Pursuing Partnership: Women Missing in Recorded Church History – Week 10

Women Missing in Church History: Filling Out the Historical Record
Denominational Missionaries and Bible Women
Based on Women in the Mission of the Church, by Dzubinski/Stasson

(Used by permission: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021)

A Taste of Chapter 8: Denominational Missionaries and Bible Women
By Rebecca Hopkins  www.rebeccahopkins.org

Susan B. Anthony is one of the best known suffragettes in American history, but a lesser-known colleague of hers—Helen Barrett Montgomery—didn’t stop there.

Montgomery worked with Anthony for women’s rights in America, but also cared about mission work overseas. She wrote extensively on this topic, publishing a report called “The King’s Highway” in 1915 that sold 160,000 copies. She raised $1 million to support women’s mission work in Asia—equivalent to $27 million in today’s dollars. And she served as president of the Women’s American Baptist Foreign Mission Society and later for the Northern Baptist Convention. [1]

She’s one of an increasing movement of Protestant and Catholic women who, in modern time, engaged in foreign mission work, despite many obstacles for doing so, wrote professor Leanne Dzubinski and historian Anneke Stasson in their new book, “Women in the Mission of the Church.”

Catholic nuns were some of the earliest foreign female missionaries, sometimes working to include native women into their convents despite opposition by local authorities, or fighting against male priests to join them in their mission work overseas.[2]

Protestant women in the early 19th century couldn’t become missionaries unless they married missionaries. Ann Hasseltine Judson married now famous Adoniram Hudson, and was productive in mission work in her own right. She started a school for girls in Burma, led Bible studies, and worked alongside her husband in Bible translation. Wives who struggled to find their own ministry due to the heavy load of domestic work overseas still found ways to embrace their roles in a missiological sense, modeling a Christian home for others.[3]

Single women struggled to find their place in male-led denominational sending boards. So, women started their own missionary societies that sent out single women to make an impact on education, medicine and women’s rights around the world. Some of them perpetuated negative stereotypes of women of color and promoted their own superiority.[4]  But others found ways to include local women, like in the case of “Bible women” in Asia and Africa who were hired to spread the Gospel to villages.[5] And notably, due to their gender, female missionaries had the ability to see practices such as foot-binding in China and female genital mutilation in Africa as both oppressive to women and obstacles to the spreading of the Gospel.[6] And they worked to stand against these practices.

Women had such a huge impact on modern missions through these missionary societies that women constituted 60 percent of the mission force—a figure that holds true today. And women were more likely to belong to a missionary society than other kinds of societies. But in the early 20th century, many denominational leaders worked to close these women’s missionary society to bring their work under male leadership.[7]

“The pattern of dissolution continued until practically all the women’s sending boards had been dissolved and their work absorbed into the main denominational boards,” the authors wrote. “The closing down of the women’s boards was such a major shift that it could truly be called a ‘sea change.’”[8]

[1] Leanne Dzubinski, Anneke Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church, Their Opportunities and Obstacles throughout Christian History” (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 176-177.

[2] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 164-164.

[3] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 165-166.

[4] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 174.

[5] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 168-171.

[6] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 175.

[7] Dzubinski, Stasson, “Women in the Mission of the Church,” 179-181.

[8] Ibid.