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Evangelist or homemaker? Mission strategies of early nineteenth-century missionary wives in Burma and Hawaii.

One of the hallmarks of American Protestant mission work abroad has been its inclusion of women from the beginning. When the first five men commissioned by the American Board departed for India in 1812, three were accompanied by their wives. The inclusion of women in the mission force, albeit as "assistant missionaries," was a startling departure from the usual American idea that a missionary was a loner like David Brainerd, bereft of family for the efficiency of the mission work. Despite the public outcry against the horrible dangers that presumably awaited them, Ann Judson, Roxana Nott, and Harriet Newell took their places in the pioneer group of foreign missionaries from the United States.

Not only was opinion divided over whether women should be permitted to go to the mission field, but arguments continued for forty years over the proper role of the missionary wife. Granting that the "Go" of the Great Commission applied to women did not solve the disputes over their role. The missionary charge given before departure to Harriet Newell and Ann Judson by Pastor Jonathan Allen commanded them to evangelize women to whom their husbands could get little access. He encouraged the missionary wives to teach women that they "stand upon a par with men." One of the goals of the missionary wives would be to "raise" the women's "character to the dignity of rational beings." Pastor Allen expected the missionary wives to be educators, evangelists of women, and crusaders for New England-style women's equality.(1)

Allen's ambitions for the missionary wife were soon tempered by the hard realities of missionary life in a foreign culture. By 1840, missionary pioneer William Goodell of Turkey was arguing that the typical missionary wife found raising a family in an alien culture so difficult that only the exceptional wife should be expected to engage in teaching or other active mission work. Devotion to her family was the best way a missionary wife could witness to Christ. Whether the missionary wife "looketh well to the ways of her household" indicated whether the missionary family was a successful example of Christian living for the surrounding culture.(2) Goodell spoke for many when he argued that the test of the missionary wife was the missionary family.

American historians have argued that with the development of industrialization in the early nineteenth century, married middle-class women increasingly were confined to domestic roles. An ideology of domesticity emerged from the interaction of evangelical religion and industrial capitalism.(3) Although women in the mission field kept in touch with the changing roles of women at home, I contend here that disputes over the proper role of the missionary wife did not emerge solely from changing roles of women in the United States. The character of the mission field itself affected the role of the missionary wife. Life on the mission field and the structure of the missions deeply influenced how American wives participated in mission and how they interpreted what they did. The internal debate within the missionary movement over the role of the missionary wife was the product of the experiences of missionaries in specific contexts, not merely a reflection of stateside arguments over domesticity and women's spheres.

In order to demonstrate how context and mission structure impacted the emerging theories and practice of American missionary wives, a comparison will be made of antebellum women missionaries in Burma (Myanmar) and the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). Burma and the Sandwich Islands were the most successful mission fields respectively of the American Baptists and the American Board (Congregationalists and Presbyterians) in the early nineteenth century. Both fields experienced mass conversions of tribal jungle peoples. The roles played by the Baptist and Congregational women, however, differed in the two contexts.

Baptist Women in Burma

American Baptists acquired their first foreign missionaries by chance. Adoniram and Ann Judson, now revered as Baptist saints, began their missionary careers as Congregationalists sent with the first group of American Board missionaries in 1812. Bible study on shipboard convinced Adoniram Judson of the necessity of believer's baptism. After arriving in India, the Judsons were immersed by William Carey.(4) Consequently, in 1814 American Baptists held a missionary convention and adopted the Judsons as their first missionaries. Already, in June of 1813, the Judsons had obtained passage to Burma, thus opening the mission field for American Baptists, even before American Baptists agreed to support them in 1814.

Once settled in Burma, the Judsons began to study the Burmese language with the goal of communicating the Gospel to the Burmese, both in oral form and through translating the Bible. In view of his perceived central role as translator of the Bible into Burmese, Adoniram spent all day in language study. Ann Judson's goal for her own ministry in Burma was to open a school for children where she could both educate children and guide them toward conversion. After the Judsons moved to Ava in February of 1824, Ann began a school for three small girls.

In their fourth year in Burma, the Judsons began to receive inquiries about the Christian religion. Ann gathered together a group of female inquirers into a Sabbath Society where she read to them the Bible and tried to tell them about God.(5) In 1819 the Judsons erected a zayat, a native-style preaching house where people could drop in for religious conversation. While Adoniram discussed religion with the men, Ann met with the women, visiting, praying, and talking with them. She held a regular Wednesday evening prayer meeting with interested women.(6)

Ann assisted Adoniram in his translation work by translating several tracts into Burmese and by translating the Books of Daniel and Jonah. She also wrote a catechism in Burmese. But in 1817 she became interested in the many Siamese (Thai) in Rangoon and began to study their language. Her translation of the Gospel of Matthew in 1819 was the first translation of the Scriptures into Siamese. She also put the Burmese catechism and a tract into Siamese. In translating a Siamese sacred book into English in 1819, she endeavored to introduce Westerners to Siamese religious writings.(7)

Unrestricted by precedent and unhampered by the expectations of other missionaries, Ann Judson's early accomplishments as a missionary wife cannot be stereotyped. In addition to childbirth and child care and running a household in a foreign country, she did evangelistic work, ran a small school, and was a pioneer Bible translator into two languages. It was not her missiological contributions, however, that made Ann Judson's name a household word in the United States after war broke out between the British government and Burma in May of 1824: it was her status as heroine and savior of her husband. As an English speaker, Adoniram Judson was imprisoned and tortured. Ann, with her children, followed her husband from prison to prison and preserved his and several others' lives by bribing officials and providing him food, In February of 1826 the British won the war and released the European prisoners. Ann Judson died soon after at age thirty-eight, worn out from her hardships.

The life of Ann Judson provided a powerful model for the succeeding Baptist missionary wives. Although Ann's own mission theory made teaching women and girls a personal priority, the reality was that she and her husband were not with other missionaries most of the time and found themselves functioning as a team. Ann's accomplishments in education were overshadowed by the evangelistic and Bible translation work she shared with her husband. Her role as savior of her husband also validated a public role for the missionary wife that lifted her above the connotations of mere "assistant missionary."

The combination of translation and evangelistic work exemplified by Ann Judson became a hallmark of the outstanding Baptist missionary wives in Burma. The urgency to do itinerant evangelistic work grew once the non-Buddhist Karen peoples of the Burmese jungles began to respond to the Gospel in the 1830s. The missionary pioneer among the Karens was George Boardman. After his death in 1831, his wife Sarah Hail Boardman took his place by itinerating for three years among the jungle Karens, preaching in Burmese, her little boy George in tow.(8) According to her biographer, she several times "conducted the worship of two or three hundred Karens, through the medium of her Burmese interpreter; and such was her modest manner of accomplishing the unusual task, that even the most fastidious were pleased."(9) She also established a system of village and station schools that became a model. Boardman gave up her role as itinerant evangelist and preacher when, after the death of Ann Judson, she married Adoniram Judson. As the second Mrs. Judson, she concentrated on bearing and raising their children. But because nobody was working in the Peguan language, she translated into it a number of tracts, a life of Christ, and parts of the New Testament. Before her final illness of "wasting disease," her daily routine consisted of sitting at a table with her language helpers, doing translations while her children played in the adjoining room.(10)

Eliza Grew Jones was first appointed to Burma with her husband in 1830, and she carried on the Siamese translation work pioneered by Ann Judson. Her first large work was a Siamese-English dictionary that she completed in December of 1833 after she was transferred to Siam. A few years later, she devised a plan for writing Siamese in a Romanized script. Before she died, she had translated two large portions of the Pentateuch and had written an important schoolbook for the Siamese. She also visited jungle villages, reading the Bible to groups of men, women, and children and answering their questions about doctrine. To her, itinerant evangelism was "the most delightful employment in which I have ever been engaged."(11) Eliza found herself struggling with the expectation that she, as a woman, should also teach small children, an occupation she felt was "small business."(12)

Two of the most outstanding jungle evangelists among the Baptist wives were Deborah Wade and Calista Vinton. The Wades were among the first recruits to assist the Judsons. After the death of Ann Judson, Deborah Wade took over her school work and the care of her daughter. But she soon learned that "there was a more urgent work than that of the school." As a few Burmese began to come to Christ, Deborah threw herself into public evangelistic work with the women.(13)

Once members of the Karen tribes grew interested in Christianity, Mr. and Mrs. Wade became evangelists to their jungle villages. Scaling mountains, walking by foot on narrow mountain paths, and riding bamboo rafts, the Wades went deeper and deeper into the jungles. While Mr. Wade itinerated further, Mrs. Wade remained alone in the small villages for weeks at a time, reading and teaching men, women, and children from the Bible. After he returned from weeks of itinerating, Mr. Wade examined and baptized the candidates that she had trained.(14) For many years, the Wades continued their pattern of jungle itineration during the dry seasons and more settled educational work during the rainy seasons. Although they preferred to work as a team, they were such valuable jungle evangelists that they were forced to itinerate separately, each taking a younger missionary of the opposite sex as an assistant.

After twenty-seven years of pioneer mission work, the Wades settled down into stationary work among the Burmese, and Deborah Wade resumed mission work primarily among women while her husband concentrated on the training of Burmese pastors. Her Wednesday evening prayer meeting was so well attended that the mission had to change the day because the Burmese were beginning to call Wednesday the "female Sabbath."(15) Deborah Wade was a successful missionary partly because of her close relationships with the common people established over forty-five years. Her language skills were excellent, and she and her husband spent 1833 at the Baptist seminary in Hamilton, New York, training future Baptist missionaries in both Burmese and Karen. She also lived with the people rather than above them. "Renouncing all luxuries, wearing only the plainest clothing, and reducing the furniture of her room even below things necessary, she felt better qualified to be an advocate of and an example to the poor.(16)

Calista Vinton was one of the missionaries-in-training who studied Karen with the Wades in 1833. In 1834 she and her husband sailed to Burma and were able to go straight to the jungle for itineration because they already knew the language. Because of the great need for evangelists, the Vintons soon separated. Each taking native assistants, they preached from Karen village to village. Unlike Deborah Wade, who insisted that what she was doing was not "preaching," Calista Vinton felt that her vocation to preach the Gospel was as strong as her husband's.(17) Deborah Wade and Calista Vinton spent time teaching the Karens to read, both because the Karens were very eager to read and because the missionaries demanded that young people who desired baptism be literate. But Calista Vinton's primary call was to itinerant evangelism, a work she continued alone even after the death of her husband.

Despite tensions over the appropriate role for women in ministry, the Baptist missionary women in Burma did everything the male missionaries did except administer the sacraments and preside as a permanent pastor of a church. Converting people to salvation in Christ was the top priority for both male and female missionaries, and the eagerness of the Karens for the Gospel meant that women missionaries had to give direct evangelistic work their full attention. Although Ann Judson believed that schools were the key to the elevation of women in Burma, school work was not the only mission strategy for the Baptist women. Some women with families who were stationed in large towns concentrated not on direct evangelism but on running small schools, holding mothers' meetings, and doing "female work." Sarah Comstock, for example, ran a school, gave medicine to the sick, conversed with women about their souls, did a little translation work, and educated her own children.(18) But in the pioneer phase of Baptist work, particularly of the Karen mission, the need of the mission was for itinerant evangelists--either male or female.

American Board Women in the Sandwich Islands

In 1819 the first colony of American Board missionaries departed for Hawaii. The leaders of the mission were Asa Thurston and Hiram Bingham, both accompanied by wives whose personal calling to mission work was so strong that they had married their husbands in order to become missionaries themselves. Lucy Thurston married her husband within three weeks of meeting him, and Sybil Bingham within one week. Both teachers before their marriages, Lucy and Sybil resembled Ann Judson in their educational attainments and commitment to teaching as the preferred public role for missionary wives.

Years in the Hawaiian context, however, transformed the women's idea of the proper missionary role for women. Upon reading the biography of the recently deceased Ann Judson, Lucy Thurston disagreed with Judson's remarks that the purpose of the missionary wife was to be a teacher. Rather, Lucy confided to her journal, "In our situation, I approve the motto, that 'The missionary best serves his generation who serves the public, and his wife best serves her generation who serves her family.'"(19) By 1834, burdened by her need to protect her children from "heathenism," Lucy Thurston had given up her early ideals of imitating the women who accompanied Jesus on his mission, substituting in their place a mission theory that centered on the Christian home.

Whereas the Baptist wives in Burma felt encouraged by their context and the shortage of male personnel to engage in mission activities generally considered the responsibility of men, the Congregationalist wives in the Sandwich Islands gradually relinquished their early goals. Because the favorable climate of Hawaii permitted the survival of large numbers of children, the missionary wives were preoccupied by family needs. Shocked by the customs of the Hawaiians, missionary women felt they needed to protect their children from contact with the indigenous population.(20) Another factor that helped to shape the mission theory of the women was the presence of so many missionaries--by 1858, a total of 162 missionary men and women had arrived from America. With so many missionaries, women had to leave itinerant evangelism to the men and focus instead on "home visitation." The relatively large number of missionary wives also meant that a critical mass of women could develop a uniquely female mission identity in a way that was probably not possible for the wives in Burma.

The overall strategy of the Hawaii mission was to translate the Scriptures into the native language and to begin schools in which to teach people how to read the Bible. Through the means of translation, Christian education, and the preaching of the Gospel, the missionaries hoped to convert the Hawaiians to Christianity. In the words of Sarah Lyman, who arrived as a missionary wife in 1832, "Believing as we did, that the way to convert a nation was to give them the Bible in their own language...the easiest way of getting it into circulation, was to introduce it into schools."(21) The women of the mission expected that their part in the strategy would be to provide support services for the missionary men and to instruct women and children in the schools.

The journals of the wives during the early years tell a story of increasing fatigue in dealing with primitive conditions and growing families. A great part of the fatigue and discouragement resulted not from the failure of the mission but from the fact that the indigenous Hawaiians were interested in every aspect of the missionaries' lives. Instead of having to beg for access to the indigenous people, the missionary women found themselves surrounded at all hours of the day by friendly and curious Hawaiians. Female chiefs made lengthy visits several times a day, just to watch the missionary women and to demand sewing. For the first few years of mission work, most of the missionaries lived together in Honolulu. Thirteen persons ate and slept and stored all their provisions in a room twenty feet square. As the wives began to have babies, the crowding grew more acute. The unrelenting lack of privacy took its toll on missionary morale, especially on that of the women, who were expected to mind the hearth.

In 1823 Sybil Bingham wrote in her journal, "My exhausted nature droops.... I sometimes grieve that I can no more devote myself to the language, & the study of my bible. But I do not indulge myself in it. I believe God appoints my work; and it is enough for me to see that I do it all with an eye to his glory. Perhaps my life may be spared to labor yet more directly for the heathen."(22) Throughout her twenty-one-year career as a missionary, Sybil Bingham supervised and taught school to the extent she was able, but when from her post in Honolulu she described her missionary life, it was one of disappointment:

My spirit is often oppressed as a day closes, busy and bustling as it may have been, to see so little accomplished. I could never have conceived when thinking of going to the heathen to tell them of a Saviour, of the miscellany of labor that has actually fallen to my portion.... There are those on missionary ground who are better able to realize their anticipations of systematic work. But not a mother of a rising family, placed at a post like this.... A feeble woman in such circumstances must be content to realize but little of the picture her youthful mind has formed of sitting down quietly day by day, to teach heathen women and children.(23)

Lucy Thurston similarly found her youthful idealism shattered by the circumstances of life in Hawaii. The Thurstons had not gone to Honolulu with the other missionaries but had remained with the king at the king's command. Because of the threat of thievery, Lucy spent four months guarding their possessions until a safe storage place could be provided. After a Hawaiian tried to rape her, it was four and a half years before Lucy felt able to leave her small yard.

Once she began to have children, she found that "many days were almost exclusively spent in directing our child's attention so as to shield it from danger."(24) As her children grew, the problem of how to educate her children and protect them from bad influences weighed on her mind constantly. The presence of indigenous Hawaiians in her small hut kept her awake at night with worry. Finally, as an alternative to sending their children to America, the Thurstons constructed a house with separate compartments for the children and for native visitors. Throughout their childhood, the Thurston children were virtual prisoners in the children's quarters, closely supervised and educated by their mother, kept separate from the indigenous people, and forbidden to learn the Hawaiian language.(25)

Although it was to be expected that Lucy Thurston and Sybil Bingham, the first generation of missionary wives, would have had the hardest time in balancing their family responsibilities and vocations, later missionary wives seem to have fared little better. They followed the time-consuming pattern set by the first wives of limiting their children's access to the natives. Lucy Wilcox was one of fifteen brides who arrived on the Mary Frazier from Boston in 1837. In 1838 she wrote home describing the accepted missionary wisdom regarding child rearing:

It is necessary to have a constant watch over our children here as soon as they begin to walk and talk and to speak the native language, tho the children do understand more or less of it there can be no reason why they do not speak it first but, because they are not allowed to by their parents, for it is much easier for children than our language .... Native influence is very bad for children.(26)

Within ten years of their arrival, one-third of the families who arrived on the Mary Frazier had four or more children. If the figures from the Mary Frazier are typical for the other missionary companies, then it is clear that raising large families, keeping house, and supporting one's husband severely limited the time missionary wives could spend in actual mission work. In the words of Laura Judd, who arrived in 1828, "Mothers were often weary and desponding in the effort to teach and train their children with one hand, and to labor for the people with the other, but they toiled on with patience, and watched and prayed."(27)

All missionary wives tried their hand at teaching because it was expected of them by both the mission and the Hawaiian chiefs, who demanded education for their people. In addition to the conflict between family and school responsibilities, however, a number of the wives gradually gave up teaching because they found the work too discouraging. Hawaiian children, accustomed to running free, resented being confined for school work. Lucy Wilcox wrote to another missionary wife that "we do the best we can with our Scholars, they are very irregular, so much so that we are most discouraged at times."(28) Soon after her arrival, Sarah Lyman began to teach writing to native instructors. Eventually she taught a large children's school but nevertheless felt that "it needs a large share of faith and patience to keep school on the islands. I often return home with a desponding heart."(29) A few months later she wrote in despair, "My school is like a weight pressing me down constantly. When will the churches send out laymen, so that most of the teaching shall not devolve on the wives of the missionaries, to the great neglect of our dear children?"(30)

Sybil Bingham, a trained schoolteacher and the pioneer of the Hawaiian mission schools, genuinely enjoyed the time she was able to spend in teaching Hawaiian women and girls. With the ready access of the missionaries to the indigenous people, however, she realized that one of the chief reasons for mission schools, namely, to get access to the people, was not a factor in Hawaii.

I have come to the conclusion to do little with a regular school. The state of things, now, is such that, with the language, one may do good upon a much larger scale. A Little school was the beginning of public labors--now there is such access to the rulers of the nation, and such means of multiplying schools as to make that comparatively small.(31)

Ready access to the people meant that missionary women could teach informally and by example rather than having to devote themselves to building up schools as institutions. The wives did not need schools in order to have contact with the people or to provide religious instruction. If anything, the schools were an extra burden on women who already felt swallowed up and imposed upon by an alien people and culture. For the Hawaiian missionary wives, keeping school often felt like a distraction from home responsibilities and from more "spiritual" mission work.

Unfulfilled by school work, not needed or wanted for itinerant evangelism and Bible translation, burdened by family cares, and surrounded by all-too-friendly Hawaiians, many of the missionary wives developed a mission theory based on the Christian home.(32) Everywhere they looked they seemed to see neglected children, poor sanitation, and an eagerness on the part of the Hawaiian women to learn Western ways. The context seemed to demand most of all that the missionary women be examples to the indigenous women, showing them how to raise their children and to create a "Christian" home. A mission theory based on the Christian home not only seemed to meet the needs of Hawaiian women and children, but it met the needs of the missionary women, who wished to concentrate on caring for their own families while simultaneously contributing to the mission.

A unique woman's mission theory based on exemplifying the Christian home emerged naturally and gradually in the life of the mission. The beginnings of it occurred when Kalakua, the queen dowager, boarded the first missionary ship and demanded Western clothing. The missionary wives held a sewing circle on shipboard: while they sewed Kalakua's dress, they set her four attendants to practicing stitches on calico. The constant presence of crowds of Hawaiian women, observing the minutiae of the missionary wives' activities, made it seem natural for the wives to turn their domestic activities into object lessons for the native women. After the birth of Lucy Thurston's first child, the people crowded around to see the first white infant in their area. Their interest was not lost on Lucy, who realized the teaching potential of the moment: "There was their white teacher under new circumstances. And there was the white infant, neatly dressed in white. A child dressed! Wonderful, most wonderful! To witness home scenes and the manner in which we cherished our children seemed, in a child-like way, to draw fore their warmest affections.(33)

Precedent existed for the Christian home as a mission agency in the work of British missions in the South Seas. In 1822 William Ellis of the London Missionary Society traveled from the Society Islands to Hawaii. With his knowledge of the South Pacific, he helped achieve a breakthrough in learning the Hawaiian language. The wives of the Hawaiian missionaries sent letters back to Mrs. Ellis inviting her to Oahu to work with them. Mary Ellis reached Oahu in February of 1823 and began to help the discouraged wives redefine their mission.

In Mary Ellis, the young missionary wives of the American Board had as mentor an experienced missionary wife who had seen her mission as one of training people, especially women, "in the ordinary transactions of life,--more especially in their treatment of children, and their training them up for the Lord." According to William Ellis, the British missionary wives in the South Seas "felt as if the whole station or island were one vast school, in which they were called to inculcate and exemplify 'whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are of good report.'"(34) Mary Ellis thus took with her to Hawaii the idea that missionary wives in that context should be role models, especially in family matters.

In 1836 Secretary Rufus Anderson of the American Board wrote an introduction to the American edition of Mary Ellis's biography, entitled "On the Marriage of Missionaries." By the time he was writing, the American foreign mission was nearly a quarter of a century old, and the difficulties of missionary life for women had become apparent and subject to wide criticism. Using Mary Ellis as a model, and by implication the missionary wives in Hawaii, Anderson justified the existence of the missionary wife on the basis of the Christian home.

The heathen should have an opportunity of seeing christian families. The domestic constitution among them is dreadfully disordered, and yet it is as true there as everywhere else, that the character of society is formed in the family. To rectify it requires example as well as precept.(35)

He argued that the downtrodden "heathen" wife must be taught to be a virtuous wife and mother: "She must have female teachers, living illustrations .... And the christian wife, mother, husband, father, family, must all be found in all our missions to pagan and Mohammedan countries."(36) To Rufus Anderson, the missionary wife had proven her worth in the South Pacific not only by acting as a helpmate and support to her husband but by modeling the Christian home, the building block of Christian society.

It is clear from the words of Secretary Anderson and from the letters and journals of the Hawaiian mission wives that their model of the Christian family was in fact that of the New England evangelical nuclear family. The early missionaries to Hawaii lacked cross-cultural training and were products of the Yankee culture. They were saddened at what they perceived to be lax child-rearing methods among the South Sea islanders--letting children run free with minimal parental discipline, exposing children to adult sexual activity, minimally washing and clothing children. All these things were considered to be pagan or heathen. In contrast, the missionaries felt that the Christian home was exemplified by clean, neatly dressed and well-disciplined children under the care of a loving mother. To Lucy Thurston, "an enlightened, pious devoted mother" seemed to be "one of the finest specimens of female piety which this world exhibits."(37) The missionary contribution of the missionary wife was not merely to teach doctrine but to model a particular lifestyle and piety. Lucy Wilcox wrote a letter to her parents defending her focus on the home as a form of mission service: "Perhaps you will inquire, What can you do besides taking care of your children? Why, I can do but little at present; yet the example of rearing a family as it should be, is just what this people need."(38)

The mission theory of the Christian family was adopted in Hawaii because it was effective and because it made a virtue out of necessity. By interpreting family life as a mission agency, the mission wives sacralized the myriad activities that ate up their strength and their days. The theory brought order out of the unceasing round of home visitation, sewing lessons, childcare, and prayer meetings. The apparent eagerness of the indigenous women to learn from the missionary wives validated for the missionaries the idea that home life was an effective agency of evangelization and civilization.

The missionary wives of Hawaii exemplified both negative and positive aspects of a mission theory of the Christian home. Put upon by the indigenous people, some of the wives happily retreated into the work of their large families. Ironically, they talked about the Christian family as a living model for the people at the same time that they were carefully limiting the people's access to their children. Their obvious concern for the well-being of the Hawaiian mothers and children, however, meant that some wives exhausted themselves in trying to improve all aspects of Hawaiian life through a holistic approach to mission that refused to separate mind from body, or public from private.


As the excitement of the pioneer years of American foreign missions passed, and the difficulties of missionary life for families became clear, it seems that Americans came to expect less public mission work from the missionary wife. By the 1830s, New Englanders were developing ideas about children that saw them as innocents needing protection and nurture rather than as miniature adults needing discipline. The perceived need of innocent children for protection and nurture meant that the home task of the missionary mother was so great as to leave little time for other mission work. Given the overwhelming nature of the maternal responsibilities, critics began to question again whether women should be missionaries. In response to these criticisms, Rufus Anderson and others used the mission theory of the "Christian home" as developed in the South Pacific to legitimate the presence of mothers on the mission field.

Yet even as American public opinion sought to restrict the average woman to the home, leading Baptist wives in Burma continued to preach, to itinerate, and to translate the Bible, doing tasks that Congregationalists in Hawaii confined to men. Perhaps the differences in the American Board and Baptist mission reflected the different relationship of the two denominations to American society. The American Board self-consciously continued the learned tradition of the Puritans and made a distinction between the ordained men of the mission and the unordained, men and women alike.(39) The class-conscious traditions of the American Board confined the "important" mission work of itinerant evangelism and Bible translation to the highly educated ordained men. In contrast, the egalitarian tendencies of the early nineteenth-century Baptists, combined with their lower social status and lack of education relative to Congregationalists, may have worked together to permit a larger role for women missionaries.

A major source of the differences between the mission of American Board and Baptist women in the early nineteenth century lay in the different contexts. Although both Hawaii and Burma experienced rapid church growth among tribal peoples during the 1830s and 1840s, the high missionary mortality rate and poverty of the Baptist effort compared with that of the American Board meant that there was always a shortage of missionaries in Burma. By 1843 there were nearly thirty Karen churches with 1,500 members and thousands waiting for churches to be founded, but there were only five missionaries available for work among the Karens.(40) It is no wonder that missionary women and indigenous workers were called upon to do the primary evangelistic work of the Baptist mission.

American Board women in Hawaii, however, came out in groups and by the 1840s were incorporated into a large, stable missionary community. The favorable climate of the mission guaranteed the survival not only of ordained men, who maintained control over the mission, but of children, who needed care. The structure and size of the Hawaiian missionary community encouraged a differentiation of sex roles among the missionaries: the Hawaiian missionary families held an extended annual gathering where the wives met and exchanged advice on child rearing, homemaking, and mission strategies. The Hawaii wives thus gradually and corporately developed a mission theory of the Christian home that seemed to integrate their dual roles as missionary women and mothers, and at the same time justified their existence to critics back home.

Dana Robert, a contributing editor, is Associate Professor of International Mission at Boston University School of Theology.


1. For the text of Allen's sermon, see Pioneers in Mission: The Early Missionary Ordination Sermons, Charges, and Instructions, ed. R. Pierce Beaver (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1966), pp. 268-78.

2. Quoted in E.D.G. Prime, Forty Years in the Turkish Empire; or, Memoirs of Rev. William Goodell, D.D., Late Missionary of the A.B.C.F.M. at Constantinople, 8th ed. (Boston: American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1891), p. 190.

3. On the increasingly domestic role expected of American women during the transition to an industrial, capitalist society in the early nineteenth century, see Barbara Berg, The Remembered Gate: Origins of American Feminism. The Woman and the City, 1800-1860 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978); Nancy Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: "Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1977); Barbara Epstein, The Politics of Domesticity: Women, Evangelism, and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century America (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1981). The ideology of "woman's sphere" as a product of particular class and social backgrounds has been explored by Lori Ginzberg in Women and the Work of Benevolence: Morality, Politics, and Class in the Nineteenth-Century United States (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990).

4. See James D. Knowles, Memoir of Mrs. Ann H. Judson, 4th ed. (Boston: Lincoln & Edmands, 1831), p. 73. In hindsight, it is clear that given the expectations of lifelong marriage and her isolation from everyone except her husband, Ann Judson had no choice but to go along with her husband in his change of views. Baptist lore indicates that the Judsons reached their change of views on baptism independently, but the evidence from the Knowles biography suggests otherwise.

5. Ibid., p. 163. See also Ann Judson, An Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire: In a Series of Letters, Addressed to a Gentleman in London (London: J. Butterworth & Son, 1823), p. 97.

6. Knowles, Memoir, pp. 179-81; Judson, Account, pp. 156-57.

7. For Ann Judson's account of her work in Siamese, see Knowles, Memoir, pp. 181-82; Judson, Account, p. 158. According to Don and Chuleepran Persons, with whom I spoke on September 28, 1987, at Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, Ann Judson was the first Protestant to work among the Thai when she attended to Thai prisoners at Ava. Her translations are held in the Payap University Archives, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

8. Robert G. Torbet, Venture of Faith: The Story of the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society and the Woman's American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, 1814-1954, with a foreword by Jesse R. Wilson (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1955), p. 49.

9. Fanny Forester |Emily Chubbuck Judson~, Memoir of Sarah B. Judson, Member of the American Mission to Burmah (New York: L. Colby, 1848), p. 170.

10. Ibid., p. 184.

11. Committee of Publication, ed., Memoir of Mrs. Eliza G. Jones, Missionary to Burmah and Siam (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication and Sunday School Society, 1842), p. 87.

12. Ibid., p. 122.

13. Walter N. Wyeth, The Wades: Jonathan Wade, D.D., Deborah B.L. Wade (Philadelphia: Privately printed, 1891), p. 79.

14. See ibid., pp. 111-22 for description of Deborah Wade's jungle ministry.

15. Ibid., p. 165.

16. Ibid., p. 163.

17. Calista V. Luther, The Vintons and the Karens: Memorials of Rev. Justus H. Vinton and Calista H. Vinton (Boston: W.G. Corthell, 1880), p. 25. Vinton's biographer felt it necessary to add that her preaching was done in modesty and did not contradict Paul's rule that woman not "usurp authority over the man."

18. Daniel C. Eddy, Heroines of the Missionary Enterprise; or, Sketches of Prominent Female Missionaries (Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1850), esp. pp. 184-86. See also Mrs. A.M. Edmond, Memoir of Mrs. Sarah D. Comstock, Missionary to Arracan (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1854).

19. Lucy G. Thurston, Life and Times of Mrs. Lucy G. Thurston, Wife of Rev. Asa Thurston, Pioneer Missionary to the Sandwich Islands, Gathered from Letters and Journals Extending over a Period of More Than Fifty Years, 2d ed. (Ann Arbor, Mich.: S.C. Andrews, 1882), p. 120.

20. See the descriptions of Hawaiian customs recorded in letters from Sarah Lyman, in Margaret Greer Martin, ed. and comp., Sarah Joiner Lyman of Hawaii: Her Own Story (Hilo, Hawaii: Lyman House Memorial Museum, 1970), esp. pp. 43, 56-57.

21. Quoted in ibid., p. 198.

22. Sybil Bingham, "Journal," typewritten (1819-23), pp. 98-99, Special Collections, Sterling Library, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

23. Quoted from a letter from Sybil Bingham to Lydia Huntley Sigourney, in Mrs. Titus Coan, "A Brief Sketch of the Missionary Life of Mrs. Sybil Moseley Bingham" (1895), p. 15, Special Collections, Sterling Library.

24. Thurston, Life and Times, p. 77.

25. See Lucy Thurston's letter to her cousin William Goodell in which she describes how she keeps her children segregated from the native population (ibid., pp. 100-102). For a discussion of domestic responsibilities and their impact on American Board women in Hawaii, see Char Miller, "Domesticity Abroad: Work and Family in the Sandwich Island Mission, 1820-1840," in Missions and Missionaries in the Pacific, ed. Char Miller (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1985), pp. 65-90.

26. Ethel M. Damon, ed., Letters from the Life of Abner and Lucy Wilcox (Honolulu: Privately printed, 1950), p. 106.

27. Laura Fish Judd, Honolulu: Sketches of Life in the Hawaiian Islands from 1828 to 1861, ed. Dale L. Morgan (Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1966), p. 103.

28. Quoted in Damon, Letters, p. 163.

29. Quoted in Martin, Lyman, p. 74.

30. Ibid., p. 76.

31. Bingham, "Journal," p. 99.

32. For an excellent study of the struggles and stresses faced by the missionary wives in Hawaii, see Patricia Grimshaw, Paths of Duty: American Missionary Wives in Nineteenth-Century Hawaii (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 1989). Although mission theory is not Grimshaw's interest, her analysis is especially helpful in showing how the missionary wives were trapped in particular gender roles. She notes one instance where a missionary wife pushed beyond "woman's place" to lead a revival in the absence of the regular male missionary. For her evangelistic activities, Clarissa Armstrong was reproached by the missionary community and forced out of the work by the male missionaries (pp. 125-26).

33. Thurston, Life and Times, p. 63.

34. William Ellis, Memoir of Mrs. Mary Mercy Ellis, Wife of Rev. William Ellis, Missionary in the South Seas, and Foreign Secretary of the London Missionary Society, with an introduction by Rufus Anderson (Boston: Crocker & Brewster, 1836), p. 97.

35. Rufus Anderson, "Introductory Essay on the Marriage of Missionaries," in ibid., p. xi.

36. Ibid.

37. Thurston, Life and Times, p. 111.

38. Quoted in Damon, Letters, p. 115.

39. For a study of the early American Board missions as an attempt to extend the authority of the clergy and to re-create a theocracy abroad, see John A. Andrew III Rebuilding the Christian Commonwealth: New England Congregationalists and Foreign Missions, 1800-1830 (Lexington: Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1976).

40. Torbet, Venture, p. 66.
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Author:Robert, Dana
Publication:International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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