google Scholar. On Helen Springer, see her biography by her husband, I Love the Trail; her papers at the Archives of the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church, Madison, New Jersey; and Robert, Dana L., “Springer, Helen Emily (Chapman) Rasmussen,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Anderson, Gerald H. (New York: Macmillan, 1998), 635-36Google Scholar.

23. On the woman's missionary movement of the nineteenth Century, see Robert, American Women in Mission, chap. 4.

24. Hill, The World Their Household, 3.

25. See foldout chart in Montgomery, Helen Barrett, Western Women in Lastern Lands: An Outline Study of Fifty Years of Women's Work in Foreign Missions (New York: Macmillan, 1910)Google Scholar.

26. Quoted in Her Children, Mary Clarke Nind and Her Work (Chicago: J. Newton Nind, 1906), 31.

27. Allen, Catherine B., A Century to Celebrate: History of Woman's Missionary Union (Birmingham, Ala.: Woman's Missionary Union, 1987)Google Scholar; Tatum, Noreen Dunn, A Crown of Service: A Story of Women's Work in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1878-1940 (Nashville: Parthenon Press, 1960)Google Scholar.

28. Tyrrell, Ian, Woman's World/Woman's Empire: The Woman's Christian Temperance Union in International Perspective, 1880-1930 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991)Google Scholar.

29. On some of the work of women's home mission societies, see McDowell, John P., The Social Gospel in the South: The Woman's Home Mission Movement in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, 1886-1939 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982)Google Scholar; and Pascoe, Peggy, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990)Google Scholar.

30. Robert, American Women in Mission, 152-59,168-69.

31. Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend, “‘Together and in Harness’: Women's Traditions in the Sanctified Church,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 10, no. 4 (1985): 678-99CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks, Righteous Biscontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 58ffGoogle Scholar.

32. Pui-lan, Kwok, Chinese Women and Christianity, 1860-1927 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992)Google Scholar. On missionary women and the medical profession, see Ruth Compton Brouwer, “Opening Doors through Social Service: Aspects of Women's Work in the Canadian Presbyterian Mission in Central India, 1877-1914,” in Women's Work, ed. Flemming, 11-34; Sara W. Tucker,“A Mission for Change in China: The Hackett Women's Medical Center of Canton, China, 1900-1930,” in Women's Work, ed. Flemming, 137-58; and Fitzgerald, Rosemary, “A ‘Peculiar and Exceptional Measure': The Call for Women Medical Missionaries for India in the Later Nineteenth Century,” in Missionary Encounters: Sources and Issues, ed. Bickers, Robert A. and Seton, Rosemary (Surrey, U.K.: Curzon Press, 1996), 174-96Google Scholar.

33. On the pioneer role played by the women's missionary societies in creating a climate favorable to women's ordination, see Brereton, Virginia Lieson and Klein, Christa Ressmeyer, “American Women in Ministry: A History of Protestant Beginning Points,” in Women of Spirit: Female Leadership in the Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Ruether, Rosemary and McLaughlin, Eleanor (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 302-32Google Scholar.

34. Robert, Dana L., “‘The Crisis of Missions’: Premillennial Mission Theory and the Origins of Independent Evangelical Missions,” in Earthen Vessels: American Evangelicals and Foreign Missions, 1880-1980, ed. Carpenter, Joel A. and Shenk, Wilbert R. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 2946 Google Scholar.

35. See Robert, American Women in Mission, chap. 5.

36. Hassey, Janette, No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry around the Turn ofthe Century (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986)Google Scholar, chap. 4.

37. Before women could be ordained as Methodist ministers in full connection, they could be ordained as local pastors, although such ordinations were uncommon. Presumably the Methodist women ordained by mission conferences were considered local pastors. On the Presbyterian struggle for the ordination of women, see Lois A. Boyd and R. Douglas Brackenridge, Presbyterian Women in America: Two Centuries of a Quest for Status (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983).

38. Lane, Ortha May, Under Marching Orders in North China (Tyler, Tex.: Story-Wright, 1971)Google Scholar; Landstrom, Elsie H., ed., Hyla Doc: Surgeon in China through War and Revolution, 1924-1949 (Fort Bragg, Calif.: Q.E.D. Press, 1991)Google Scholar; Archival note on Marie Adams, Archives, Boston University School of Theology.

39. Flynt, Wayne and Berkley, Gerald W., Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 232 Google Scholar.

40. Robert, American Women in Mission, 417.

41. Parker, J. Fred, Mission to the World: A History of Missions in the Church of the Nazarene through 1985 (Kansas City, Mo.: Nazarene Publishing House, 1988)Google Scholar. See Fitkins' biography by Miller, Basil, Susan N. Fitkin: For God and Missions (Kansas City, Mo.: Nazarene Publishing House, n.d.)Google Scholar.

42. Sumner, David E., The Episcopal Church's History: 1945-1985 (Wilton, Conn.: Morehouse-Barlow, 1987), 12 Google Scholar.

43. Cattan, Louise A., Lamps Arefor Lighting: The Story of Helen Barrett Montgomery and Lucy Waterbury Peabody (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)Google Scholar.

44. Montgomery, Helen Barrett, trans., Centenary Translation: The New Testament in Modern English (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1924)Google Scholar.

45. Bushnell, Katharine C., God's Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman's Place in the Divine Economy, 2d ed. (Mooseville, Ill.: God's Word to Women Publishers, 1923)Google Scholar.

46. On the merger of the women's mission boards back into the general denominational structures, see Robert, American Women in Mission, 302-16; Hill, The World Their Household; Beaver, R. Pierce, American Women in World Mission: History of the First Feminist Movement in North America, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980)Google Scholar, chap. 7; and Verdesi, Elizabeth Howell, In But Still Out: Women in the Church (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976)Google Scholar.

47. Frame's correspondence with Mount Holyoke is held in the Archives of the United Church Board for World Ministries, Houghton Library, Harvard University, and the Day Missions Library, Yale Divinity School.

48. Ludwig, Charles, Mama Was a Missionary (Anderson, Ind.; Warner Press, 1963)Google Scholar; Juanita Evans Leonard, “Women and the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.): Mission with the Abaluyia of Western Kenya, 1905-75” (Ph.D. diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1998).

49. M. Cristina Zaccarini, “Between Tradition and Challenge: The Discursive Representations of China Missionary Dr. Ailie Gale, 1908-1950,” unpublished paper, 3.

50. See Crahan, Margaret E., ed., Human Rights and Basic Needs in the Americas (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1982)Google Scholar; Lernoux, Penny, Cry of the People: The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America—The Catholic Church in Conflict with U.S. Policy (New York: Penguin Books, 1980)Google Scholar; and Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jack, War against the Poor: Low-intensity Conflict and Christian Faith (Maryknoll: Orbis Press, 1989)Google Scholar.

51. Berrigan, Daniel, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine (Boston: Beacon Press, 1970)Google Scholar.

52. Woodward, Bob, Veil: The Secret Wars of the CIA, 1981-1987 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 225 Google Scholar.

53. Lernoux, Penny, Hearts on Fire: The Story of the Maryknoll Sisters (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993)Google Scholar. Missionary sisters of many congregations continue to provide information to North Americans about atrocities and oppression in Latin America. For example, the recent newsletter of Amnesty International printed a letter by a Sinsinawa Dominican sister about the exhumation of bodies from Guatemala's civil war. Julie Schwab, O.P., “Finding the War Forward,” Amnesty Action, Spring 1998, 6-7. For an overview of the American Catholic mission movement, see Dries, Angelyn, The Missionary Movement in American Catholic History (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1998)Google Scholar.

54. For example, prominent essayist Lydia Sigourney corresponded with American Board missionary Sybil Bingham of Hawaii. Sigourney wrote articles and poems that dealt with women's experiences as missionaries. See L. H. Sigourney, “Mothers, as Christian Teachers,” Lady's Book, January 1839,3.

55. For example, Methodist women sponsored The Heathen Woman's Friend, Presbyterians Woman's Work for Woman, Congregationalists Light and Life for Heathen Women, the American Baptists Helping Hand, and so forth.

56. Some of the more important turn-of-the-century independent Holiness mission magazines were The Revivalist, run by Minnie Knapp, Bessie Queen, and Mary Storey of God's Bible School; The Vanguard, published by Free Methodist Anna Abrams of St. Louis; and Trust, by Pentecostal Elizabeth Baker of the Rochester Bible Training School.

57. Judith Copeland, “So Closely in Touch with the Spirit of Missions: A Portrait of a Local Missionary Society in the Late Nineteenth Century,” unpublished paper, 1995.

58. Ibid., 185-87.

59. Chun Chae Ok, “Kim, Helen,” in Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, ed. Anderson, 364.

60. Kawai, Michi and Kubushiro, Ochimi, Japanese Women Speak (Boston: Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, 1934)Google Scholar. See Kawai's fascinating autobiography, with its extensive references to her friendships with American women. Kawai, Michi, My Lantern (Ginza, Tokyo: Kyo Bun Kwan, 1939)Google Scholar.

61. On Mina Soga, see the book written for the Missionary Education Movement by Seabury, Ruth Isabel, Daughter of Africa (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1945)Google Scholar. Missionary Clara Bridgman insisted that the National Christian Council of South Africa choose a black woman as delegate to the 1938 meeting (57). On the importance of “reverse mission” in developing a global Christian discourse between the world wars, see Dana L. Robert, “The First Globalization? The Internationalization of the Protestant Missionary Movement between the World Wars,” working paper, Currents in World Christianity Project, Cambridge University, 2001.

62. Stories of the Christian piety of Mrs. Chiang, and her struggle to preserve the Chinese Republic against both the Japanese and communists, were widely distributed in the West. Missionaries tried to influence public opinion in favor of the Chiangs. See, for example, the children's book written by mission professor and author Mathews, Basil, Wings over China: Generalissimo and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (London: Edinburgh House Press, 1940)Google Scholar. For a sympathetic view of the life and piety of Mrs. Chiang, see Hahn, Emily, The Soong Sisters (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Doran and Co., 1944)Google Scholar. For a critical view of how the Chiangs and their relatives manipulated the American public through publishing magnate and former missionary kid Henry Luce's Time, Inc., and stole millions from the United States government, see Seagrave, Sterling, The Soong Dynasty (New York: Harper and Row, 1985)Google Scholar.

63. Peabody, Emily C., Corinna Shattuck; Missionary Heroine (Chicago: Woman's Board of Missions of the Inferior, 1913)Google Scholar.

64. For the story of the relief effort, see Barton, James L., Story of Near East Relief (1915-1930): An Interpretation (New York: Macmillan, 1930)Google Scholar. For the high death toll among missionaries working in the relief effort, see pages 333-39; and Daniel, R. L., American Philanthropy in the Near East, 1820-1960 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1970), 148-70Google Scholar. With missionaries providing the “active leadership,” Near East Relief distributed more than a hundred million dollars in supplies to the needy (169).

65. Robert, Dana L., “The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Mission to Russians in Manchuria, 1920-1927,” Methodist History 26, no. 2 (January 1988): 6783 Google Scholar.

66. Dana L. Robert, “The ‘Christian Home’ as a Cornerstone of Missionary Thought and Practice,” NAMP Position Paper, no. 98 (Cambridge, U.K.: North Atlantic Missiology Project, 1998).

67. “Protestors at Army Americas School Convicted,” Boston Globe, March 5, 1998, p. A22. The leader of the protests against the Army School of the Americas is Maryknoll Father Roy Bourgeois, a form er missionary in Bolivia. See Barbara Jentzsch with Tom Johnson, “The School of the Americas: The School of Assassins,” Christian Social Action (July/August 1977): 4-14; and Roy Bourgeois, “School of Terror,” Review for Religious (July-August 1992): 504-7. It is worth exploring why Roman Catholic missionary women have had a higher profile in protesting American foreign policy in the last thirty years than Protestant women. Perhaps since Catholic sisters have been less dependent on grassroots support than Protestant women, they have felt more free to criticize the American government. Also, their spiritual formation binds them to an international rather than American church. The twentieth-century Catholic tradition of social justice teachings may also be a factor.

68. See Xi, Lian, The Conversion of Missionaries: Liberalism in American Protestant Missions in China, 1907-1932 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)Google Scholar; and Flynt and Berkley, Taking Christianity to China, chap. 12.

69. For exploration of this issue, see Robert, ed., Gospel Bearers, Gender Barriers.

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