Beacon Street Diary blog

Women missionaries speak

In the mid-1800s, as mission work expanded in scope, the ABCFM began to actively recruit women missionaries. The goal of the missions — to create self-sustaining churches — required not only pastors, but nurses, doctors, and teachers. While ministers' wives and even single women had long gone to work in missions, the ABCFM formalized women's involvement by establishing the Women's Board of Missions in 1868.

The Women's Board was responsible for recruiting and training women missionaries. The board had offices on the seventh floor of Congregational House, five floors up from where the Congregational Library & Archives sits today. In our present-day archives, we have a collection of pamphlets that were used to encourage women to become missionaries. Glancing through the papers allows us to eavesdrop on a conversations between women that happened over one hundred years ago.

The green-printed cover of one folded brochure speaks directly to young middle-class women:

"TO YOU who are enjoying all the rich fruitage of a Christian education and who are seeking the largest opportunities for sharing what you have received with others, unless you are detained in this land by imperative obligations, the call is to go."

Inside the brochure, women read descriptions of missions in South Africa, Turkey, India, China, Japan, and Micronesia. There were positions for teachers, nurses, even doctors in addition to the more traditional "evangelistic worker". The pamphlet spoke to worried mothers as well, assuring that as their daughters were called to go, they were called to let go.

In a pamphlet with the simple title Being a Missionary, missionary worker Mrs. H. S. Calder spoke directly to other women who are considering missionary work. She addressed both their concerns and their hopes.

"When you mention to your friends that you are thinking of becoming a foreign missionary, some of them will tell you that you are quite too good for this work,-- that some one who has had fewer advantages, some one of less culture, some one made of a coarser fiber, not such a choice spirit as you, some one whose life is more allied to those people in whom you have developed this sudden interest, some one not so far above them in education and refinement,-- that such a person will do that work far better than you can do it; that it is your duty to use your superior talents where they will avail the most, and that it is wrong to 'cast pearls before swine.' …But they need your help and stimulus."

Calder wrote of the challenges educated women would have as missionaries, and spoke frankly about her own struggles.

"You are fond of school work, and feel that you can succeed in that, but you find your attention and time taken by the most uninteresting and distasteful details of domestic work, toward which you never had any learning, and which you know little about. I well remember how appalled I was when, in the first or second year of missionary experience, I was in charge of the schoolgirls for an hour while they were mending their clothes, and one of them quietly said to me, 'Will you please cut my dress?' I stood aghast. I, not at all adept at dressmaking, then and there, without patterns, cut a dress for a girl sixteen years old? Don't ask me the end of this story, for it might be unpleasant for me, but remember that you need to be better equipped for your position than I was for mine."

But the hard work would be fulfilling. Calder wrote, "If you are weak, under this experience you will grow strong. If you are severe, you will soften. I have seen it."

Congregational missionaries worked to engage women who stayed in the United States as well. The Women's Board of Missions of the Interior, based in Chicago, focused primarily on fundraising to support the missions. The WBMI provided opportunities for engagement to women who were not able to venture out into the field, but who wished to support others who went abroad as foreign missionaries. In one pamphlet, the WBMI explains its mission:

"Its object is the engage the earnest, systemic co-operation of Christian women in sending out and supporting women as missionaries, native teachers, and Bible readers to women and Children in Christless lands."

The WBMI published letters from women currently serving in missions in their magazines. Ann Ellis Pullen, Kennesaw State University professor emerita, wrote about the life of Nellie Arnott, who was engaged both in missionary work and in marketing the missions. Arnott wrote letters designed to be read in public and articles for WBMI magazines about her life in Angola, to help raise money for the missions and persuade other women to follow her overseas.

"It was clear to Arnott that pert of her responsibility was to write circular letters to her supporters at home to encourage donations, to encourage just thinking about the missions, and coming to the missions," says Pullen. "The women's magazines were certainly intended to be a marketing tool."

Pullen notes that Arnott's diaries are often discouraged about the mission and her role on it, but the letters she wrote to friends and for publication were upbeat and cheerful. "The female missionaries were encouraged to become missionary journalists in a very positive way, as a marketing tool," she said.

Even if it is propagandistic, these pamphlets and articles are examples of women speaking directly to women in the early 20th century in the marketing of mission work. Through their words, we can begin to understand what mattered to Congregational women, and what might have persuaded a young woman from Iowa to pick up and move to Angola, as Nellie Arnott did. These pamphlets are important records, helping us remember women's dreams, women's frustrations, and voices like Calder's encouraging middle-class women to claim a little agency, and go on an adventure.