Women in Mission: a Protestant Tradition
by Dana Robert
While the 1910 World Missionary Conference was meeting in Edinburgh, Scotland, committees of church women were planning interdenominational gatherings in cities and towns across the United States. The Woman’s Missionary Jubilee of 1910-1911 marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the first major women’s missionary society. Jubilee celebrations were held in 48 major cities and many smaller locations. Across the country, local women gathered for missionary teas, pageants, and luncheons to hear jubilee speeches by a traveling team of female mission leaders. They celebrated the achievements of what was then the largest women’s movement in America—women organized for world mission.
Jubilee participants included 3 million dues-paying members of more than 40 denominational women’s societies. Women’s mission societies held regular circle meetings at local churches. They raised money for missions through church fairs and other activities. Many societies published their own magazines about missionary work among women and children around the world. They recruited and sent female missionaries. As the first women’s groups in all the predecessor denominations of The United Methodist Church, they were the forerunners of today’s United Methodist Women.
American Women in Mission
When American laywomen organized to form mission societies in the 1800s, they were deliberately following in the footsteps of Mary Magdalene, Tabitha, early deaconesses, and other persistent women of faith. As they witnessed to the way of Jesus, they found their own voices. In 1869, despite opposition from male leaders who predicted they would fail, Methodist women in New England formed the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society.
Since women were then not permitted to raise funds at regular church events, they depended on five-cent membership dues and life memberships. Not only did they succeed in sending their own missionaries and in supporting indigenous “Bible women” evangelists, but their self-published mission magazine immediately turned a profit. When John R. Mott, who headed the world YMCA and chaired the 1910 Edinburgh conference, was asked how he first got interested in world missions, he recalled his childhood reading of the Methodist women’s missionary magazine that his mother left lying around the house.
Methodist women also reached out to immigrants in crowded urban slums. They revived the ancient order of deaconesses as women consecrated to work among the poor. Deaconesses visited the poor in their homes, opened kindergartens and settlement houses, and even founded charity hospitals in cities. Methodist women cared about both the spiritual well-being of individuals and the goal of making the world a better place. This dual emphasis was expressed by Southern Methodist mission leader Belle Harris Bennett, who founded the Scarritt College for Christian Workers to train women in evangelism and social work.
At the time of the 1910 Jubilee celebrations, Baptist mission leader Helen Barrett Montgomery considered the Methodist women’s mission groups to be the strongest in all the denominations. They had sent more missionaries than any other women’s society in the United States, including thousands of indigenous women workers. Methodist women pioneered all aspects of mission service. They founded the first women’s college in Asia—Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, India—and what became the largest women’s college in Asia—Ewha Women’s University in Korea.
Methodist women were the first female medical missionaries in India and China. They opposed foot binding and female infanticide in China and introduced government legislation to abolish child marriages in India. In Africa, they sheltered girls fleeing forced marriages and rescued abandoned children. Methodist missionary women exposed sex trafficking by infiltrating brothels established in the late 1800s near lumber camps in Wisconsin and by the British army near troop barracks. Trained as social workers, they founded kindergartens and social service centers in cities around the world and ran baby wellness clinics in rural areas. They witnessed to Christ and brought people to the Christian faith in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.
During the early 20th century, women’s mission societies focused on supporting education, health care, social services, and evangelism for women and children. In the American South, Methodist home mission societies opposed racial segregation by insisting on holding interracial meetings. While the women’s mission societies that celebrated the 1910 Jubilee do not exist in the same form today, during much of the century they steadily pressured their denominations to make the improvement of life for women and children a core priority for mission work in North America and abroad. Despite the limitations of colonialism and missionary paternalism, women in mission steadfastly worked to improve women’s lives through education and advocacy.
Women in the World Church
A century after the Woman’s Jubilee, the leadership of women in churches around the world remains a vital part of its legacy. As was the case in early Christianity, the majority of Christians in the world church today are women. Although they are not typically ordained pastors, women are taking a leading part in what is probably the greatest expansion of Christianity since the conversion of Europe. Women make up at least 70 percent of Christians in indigenous African churches, while 70 percent of house church members in China are probably women. Latin American Pentecostalism is growing fastest among women, who typically bring their men into the church rather than the other way around. Even as Catholic congregations are having trouble attracting Western women, they are being filled with women from Latin America, India, and Africa. The growth of Christianity in the world today is a women’s movement.
In every “mission field,” missionary women founded women’s organizations in the churches. These groups quickly became popular and remained independent of both male and missionary control. Today, women’s groups lead local evangelistic and mission outreach. In Southern Africa, married women in the church organize themselves into Mothers’ Unions. The Anglican Mothers’ Union, with its motto “Christian Care for Families Worldwide,” had 3.6 million members by 2005, most of them African. Mothers’ Union members run daycare centers, soup kitchens, orphan programs, literacy training, premarital counseling, and health management for those with HIV/AIDS. They wear special uniforms as a sign of solidarity and spiritual purpose.
In 1907, a South African minister’s wife, Mrs. Gqosho, founded the Methodist women’s Manyano movement. Stemming from women’s revival prayer meetings, the movement swept through African Methodist churches. Women in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa hold mid-week preaching and prayer events and send their best preachers on evangelistic crusades from Fridays until Sundays. They run income-generating projects that support widows and orphans in the larger community and raise money to pay school fees for their children. Both Manyanos and Mothers’ Unions hold meetings for girls, giving them biblically based and culturally appropriate teachings about marriage and child rearing.
A major role of women’s groups in churches around the world is to strengthen families by supporting the dignity of women and the care and education of children. Studies of healthy churches show that women join because they find friendship and support. In societies where women do not have rights equal with those of men, church women’s groups provide solidarity and strength in numbers.
Another important missionary role for women has been the “Bible woman.” In the 19th century, Bible women were indigenous traveling evangelists who visited with village women and taught them to read the Bible. As the first non-Western women workers supported by women’s missionary societies, they worked as pioneer evangelists alongside the fi rst female missionaries. For example, Dora Yu, a Chinese medical doctor and Bible woman, partnered with Mrs. Josephine Campbell, and the two of them were the first female missionaries from the Southern Methodist Church to enter Korea in 1897. For six years, in her official role as a Bible woman, Yu attended female patients, preached, taught the Bible to women, conducted door-to-door visitation, and taught poor children. Today in Southeast Asia—including the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Oceania (Pacific Island nations), and India—women continue the important tradition of the early Bible women by visiting women in their homes, teaching them to read, and educating them about HIV/AIDS and other public issues. Now called Gospel Women, deaconesses, evangelists, and missionaries, Asian women continue to serve in mission and ministry around the world.
Mission Support Declines
Reasons for the gradual decline in mission-supported women’s institutions are many. In the early 20th century, lifetime mission work as a teacher or doctor was one of the most innovative career paths for unmarried women. By the late 20th century, this was no longer the case. Long-term personnel were replaced by short-term workers who lacked the lifetime commitment of previous generations. Additional problems in continuity were caused by the general rejection of missionaries that took place from the 1960s onward in the older missions of mainline churches—the very missions in which women’s institutions were best developed.
One reason for the decline of women’s mission institutions was the “devolution” process itself. When, in the mid-20th century, missionary-founded institutions were turned over to national churches, the women’s ministries were often allowed to collapse because male leaders did not place a high priority on women’s work. The loss of financial support from American women’s mission societies, along with male leaders’ neglect, meant that women’s ministries were the first to disappear.
During the 1950s and 1960s, another wave of devolution occurred in the wake of nationalist independence movements. Many countries newly independent of Western control nationalized their mission institutions, and the missionaries were thrown out of the country. Sometimes the mission schools thrived under new leadership, but often they were neglected—perceived as symbols of colonialism. Under Communist leadership, for example, all mission schools in China were closed during the Cold War, and their work was repudiated as imperialistic. In Muslim countries, mission institutions were often nationalized. For example, Presbyterian Forman Christian College in Pakistan was seized by the Islamic government—only to be reopened many years later by President Musharraf, who appreciated the unique features of the mission school. Similarly in China, renewed appreciation for the pioneering work of mission schools has emerged in the past 20 years.
Another reason women’s mission societies lost control of women’s ministries was denominational reorganization. In the early 20th century, women supported their own missionaries. With denominational reorganizational plans, however, the support of missionaries was stripped away from women’s groups. In 1964, for example, Methodist women’s mission societies lost the right to send their own missionaries and to promote mission education to children. As male-controlled denominations took away laywomen’s rights in one church after another—often in the name of “efficiency” or of reducing duplication of effort—women fought to gain voice and vote and then clergy rights within the churches. Thus the end of the woman’s missionary society shifted the focus from supporting women’s rights in the mission fields to struggling for women’s rights within the churches at home. From a historical perspective, there is a straight path from women’s mission work to the ordination and mainstreaming of women into the power structures of mainline churches today.
With the realization that Christianity in the 20th century is a worldwide religion, it is time to recover and lift up the central role women played in mission and outreach in the growing churches around the world. From a global perspective, organizing laywomen into groups, teaching them to read, promoting advances in medical care and human rights, and helping women gain economic self-sufficiency can lift entire communities out of poverty. To echo what the missionaries of old used to say, the health of societies can be judged by how they treat women and children. To reach the mother is to improve all of society. Despite understandable changes in structures for mission, the well-being of women and children must remain mission priorities in the 21st century.
Dana Robert is the Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission, Boston University School of Theology. This article is adapted from her study Joy to the World: Mission in the Age of Global Christianity, which was the 2010-2011 mission study of United Methodist Women. Used by permission of United Methodist Women, national office, this version was first published in the March-April 2014 edition of New World Outlook magazine.
Eighteen years after the Jubilee in 1910, Southern Methodist women celebrated their own 50th anniversary jubilee in 1928, commemorating the founding of the Woman’s Missionary Society in 1878. Original Artwork: Mary Turley Marks, 1928
Isabella Thoburn, first missionary of the Methodist Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, founded the first women’s college on the continent of Asia, Isabella Thoburn College in Lucknow, India.
Photo: GENERAL COMMISSION ON ARCHIVES AND HISTORY, UMC
Dr. Clara Swain, sent by the WFMS to India in 1870, shortly after Isabella Thoburn’s arrival, was the founding doctor of the Woman’s Hospital and Medical School (Clara Swain Hospital) in Bareilly, India, the first women’s hospital in Asia. Photo: GENERAL COMMISSION ON ARCHIVES AND HISTORY, UMC
Carlione (left), a Methodist Bible Woman in the village of Bharathiyar Nagar, in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, teaches basic literacy skills to other women in her village. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
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