Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

Lutheran Missionary Women and Geopolitical Conflict During the 20th Century

By Griffin Kees

No man, or woman for that matter, is an island. Nobody is left untouched by the forces and people around them. Historians recognize this when they follow the stories of people from the past and see how the people and events of their time affected their lives. In this essay I will tell the stories of Lutheran missionary women, specifically from the Pacific Northwest region of the United States, and connect their stories to larger historical themes and geopolitical events that defined their time, such as the World War II and the Cold War. How did geopolitical events during these eras affect American missionary women from the Pacific Northwest? Global conflict during the World War II and the Cold War eras challenged American missionary women and gave them new opportunities to provide religious leadership while attempting to stem Communist influences and help others around the world.

The women of the Augustana Synod did not want to be left out. After the American Civil War, there was “a general awakening of interest in the churches for the evangelization of the world” and an increase in participation among women in churches and religious organizations.1 The Augustana women saw what other Lutheran women were able to do by making women’s missionary organizations and thought to themselves that what others could do “the women of Augustana could and would do if given the opportunity.”2 In 1892, the Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod was founded. Fifty years later, President Dr. Emmy Evald wrote in an open letter that the Society “awakened the ‘woman’s power’ in our Synod – not to live for self but for others. That is the right way because it is the ‘Jesus way’…Remember, it is not the words but the deeds that count.”3 It appears that the women in the Society may have found empowerment through serving others, which gave them agency to act within the church and practice their religious beliefs. Evald reminds her Society that the Lord will count what they do, not what they say, emphasizing that the women focused on a life of service, possibly for heavenly rewards that God would recognize them with.

Not only did the Society give the Augustana women the opportunity to help others, but they were also recognized for their contributions to the Synod. Augustana Synod President Dr. Petrus Olaf Bersell wrote of the Society:

The financial contribution alone this half century has been tremendous. Even now it is so great that if this support were suddenly withdrawn from our home and foreign fields it would have a paralyzing effect…In heroic leadership and loyal membership the Woman’s Missionary Society has written a unique chapter in American church history.4

Bersell is thankful for the Society’s financial help to the Synod, but he also notes their leadership and participation within the church as well, nodding to their historical significance. He also mentions their support for “foreign fields”. The Society was involved in multiple missions around the world, including Africa, China, and India. Another letter written by President Daniel Martin states, however, that “It is true that the doors to some of our mission fields are closing – for how long a time we do not know.”5 It appears that Martin may have been writing about their mission field in Africa. In a letter from the Society’s missionary women in Africa it is revealed that “100,000 native Lutheran Christians on all these fields are turning to us for spiritual guidance in these times when their own missionaries, due to the exegencies of war, have been interned.”6 Although the Society’s mission was focused on evangelism and helping others around the world, they could not escape the effects of a World War. This is a helpful reminder that nothing occurs within a vacuum, and that everything throughout history lies within a deep and complex historical context. If World War II affected the women of the Augustana Synod, how else did missionary women feel the effects of conflict throughout the twentieth century?

Julie Dennison. “This Relationship Would Help Create a Stable Black-Majority Society in Zimbabwe.” The Lutheran Standard, n.d. Women’s Missionary Records, RG 4.a, 47, 1980-1986 Original Women to Women Project – Zimbabwe & NPD, ALCW. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

Julie Dennison was a missionary woman who founded the Woman to Woman Project within the American Lutheran Church Women (ALCW), North Pacific District (NPD). Dennison’s missionary experience in Zimbabwe would help lead to global relationships between Lutheran women in the United States and Lutheran churches around the world in order to bring aid to the people who lived there and help spread their faith among them. The Woman to Woman Project was special, however, in that it focused on women leadership and women reaching out to other women across the world. Because of the focus on women as leaders, not only was the Project an outlet for the women to practice their religion, but it also gave them agency and the opportunity to have authority within their religious communities. In July of 1980, a resolution was passed by the ALCW NPD in Spokane, WA, to begin an “exchange program”7 with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zimbabwe through what would come to be known as the Woman to Woman Project. According to the ALCW, the Project’s purpose was to “strengthen communication and sharing between women” around the world and “world needs: distress over the lack of positive action toward meeting needs and solving major problems.’”8 With a goal and purpose in mind, the women of the ALCW NPD were ready to take their Project to the global stage. Almost immediately, however, the women would face difficulty due to larger conflict. The plan for an NPD woman to visit the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zimbabwe was delayed due to political unrest in Zimbabwe; the country had recently gained independence from the United Kingdom which lead to political unrest and violence through the Matabeleland genocide. Other geopolitical conflicts would also have an effect on the Woman to Woman Project.

“ZIMBABWE (formerly Rhodesia) recently celebrated independence after seven years of strife. The people of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zimbabwe reach out their hands of friendship to us and ask us for our love and prayers as they now struggle to rebuild their society and church.” Women’s Missionary Records, RG 4.a, 47, 1980-1986 Original Women to Women Project – Zimbabwe & NPD, ALCW. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.

During the Cold War, American missionaries were not only concerned about teaching others their faith, but also in combating Communism. Fear of Communism permeated American society during the Cold War era, and missionaries felt this fear overseas. Lutheran missionary women in China wrote of their fear in the LCA women’s journal, Lutheran Women:

“At 1 o’clock one morning last spring…I was awakened by a faint hup-2,3,4. ‘The Communists have come,’ I thought…I turned on the radio immediately. The men were not Communist soldiers. They were policemen preparing to quell a riot several blocks away. Until that night I had not realized how much the fear of a Communist takeover permeates the atmosphere. Until that night, I did not even know that I was afraid.”9

In a time when direct fighting would be devastating because of the potential of nuclear weapons, confrontation took to new forms of diplomacy.10 For example, Julie Dennison worked with the Woman to Woman Project in Zimbabwe to provide scholarships for Zimbabwean youth to go to school in America at Pacific Lutheran University. The program was called “EAZY” (Education Aid for Zimbabwean Youth) and was designed to compete against similar scholarships that were offered by China and the Soviet Union. Andrew Preston explains that “the absence of direct fighting between the superpowers created space for other means of competition and conflict”11, such as providing scholarships to third world countries in Dennison’s and the Woman to Woman Project’s case. The Woman to Woman Project allowed American missionary women like Julie Dennison to practice their faith and spread it around the world, while also competing against the evils of Communism, which was seen as inherently atheist. In his book, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith, Andrew Preston explains how religion affects American foreign relations and outlines how the atheistic nature of Communism was perceived by most Americans.

Most disturbingly, Soviet communism seemed to present not just a rival ideology but a rival religion that threatened to destroy traditional faith…Communism’s moral claims rested on a doctrine of social justice similar to Christianity’s, but it emphatically rejected the institutional legitimacy of the Christian church and denied the existence of a supernatural higher power that had created the world and continued to guide it. It was, in other words, so different from Christianity and yet very similar, which is precisely what made it seem so dangerous.12

It is possible that the women of the ALCW NPD recognized their Soviet and Chinese competition in Zimbabwe as existing in the spiritual realm as well as the political. Not only would their efforts have been to keep Communistic political influence away from Zimbabwean youth, but to save their souls from its atheistic beliefs as well.

Three years later and over seven thousand miles away, the Woman to Woman Project began work in Papua New Guinea. The Project’s sister church in Papua New Guinea was the Papua New Guinea Lutheran Church (PNG Lutheran Church). Which, according to a letter written by Florence Ekstrand to other members of the Project, had four priorities: “To nurture, to reach out beyond Papua New Guinea, to train responsible local leaders, and to grow in fiscal self-reliance.”13 Not only do the priorities of the PNG Lutheran Church align with feminine and motherly values such as nurturing, but they are also similar to the American strategy of foreign relations during the time period. The PNG Lutheran Church wished to create responsible leadership within Papua New Guinea, presumably leaders that aligned with their Christian American values and could have an influence in the area. Similarly, the US Government made efforts during the Cold War era to emplace and support pro-US regimes in third world countries (neither capitalist or communist aligned), particularly those who were more likely to be influenced by Communism. Although connections can be drawn between the behaviors of the women of the ALCW NPD  and the United States, the missionary women very likely may have not explicitly been pursuing the mission of the United States to fight Communism around the world. While the women may have spreading the American way of life around the world inadvertently, the women were “earnestly, faithfully” doing their religious work during “changing national and world situations.”14

Philip E. Dow explains in his article Romance in a Marriage of Convenience: The Missionary Factor in Early Cold War U.S.-Ethiopian Relations, 1941-1960, “The close relationships that sometimes developed between the evangelical missionaries and foreign elites made the missionaries an obvious and important link between the governments of their own nation and that of their adopted homes.”15 Dow uses Ethiopia and its emperor, Haile Selassie, as a specific example when explaining the effects of missionaries on foreign elites. He explains that Selassie may have fostered American missionaries to “create goodwill among the missionaries’ American support base; and it is reasonable to assume that he hoped evangelical goodwill might influence U.S. public opinion, and thus U.S. policy, in Ethiopia’s favor.”16 In the case of Ethiopia, missionaries acted as the main American influence in the country and were the main agents that shaped opinion towards America. Their religious efforts and finding support among Ethiopian leaders were crucial to the popular opinion towards America within the country. Although Selassie was not emplaced by Americans, a positive relationship was created between the two parties closely through the work of missionaries. Dow explains that the missionaries in Ethiopia weren’t necessarily focused on combatting Communism and creating a pro-America Ethiopia, but rather that by “generally pursuing their own spiritual and humanitarian agenda”17 they created a positive relationship between the two countries. Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that the women of the ACLW NPD and the Woman to Woman Project played a similar role in Papua New Guinea on a smaller scale by trying to train leadership among the PNG Lutheran Church.

“Shoes, hats, and dresses: Both a symbol and agent of Selassie’s spiritually conservative modernizing vision. American missionary Della Hanson briefs the Emperor and Empress for Life Magazine, 1943.”(Dow, 891.)
Diplomatic History, Nov2011, Vol. 35 Issue 5, p859-895, 37p, 4 Black and White Photographs
Black and White Photograph; found on p891

As stated in These Fifty Years by the Women’s Missionary Society of Augustan Synod, “From the early days of the Church in America women have been making missionary history.”18 The missionary women of the twentieth century were no different. These women of God faced a turbulent world. Society’s fear of Communism, American foreign relations, and the evangelization of the world created the potent mixture which missionary navigated. The Cold War era and World War II set the global stage in which they acted on. Although these geopolitical conflicts may have not been forefront in their intent for spreading the gospel and helping others, these events definitely had an effect on how they viewed the world around them and their role as Americans abroad. This gave American missionary women the chance to rise to the occasion and provided new opportunities for leadership, such as the Woman to Woman Project and the Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod.



  1. Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod. These Fifty Years. Chicago, IL, 1942. 23.
  2. Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod, 23.
  3. Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod, 6.
  4. Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod, 15.
  5. Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod, 12.
  6. Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod, 19.
  7. Edith Wells (Second VP NPD). “Woman to Woman Project (Letter from NPD Second Vice President),” May 31, 1986. Women’s Missionary Records, RG 4.a, 47, 1980-1986 Original Women to Women Project – Zimbabwe & NPD, ALCW. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.
  8. Woman to Woman Project. “Report of Woman to Woman International Visitation.” American Lutheran Church Women, February 1985. Women’s Missionary Records, RG 4.a, 47, 1985-1987 Woman to Woman Project – New Guinea. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.
  9. Settje, David E. 2007. Lutherans and the longest war: adrift on a sea of doubt about the Cold and Vietnam Wars, 1964-1975. Lanham, Md: Lexington Books. 43.
  10. Preston, Andrew. 2012. Sword of the spirit, shield of faith: religion in American war and diplomacy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 417.
  11. Preston, 417.
  12. Preston, 427.
  13. Florence Ekstrand. “Welcome to Papua New Guinea!,” July 1984. Women’s Missionary Records, RG 4.a, 47, 1985-1987 Woman to Woman Project – New Guinea. Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.
  14. Edwards, Mark Thomas. 2015. “Cold War Transgressions: Christian Realism, Conservative Socialism, and the Longer 1960s”. Religions. 6 (1): 268.
  15. DOW, PHILIP E. 2011. “Romance in a Marriage of Convenience: The Missionary Factor in Early Cold War U.S.-Ethiopian Relations, 1941-1960”. Diplomatic History. 35 (5): 862.
  16. Dow, 892.
  17. Dow, 895.
  18. Women’s Missionary Society of Augustana Synod, 23.

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