Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

Heroes or Zeros?


By Courtney Crocker

In the 20th century, many men and women followed the call of God and became missionaries. Among them were Pam Ogborn, David A. Day and Kate Boggs. Kate Boggs was the first female missionary, she was sent to India but got sick before she could complete any work. David A. Day was a young male missionary, labeled as a hero for his work in Africa. His tireless work and dedication helped him achieve this title. Pam Ogborn was a young woman who became a missionary through the woman to woman project. Ogborn, like many women at the time, completed similar works to Day but was never recognized by society as a “hero”. While female Lutheran missionaries exhibited the same qualities that deemed male missionaries as heroes, women were not recognized based on their gender due to the erasure of women in history and the use of gendered language within missionary work.

In “Missionary Heroes of The Lutheran Church”, George Scholl describes a hero as “one who can defy the demands of a life so full that it almost smothers him, and can insist upon the definite line along which his life shall be lived.”[1] Shortly after, Scholl states “[i]n other words, the man who, taking a broad and comprehensive view of live, including time and eternity, decides what, for him, is the supreme end of being, and then presses towards the attainment of that end with an unfaltering purpose that counts all else secondary and comparatively unimportant, has unconsciously enrolled himself as one of the world’s heroes.”[2] Scholl uses these two definitions to prove that missionary David A. Day was a hero of the Lutheran Church. Both definitions give the strict boundary of male pronouns as a requirement to be a hero. Under these definitions, it is impossible to recognize a woman as a hero, demonstrating the gendered division women faced.  In the forward of “Missionary Heroes of the Lutheran Church”, L.B. Wolf states the purpose of his book as the answer to the question “[h]as the Lutheran Church produced no missionaries worthy of [hero status] This book [a] humble attempt to satisfy the growing demand and answer to the question”.[3] While the forward uses the gender-neutral term “young people” but later in the book all definitions of a hero are defined with male pronouns.  After reading the book, it is assumed that Wolf would not consider any women as heroes.

However, outside of the male requirement, a hero is defined as someone who has a broad understanding of the world, is persistent towards a goal, and works on only that goal, deeming everything else unnecessary. In the 1965 Woman to Woman Reference form, Linda Newman described Pam Ogborn as someone with knowledge of worldly issues, and later states that “Pam has always shown a willingness to try and do new things. She is open to new ideas and to listening to others’ ideas.”[4]Maryanne Born described Ogborn as enthusiastic about meeting different types of people, she also states that “[a]s Pam grows in faith this growth is evident in her concern for the less fortunate. She is a tireless worker.”[5] In a cosigned reference form, both of Ogborn’s Pastors described Ogborn as “open and willing to grow. Her question and searching attitude opens Pam up to numerous possibilities She is not set in any concrete. Pam enjoys an exchange with others simply because it promises the gift of something new.”[6] Against Wolf’s definition, Ogborn the open understanding and and is a hard worker. In her own application, Ogborn stated that she wanted to go on a mission trip because “there will never be world piece in my lifetime-but this is no hope at all if we don’t make an effort to at least understand all we can about people in other countries, not just leaders, political and religious but the people who make up the life of a nation.”[7] From the personal statement, one can discern Ogborn’s character. Ogborn demonstrates the qualities of a hero, people describe her as having a “broad” understanding and states that she is a hard worker towards one goal in her life. Despite this Ogborn was not considered a “missionary hero”, but why?

This is a part of the reference form which was cosigned by Ogborn’s Pastors. They describe her as a open minded person.

Even when women hold the same qualifications and standing as men, they are viewed as lesser because of their gender. This is caused by institutional pressures that erase women from all forms of mainstream history. Women do not appear as missionary heroes because they have been removed from the history altogether.  In “Women and Missions: Past and Present” Fiona Bowie states that “women have been systematically written out of historical and anthropological records.”[8] To begin, “missionary work was clearly perceived as a task performed by men…missionary was a male noun; it denoted a male actor, male action and male spheres of service”[9]Bowie is arguing the same point that while could be missionaries, it was still seen a male activity, which is similar to being a “hero”. For someone to be a hero their actions must be known by the public; with so many male missionaries, it is easy to remove women from the history completely. While L.B. Wolf introduces the idea of the Woman’s Society, the section gets three sentences which end with “[the woman’s society] has done excellent work”.[10] Since Wolf’s book is entirely about the heroes within the Lutheran church, one would expect at least a section dedicated to the woman’s society. Women did a lot of work through different female led organizations such as the Woman to Woman project, yet Wolf refuses to acknowledge any specific of what the women have done.  Later in the book, there is a brief section titled “Women’s Work”, “[s]pecial work on behalf of high caste women and children was carried on from the first day by the wives of missionaries” [11] This quote reduces women that are doing work for the church to “the wives of missionaries”. Through these quotes one can get a glimpse into the mindset of men and women at the time towards gender roles.

Even women at the time viewed missionary work as a “male” occupation, in “The Story of Lutheran Missions”, Elsie Singmaster describes missionary work with only male pronouns. Singmaster described a hero as “the indubitable sincerity in his purposes, the noble enthusiasm of his heart, the sacrifice of his position, his fortune.”[12] Ironically enough, Singmaster had her book published through a literature committee in the Woman’s Missionary Society. While Singmaster briefly mentions women, she mentions the living conditions of women in Africa through the eyes of male missionary David A. Day.[13] Even though Singmaster likely knew many female missionaries doing work similar the men she interviewed, she erased all Lutheran missionary women from her book. One can infer that she erased them either because she did not believe their stories were important in telling the story of the Lutheran missionaries which begins the discussion of erasure.

These views were not uncommon, in “All Families of the Earth: A Study of Christian Missions” by George H. Mennenga, whenever gendered language is used, it is male. The book discusses what it means to be a missionary, the message that should be spread, what qualifies one to become a missionary and the process they must go through. In the chapter discussing who should be a missionary it openly states that men and women can be missionaries, however, it refers to female missionaries as “some ladies organization” and male missionaries as “an adult group of men”.[14] Similar to Wolf, while the bias is subtle, it is clear, the women are not considered to be equal with the male missionaries. Belittling the entire female missionary population to “some ladies organization” is a tactic which removes women from the possibility of being considered serious missionaries purely on their gender. While the men are given a strong title of “an adult group” the women are just “some ladies organization”.

Despite being called “some ladies organization”, the female societies were well structured. They had a female president, they fund-raised and they paid for their missionaries to travel.

Wolf’s views are fairly clear throughout the text, shortly after, Wolf introduces Kate Boggs “the first single woman missionary worker, Miss Kate…before she could organize any work, ill health forced her to retire from the field. In 1883, the formal start of woman’s work was made under the India Conference.”[15] This quote displays L.B. Wolf’s bias against women, he makes Boggs out to be a fragile woman. The way the section is written makes women sound weak, stating that since one woman could not be a missionary because of sickness, no woman could. Wolf gives no reference to the fact that in India-where Boggs was sent- illnesses were quite common for men or women. In addition to this, Wolf refers to Boggs repeatedly as “Miss Kate” instead of her actual name. Referring to her as this belittles her, Wolf does not refer to any men as “Mister first name” instead, he writes out their full names to show respect.  Why not the same respect for women? Finally, Wolf highlights the fact that Boggs is single, even though her relationship status is relatively irrelevant. Wolf does not introduce each man as married or single, yet he does when it is a woman. This is because marriage and motherhood were seen as requirements for women. Bowie states that “marriage and motherhood or genteel but poverty-stricken and indolent spinsterhood were the only options to many women.” [16]This type of bias is common among the time, Bowie states that “although Bishop A. W. Lee dedicated his book [to] his wife… he says virtually nothing about Mrs. Lee or what she did. Even the gravestone of Rev. Neville Jones, commemorating his missionary work is twice the size of that of his wife who shared his [labors].[17] While women could be missionaries, their work was often credited to their husbands, further erasing female missionary history.

Even if they were credited for their work, they would receive less recognition for the same work than their husbands. In the London Missionary Conference, “J.N. Murdock argued that ‘[w]omen’s work in the foreign field must be careful to recognize the headship of man in ordering the affairs of the kingdom of God’”[18] Bowie argues that “the widely-held belief in women’s inferiority continued to contradict women’s own experience and knowledge of their capabilities.”[19] While women did the same work as men and saw themselves as able to do the same work, they were not given credit and routinely told that they were less than men. More often than not, they were referred to as “wives of missionaries” rather than missionaries themselves. This is further proof that women are erased from missionary history despite completing the same tasks as men.

As well as being erased from the history, women simply did not receive recognition that their male counterparts did. In “Gospel Bearers and Gender Barriers” Dana Robert states that “the most significant ambiguity in the work of twentieth-century missionary women has been their lack of recognition” [20] Roberts continues her argument by stating that “there has been virtually no dialogue…despite the fact that women missionaries have represented the cutting edge of much of western Christian involvement in non-western cultures.”[21] While these women could serve as a representation for the relationships western Christians have cultivated with non-western Christians, they do not and the only reason is their gender.  The Roman Catholics kept “emphasis on home and family as women’s central priority,”[22] which resulted in “the continued emphasis on religious vocations as a gender -separate phenomenon…[based] on the philosophy that men and women have different complementary natures.”[23] The belief was the men were better out in the field as missionaries while women should seek their religious vocation through children and house work. The men were seen as the leaders and their work was regularly reported on.

This is a newspaper clipping from a paper in Seattle, Washington. While Female missionary stories weren’t reported as often, big events made the local news.

As noticed in “Missionary Heroes of the Lutheran Church”, the women were secondary to the men, while they could help, they were not the mainline missionaries. Yet Roberts stated that “Sisters did some of their most difficult yet inspirational work as teachers under terrible conditions of deprivation, apartheid and violence,”[24] while the women were not highlighted as missionaries, they did work that would have been difficult for men. In addition to this, “women often experience their calls to ministry as a conflict with their domestic responsibilities and they were prevented from exercising pastoral leadership by lack of community support,”[25] women received less support since their missions were seen as an obstacle in their home life. They were repeatedly told that their place was in the household and that females could work their religious network through family, working with their children instead of adults. When women did go on missionary trips, they were viewed as abandoning their home life. They were viewed differently based on their gender because their gender was supposed to be the gender that stayed at home.

There were many female missionaries that have been erased from history with gendered language and being ignored altogether. Many books either describe missionary work as male work or they refer to female missionaries as a lower form of missionaries. Women’s work was often thought of as raising kids when in reality female missionaries did work that would have been equally difficult for men.

[1] L.B. Wolf, Missionary Heroes of the Lutheran Church (Columbia, S.C.: Lutheran Publication Society, 1911), 199.

[2] L.B. Wolf, 199.

[3] L.B. Wolf, V.

[4] Woman to Woman Project. “Pamela Ogborn Letters of Recommendation”. 1985-1987 Woman to Woman Project-New Guinea. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid

[7] Woman to Woman Project. “Pamela Ogborn Woman to Woman Application”. 1985-1987 Woman to Woman Project-New Guinea. Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.

[8] Fiona Bowie, Deborah Kirkwood and Shirley Ardener, Women in Missions: Past and Present (Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 1993), 1.

[9] Bowie, 1.

[10] L.B. Wolf 29.

[11] L.B. Wolf 33.

[12] Elsie Singmaster, The Story of Lutheran Missions (Co-operative Literature Committee Woman’s Missionary Societies Lutheran Church, 1917) 21.

[13] Singmaster, 117.

[14] George H. Mennenga, All Families of the Earth: A Study of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1950) 63.

[15] L.B. Wolf 33.

[16] Bowie, 5.

[17] Bowie, 2.

[18] Bowie, 7.

[19] Bowie, 9.

[20]  Dana Robert, Gospel Bearers and Gender Barriers (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Book, 2002), xi.

[21] Roberts, xi.

[22] Roberts, 22.

[23] Roberts 22.

[24] Roberts, 23.

[25] Roberts, 25.

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