A week ago, I announced that The Displaced Nation will be dedicating the month of November to exploring the displaced lives of those who travel the world to do good works on behalf of those less fortunate.
Blame it on the years I spent as an expat in England, but the whole time I was writing that post, I had the sense of a Victorian couple — the man in a top hat, the woman in a full skirt — looking over my shoulder, whispering in my ear: “We tried to save the world, too, you know.”
To be fair, those phantoms of mine have a point. The Victorians ventured into the wilds of Africa, Asia and the Americas not just as imperialists looking for riches but also as missionaries looking to save souls.
And, just as we 21st-century people think we have the answers for people who live in developing countries — microfinance, entrepreneurship, mosquito nets, gifts of sheep and goats — our forbears thought they had the answers, too: Christianity, coupled with a strong belief in the universality of basic human freedoms.
Today I will attempt to put said ghosts to rest by paying tribute to 7 women missionaries from the 19th and early 20th centuries, from both sides of the Atlantic.
So, why the women and not the men? Three reasons:
- Being women, they tended to stand up for the rights of women and children wherever they went.
- Many also learned the language and assimilated to the local culture, thereby winning respect.
- And many were further willing to acknowledge the blunders committed by missionaries when attempting to penetrate the world’s most remote communities. As missiologist Ruth Tucker, who has read many missionary memoirs by women, observes:
These women writers one after another have allowed themselves to be vulnerable in painting a sometimes messy picture of their own character and of their missionary work. [Their] raw memoirs have much to say to us in the 21st century.
I’m going to take Tucker’s words to mean that even if you’re not religious, disapprove of proselytizing, or are something other than Christian, you might still concede that, on derring-do, fortitude, and decency alone, the following women deserve a place in the Displaced Hall of Fame.
Ann Haseltine Judson (1789 – 1826)
Who was she? A Bradford, Massachusetts native, teacher, and the wife of Andoiram Judson. Two weeks after they married, the couple set out on a mission trip — first to India, then to Burma.
Key achievements: While her husband was imprisoned in Burma under suspicion of being a spy, Judson wrote stories of the struggles she faced on her own in the mission field. She included tragic descriptions of child marriages, female infanticide, and the trials of the Burmese women who had no rights except for those their husbands gave them.
How she died: Of smallpox in Burma, at age 37.
Interesting fact: At least 16 biographies of Judson were published in the 19th century, the most famous of which had a new edition printed almost every year from 1830 to 1856. She and Andoiram were American celebrities.
Betsey Stockton (c. 1798 – 1865)
Who was she? A freed slave who left domestic service to travel as America’s first single female missionary to Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands. In fact, she went partly as a missionary and partly as a servant to one of the couples on the mission, the Reverend and Mrs. Stewart.
Key achievement: After being asked by the son of the Hawaiian king to teach him English, Stockton started up a school at Lahaina (in West Maui) for the makeainana — fishermen, farmers and craftsmen who lived off the land — which continued after she left.
Why her mission ended: Stockton’s service in Hawaii was cut short when Mrs. Stewart became ill. The party decided to return to the States in 1826.
Where she died: In Princeton, NJ. She is buried in the Stuarts’ plot in Cooperstown, NY.
Stockton’s diary: Stockton kept a detailed written record of the mission, which conveys her somewhat turbulent, occasionally agonized, inner spiritual life; her interest in the natural world — including the kinds of fish caught from the ship, the color of the waves, and various bird life; and her spirit of adventure. Like others on board she was frightened at her first sight of the Hawaiian men who come out in canoes to greet the ship:
half man and half beast—naked—except a narrow strip of tapa round their loins…
But then she adds: “They are men and have souls.”
Adele Marion Fielde (1839 – 1916)
Who was she? A working-class native of Rodman, NY, who followed her fiancé, a Baptist missionary, to Bangkok, Thailand (then Siam) — only to discover he’d died of typhoid fever 10 days after she’d set sail from New York. She carried on nevertheless, remaining in Siam for a couple of years. Later she went on a mission to China for training Bible women.
Key achievement: Fielde mastered the Chinese language and was also a powerful writer. She encouraged each of her Chinese Bible women to tell their stories, and then translated these stories and got them published in magazines back home. As one of her biographers puts it:
Their heart-rending sagas proved enormously appealing to American women, who could sympathize with their suffering Chinese sisters.
Where her life ended: In the United States. She retired from missionary work, went home, and became involved in scientific research.
Strange twists and turns: A free thinker since childhood, Fielde broke away from her family’s Baptist roots — only to return after becoming engaged to a Baptist missionary candidate. She faithfully served as a Baptist missionary for two decades — and then turned to science. Notably, the Baptists for a a long time sensed that she wasn’t quite one of them, accusing her of indulging in card-playing and dancing when she lived in Siam. She responded:
“I desire to be good. But I do not wish to be Pious.”
Lottie Moon (1840 – 1912)
Who was she? A highly educated Virginia native (she was born “Charlotte Digges Moon” on her family’s ancestral slave-run tobacco plantation). She became a teacher and then was called, at age 33, to serve for decades in China with the Southern Baptist Convention. Initially she went to join to her sister, Eddie, who was stationed at the North China Mission in the treaty port of Dengzhou.
Remarkable turnaround: When she first arrived at the mission, Moon made a point of wearing Western clothes to distance herself from the “heathens.” But then she mastered the language, became an admirer of Chinese culture and history, and started wearing Chinese clothes and adopted many of their customs.
Commendable behavior: When China was facing plague, famine, revolution, and war, Moon shared her personal finances and food with anyone in need around her.
How she died: Of starvation, in the harbor of Kobe, Japan, while en route back to the United States. (At that point she weighed only 50 pounds!)
Impressive statistic: Southern Baptists have named their annual mission fund after Lottie Moon. It finances half the entire Southern Baptist missions budget every year.
Part of her lore: She used to tell people she was 4′ 3″ tall. While something of an exaggeration, she was definitely petite!
Lottie Moon Cookies: Moon won over the children in her Chinese village by making tea cakes for them — they called her “the cookie lady” instead of “foreign devil.” Baptist families bake Lottie Moon Cookies for Christmas.
Mary Slessor (1848 – 1915)
Who was she? A Victorian mill girl who left the slums of Dundee to live among the tribes of Calabar, Nigeria, to take up the mantle of David Livingstone two years after he died.
Noteworthy friendship: While in Africa, Slessor became acquainted with the writer Mary Kingsley. Although the latter had never been baptized and hadn’t even been brought up a Christian, their common status — both were single females living among native populations with little company — presumably created the basis for lasting friendship.
Key achievement: The tribal people believed that if a woman gave birth to twins, one of the twins was the offspring of the devil who had secretly mated with the mother — and since the innocent child was impossible to distinguish, both should be killed (the mother was often killed as well). Slessor fought hard to end this practice.
Where she died: In Nigeria, at age 67. There was great mourning among the tribes to whom she’d dedicated her life.
A tribute from an unexpected source: During London Fashion Week in 2010, Nigerian-born designers Bunmi Olaye and Francis Udom named Slessor as one of the muses behind their collection, which fused Victorian costume with furs of the African tribe Slesson had lived in. The reason? Slessor had rescued Francis’s great-grandmother, who was born a twin, from human sacrifice.
Amy Carmichael (1867 – 1951)
Who was she? A small-village girl from a devout Presbyterian family in County Down, Northern Ireland (her father founded an evangelical church in Belfast). She was called first to work among the mill girls of Manchester and then overseas, finding her life-long vocation in India.
Key achievement: In those days, Hindu priests kept “temple children” — mostly young girls who were forced into prostitution to earn money for them. Carmichael tried to rescue them by setting up a sanitarium in Tamil Nadu, thirty miles from the southern tip of India.
Bold behavior: She would dress in Indian clothes, dye her skin with dark coffee, and travel long distances on hot, dusty roads to save just one child from suffering.
How she died: In India at the age of 83. She asked that no stone be put over her grave. Instead, the children she had cared for put a bird bath over it with the single inscription Amma, meaning “mother” in Tamil.
Cryptic remark: While serving in India, Carmichael received a letter from a young lady who was considering life as a missionary. She asked, “What is missionary life like?” Carmichael wrote back saying simply,
“Missionary life is simply a chance to die.”
A measure of her fortitude: Carmichael served in India 55 years without furlough and produced a total of 35 published books about her experiences.
Gladys Aylward (1902 – 1970)
Who was she? A working class London girl who left domestic service for to Yuncheng, Shanxi Province, China, in the tumultuous years leading up to World War II. She worked with an older missionary, Jeannie Lawson, to found an inn where traveling merchants could get a hot meal and hear stories from the Bible. Notably, Aylward was initially rejected as a potential missionary to China because of her lack of education. She spent her life savings on her passage.
Key achievements: Appointed by the local mandarin to serve as a “foot inspector,” she toured the countryside to enforce the new law against foot binding and met with much success. She also took in orphans and adopted several herself, and she intervened in a volatile prison riot, advocating for prison reform. When the region was invaded by Japanese forces in 1938, Aylward led around a hundred children to safety over the mountains, despite being wounded herself.
How her life ended: She returned to England in the 1940s, then tried to go back to China but was re-denied entry by the Communist government. She ended up in Taiwan, where she started another orphanage. She lived in Taiwan until her death.
Chinese nickname: She was known in China as Ai-weh-deh, or Virtuous One.
Celebrations of her life: Numerous books, short stories and movies have been created about the life and work of Gladys Aylward, including the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
Not easily flattered: For Aylward, this 1957 movie was a thorn in her side: she resented being played by the tall, Swedish Ingrid Bergman (small in stature, she had dark hair and a cockney accent) and was further horrified to discover she’d been portrayed in “love scenes” with the Chinese Colonel Linnan.
Readers, what do you think of these 7 women? Have they inspired you?
STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s post, a Displaced Q on the “pornography of poverty.”
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