Lutheran Women & Missions Around the World

Women: The True Missionaries

By: Liza Radford


When people in the 21st century think about missionaries the image of young Mormon men and sometimes women comes to mind.  In their short-sleeved shirts with their name tags or other forms of conservative dress.  Or if you are a theatre nerd a similar image may come to mind, people on stage singing Hello from The Book of Mormon, a musical.  For many others, missions seem like an archaic practice that was led solely by men and is closely related to imperialism and cultural genocide that is often seen in American history in regard to Native Americans.  The spread of religion could be viewed as the cause of these other problems.  While this has some truth to it, in the 20th century women were the backbone of missionary movements, they led where men could not, by bringing native people to their religion through connections made with women, and mothers.  Women missionaries created schools to teach nursing, reading and writing and healed anyone in need, without women, missions would not have been able to thrive.  Stories of women missionaries and the people they encounter, befriend and convert document the spread of religion through missionary work in places across the globe.

Picture this: you are a young girl, 14 years old, and your parents are forcing you into a marriage you do not want.[1]  What do you do?  For one young girl, she ran to a mission to try and seek a safe haven because she knows that the missionaries do not believe in arranged marriages, and with their ethnocentric attitudes that they think no one should participate in arranged marriages. In most circumstances, this would be the best option for anyone in this situation, the continuing trope of a woman or young girl seeking sanctuary in a place of worship.  Unfortunately, this girl was turned away by the missionaries there.  The reason? The only missionaries at the mission, at the time were men and it was not proper for them to take in a girl.  The author, Herbert Magney, then continues, stressing the importance of “Augustana women” coming to join the mission.  Magney believed that if there were women missionaries there they could do more in the society then just the men.  This shows how men saw the importance of having women participating in missions because it enabled the mission to do more work.  Other women from different organizations also supported this idea that women were key to the missionary movement even before the 20th century saying, “without women, missions could only make limited progress.”[2]  With this view, women were an integral part of any mission work because of their ability to interact more with possible women converts while men were regaled to the sidelines.  Braude even argues that women missionaries were “usurping male roles and authority.”[3]If women had been present when the young girl went to seek haven she would have been taken in and not forced into a marriage.  Men had to be limited in their interactions with possible converts for polite society’s sake, even though they were in areas that had not been industrialized or turned into cities.  With this taken into consideration, women as missionaries were very important because they could reach all the people of a “target population,” not just one gender.[4]  The inclusion of women as missionaries expanded the reach of any mission group and showcased their importance.

“India Our First Field Work” in Survey of Thirty-five Years Activities, ed. Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1927),10.RG3a Box 2 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections

While it is often thought that all missionaries did was to bring the Bible to other cultures and commit cultural genocide by their efforts to convert everyone, they often contributed to the indigenous groups by the medical practices that they created and the people they trained to be nurses and doctors.  Contrary to what people may believe, most doctors that were at missions were women and not men.  Almost all the people in the above image are female, and the women are who run the mission hospital.  The high concentration of women in this demonstrates the importance of women in the missions and shows how they truly had the larger impact.  In the story of Lakshami, an entire family is converted to Christianity because of the hospital’s western medicine and the schooling that Lakshami’s daughters and granddaughter had received as young girls which stuck with them for the rest of their life.[5]  The story goes that Lakshami allowed her children, specifically her daughters, to attend the mission school until they were married at age 9.  The year after they moved in with their husbands at the age of 12 they both had sons.  A few years later when Lakshami’s granddaughter, also named Lakshami, was very ill, instead of being taken to the native doctor was brought to the mission.  Here she received care from nurses and doctors who showed how much they cared for her; while the family waited in the hospital waiting for the young Lakshami to get better he mother heard women singing songs about Jesus.  The doctor then came in and told the family she was “in India working among the sick, both rich and poor, because Jesus Christ had sent her…’heal the sick and tell them about the kingdom of God.”[6]  After this experience, young Lakshami got better and the family began to come to church on Sundays.  This experience was enough to convert the entire family, but the conversion was led by the matriarch of the family.  This is a trend that has been seen for a long time, women are often thought to be more spiritual and often are who bring other men into the church, their sons and husbands.  Women have always been in the numerical majority in churches.[7]  When Methodists were beginning to gain more of a following in the late 1800’s the philosophies of the religion were very appealing to women; the number of people practicing this religion more than tripled in the time between 1820-1860. This can be attributed to the appeal that it held for women because they were viewed as the more religious of the two sexes and the leadership they had in religion within their families.  This transferred over to the indigenous peoples affected and converted by the Augustana missionaries, when mothers and women were converted the rest of the family was soon to follow.

Women have always been viewed as nurturers and teachers, so it makes sense that as missionaries they would be teachers and nurturers, or doctors and nurses.  Many of the mission hospitals were run by women, the nurses and doctors were missionary women and they trained women of the native populations to be nurses and stewards in the hospital.  This can be seen in the below figure, the staff of the Augustana Hospital in India, the entire staff is women.  The lack of men in the photo suggests that mostly women were involved in the mission because this was a mission hospital.  In addition to this hospital in India, the Women’s Missionary Society “provided the cost of the hospital building, doctor’s home and a nurse’s home at Kiomboi,” Kiomboi was a town in Africa that was the location of a mission.[8]  This shows the prevalence and importance of women’s contributions to the missionary hospital, not only through their contributions by being nurses and doctors but by monetary aid.  With women as doctors, nurses and stewards in the mission hospitals they were able to help all people seeking healthcare and connect with women in the area who could bring their families towards Christianity.

Dr. Betty A Nilsson, “With Women and Children in India” in What God Hath Wrought These Fifty Years, edited by Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1942)RG3a Box 2 File 1 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections

In addition to the contributions to the mission hospitals, women were teachers at the missions.  Being teachers they would instill Christian values into their pupils at a young age and bring them close to conversion.  These women were able to convert enough women and families to justify building a school for girls.[9]  The school built for the women would focus on religion and be encouraging to convert these young girls to Christianity but would not force them to be Christian.[10]  Teaching, though it had different focuses then just converting every possible person, like the male missionaries may have tried, taught for sake of education for people.  The teaching that women did was described as, “[i]n the Bible teaching, in fact, was as much a form of evangelization as was preaching.”[11]  Even the Bible recognizes the importance of teaching, and since women were often the only teachers they were the front line in influencing future generations of the native people to choose Christianity.  In these ways being teachers in the mission schools the women missionaries of the Augustana Synod had a larger impact on the native populations then the male missionaries did.  This influence that these missionary women had on the young girls and boys seeking education, along with their families, added many more converts to the mission.  This was because the young children were always around Christianity and the beliefs that were fostered and that influences some core values if a mainstay of the school and hospital was the religious aspect.  In China for instance, there was a push by female missionaries to open a Bible school for girls.  This school would focus on teaching the Bible and on how to spread God’s glory.[12]  This kept young girls constantly exposed to Christian practices and fostered a love for the new religion of Christianity.  Thus, when the girls became older they already would lean towards Christianity and the mission would be credited with converting many more people.  By teaching, women paved the way for converts from the native populations and did not need men to make this change come about.

What is written down and kept as historical records and who it is written by is quite important in order for future readers to glean information about the period a piece of history was written in.  Something that was striking in the writings in the histories of the Augustana Synod missions was the authors.  The majority of the authors writing about what was happening at the missions were women.[13]  This demonstrates the large part that women played in the Augustana missions, only people who had a large part in the running of a mission would be asked to write about it.  Women were also responsible for the most of the social aspects of the missions, mission husbands have said that “they were able to devote themselves to their ministerial duties in large part because their wives attended to the more social needs of the target population.”[14]  For most people being social is very important in their lives.  Being social is how relationships are built, and with women being the purveyors of the social duties of the mission they could build relationships with the native women and spread the ideas of the mission and Christianity.  These ‘articles’ or short stories about the mission and the work that was being done, we almost written exclusively by women.  These articles were then made into books that cataloged the work being done at mission sites around the world, China, Africa and India, to name the most prominent areas.  While it could be argued that the men ‘did not have time’ to write these articles the women who wrote them were teachers and doctors and nurses, who had very busy lives but still made time to write about their experiences.  Dr. Betty A Nilsson is one of these notable women who ran a hospital but still found time to write an 8-page article on just one family that she encountered in her mission.[15]  The women who ran these missions were committed to converting men women and children but saw the importance of teaching and healthcare.  Women were able to bring a different perspective to missions and entice people back in America to donate more money to improve the mission even more so.

Missionaries were not only men.  A large number of missionaries were in fact women; with women in mission the efforts of the missions were able to reach more people.  As women, these missionaries were able to reach the women in communities that the men could not because of their gender.  The women ran hospitals and schools that created relationships with the native people in the area and spread Christian practices.  Without women as missionaries the missions would not have been very successful because of the many doors that women opened in the communities.

[1] Herbert S. Magney, “Bringing the Wairamba Women to Christ” in Survey of Thirty-Five Years Activities, ed. Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1927), 79. RG3a Box 2 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections

[2] Dana L. Robert, “’Women’s Work for Women’ and the Methodist Episcopal Church” in American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice, ed. Wilbert F. Shenk (Mercer University Press, 1996), 134.

[3] Ann Braude, “Faith, Feminism and History” in The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past, ed. Catherine A. Brekus (University of North Carolina Press, 2007), 247

[4] Mary Taylor Huber and Nancy C. Lutkehaus, Gendered Missions: Women and Men in Missionary Discourse and Practice (University of Michigan Press, 1999), 42.

[5] Dr. Betty A Nilsson, “With Women and Children in India” in What God Hath Wrought These Fifty Years, edited by Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1942), 71-78. RG3a Box 2 File 1 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections

[6] Dr. Betty A Nilsson, “With Women and Children in India”, 73.

[7] Ann Braude, “Women’s History Is American Religious History” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, ed. Thomas A. Tweed (University of California Press), 87.

[8] “Our Mission Field in Africa” in What God Hath Wrought These Fifty Years, ed. Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1942), 93. RG3a Box 2 File 1 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections

[9] “India Our First Field Work” in Survey of Thirty-Five Years Activities, ed. Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1927), 12. RG3a Box 2 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections

[10] “China Bible School” in Survey of Thirty-Five Years Activities, ed. Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1927). RG3a Box 2 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections. Discovered and documented by Patrick Harding

[11] Dana L. Robert, 132.

[12] “China Bible School” in Survey of Thirty-Five Years Activities, ed. Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1927). RG3a Box 2 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections. Discovered and documented by Patrick Harding

[13] Survey of Thirty-Five Years Activities, ed. Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1927). RG3a Box 2 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections.; in What God Hath Wrought These Fifty Years, ed. Women’s Mission Board (Chicago, 1942). RG3a Box 2 File 1 Pacific Lutheran University Archives & Special Collections

[14] Mary Taylor Huber and Nancy C. Lutkehaus, 42.

[15] Dr. Betty A Nilsson, “With Women and Children in India” 71-78.


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