By Cara M. Hall
On May 21, 1925, the official Mount Baker District, Women’s Missionary Society was born. 1 Between the years of 1925 and 1968, the District reigned over the surrounding areas. Through the years, it consisted of groups in Bellingham, Clearbrook, Everett, Hartford, Mt. Vernon, New Westminster B.C., Sedro Woolley, Vancouver B.C., and Vancouver Heights B.C. as well as many others.2 This list of members is an incomplete list taken from a 1949 report. The District itself held only one annual meeting, usually in the beginning of the year. The Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections had pages and pages of these minutes which always began with “The ____ Annual Meeting of the Women’s Missionary Society, Mount Baker District was held in ________ Lutheran Church” and usually ended with “Delicious Refreshments were served.”3 Beyond that, the minutes were relatively vague. It is clear to me, having skimmed a number of these minutes, that the Missionary Society did good work that they were proud of– it is merely not well documented. Other reports declared the importance of spreading the faith, teaching and caring for the children, and, most often noted, raising money. Be it for the church or for foreign missions, much of the work documented was records and reports of fundraising.
While the ultimate goal of missionary work lies somewhere in the need to spread the “Good News,” the purpose of the Women’s Missionary Societies of the Mount Baker District was to support these important missions from afar. They had a variety of methods and techniques they used, some of which were simply overt fundraising tactics while others emphasized prayer and education more than money. Much of their work required fundraising because of the need for money to make the missions happen. However, these women dedicated much of their time and efforts into gathering support and offering education. Without this work, which may seem trivial and pale in comparison to the grand work being done overseas, the missions could not have existed. This paper will explore and investigate a few of the common methods used by these societies. I will analyze a variety of programs held by the Mount Baker District. In particular, I will analyze the “My Missionary for a Day” program and compare it to some modern day fundraising techniques. I will also explore “Mission Tidings”, Prayer Day, and Mission Study which are all programs that are far too complicated to label as mere fundraising techniques. It is difficult to truly understand the work these women were doing because of the brevity of the minutes found in the archives. As a result, much of the what I know about these programs was pieced together from the various reports.
One of the programs that continually surfaced in the notes and minutes of the Mount Baker District was “Mission Tidings”. It is my understanding that “Mission Tidings” was a sort of periodical that gave updates to the church community on the status of the missions. Many of the minutes merely read “Mission Tidings Secretary read her report.” Some cases had a section that was titled “Mission Tidings Report” in which the usual plea for more subscribers was parroted. In one: “Mission Tidings Secretary’s Promotional Report” a Mrs. Harold E Borgestrom urges members to:
“Be missionary-minded! Read and study in the coming months, our missionary magazine, Mission Tidings, now under the new title “Lutheran Women’s World”. It brings news, unites efforts, provides tools, reports accurately, inspires action. Read the books and references your magazine gives you information about. Be an informed Christian.”4
This is a more elegantly worded plea than many. Most merely stated that the magazine did not have enough subscribers and urged its members to elicit as many subscribers as possible. It is unclear where the money from these subscriptions went but I assume that the desire for more subscribers came as a result of an interest in raising more money to support the missions. Why then did they not just say that outright? Maybe it was to appeal to the audience. Perhaps the women realized that they were in a constant state of fundraising and recognized that churchgoers may be tired of hearing them ask. By doing it in this way, they could appeal to the church members interests in the missions themselves.
Dana Roberts addresses the excitement that stemmed from hearing a missionary speak in church. She mentions that the missionary brought exciting, new and colorful stories to the usually boring and traditional Sunday service. She continues to express how “These women put a face on foreign peoples and cultures for ordinary Americans.”5 This method of bringing the missions to the people still stuck in church on Sunday was effective because it helped the people to see first hand what their money and support was going to, which for the Mount Baker District meant subscribing to programs like “Mission Tidings.” Roberts also states that “Dependent on partnerships with church women in the United States, missionaries were hometown heroines, known and beloved by their neighbors.”6 If this is the case with the Mount Baker District missionaries as well, it would give members even more of a reason to subscribe to the magazine, so that they would receive updates on their friends and family members.
Another program employed by the Mount Baker District was the “My Missionary for a Day” program. This appealed to the emotional attachment that came from the missionary being a friend or family member but it also created those bonds for people who didn’t have that connection initially. Much like charity programs today, Donors could “adopt” or sponsor a missionary. In this case, the various groups within the Mount Baker District as well as the district itself could choose a missionary to support and even a day on which to support them. It is unclear what is done on this day but there are a number of records such as the one pictured below that list many of the same missionaries year after year. Perhaps the groups may have known the women prior to their missions? Or maybe, they develop an attachment to them through the program?
This report shows the missionaries being sponsored by the Mount Vernon Women’s Missionary Society alone. The report has the name of the missionary listed, day supported, partner’s name, Church and location, District, and amount and date paid. The amount paid is $3.00 for every entry. The partner’s name is often the name of an individual but in some cases it is the entire Mount Vernon group or even the Junior or Young Women’s Missionary Society. While there are twenty-one entries listed, there are only nine individual missionaries listed due to the same women being supported by different partners and groups. Vivian Gulleen is listed six times as well as being noted in the District minutes of that same year as being the missionary decided upon for the entire District to support which they did on February 14, “St. Valentine’s day.” 7 Who is this Vivian Gulleen? Is she someone that was a member of the society before she became a missionary, or was she just chosen randomly to be the most supported missionary of the lot? She is not mentioned in any of the other minutes I have read save as the “My Missionary for a Day” subject.
This method of choosing a specific individual to support and donate money to is a strategy still employed by organizations today. Compassion International and Save the Children are some of the many organizations that ask you to “adopt a child” oftentimes advertising for “less than a dollar a day.” Usually, the children live in poverty some thousands of miles away in a third world country where they are starving or living in areas of poor health. This pathos tactic draws attention by showing images of the children they are asking people to adopt. Sometimes it creates guilt in viewers for having the health and wellness that they do and that entices them to donate or “adopt.” Whatever their motivation is, they are then oftentimes given updates regarding the child and sometimes may even write or receive letters. This strengthens the emotional bond established when a donor first viewed the images that led them to donate.
Jen Shang works as a philanthropic psychologist and studies these advertisements and their effectiveness as well as the organizations behind them. She acknowledges that these images of starving children grab attention but she says: “The psychological transformation from paying attention to giving money is the process of integrating that cause from the external world into one’s most inner sense of who they are.” 8 This process leads to the bond between donor and receiver. This bond is the one that is so emphasized and important in the “My Missionary for a Day” program. Much like adopting a child, these women and groups adopted a missionary and received updates or letters that helped them to see where their money was going. This was an exciting differentiation from the more common forms of asking for donations although it was still an overt means of collecting money for these missions. The pathos appeal here was that the people the missionaries were visiting were suffering because they lacked having Christ in their lives. In a Historian’s Report, Zion Everett mentioned brief updates on a few foreign missions. She mentions the fleeing from Communist China and states that one missionary wrote to ask for help. The report read “Prayer from [the society] is the most effective force against Communism.”9
The fear of the spread of communism in the United States was very real at this time and by appealing to this fear, missionaries and missionary societies were able to get more support.
This report also mentions the Annual Prayer Day which usually occurred once a year during Advent. Usually, there was a program of sorts put out by the District. The District also asked that everyone pray for the same mission. For a while it was for missions in Africa but this report states that the Prayer Day that year should be focused on the situation in China and “emphasizing the great need for consecrated lives to combat this evil.” 10 Prayer Day eventually became significant enough to warrant its own secretary who would then give a report at the District Meeting. The report pictured below is from the year 1949. It lists all the societies within the district and gives a very brief summary of what events took place on the Prayer Day of that year.
This duty of prayer and spiritual support of missions was often emphasized more in public or District wide reports than in annual minutes. The President’s report was often littered with spiritual encouragements and sometimes even acted as a call to action. The women in charge implored the members to participate in anyway they could. The President’s Report of 1952 is a perfect example. In this, the president at the time, Mrs. V. L. Estergreem lays out her intended plan for the next year. The theme is “Pray-Plan-Participate” 11 and each section focuses on that goal. She encourages groups to pray during every meeting and emphasizes the importance of Prayer Day. She then goes on to ask groups to plan more events and get more people interested. The Participate section read more like a call to arms. She compared the numbers from the current year to those of 1949 and noted a serious decline. She implored members to be more active participants: More praying, more Missions Tidings Subscriptions, More fundraising, More Mission Study Programs.
The Mission Study or Mission Education programs were another duty that these societies took on. These were lessons that societies paid to use to teach children and other members of the church about the importance of missions. These programs are emphasized in a number of minutes and reports. Using the District’s Mission Study program was highly encouraged although not required; groups could create their own programs. This is where the goal of fundraising is overshadowed by the role of the women to teach about the importance of missions. It was expected of these women to fill that role prescribed to them because of their gender. Although the idea of fundraising was still there since groups paid for the lessons, it was really the idea of teaching in general which is why groups were allowed to create their own programs. These programs were what I imagine to be like Sunday School or Religious Education in that they were likely held once a week and focused on the youth in the community. This emphasis on educating the children can be found in President’s Reports of the Mount Baker District as well as in the book Dictionary of Mission which states:
“Efforts to broaden the horizons of mission education for children have resulted in programs designed to create faith-based experiences of solidarity with children around the world, to educate for peace and justice in light of the gospel message, to foster respect for all peoples, and to cultivate reverence for all creation. 12
Mount Baker District’s Mission Study program was one of these programs.
Education was one task of the society; Supporting foreign missions was another. However, for a period of time, this was the only role of women in missionary work. The book, Guardians of the Great Commission: The Story of Women in Modern Missions has a chapter titled: “A Woman’s Place: Support Efforts Behind the Scene.” The chapter opens by emphasizing the importance of the work women were doing in the 1800s on the mainland to support missions abroad. In 1810, a man named Adoniram Judson became aware of the lack of money he had for missions and then, instead of asking for support among the New England Congregationalists, “He realized the potential value of women’s fundraising” and wrote to encourage them to help “their sisters in the East.” 13 These women started by “practicing ‘proper economy’ within the home and in terms of their personal attire.”14 This meant that they set aside their desires for the finer things in life such as jewelry and fine clothes in order to support those abroad. Eventually, these women formed missionary societies such as in the Mount Baker District.
From these minutes and reports, it is clear (although not explicitly stated) that these women had a profound sense of duty to support the missions. That duty manifests itself in the efforts to raise funds, elicit support, and educate both the public and in particular the youth on the status of these missions. They created an intricate web of programs such as “My Missionary for a Day,” “Mission Tidings,” Prayer Day and Mission Study. These programs are so intricate that is is unfair to label them as merely “fundraising.” They were means of support, spiritual development, community growth, as well as often being a means of increasing monetary funds. The purpose of these societies lie in their dedication and commitment to the work they did, despite its seeming insignificance compared to the work being done abroad.
“And Delicious Refreshments were served.”
- “Mount Baker District Report.” Silver Jubilee Album. 1939. Women’s Missionary Society Records, Box 22, File 9. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
- “Prayer Day Report 1949.” Box 22, File 7. Women’s Missionary Society Records, Box 22, File 9. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
- Mrs. John S. “Mount Baker District W.M.S Meeting.” New Westminster, B.C. Canada, January 26, 1959. Women’s Missionary Society Records, Box 22, File 9. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
- Borgestrom, Harold E. Mrs. “Mission Tiding’s Secretary’s Promotional Report. Annual Report. 1952. Women’s Missionary Society Records, Box 22, File 7. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
- Robert, Dana L. “The Effect of Missionary Work Back Home.” Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Volume 12, No. 1, pages 59-89. © 2002 by The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture. Berkeley, CA.
- Robert. “The Effect of Missionary Work Back Home.”
- “District Meeting Minutes” 1949. Women’s Missionary Society Records, Box 22, File 7. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
- David Wallis, “Getting Into a Benefactor’s Head,” The New York Times, November 08, 2012, , accessed May 18, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/09/giving/understanding-donor-behavior-to-increase-contributions.html.
- Everett, Zion. “Historian’s Report, Mount Baker District fro 1950” Women’s Missionary Society Records, Box 22, File 7. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
- Estergreem, Mrs. V. L. “President’s Report for Mt. Baker District for 1952,” January 31, 1952. Rgb3 Box 22 File 7. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.
- Müller, Karl, Theo Sundermeier, Stephen B. Bevans, and Richard H. Bliese. Dictionary of mission: theology, history, perspectives. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006. Pg. 54
- Tucker, Ruth A. Guardians of the great commission: the story of women in modern missions. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1988. Pg. 63
- Tucker. pg 63