Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

The Role of Women as Missionaries

By: Alexa Sharp


For decades the idea of women being the head of the church has been chaotic and problematic. But women preaching their faith goes back a long time “Mary Magdalene was instructed by Jesus himself to share her personal testimony about the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead with his disciples (John 20:18).”[1] Women have been the people to teach and deliver the message of their faith for years, but why were they not seen ads missionaries? In the twentieth century, mission work was a leading male activity. While women were mostly seen as submissive and delicate in the early twentieth century, missionary work proved them to be strong heroines of their time. Women missionaries were meant to be teachers in the foreign lands but they were the ones who were actually taught a lot about religion and people in general.

Women have struggled to have leadership in a religious scene for years. Men have always been the ones named pastors and missionaries to pass on God’s word. In the late 19th century, women decided to take action. The Women’s Missionary Federation is a very large community. It is completely led by women. They wanted to bring their teaching out through mission trips. Women had been getting called on by God for centuries, “Since most denominations did not recognize women as leaders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was one that superseded organizational prohibitions.”[2] These women were able to go and spread the word of God. They became great figures in foreign lands. Even in Middle Eastern countries where there was a large divide between man and woman, missionary wives and single women taught about their Lord in a new way.

Women often times went on mission trips because of their husbands. It wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that women had more power. Single women began going across the world. “Women’s organizations in various dimensions cherished their own female ‘saint’- an extraordinary missionary woman who had accomplished heroic things, or had died tragically, and who, in the process, came to symbolize communal identity and purpose.”.[3]

Chinese/ Christian Wedding in China

The story of the Wangs is one that taught missionary women more about their surroundings versus them being a teacher. The Wangs were a family that for generations would have their sons married to young women by a middle man. These young girls would never see their husbands after being married and would constantly be under control of the overpowering mother-in-law. It was once Christianity was introduced into the home that the roles drastically changed. Cheng Wang married Hwa Chi in a happy wedding ceremony versus the usual one filled with tears. When they were married, the dynamic of the household changed. “…it was a Christian ceremony with all its solemnity and beauty. Nor was Hwa Chi received into the new home as a mere slave.”[4]. She had a loving husband and father-in-law that were constantly by her side in this new development. They ended up having a daughter. In China during the time missionaries were present, girls were seen as heathen children. They would get rid of baby girls by throwing them into walls and leaving them in dumpsters. But when Hwa Chi and Cheng had their baby girl, she was seen in a different light. She was always dressed neatly and able to go out in the city with her mother. “When Pearl was born it was the missionaries that helped her into the world and not the filthy, superstitious midwives who have been the death not only of so many babies, but of their mothers as well.”[5]. She was properly cared for by the missionaries. This young baby growing up in a Christian Chinese family was very beneficial. Very little other girls were treated this way. Her being brought up like this was a way of her continuing to follow God in her future. The missionaries got to witness the ways Chinese used to traditionally live and how their religion showed great effects on the Chinese families.

Mr. G. S. Swenson landed in Puerto Rico in 1899. He had plans of influencing the Spanish people of Christianity. He started preaching and making Sunday schools in the country very early on in order to grow the Christian faith. Starting in 1901 women missionaries from the Women’s Missionary Federation started arriving in Puerto Rico. They didn’t get to stay very long because the climate change caused them to become very ill. While in Puerto Rico, they also had a woman by the name of Gabriella Cuervos come to the United States in order to be educated. She created the Box Mission in Puerto Rico to start up and running. Mrs. Ostrom arrived in Puerto Rico in the very early twentieth century. She started to teach girls how to sew so they could make items for the very poor society that they were with. Mrs. Ostrom paid with her own money to keep the work going. She watched young girls take pride in what they could make and how it was making a beneficial outcome on the community. Mrs. Ostrom’s kindness took the Puerto Ricans hard work to the next level. Through her missionary work, she became incredibly passionate about the needle work produced. “She went village to village, learned where the best needle workers lived and bought their products.”[6]. She became very dedicated and ended up raising over $4,000. This money helped the women in Puerto Rico support themselves and continue doing something they were very good at and something that was very beneficial.

Young Chinese women spreading the word of the Lord

Miss Chang lived in China in the early twentieth century. She went to school and had a very bright future. She lived for pleasing her Master in everything that she did. She thought that serving him was the best way she could do this. She became very sick though before this could happen and was bedridden. After this she became a Bible Woman. She was pleased to be serving her master again but it was in a completely different way. She fell ill again until one-day God heard her prayers. “the Lord heard her prayer and she could be about again. Her months in bed had not been without service, however, as she spent most of her time in prayer for the Lord’s work and workers.”[7] After this she went to Changoh to work with women. She began to teach them about the Lord and would preach to them. She did her work for several years. These women influenced each other to learn how to read. They wanted all of them to read the bible so they could go in groups and preach to “heathen women”. This created a lot of stir with Chinese women. They were given donation cans that they would leave in their house for a year. After the year they would give all of the money in the can to the church. The missionaries found through this that so many women were so giving. One woman lost her can and didn’t remember until there was an announcement made at her service. She felt so guilty that she hadn’t been collecting any money that she gave $5 as her yearly donation. In China during this time this was a very large sum of money. The missionaries noticed her passion for God and her passion for doing good.

Overall, everyone can say that missionaries go on trips to preach and tell people about their Lord. Missionaries are looked at as teachers of a sort, they are teaching new faces something they are very passionate about. But that doesn’t mean missionaries aren’t also learning things while on their missions. Through all of the archival work I have done, I have noticed that women aren’t just teaching other women about the Lord, they are also being taught by other women what their life is like. Many foreign women before being shown God’s light lived very different lives. But they still had all the basic morals one should usually have. They showed their kind hearts to the missionary women, with exceeding donation amounts and sewing for poor people. They showed their dedication to traditional views with keeping their family dynamic similar to what it had always been. But one thing that definitely showed true on all of the missions and that women’s words were influencing people in a greater and more positive light. Women missionaries were never very popular, especially in the twentieth century, but they never failed to be great at what they were doing.


[1] Patterson, Dorothy Kelley. “The Role of Women as Missionaries.” Southwest Journal Of Theology 57, no. 1 (September 2014): 63-76.

[2] Adeney, Frances. “Leading from the Margins.” Mission Studies31, no. 3 (2014): 403-17. doi:10.1163/15733831-12341358

[3] Robert, Dana L. “The Influence of American Missionary Women on the World Back Home.” Religion and American Culture 12, no. 1 (2002): 59-89. doi:10.1525/rac.2002.12.1.59.

[4] Missionary Society, Women’s. These Fifty Years. Chicago, IL. Pg. 83

[5] Missionary Society, Women’s. These Fifty Years. Chicago, IL. Pg. 83

[6] Missionary Society, Women’s. These Fifty Years. Chicago, IL. Pg. 105

[7] Missionary Society, Women’s. These Fifty Years. Chicago, IL. Pg. 90

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