Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

Religious Roots of Early Female Activism

Natalie Hull

Women’s activism is found in many social locations within the twentieth century, including churches and religious circles. The role religion played in women’s lives empowered them to create groups that resemble modern day grassroots movements. These activist groups did important work in the function of churches and missions. Men receive credit for all religious endeavors, though women were the ones who did the hard work to fund them. There was differing motivation for women to join these groups, some had ‘a view of Christianity as liberating to women served as a foundational rationale for their work.”1 For other women, it was their maternal Christian duty to the “White Man’s Burden” of educating non-white children. No matter the motivation, large numbers of women found empowerment in their religion that inspired them to engage in activist work in the twentieth century. This is evidenced by archival records that display women’s agency in their local grassroots circuits, fundraising efforts, and publications.

The Women’s Missionary Federation is a paragon of grassroots activism. A nationwide effort existed with main offices; however, smaller circuits were encouraged to organize themselves and begin local work within their church community. The nationwide Federation was not one unit, it was many districts who took initiative to implement activism within their community, these people of course were women. The organization published Women’s Missionary Federation Handbooks that encouraged women to start local chapters, but also gave them explicit instruction on how to accomplish it. These Handbooks give advice and instruction in how to organize a society locally, how to hold meetings, how to write the constitution, and how to declare and organize funds.2 The striking thing about these instructions is how business minded they were. These women were pragmatic and productive, they knew how to not only be productive in a workplace, but create a system that would function as a business and reap enormous sums of money, as was their purpose. During the early years of the twentieth century, this agency for women seems peculiar because they were doing “men’s work.”3

The initiative women took in forming their own circuits is indicative of there being a source of empowerment. In this case, missionary work was the catalyst for many churches to engage in activist work. The critical support needed for missionaries was financial and emotional. The women of the church were able to recognize the need and create an organized structure to support these missionaries. However there had to be something in particular about missions that attracted women to it. This can be explained by the attitude of domestic imperialism. Women, who raised children to walk in a
civilized manner according to the church, were able to use their energy to support missionaries who wanted to do the same to those who were living ‘uncivilized’ lives, meaning non-Christian. In one of their missionary pamphlets is the following image:

Photo in an article describing the 1945 history of the Women’s Missionary Federation.
“Our WMF Through 42 Years: A Symposium”. Women’s Missionary Federation. (1959). Women’s Missionary Record, Box 14 File 3. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Region Archives, Pacific Lutheran University.

This photo represents the relationship between motherhood and imperialism and helps make the case for the attraction women had to the Missionary movement. The World Their Household makes the claim that “a decided belief in the mother’s responsibility for the salvation of her children led the women’s foreign mission movement to make work with children a primary concern.”4

Though the women were empowered to work, it should not be assumed they were seeking any equality. Documents from the women only show their concerns and leadership; however secondary sources fill in the contextual gaps. Not only did these missionary organizations fail to give women validation and leadership within the church and though they were fighting for their place in the church, they rejected the social feminist movements of the time. The women’s groups “had no official status within the church structure” but the Church Board would assign them tasks to be completed.5 This is an example of how women get erased from history. They are relied on to accomplish hard work, in this case grassroots organizing to raise funds and support, yet they would receive no status or repertoire as a result: therefore history overlooks them and their contributions. These women had “virtually no control over appropriations, [but] they played a crucial role.”6 The women were frustrated with their lack of agency within the church, however they were content with their social position. The women’s missionary groups distanced themselves from any association with the women’s movement to gain rights. Beginning as early as the civil war, these groups were unwilling to be grouped with those seeking suffrage.7 This makes clear the complexity of women’s advancement throughout history. Thee women were being politically active in the simple act of creating grassroots activist organizations, but they saw it as a religious duty and rejected the notion of women’s rights in society.

The absolutely vital part for any organization is the funding. Much of what grassroots activism contains is fundraising for the organization or what it’s representing. In the case of the Women’s Missionary Federations, raising funds for missionary trips was the largest tangible goal. These organizations declared their intended mission to “aide in the extension of God’s Kingdom.”8 However the realistic interpretation of this aiding is by creating financial support for Missions. These groups strived to provide spiritual support for these missions, but the missions themselves could not exist without the fundraising these women did. The grassroots organizing these women engaged in provided the necessary funds for their organization’s purpose to be realized.

What is particular to these organizations is the awareness of financial tactics that would not be associated with women of this time. The reason these women were so successful in their activism is they understood what actions needed to be taken in order to accomplish their mission statement. Many grassroots movements have failed to succeed because they are unable to do the work to support their mission or goal. These women understand the only way to spiritually support missions was to financially support them. The women were incredibly business savvy in their fundraising tactics. They marketed in many of their publications and had many different types of offerings such as “‘Mission Box’, ‘Thank Offering’, and ‘Self Denial Offering’” and tied women’s status within the organization to the amount they donated.9 If these women were unable to recognize need, advertise, and successfully campaign for their missions, the Missionary Federations would have been nothing more than prayer groups. But because of these women’s abilities to operate their organization in a productive manner, the Federation had significant impact of domestic and global missions that fulfilled the goals of the organizations and the church.

The legacy of these Missionary Federations is in the publications they left behind. They operated as a national organization that had a center for publication that sent out a variety of written works and informational brochures to every state that housed a Federation. The Archives of the Washington circuits was filled with official Women’s Missionary Federation publications that originated in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The works sent out were varied. Writing featured included prayers, plays, opinions, advertising, educational, hymns, and official Federation matters. This was very progressive as it was a time when women’s publications were not printed or taken seriously. These national publications were a means for women to engage in writing in a professional manner.

The Women’s Missionary Federation put out monthly News Bulletins that were filled with a variety of information and commentary on missions, social issues, and religion. A recurring theme in the archival documents was the role of religion in warfare as the publications were during World War II. The September issue of 1942, for example, includes a short story of a mother having a conversation with her young children about war. In it, she uses the war and model of a soldier to explain to her kids the concept of the greater war between good and evil. The mother compares fighting for Christ to fighting for the good as the soldiers were doing in the War, and tells her children that they’re soldiers too.10 This short story reveals a lot about the mindset of Evangelicals of the time and the function of the Federation. The Church was in favor of war because they see war as a means of overcoming evil, because in the Bible God uses war to show Himself in favor of his people and overcome the oppression of evil. Therefore the Church sees war as an opportunity for God to work, so they stand in favor. The short story of the mom explaining to her children that they’re soldiers is peculiar, because any instance of violence is usually discouraged in children. The story goes to show the values that religious women wanted their children to abide by were ones of religious practice and not of social acceptance. The inclusion of the story in the publication suggests that this organization was not just a movement to support Missions, but a congregation of women who support and instruct one another. This creates a familiarity that turns circuits of activism into a community centered around empowerment, which led to a successful activist movement.

The women of the Federation were very aware of their legacy. In a handbook given to new circuits, they provide detailed instruction for documentation and filing. They were to order folders and boxes with tabs to house documents on “missions, education, charities” and more. In the instructions, it tells the women to fill the records with as much literature they have access to such as the WMF News Bulletin and Lutheran Herald.11 Trivial as it may sound, recordings and documenting create a legitimacy in a group, it implies there is something important that is being left behind, something that needs remembering. In Mormon Relief Societies in the nineteenth century they “knew the power of records… these things have a history because someone wrote them down”.12 Documentation is crucial to the legacy of women, because people did not write about them, they had to write about themselves. The hard work of these women would go unnoticed by history if they had not diligently worked to preserve their legacy.

With influence of their religion and social attitudes of the time, women were able to find empowerment and create agency for themselves within church while women achieved progress in larger society. Though these women did not engage in political activism, they functioned as a grassroots foundation to do activist work to support their church and its endeavors. They were integral to the success of churches, “women’s missionary societies were the backbone of mission work.” 13 Typical narrative of religious women does not paint them as proponents of activity and stability within churches, but archival documents of the The Women’s Federation prove otherwise and challenge the docile, home-ridden religious women that is assumed of this time.

  1. Brekus, Catherine A. The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the past. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina, 2007. Print.
  2.  “Women’s Missionary Federation Handbook”. (Pamphlet, N.D.) Women’s Missionary Record, Box 14 File 2. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Region Archives, Pacific Lutheran University
  3.  Hill, Patricia Ruth. The World Their Household: The American Woman’s Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1985. Print.
  4.  Hill, Patricia Ruth. The World Their Household: The American Woman’s Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1985. Print.
  5.  Hill, Patricia Ruth. The World Their Household: The American Woman’s Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1985. Print.
  6. Hill, Patricia Ruth. The World Their Household: The American Woman’s Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1985. Print.
  7. Hill, Patricia Ruth. The World Their Household: The American Woman’s Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920. Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan, 1985. Print.
  8. “Women’s Missionary Federation Handbook”. (Pamphlet, N.D.) Women’s Missionary Record, Box 14 File 2. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Region Archives, Pacific Lutheran University
  9. “Women’s Missionary Federation Handbook”. (Pamphlet, N.D.) Women’s Missionary Record, Box 14 File 2. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Region Archives, Pacific Lutheran University
  10. Olson, Clarice. “News Bulletin” (September 1942) Women’s Missionary Record, Box 14 File 1. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Region Archives, Pacific Lutheran University
  11. “We Move Forward” (Brochure, 1947). Women’s Missionary Record, Box 14 File 3. Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) Region Archives, Pacific Lutheran University.
  12.  Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. Print.
  13. Wellman, James K. “PEELING BACK THE EVANGELICAL ONION: WORLDVIEWS AND WORLD AFFAIRS.” Review Of Faith & International Affairs 4, no. 2 (September 2006): 29-36. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed May 18, 2017).

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