Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

Missionary work in Sudan

The Impact of Missionary Groups in Sudan

By: Kaitlyn Gold

            A group of people stand gathered in a small village in southern Sudan. They are there to work and help the village grapple towards a higher standard of living. Before them is a hospital they completed building. Beyond that a chapel and children running freely. The gospel shared among the people. Months before Sudan was officially recognized as an independent state. Since then, missionaries found themselves in the newly independent country. They were struggling alongside the Southern Sudanese people. The questions that surface are how did they afford to get there and why were they in Sudan? To explore these questions, the life at home first needs explored. In Minnesota a woman sits at her desk examining a piece of paper with a pen in her hand. She is Alice Sanne, executive secretary at The Women’s Missionary Federation(WMF).

            The Women's Missionary Federation is a Lutheran women’s group, part of the congregation now known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Alice spent large amounts of time writing to other districts in the society. She reminded others to pool sources for their Sudan Advance Mission., the charity project the women's group held for the biennium. Alice also had other duties as the executive secretary including coordinating their annual conventions.

Go Ye slide set, ELC Women's Missionary Federation slide set, ca. 1948.
Miss Alice Sanne, Executive Secretary.
ELC 15/1 Slide sets, SS108 Go Ye.
ELCA Archives image.

Found in different districts across the Northwest are women like Alice. These women used their religion in an attempt to create a positive impact. In 1955, The Women's Missionary Federation had ten districts with several circuits within each. They spanned across at least nine states and even had groups in Canada. These women worked for both their local communities, and for communities abroad. Women’s work in the 1950’s with groups like the Women’s Missionary Federation lead to missionary work in Sudan that helped to strengthen the Sudanese people through the creation of hospitals, jobs, and access to an education, but also lead to unplanned consequences. Funding for these missions by groups alike to WMF had reasons pertaining to the civil war between North and South Sudan. Discussed in this paper is the Sudanese civil war, how women’s groups raised money for missions, and the work that missionaries did in Sudan and their effect on the Sudanese people.
            How did the Lutheran Women in the Women’s Missionary Federation fundraise for the work that they funded, and why were they successful in their endeavors? Miss Alice Sanne explains one way that WMF raised money. It was in the form of a conventions funding project. She writes, “Our goal for the biennium is at least $51,000.”[1] Taking in consideration of inflation, their minimum goal has the buying power of $317,213.20 in March, 2017. So, how were the women successful? Alice Sanne mentions The Women's Missionary Federation raised money through their conventions funding project. The time leading up to the convention was important due to the advertising that took place. They sent out reminders and attempted to create an air of excitement for the convention. The convention is the most profitable with the most people in attendance as possible. Sent to the circuit president of WMF going over details of the convention was this letter, “You will rejoice to know that the Lutheran World Action offering at the convention amounted to $5,370 and the offering for the Sudan Mission Advance amounted to $12,631. The Sudan Mission Advance is to be our offering project for the coming biennium at the district and circuit conventions.”[2] This piece shows that through the conventions they gathered people to not only rejoice in their religion, but to give to their church for missionary work.

Luther League Conventions Photographs. Luther League - Texas A. & M., College Station, TX "God's Love - My Life" 1955 - Bible Study
ALC 51/3/2 f.8
ELCA Archives Image.

            Another way they raise money is through the Self-Denial Envelope. The Self-Denial Envelope in essence travels around to members and asks for money. It is effective because it makes those who receive it feel like it is their duty to donate. From the self-denial envelope, “They are our responsibilities and may our hearts go out to them by our prayers and giving...Jesus whole life on earth was showing concern for those in need and the most lowly came to him for help...Let us as WMF women be a ‘strong arm’ and plan to give generously through the self-denial offering.”[3] The letter starts by creating a connection between these people their community. They do this by saying the people around them are their responsibility to take care of. It then goes on to discuss different ways in which the money they were receiving was being spent. For instance, they make a point to talk about the children that they help. This is effective because they used moral and emotional attachment towards impoverished children. This serves as effective because it makes those feel the need to donate to help those in need. Within The Self-Denial Envelope they say that the women should give generously as the church needs their support.   The Women’s Missionary Federation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church had successful ways to raise money for their projects that they wanted to fund by appealing to people's moral and emotional side. This gave people of the church reasons to feel like they had to donate to the church to help various causes.

On December 19th, 1955 the Sudanese parliament voted for a declaration of independence. Sudan was officially recognized as an independent state on January 1, 1956. Why was it that missionaries were heading to Sudan during this time? There are several factors that lead to these Sudanese missions. To explore questions of why requires exploration of the first Sudanese civil war. The first Sudanese civil war went from 1955 to 1972. Sudan, though not legally, has split itself into northern and southern Sudan. This split is distinct in that the Northern Sudanese people are mostly Muslim. While the Southern Sudanese people contains a number of Christians. Many even practiced a mix of Islam, Christianity, and the passed down religion of their ancestors in private[4]. Found after the British “reclaiming” Sudan in 1898 is an influx of Christianity within the country. This is due to Britain supporting Christianity. Thus, the missionaries who found themselves in Sudan had privileges that came with British support.  During the civil war missionaries took the side of the southern resistance. This lead to the Northern Sudanese censuring Christian missionaries. 

            British colonizers were in the north meaning education, healthcare, and government were also in the north. Britain had left the power to the Northern Sudanese, whose social and economic development flourished while the Southern Sudanese did not. The Northern Sudanese people found themselves in charge over their Southern counterparts. Britain left the Southern Sudanese people without resources, poor, and relatively uneducated[5]. Assigned to Christian Missionaries was the job to give what little education and medicine that they had to the Southern Sudanese.  The officials sought to shield the Southern Sudanese from the spread of Islam which served to be damaging when educating them because they were then seen as gullible.[6]  The problem created with the Northern Sudanese people having power was that the Northern Sudanese discriminated against their Christian counterparts in the South. The north having power over the south has happened before and is the cause of the Sudanese people not seeing each other as the same. There was a very large slave-trade that was common until the end of the nineteenth century where even after Sudanese independence in 1956, the north called southerners 'abid which means slave.[7] There were the Arabs mostly in Northern Sudan who followed Islam, and the tribes in Southern Sudan who followed different religions including Christianity. The Christian missionaries influenced the tribes largely found within southern Sudan. When missionaries had attempted to convert Muslims in the north, they were unsuccessful.[8] Therefore, when Sudan became independent, and the Southern Sudanese people were in poverty, missionaries arrived to help ease the pain of the Southern Sudanese people. The Sudanese civil war resulted in over 500,000 casualties. Sudan was an obvious choice for relief groups to flock to due to the injustice that was being experienced by the Southern Sudanese people. As well as the fact that a percentage of these people were converted Christians. Discrimination against the Southern Sudanese happened because they were Christian. Understanding this as true arrives from understanding the Islamic regime during the time. The Islamic regime in northern Sudan was shutting out other religious identities, as Islam had greater influence and generated political ideologies with Islamist ideas. Khalid Duran, a specialist in the history, sociology and politics of Islam, wrote, "the way out of this predicament [Northern Sudanese people being condescending towards the Southern Sudanese] might be conversion to Islam...this is discrimination and religious coercion."[9] So, as the Christian missionaries attempted to convert Christians and stop the spread of Islam into southern Sudan, the northern counterparts attempted to weaken Christian missionaries and spread Islam.

            The Women’s Missionary Federation funded the Sudan Advance Mission for two years through fundraising. The missionaries sent to Sudan had specific purposes when sent from WMF, “This money is to be used for a hospital in the Sudan, a doctors’ and nurses’ residence, at least four chapels and for temporary buildings at new stations.”[10] The building of these things meant that there was manual labor for both the missionaries and the villagers. The chapels and hospitals they built could have use for different purposes. Worship, health care, and even education.  For example, one hospital was the space provided to train thirty native men in medical care. After their training, the government would pay the men's salary.[11] The Women’s Missionary Federation was not the only group in Sudan or surrounding areas of Africa. Another was the Augustana Synod. The Augustana Synod was another group that sent missionaries around the world, their first to Africa was around the 1920’s to what they had called the French Soudan, modern day Mali.[12] These missionaries alike to the ones from the Women’s Missionary Federation felt it was their duty to travel and spread the word of the Lord. Though one tactic that they used was to paint the African people as though they lived in a barbaric society. Thus, those at home would believe that the people needed the Christian missionaries to save them.[13] This tactic, can be explained through the White Savior Industrial Complex, meaning that missionaries were providing further justification for being in Africa. Arguably, the white savior complex means that white development practitioners overstated their own relevance when it came to community development.[14] The White Savior Complex relies on the creation black victims to build the complex, and destroy African self-worth, and dignity.[15] Found in a Woman’s Missionary Society book is an example of the White Savior Complex while in Africa, “The Africans knew nothing of education until it was introduced by Christian missionaries...exclusively the result of missionary effort.”[16] The assumption here that was created by the author is that because there was not education in the same form as education is in the west there was no education at all. The reason that this works is due to it making people feel as though they are the reason they are making positive impacts. The easiest solution to feel as though they had good morals was to donate money for missions. This is counteractive, give a man a fish and he will eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime. Meaning, there was an unnecessary reliance on missionaries and non-governmental organisations (NGO's). The problem created with this reliance is that then these services become an integral part of the system, and official agencies expected NGOs to substitute for state welfare programs.[17] "Economic growth, the aim of everyone involved, has indeed occurred--but far from bringing the 'good life', it has only increased inequalities and marginalization. "[18] Thus, the missionaries and NGOs were successful in attempting to stimulate the economy among many things, but without addressing the systemic root causes of the problems leads to the creation of more inequalities. Training the men in the medical field is productive because it means even without the missionaries they will be able to survive. What is not productive is only doing charity work, the work needs to go deeper than charity. Community development in the form of advocacy is productive because it addresses places of power and privilege to transform systemic root causes of inequality and injustice into equality and justice. Advocacy means seeking to change the system, not only the situation.[19]

            After Sudanese independence the necessity for missionary work in Sudan increased. This is due to the government discriminating against Southern Sudanese Christians. Women in the 1950’s put resources into promoting the foreign missionary work in Sudan. This work led to many positive impacts, but the bigger pictures has consequences to tell. It is important to recognize the power and impact that the women at the Women’s Missionary Federation and other groups had on missionary work. Many of the resources came for their congregation’s missions came from the work of these women’s missionary groups. Though, it is also important to recognize that the necessity of the missionary work after Sudanese independence in 1955 sprang from missionaries going to Sudan in the first place. Then, the completed missionary work meant missionaries needed to return to Sudan. Now, 50 years later, ELCA is continuing to fund raise for Southern Sudanese relief. Missionary work has lead to a reliance on the missionaries and NGO’s that are present in these systems. Though it is speculation, without the missionaries in the 1800’s which came with British rule the Sudanese people would not have converted to a religion that lead to discrimination to begin with. Yet, due to the missionaries that arrived, strides have been made to attempt to improve life for those in Sudan.


[1]  Sanne, Alice. 1955. “The Women’s Missionary Federation,” September 2. Women’s Missionary Record, Box 4, File 6. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.

[2]  Sanne, Alice. 1954. “The Women’s Missionary Federation,” June 30. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 4, File 6. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.

[3] Women’s Missionary Federation Correspondence. 1954. “The Self-Denial Envelope.” Women’s Missionary Record, Box 4, File 6. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.


[4]  Little, David, and William O. Lowrey. "The Power of Ritual: The Rev. Dr. William. O. Lowrey." In Peacemakers in Action Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 188.

[5] Csordas, Thomas J., and Janice Boddy. "Veiled Missionaries and Embattled Christians in Colonial Sudan." In Transnational Transcendence: Essays on Religion and Globalization. (Berkeley: University of California Press 2009), 108.

[6] Csordas, 108.

[7] Swidler, Leonard J., and Khalid Duran. "Religious Liberty and Human Rights in the Sudan." In Religious Liberty and Human Rights in Nations and in Religions: International colloquium: Papers. (Philadelphia: Ecumenical Press, 1986), 62.

[8] Sharkey, Heather J. "Christians Among Muslims: The Church Missionary Society In The Northern Sudan." The Journal of African History 43, no. 01 (2002), 51.

[9] Swidler, 62.

[10] Sanne, Alice. 1954. “The Women’s Missionary Federation,” June 30. Women’s Missionary Records, Box 4, File 6. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.

[11] Griffin, Ida M. n.d. “North Pacific District Convention, Women’s Missionary Federation, Portland Group.” Portland, OR. Women’s Missionary Records, RB4a Box 4 File “1930-1960 ALC/NPD/WMF Portland Group.” Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections. Thank you to my peer, Emily Webb.

[12] Mrs. Elmer R. Danielson. 1942. “Our Mission Field in Africa.” In These Fifty Years. Chicago, Il.Thank you to my peer, Liza Radford.

[13] Hill, Annie Williams. n.d. “If I Were a Woman in Africa.” In Survey of 35 Years of Activities, 80–82. Thank you to my peer, Liza Radford.

[14] Straubhaar, Rolf. "The stark reality of the ‘White Saviour’ complex and the need for critical consciousness: a document analysis of the early journals of a Freirean educator." Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education 45, no. 3 (2014): 381-400.

[15]  Manji, Firoze. 2015. "Solidarity Not Saviours." New African, 01, 14-15.

[16] Peterson, Peter. "Africa." Edited by Woman's Mission Board. In Woman's Missionary Society, 58-60. Ill: Chicago, 1927, Thank you to my peer, Patrick Harding.

[17] Manji, Firoze, and Carl O’Coill. 2002. “The Missionary Position: NGOs and Development in Africa.” International Affairs 78 (3): 567–583, 581.

[18] Rist, Gilbert. The history of development: from Western Origins to Global Faith. (London: Zed Books, 2014), 218.

[19] Tibbs, Taylor, “Service and Community Development: A Framework for Service” (Presentation, Act Six Training, Tacoma, WA, April 19, 2016.).


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