Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

Representing American Missions

Magazine page in the local Tacoma, WA magazine, The Lutheran Standard, written by Delores Vilstrup. 4 May 1986, RG 4a Box 47, Woman to Woman Project, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections

Photograph of Rose Ninkama telling her life story at the American Lutheran Women National Convention in Detroit. 6 July 1986, RG 4a Box 47, Woman to Woman Project, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections.












Sarah Hulbert

Representing American Missions

During the 19th century women in American Lutheran Churches had roles that limited their significance and were over looked because of it. Although time had passed and missions had become more popular for women and because of this, their participation had expanded beyond domestic work. While researching in the PLU archives, there was extensive evidence of mission work found that was thought to help bring education to a developing country. The Woman to Woman Project, founded in Washington state, was a chance for the women of Lutheran churches to help their “sister church” in Papua New Guinea to establish second and third level education for the women and girls. 1 The first idea was building a higher level of education allowing girls and women to learn skills that could be useful or other jobs. The next step was inviting two guests, Rose Ninkama and Samarida Yamu, to come to the North Pacific District churches and tell their story. In addition to Rose and Sama, other American Lutheran Church Women (ALCW) across the United States invited 18 other women from around the world to visit their churches. The importance of this mission was because ALCW felt as though it was their responsibility to help. This project was a way for women to raise money, organize and a way to develop relationships with women across the world without the help of men. Comparing the primary and secondary sources, an interesting comparison occurred; the meaning of missions back then when Martin Luther and the Reformers came up with the idea to how they were thought of in 1986 with the Lutheran Women in churches. Mission work from American churches were arguably seen as a way for wealthy Protestant Christians to use religion to justify trying to “lead” other countries along with a way for women to continue their role in the church.

After WWII there was a strong sense of confidence that came from America, allowing missions to travel abroad trying to spread peace and freedom around the world using religion and preaching to resolve national controversies. The book, The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II by Sarah E. Ruble, talk about Americans and how they felt as though they could help other countries by influencing their religious views or beliefs so they can further understand freedom and democracy.2 This idea seems similar to the Woman to Woman Project where the ALCW had good intentions trying to help develop higher education for women and young girls. Although a parallel with Ruble’s book and the purpose of the Woman to Woman Project is that both could be seen as Americans establishing their privilege over other countries and enforce religious and cultural that are foreign to the rest of the world like Papua New Ginea. This could also suggests that it wasn’t a responsibility but Americans felt as though they were entitled to. This way they would spread their religious influence across the world because that’s what they thought would help others.

Missions are represented differently now than they were originated because Martin Luther and other Reformers intended for mission work to “restore the gospel to the church and Christians of their day.”3 Tim Huffman, author of the article The Lutheran Confessions and Missions argues the real meaning of missions and compares them from how they were created to how they are in the future. Huffman writes, “virtually anyone that one would encounter was both christian and in the church, and thus not a proper target for mission.”4 This made it clear that American churches knew what kinds of people they were intending to “help”. The ALCW for instance had invited many different types of women from all over the world to visit Lutheran churches in the United States. This list had 20 names and each name was assigned to a different district across the country but eventually they would all unite at the National Convention in Detroit where they could share their stories to each other.5 Although, there was nothing in the report about what religion these women were apart of but it does give an idea of how the women from American Lutheran churches organized their missions in ways that try to benefit who they are helping. The Woman to Woman Project wasn’t intended to influence any cultural or religious ideas but they were trying to expand female education around the world. Huffman’s argument closely relates to Ruble when she writes in her sub chapter Postwar Missions, the Cold War, and a Case for American Exceptionalism. She explains that following WWII Americans assessed their international relationships.6 In this section of her chapter, Ruble again brings up the view of how America saw that relationship. “The clear distinction between leaders (Americans) and the needy (those to whom Americans went) echoed evangelical confidence in their ability rightly to divide the world.”7 Relating back to the Woman to Woman Project, it may not be as obviously laid out that while reading letters from the head coordinators Janice Williamson to Rose and Salma that this project could be more than just about education. In some cases it seems as though the women in the American Lutheran churches in the Northwest district were not forcing christianity on their sister church but instead trying to influence female education by showing the impact that it had in America.

Ranking as well as class was also a factor playing in the representation of how Americans saw and used missions. In the article, Religion and Class in America by William E. Mirola, it is pointed out that wealth has a strong association with religion. In fact Mirola writes, “Christians denominations and Jews reflected highest levels of earnings, education, and occupational prestige.”8 This would explain another reason to influence others to join their religion across the world by using missions to preach because Christians believed that they were the highest class and they were willing to share the secret to their success. Monica De Fatima Bianca and Pietra Borchardt the authors of the article The Meanings of Volunteer Work: Study with Members of a Lutheran Institute wrote about the study of participation of volunteering and work in the lutheran church. One of the major and more common conclusions were that people who tend to volunteer more are those that are financially stable and that are usually married. It was said that they are more willing to help when they have a good balance between their work and their family lives.9 The Board of the ALCW, when planning for the visitors of the Woman to Woman Project, sent out information packets along with host family applications to see who was eligible to host their special guests. This is a perfect example that shows what kinds of people participate with missions or church programs. The “Host Homes” that were accepted had many responsibilities in order to meet the requirements of being the host of either Rose or Sama; arrange transportation to and from their location (North Pacific District), plan community or church meeting times and schedule activities like tours.10 The woman who participated in the Woman to Woman project would have had to have a good home and be financially stable in order to house these guests while organizing the trip otherwise they could not afford to pay for another mouth to feed and they would not have been accepted by their district in the first place. This proves Mirola’s argument that class influences how people of faith engage with community issues and participate with their church.11 America during the 20th century saw itself as the most powerful yet free country and while this may or may not be true, Americans took it upon themselves to try and influence others to join.

Women during this time were playing a big role in churches and missionary work because they were beginning to gain more rights overall in the US. Sarah Ruble’s book, The Gospel of Freedom and Power has an entire chapter on gender and it begins by explaining the difficulties women had when wanting to contribute to missions. Ruble even writes “they shouldn’t have been surprised. Women’s fight for power in missions was long-standing.”12 This meant that in the late 19th century women constituted majority of the missionaries abroad. The Woman to Woman project for example was planned, fundraised, and executed by only women. Dana L. Robert would agree in her article Influence of American Missionary Women on the World Back Home, that organizations in American church history that the formation of missionary societies were often opposed by men. Women began to learn that missions stimulated women’s leadership including in roles the church. Robert wrote, “missions became the largest women’s movement in the 19th century. As women developed leadership abilities in the context of mission concerns, they branched out into other causes.”13 It was expected that the common woman would run the house, take care of the children, and go to church with the family. Now with this increase of women’s leadership, these missions inspired a philosophy of “Woman’s work for Woman” which ended up sending unmarried women to Asia to be teachers. This is very similar to the Woman to Woman Project in more ways than the purpose of their mission. It is an example that women during the 19th and 20th century would try and gain power any way they could and mission worked turned out to be fitting. Woman’s increasing participation in church programs and missions allowed more women to do things that were more than what was expected of them. In a way it empowered women, showing them they could organize and fundraise missions worth tens of thousands of dollars. The Woman to Woman Project, in an attempt to raise money for one of their guest to travel up to Alaska, added a little section at the bottom of their Sunday church program expressing their gratitude for those willing to donate. In a Letter from the Woman to Woman Coordinator to a District leader she wrote how the traveling expenses were steep and that they would have to raise an additional $2,100.14 They needed to raise the money in time for Rose to journey to Alaska or she could not visit the church or her host home. Missions were one of the best ways that women to participate in church lead programs without being limited by expectations and men.

Missions like the Woman to Woman Project represented America in the late 19th and 20th century in both good and bad ways. It allowed women to go beyond their homes and engage with other woman to fulfilling a religious deed. Woman began to recognize that the more they participate in things outside of their homes and families they had more rights to gain. In addition to women’s involvement in missions, influences on class and religion played a major role as well. The resources used argue that American missions, including the Woman to Woman Project, were initially intended to target countries that were not of high class or even the same religion. Participation in the Lutheran Churches more specifically had noticeably more people that felt financially stable and felt as though their life was balanced and put together. This explains some of the host homes that applied to house Rose and Sama on their visit. It could also be argued that countries like America with higher financial rank are able to travel to other countries, or fly guests in, so they can impact the cultural and religious communities that they think need help. After WWII more and more missions were less about going to countries and preaching and developed into Americans trying to help like by building schools and increasing education. The Woman to Woman Project’s intentions seemed very good because they wanted to help young girls and woman establish high education for them to learn important work skills. On the other hand this was another way that America isn’t teaching them, but felt entitled to force their American leadership on them. There were no letters or reports from the people of Papua New Ginea asking for schools or help at all. These women took it upon themselves to take charge of this mission and help a community abroad. Over this time Americans, both men and women, represented missions as wealthy, white Protestants that tried to help by spreading American leadership whether they asked for it or not.


  1. Manuscript written by Georganne Robertson to the North Pacific Churches explaining a plan of trying to expand church-owned programs to get more kids into school, 2 October 1986, RG 4a Box 47, Woman to Woman Project, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections
  2. Sarah E. Ruble, The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Culture after World War II, 58
  3. Tim Huffman, “The Lutheran Confessions and Missions”
  4. Tim Huffman, “The Lutheran Confessions and Missions”
  5. Report of 20 names of the female visitors. 7 March 1984, RG 4a Box 47, Woman to Woman Project, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections
  6. Sarah Ruble, The Gospel of Freedom and Power: Protestant Missionaries in American Cultures after World War II (U.S.A: University of North Carolina Press), 58
  7. Sarah Ruble, The Gospel of Freedom and Power, 60
  8. William E. Mirola, “Religion and Class in America”
  9. Monica De Fatima Bianca and Pietra Borchardt, “The Meanings of Volunteer Work: Study with Members of a Lutheran Institute”
  10. Manuscript (information packet/host home application) written by Janica Williamson to the North Pacific District Clusters. 3 February 1986, RG 4a Box 47, Woman to Woman Project, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections
  11. William E. Mirola, “Religion and Class in America”
  12. Sarah Ruble, The Gospel of Freedom ad Power, 121
  13. Dana L. Robert, “Influence of American Missionary Women on the World Back Home,” 67-68
  14. Letter from the Woman to Woman Coordinator to Lois Niewohner writing about financial challenges. 7 February 1986, RG 4a Box 47, Woman to Woman Project, Pacific Lutheran University Archives and Special Collections

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