Canadian Baptist mission work among women in Andhra, India, 1874-1924: Baptist women evolved a role for themselves in an otherwise male-dominated mission enterprise and a patriarchal Telugu society.
The avenues of women's participation included various dimensions of ministry such as preaching the gospel stories, healing, and working on literacy. These avenues enabled women to enter spheres of activity that once were closed to them. Though women Were active throughout the missionary era, this study focuses on the years 1874 to 1924. This study considers the mission activities in Godavari districts of Andhra with passing references to activities in other districts.
Baptist Beginnings in Andhra
Protestant missionaries made their earliest contacts in what is now called Andhra Pradesh in 1805. Protestant Christians, however, had been present in the area prior to the arrival of missionaries. British colonial officers, Eurasians, and the likely presence of a few native Christian families would have made the Christian witness in the area a probability. Telugu Baptist pastors like Puroshottam Choudhary and Das Anthervedy from the Telugu-speaking districts of Madras Presidency were present even before the British Baptist Missionary Society's serampore Mission and the London Missionary Society began their mission.
Amos Sutton was the first British Baptist missionary to preach in the region having been sent by the Serampore Trio. (1) He preached in the northernmost parts of Andhra Pradesh in 1805 but failed to achieve his objectives, and he did not venture again into the region, confining his ministry instead to the Oriya-speaking districts. Sutton, however, persisted in his vision for the Telugus. Later, Sutton's marriage to an American Baptist missionary widow connected him with the American Baptists. While visiting his relatives in the United States in 1835, he urged the Baptist convention in Virginia to take over the "abandoned" work among the Telugus. (2)
Responding to his plea, the American Baptist Foreign Mission Board sent Samuel S. Day, a Canadian-born American, as their first missionary in 1835. (3) He arrived in Vishakapatnam in 1836 and searched for four years for a suitable place to start a mission station before finally finding one in Nellore. (4) Lyman Jewett in 1848 and John E. Clough in 1865 joined the mission station at Nellore. These American Baptist missionaries began to witness masses of Dalits converting to Christianity after the baptism of Yerraguntla Periah and his wife, Nagamma, from Tallakondapaud in 1866. (5)
The mission reports about mass conversions in India aroused an interest among the Baptists in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. They were already awakened by news of the heroics of Serampore missionaries in India and Adoniram Judson in Burma. The generosity of women at the First Baptist Church in Brantford (6) and the encouragement of R. A. Fyfe (7) made it possible for Americus and Mary Bates Timpany to go to India as the first Canadian Baptist missionaries to work with the American Baptist Foreign Missionary Society. They joined their American counterparts at Nellore in 1868 and then moved on to Ongole. While in Ongole, Timpany saw "the strength and wisdom of God" in the "weak and despised" Dalits." (8) Having started a mission station in Ramapatnam, Timpany opened a seminary to train the natives as evangelists and teachers.
Status of Women in Andhra
In the nineteenth century, women in Dalit communities were relatively free and assertive compared to their counterparts in Hinduism. (9) Dalit religiosity reflected the Dalit understanding of women. The Dalits acknowledged the feminine dimension of their deity, and in most cases, their deity was manifested in a feminine form. The Dalits worshipped goddesses such as Marramma, Veeramma, Bapanamma, Gontellamma, Basheer Bibi, Yellamma, Kaamma, Morasamma, Matangi, Somalamma, and Moosamma. There were, of course, male gods in the Dalit pantheon, but they only played a secondary role.
Dalit culture had both men and women as priests to mediate and to officiate at the sacrifices. But women led the cultic rites, while men assisted in invoking goddesses through music and biting the sacrificial animal. Besides officiating in cultic activities, Dalit women were also respected as breadwinners for their families. Because they, like the men, were to earn for the family, the women could not afford to go to school. Dalit girls were usually occupied in work like cutting grass, herding cattle, and helping their mothers in agricultural labor.
When it came to socializing between women of Hindu origin and Dalit origin, the same restrictions that pertained to social intercourse between two communities persisted. Though Dalits were the original inhabitants of the land, they were pushed to the fringes of village settlements. They were not allowed to enter the village lest, as a Hindu believed, they would contaminate the area of seventy-four feet around them. The sound waves from their mouths were considered defiling and hence they had to cover their mouths with a pot when they spoke with a Hindu. The smoke from their pyre was feared to defile the village; hence, they had to bury their dead.
The political conditions in the nineteenth century, however, provided Dalits with a certain amount of social mobility by giving them opportunities apart from their traditional occupations like leather dressing and agricultural work. The British and Nizam administrations employed them as village messengers, watchmen, and lower-grade clerks. They could travel from village to village, selling and buying hides. (10)
On the other hand, gender discrimination and caste discrimination went hand in hand within Hindu communities in Andhra Pradesh; this symbiosis was strong, and Hindu women were treated as creatures without minds or hearts. The status of Hindu women can be summed up in the following words of Canadian missionary Timpany, who in calling the attention of Baptist women in Canada to help Telugu women, claimed that Hindu women are "unwelcomed at their birth, enslaved as wives, accursed as widows, and unlamented when they die." (11) Women were confined to the darker cells in their homes and were prohibited to interact with any visitor lest they mother children for men from other castes. These social restrictions on women were aimed at preserving the "purity" of the caste system.
Hindu men saw women as seductive and also as subversive. A language teacher told Matilda, one of the pioneering missionaries, that insecure men feared that women would grow "unmanageable" if given an education, (12) for "educating a woman is like putting a knife in the hands of a monkey." (13) This dehumanizing system taught that women were only seductive bodies, subversive minds, and poisonous hearts. (14)
Hindu women were alienated from the food they cooked because they could only eat after all men in the family ate and only if there was something left. Preference was often given to men, and women had to live by the fringes in the family and community life. This dehumanization was the fate of all Hindu women no matter their caste. In fact, the higher their caste in the hierarchy, the more stringent the restrictions on its women were.
Building of Women's Solidarity
Canadian Baptist women in Toronto and Montreal responded to Timpany's call to help their Telugu sisters and formed the Baptist Women Foreign Mission Society. Given the intellectual climate of the late nineteenth century and women's activism in social movements against all forms of slavery, women's solidarity transcended national and ethnic boundaries in similar struggles across the continents. The 1870s had seen an increased missionary consciousness and social activism among Canadian women across the denominational barriers. Ruth Brouwer Crompton, studying the missionary adventures of Canadian Presbyterian women in India, identified five factors responsible for shaping the intellectual climate of the day and for quickening the missionary spirit: women's (1) increased leisure; (2) the higher education; (3) access to the teaching profession; (4) participation in abolition movements; and (5) experience gained in the civil wars. (15) The mushroom growth of student movements fanned the flames of missionary activism in 1880s. Many of the Canadian Baptist women missionaries were not an active part of the trend-making movements; nevertheless, the intellectual climate of the day influenced them. Both feminine assertion and missionary zeal bound the Canadian Baptist women with their Telugu sisters.
The enthusiastic response of Canadian Baptist women to Timpany's call to "help their Telugu sisters" sprang more out of sympathy than solidarity on equal terms. Canadian Baptist women were aware of their male missionaries' inability to reach out to Telugu women. Amelia Muir, the founding secretary of the Baptist Women's Foreign Missionary Society in Eastern Ontario and Quebec, admitted that she did not share the same interest for Telugu men that she shared for Telugu women. (16) She was certain that her male compatriots would and could minister only to Telugu men and boys. She declared that Baptist women's hearts "go out in sympathy for them (Telugu women) in their dark and barren homes." (17) Characterized by sympathy, this solidarity was not based on equal terms.
Missionary wives were active in Kakinada even before these female missionary societies were formed. These women accompanied their husbands to the mission field with equal zeal and saw themselves sent as part of a missionary team. While men missionaries went on preaching tours and constructed buildings, women missionaries spent their time caring for their children and preaching to the Telugu with the translation help of native women. Having identified needs, these women created a sphere of activity for themselves and incorporated native women into that sphere.
One female missionary, Mary McLaurin, walked in the "crooked" streets of Kakinada begging parents to send their daughters to her school. In her missionary tenure at the seminary in Samalkot, female students regarded her as a "guide, friend and philosopher," not merely as the principal's wife. (18) Roles such as hers were not assigned by the Canadian Baptist Foreign Mission Society but were the roles women assumed.
The interaction of women missionaries with the native culture, their association with the native women, and their cultural immersion enlarged their sense of solidarity. Despite their enthusiasm to identify with the dominant sections in the society, natives identified women missionaries as "untouchables." Matilda Churchill reporting from Bobbilli was shocked to realize that the Sudras, who were "least" in the Hindu hierarchy and were employed by her husband, refused to eat their food because her hat "happened to touch" their lunch pots. (19)
Women missionaries were allowed to enter the Hindu houses but only with much hesitancy. A woman missionary entering a house along with Dalit women saw the cooking pots turned upside down in the sun. The visitors were told not to touch the pots, even with their skirts, because then the owner would have to break the pots, as defiled and unfit for use. Seeing the dogs going close to the pots, the missionary enquired if the dogs would not defile them. The spontaneous response was, "the dog was not born in caste, but it just does not count, while the missionary (sic) do." (20) The missionaries' birth out of Hindu society and their refusal to recognize the caste hierarchy may have been the reasons for the status assigned to them. Their low social status made eating and drinking in a missionary's house a definite act of defiance against the caste structure, and thus, the participation of natives in the Lord's Supper was seen as a protest against the status quo. (21)
The Mission and Reform Efforts of Women Missionaries
The formation of the Women's Baptist Missionary Society in Western Ontario and the deputation of Mary Jane Frith to Andhra sharpened the focus on women's work and took the sense of solidarity beyond caste boundaries. Single women missionaries and missionary wives began to knock at the doors of Hindu homes and thereby knocked down the caste barriers in women's assertion movements. In the past, Hindu women had not tolerated Dalit women visiting their homes or even walking down their streets; however, women missionaries ambitiously employed Dalit women to accompany them and to preach to their Hindu counterparts. Though unthinkable, doors were opened, and Dalit women began to tell the gospel story to their Hindu sisters.
The cultural ferment among the Hindu women was permeated by reform movements such as the one led by Kandhukuri Veresalingam. Hindu women attempted to defy social restrictions, and some women from "higher" castes refused to shave their heads and some even ventured to remarry after their husbands' death instead of succumbing to their own deaths on their husbands' pyre as Hindu propriety required. Hence, the stigma of Dalit or missionary untouchablity did not hinder the Hindu women from opening their doors.
The seminary at Samalkot proved to be a laboratory for organized efforts by women to help themselves. Missionary Mary McLaurin and her husband recruited both men and women as seminary students, aiming to train native pastors and evangelists. Yet, no women were seen as potential candidates for ordained ministry, and men usually outnumbered women seminarians. Mary McLaurin spent much time seeking to meet the educational needs of the students' wives. She organized a "Mutual Improvement Society," based on the premise that each woman had something to teach others and that she herself had much to learn from them. Katherine McLaurin, recalling her mother's "experiment," described it as "inter-racial cooperation." (22) She noted that her Canadian mother learned from her Indian counterparts virtues such as being content in poverty. (23)
The arrival of single women missionaries in India resulted in a war against the Telugu culture of women's dependence and male domination. The sight of such missionaries living without any kind of dependence on a man proved to be a subversive culture and "a deviation from rule." (24) Missionary M. L. Orchard called the presence of single women missionaries a "puzzle" to the Hindu society. (25) This "puzzle" fanned the self-confidence of native women to cross their village boundaries on preaching tours, which was unimaginable to the Telugu culture.
Many native women became known as Bible women, a label that implied that they had determined to start an independent life and were ready to jeopardize their eligibility to be married because potential in-laws would prefer a girl who had not ventured outside her family's village. Bible women deviated from the cultural propriety and challenged family restrictions.
Women's Helpmeet Societies undertook the social and financial responsibility of these women. Married Canadian Baptist missionaries, however, were quick to restrict the growing independence of Telugu women by encouraging Bible women to marry native male evangelists. Yet, many Bible women remained single, either because they chose to or because they could not find a spouse. Gaining access to Hindu homes was the basic motive of all missionaries, both married and single, and the creation of a subversive female culture was not on their agenda, but it was an eventual result.
Native and missionary women blurred the socially defined spheres for women and encroached on the prohibited zone of the public sphere. Mary McLaurin was claimed to have realized that "home was not her only sphere of action." Visiting homes across the caste boundaries, touring beyond the village, preaching, and caring for the sick brought her into a sphere that was alien to Hindu women. The preaching of Dalit Bible women to their Brahmin counterparts defied the age-old prejudices that Dalit women were inferior in knowledge and nature. A Brahmin reportedly confessed that she was "galloped" by the "wonderful memory" and "magnetic personality" of Mariamma, whom she referred to as "black aunt," an identity given to Dalit women. (26)
This new culture of solidarity of Telugu women included inter-dining of women of all communities. Hindu women joined this new order of the Bible women. Sayamma was the earliest Hindu Bible woman. Hailing from a Kshatriya caste in Samalkot, Sayamma was baptized in 1899. She "thankfully served" the cause. (27) This thankful service would have certainly involved risks and challenges, given her caste and gender background. Another Bible woman, Adamma, a Sudra woman of Kapu caste, walked from Pithapuram to join her Dalit counterparts at Peddapuram. She felt that staying at home could hinder her zeal to preach, and thus, she journeyed seven miles and also journeyed through caste and gender restrictions, severing her dependence on the men of her family. John Craig reported that Adamma "broke caste by eating with the Christians" of Dalit origins. (28) Such pilgrimages by women into the public sphere took the Christian gospel into the public sphere and brought the gospel back to "homes."
The message of the gospel carried from home to home had an "evening-up" potential. (29) Women missionaries aimed to employ the services of native women to transform Telugu society as they saw the woman's potential to influence her family in matters of religion. Thus, native women, while serving the missionary's agenda, used the Christian gospel to elevate their status and to transform the Telugu culture.
Beyond the Body: "Healing the Souls as Well?"
The arrival in India of Sarah Simpson in 1888 opened up new possibilities of reaching out to Telugus and provided a new avenue for women to minister to the holistic needs of the Telugu society. Sarah, the first missionary nurse, blended the healing of soul and of body. She visited Hindu homes, rendering medical services and checking on the sick. She spent her morning treating people on her verandah. A 1895 report boasted that this avenue of ministry "gained her an entrance" into five Hindu houses. (30) This claim hints that medical ministry was seen as a pretext to gain entrance into houses otherwise closed to Christians.
Matilda Churchill, another missionary, realized in 1876 while she was in Kakinada learning Telugu, that ministering to "the bodily ailments of the heathen women" would enable missionaries "to enter their homes" and "gain their gratitude and esteem." (31) She described this healing aspect of ministry as "an entering wedge in our missionary enterprise." (32)
Doctors Everett Smith and Pearl Chute along with their sister, a nurse, established hospitals in Pithapuram and Akidu. This medical missionary family from the Niagara area arrived in India in the late nineteenth century. Chute opened the Star of Hope Hospital in Akidu, and her brother founded a hospital at Pithapuram. In 1896, Chute married and moved to Akidu. On the second night of her honeymoon, Chute heard a cry from her verandah asking for help. She responded to the cry and found a pregnant woman in labor. This event eventually led to the founding of medical missionary operations in the Akidu area and to the establishment of the Star of Hope Hospital in 1898.
A training institute, founded in 1910, for native nurses recruited Dalit girls who had been twice alienated due to community identity and gender. These Dalit trainees served in the hospitals as part of their internships and later were employed as nurses. The healing "touch" of these "untouchable" Dalit girls became a channel of healing to the Hindu dominant classes. Their healing prowess reached beyond the body to heal social relationships between fragmented Telugu communities.
The treatment of Hindus and Muslims in Akidu in the same facility proved problematic. Hindus and Muslims accused missionaries of "upsetting the balance of society and raising the status of (Dalit) masses." (33) Chute had to reconsider her treatment methods and began caring for patients in their homes. This approach, however, was unique to the Star of Hope Hospital. Yet, it reflected the attitude of Canadian Baptist missionaries to the caste system and their willingness to accept it as a social institution but to reject the inequalities intrinsic to the system. Chute "recognize[d] the caste system as an institution, even if she was not sympathetic to it." (34) All the hospitals founded by missionaries at this point were either intended to treat only women or had maternity wards. Women of all castes and creeds were cared for in the same dispensaries and wards.
The leprosy asylum at Ramachandrapuram illustrated the wholistic approach to healing. Isabel Hatch began work there among lepers in 1898 with the help of the Mission to Lepers in India and the East. Dr. Gertude Hulet arrived in 1900 to assist with the work. Lepers at the dawn of the century were considered cursed and untouchable in Andhra. In some parts of India, lepers were burned to death in hopes of gaining for them a better body in the rebirth. This practice was banned by the British administration in Bengal presidency.
The act of treating lepers challenged the native belief system and social practices. Missionary doctors willingly touched lepers, who had not been touched even by their family members sometimes for years. As a result, some missionary doctors contacted leprosy, including John E. Davis. Baptist missionaries believed the healing mission was not merely an "entering wedge" or premeditated pretext; it was an essential aspect of the wholistic missionary mandate. Dalit nurses spent their time administering the healing "touch" to the sick and also "narrating" Bible stories. (35)
Prescription cards were imprinted with scripture verses on one side while the name and date of the prescription were on the other side. Craig, writing his history of the mission, claimed that "the medicine for the soul went with that for the body." (36) The healing ministry clearly sought to heal he body and to transform individuals and communities.
Empowering through Literacy
Canadian Baptist missionaries quickly identified the possibility of wholistic transformation of the Telugu society through education, and they found women to be potential agents of change. Missionary Mary McLaurin, in 1875, founded a school for boys and the next year founded one for girls. She was shocked when the parents questioned her plea to send girls to her school, asking her, "What did girls want with reading, anyhow? It was their business to cut grass for the buffaloes. Teach girls? Better go and teach the donkeys to read. Reading? No man would marry a girl that could read, she would read his letters and find out all his affairs." (37)
The community identity of the parents that McLaurin approached for prospective students is unknown; however, her walks on "crooked" streets probably indicated that she was recruiting Dalit or Sudha girls. (38) Given their inability to feed their kids, Dalit parents sent their girls to cut grass and earn their food. McLaurin offered these families an education and free housing for their daughters. Despite the incentive of free food and education, she reported that several girls dropped out of school because their parents wanted them to earn money for the family's daily needs.
Besides founding boarding schools for girls in Akidu in 1883 and in Tuni in 1899, missionaries established a coeducational school in Samalkot in 1882. The basic purpose of these schools was to reach out to the parents through their children and prepare a future generation of Christian teachers and preachers. This missionary ambition led to a tendency to view students as "potential proselytes." This attitude often crippled the transformative power of the Christian message of equality and freedom. Sensing the reluctance of Hindu parents to send their daughters to the schools where Dalit girls were educated, missionaries founded a school for the caste girls at Kakinada in 1892, indicating again the willingness of Canadian Baptist missionaries to affirm the differences between the native communities and yet work for a social change. The missionaries never dared to dream of a casteless society but rather worked to establish a Christian society based on the principles of equality and unity. The present caste rivalry within the Convention of Baptist Churches in North Circars, reluctance of caste-churches to associate with the convention, and schisms in local churches on the basis of community identity owe their beginnings partially to the caste policy of the Canadian Baptist missionaries.
The hope that girl students would teach their mothers and eventually their entire family was fulfilled. Girls taught the Christian faith to their parents, but this proved to be culturally subversive in that the girls often internalized Christian values and challenged social restrictions. Orchard, quoting a report from 1892, exclaimed that one girl became a missionary in her family conducting family worship every evening for her mother, sister, and brothers. (39) A girl in Akidu encouraged her mother to abandon work on Sunday, an act seen as social insolence because Dalits were not allowed to make choices with regard to their work.
The boarding school at Kakinada became a grooming place for religious and social change. Girls trained as Bible women in that same school until a separate training school was founded in Palkonda in 1922. Agnes Baskerville, having realized the religious and social activism and potential of the girls, introduced an "extra class for the training of prospective Bible women and teachers" in 1890. (40) Orville Daniel noted that Agnes plunged into "a venture quite Mien to Indian women." (41) For Hindu society, women taking the Christian scriptures into homes was quite alien.
Literacy proved to be empowering for Dalit women, who had been denied the right to read for generations. With five decades, Dalits, who in 1875 had refused to send their daughters to school, began to plea for an education for their daughters.
The presence of single woman missionaries posed a challenge to the patriarchal society and also presented a possibility for native women to seek new ways of living dignified and independent lives. Native women seized the Bible and undertook preaching as their profession, a sphere prohibited to women in dominant religions like Hinduism and Christianity but encouraged in Dalit religion. The evolution of new spheres and blurring of old spheres precipitated a new social order for Telugus and birthed a distinct Telugu Baptist Christianity in which women continue to be an essential part. Healing an education provided native and missionary women the most effective avenue for ministry, allowing them to "even up" gender and caste inequalities and to proclaim the gospel.
(1.) william Carey, william Ward, and Marshman were sent by the Baptist Missionary Society and are usually identified as the Serampore Trio. Carey, the first of three missionaries, arrived in India in 1792.
(2.) Emma Goble, "The Story of Ongole," The Canadian Missionary Link, 15, no. 2 (October 1892): 20. See also M. L. Orchard and K. S. McLaurin, The Enterprise: The Jubilee Story of the Canadian Baptist Mission in India, 1874-1924 (Toronto: The Baptist Foreign Mission Board, n.d.), 128.
(3.) Samuel Day was born in Beamsville, Ontario.
(4.) John Craig, Forty Years Among the Telugus: A History of the Mission of the Baptists of Ontario and Quebec, Canada, 70 the Telugus, South India 1867-1907, (n.p: 1908), 13.
(5.) Alvin T. Fishman, Cultural Change and the Underprivileged (Madras: Christian Literature Society of India, 1941), 5.
(6.) W. Gordon Carder, Hand to the Indian Plow, vol.1. (Madras: Christian Literature Society, 1976), 4.
(7.) Katherine S. McLaurin, Mary Bates McLaurin (Toronto: The Women's Baptist Foreign Missionary Society of Ontario West, 1945), 36. See also A. A. Scott, Beacon Lights: A Sketch of the Origin and the Development of Our Mission Stations in India and the Missionary Personnel (Toronto: The Canadian Baptist Foreign Mission Board, Toronto, 1938), 12.
(8.) Carder, Hand to the Indian Plow, 15.
(9.) See Matilda Churchill, Letters from My Home in India (Toronto: McClellan, Goodchild & Stewart, 1916), 97.
(10.) John C. B. Webster, The Dalit Christians A History (Delhi: ISPCK, 1996), 42. See also Orchard, Enterprise, 258, 263.
(11.) A. V. Timpany, "For Missionary Link," The Canadian Baptist Missionary Link, 1, no. 1 (September 1878): 1.
(12.) Churchill, Letters from Home, 62.
(13.) Orchard, Enterprise, 285.
(14.) Ibid., 291.
(15.) Ruth Compton Brouwer, Neu, Women for God: Canadian Presbyterian Women and India Missions, 1876-1914 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 18.
(16.) Amelia Muir, "A Speech," The Canadian Baptist Missionary Link, 2, no. 12 (December 1878): 15.
(18.) McLaurin, Mary Bates McLaurin, 236.
(19.) Churchill, Letters from Home, 91.
(20.) Ibid., 292.
(21.) Orchard, Enterprise, 108.
(22.) McLaurin, Mary Bates McLaurin, 90.
(24.) Orchard, Enterprise, 225.
(25.) Ibid., 220.
(26.) Orville Daniel, Moving with the Times: The Story of Baptist Outreach from Canada in to Asia, South America, and Africa (Toronto: The Canadian Baptist Foreign Mission Board, 1973), 47.
(27.) Craig, Forty Years Among the Telugus, 243.
(29.) Orchard, Enterprise, 291.
(30.) Craig, Forty Years Among the Telugus, 206.
(31.) Churchill, Letters from Home, 65.
(33.) Carlotta Hacker, The Indomitable Lady Doctors (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin & Company, 1974), 120.
(35.) Daniel, Moving with the Times, 75.
(36.) Craig, Forty Years Among the Telugus, 107.
(37.) Ibid., 189.
(39.) Orchard, Enterprise, 207.
(40.) Daniel, Moving with the Times, 57.
James Elisha is a Baptist minister and former lecturer at Bethel Bible College, Guntur, India. He is currently a doctoral student at McMaster University in Canada.
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|Publication:||Baptist History and Heritage|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2006|
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