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Faith, Hope, Love in Action:

United Methodist Women in Mission Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow

Address to Mission Forward Symposium April 19, 2010, St. Louis, MO

By Dana L. Robert

The famous theologian Emil Brunner once said that "the church exists by mission as fire exists by burning." In other words, without the heat and light and motion of mission, the church loses its life force. Without mission, the church turns inward, withers, and dies. Our UMW Assembly shows that mission does not exist without the work of women.  For United Methodist women, our mission of "faith, hope, and love in action" lies at the heart of what it means to be the church.

The year 2010 is an important time to lift up the heritage and future of United Methodist Women in mission. This year marks two special anniversaries. One hundred years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, Protestant mission societies gathered from around the world for the World Missionary Conference. For ten days, 1600 Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists and others discussed the important mission issues of their generation.   From this meeting came the powerful idea of Christianity as a worldwide fellowship, united in commitment to the mission of Jesus Christ. Today, a century after the World Missionary Conference, church leaders, missionaries, and committed lay people are gathering all over the world to discuss the meaning of mission for our generation.

This brings me to the second anniversary we are remembering today. While mission leaders were meeting in Scotland a century ago, North American women were busy planning their own mission celebration The Woman's Missionary Jubilee marked the 50th anniversary of the first organized women's groups in American churches—women's mission societies. In 1910-1911, church women held inter-denominational luncheons, teas, and missionary pageants in 48 cities and many smaller towns across North America. A traveling team of women leaders gave speeches at hundreds of meetings. They lifted up the achievements of what was then the largest women's movement in America—Protestant women united for world mission.

The Jubilee participants of 1910 included three million dues-paying members of over forty denominational women's mission societies. As the first women's groups in all the predecessor denominations of the United Methodist Church, women's missionary societies were the forerunners of United Methodist Women. Women held regular circle meetings at local churches. They raised money for missions. Many published their own magazines about missionary work among women and children around the world. They recruited and sent thousands of female missionaries who worked to improve the lives of women and children by founding schools, clinics and hospitals, by visiting them in their homes, and by sharing the message of Jesus. The women's societies produced annual mission studies for summer schools of mission that drew thousands of women for study, pageants, prayer, and fellowship.

Those of us gathered here stand in the line of these two great anniversaries for world mission a century ago. The presence of Methodist women at both of the 1910 conferences reminds us that without women, there is no mission. And without the burning fire of mission, there is no church. As witnesses to God's saving work through Jesus Christ, we United Methodist Women continue our mission of  "faith, hope, and love in action."

I.  History of women in mission

The two great mission gatherings that convened a century ago were links in the chain of holistic women's witness that stretches from the Bible to the world church of the twenty-first century. The New Testament recounts the stories of many women who followed Jesus, both during his lifetime and after his death. These women are the mothers of faith whose footsteps carved the paths we still follow.

From the times of Jesus, women have spread the Gospel message of his life, death, and resurrection. Upon meeting Jesus at the well, the Samaritan woman ran and told her neighbors that he was the Lord. She was the first person to witness to Jesus Christ beyond the borders of Israel. The women at the tomb were the first to witness to the resurrection. In the Book of Acts, Priscilla gave theological instruction to Apollos, who became an important evangelist. She and her husband Aquila led house churches in several cities and provided hospitality for Paul that gave him a home base for his mission. In the first few books of the New Testament, we see multiple ways in which women were called by God into mission—they spread the news of the Messiah and witnessed to the risen Lord in their communities, they provided hospitality and support for the work of ministry, and they even trained the teachers of the faith.

In Acts 9:36-42, Luke tells the amazing story of Peter's encounter with the only woman in the New Testament who is called a "disciple." The leader of the widows, the disciple Tabitha, or Dorcas in Greek, had died in Joppa. Peter traveled there and found that Tabitha had been washed for burial and was laid out in an upstairs room. Surrounding her body were weeping women, "all the widows," who showed Peter the clothing that she had made them. Verse 36 says that Tabitha was "devoted to good works and acts of charity."

Peter sent everyone from the room, and knelt down to pray. He said "Tabitha, get up."  At that point she opened her eyes and sat up. The raising of Tabitha, the woman disciple, was the only time Peter brought back anyone to life. As the story of Tabitha spread throughout Joppa, "many believed in the Lord."     

The raising of Tabitha gives important clues to the central role of women in spreading the gospel in the early church.  Widows organized the first women's groups in the history of Christianity. Widowed Christian women refused to be helpless victims of fate. Rather, they worked together for their own self-support by sewing clothing--like that shown to Peter in Joppa. Not only were the widows and forgotten women the most needy of the church's members, but they were also the most faithful---so faithful that in the New Testament their leader was called a "disciple" of the Lord.

Because even poor women found dignity in the early church, Christianity attracted a higher percentage of women than the general population. Consecrated virgins, widows, and female martyrs were some of the most important witnesses to the Gospel during the first few centuries after Jesus. Christian widows often defied the norms of Roman society by refusing to remarry and pass down their wealth to other men. Instead, they used their inheritances to serve the poor and to nurse the sick, and in so doing attracted others into the church.

In some of the earliest churches, the role of the widow grew into that of the "deaconess." According to third century documents, the deaconess "is required to go into the houses of the heathen where there are believing women, and to visit those who are sick, and to minister to them in that of which they have need, and to bathe those who have begun to recover from sickness."i The female deacon was on the cutting edge of an expanding, missionary church. By going into non-Christian homes to nurse the sick, widows and deaconesses set an example of Christian love that attracted non-Christians.

Some scholars attribute the expansion of membership in the early church partly to the fact that Christians nursed the sick during the frequent epidemics of the day while most others fled in fear and left the ill to die alone. Not only did Christians recover from sickness at a greater rate than non Christians, but non Christians who recovered were welcomed into Christian fellowship. Throughout the history of Christianity, the compassion of women toward the ill and needy has been one of the most important features of mission.

II. American Women in Mission

When American lay women organized themselves into mission societies in the 1800s, they followed in the footsteps of the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene, Tabitha, early deaconesses, and other persistent women of faith. As they witnessed to the way of Jesus, they found their own voices. Despite opposition from leading men, who predicted they would fail, in 1869 Methodist women in New England formed the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society.  Women went from church to church, helping women to organize themselves into groups to support missions.

Women were not permitted to raise funds at regular church events, so they depended on five cent dues and membership fees. Not only did they succeed in sending their own missionaries and supporting Asian "Bible women" as evangelists, but their self-published mission magazine immediately turned a profit.ii

Methodist women reached out to immigrants crowded into urban slums.  They revived the ancient order of deaconesses as women consecrated to work among the poor. Deaconesses visited the poor in their homes, opened kindergartens and settlement houses, and even founded charity hospitals in cities. Methodist women cared about both the spiritual well-being of individuals, and the goal of making the world a better place. The role of the deaconess and that of the foreign missionary overlapped, and many women missionaries like the famous Isabella Thoburn also became deaconesses. Not only was Isabella Thoburn the first woman missionary of the WFMS, and the founder of the first women's college in Asia, but she also helped to found the deaconess training schools in Cincinnati and Boston to educate women for service.iii

At the time of the Jubilee celebrations in 1910, the Methodist women's mission groups were considered the strongest of all the denominations. iv They had sent more missionaries than any other women's society in America, including thousands of indigenous women workers. Methodist women missionaries pioneered all aspects of mission service. They founded the first women's colleges in Asia. Methodist women were the first female medical doctors in India, China, Japan, and Korea. They introduced government legislation to abolish child marriage in India. Trained as social workers at Scarritt Bible and Training School, they founded kindergartens and social service centers in cities around the world. They sheltered girls fleeing forced marriages in Africa, and rescued abandoned children. Methodist missionary women exposed sex trafficking by infiltrating brothels established by the British army, and they fought alcohol abuse. They witnessed to Christ and brought people to the Christian faith in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

During the early twentieth century, women's mission societies supported education, health care, social services, and evangelism for women and children. Methodist home mission societies conducted a campaign against lynching, and key leaders partnered across the divisions of racial segregation. Although the women's societies that celebrated the Jubilee of 1910 do not exist in the same form today, during much of the century they steadily pressured their denominations to make the improvement of life for women and children a core priority for mission work, both in North America and abroad.  Although naturally they made their share of mistakes, their faithfulness is why we are still here today.

III. Exemplary Missionary Women of 1910 Methodism

Now let us hear three voices of "faith, hope, and love in action" from a century ago. Although these three women traveled different mission pathways, they had in common their belief that witnessing to the Good News of Jesus Christ means improving the lives of women and children around the world. Just as the stories of women in the Bible set the pattern for women's witness down through the ages, so the lives of our Methodist foremothers made us who we are today, and point to where we are going.

A. Grace Stephens: Faith in Action

One woman whose voice represents "Faith in Action" is Grace Stephens. Until last year, nobody remembered that there was a non-western woman at the World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh a century ago. Then I found the name of Grace Stephens in the list of Methodist delegates, and recognized her as an Anglo-Indian woman from Madras, India. Because the British occupied India, a distinctive culture of mixed-race people grew from the marriages between British men and Indian women. Grace became a Methodist in 1874 upon attending a revival by the famous globetrotting American evangelist, William Taylor. Taylor, in fact, wrote about the strategic value of Anglo-Indians as bridge figures between English-speaking Christians and Hindus and Muslims in India.

Grace's conversion to Methodism empowered her to witness to Christ beyond her own natural comfort zone. At first she worked among her own English-speaking people, but as she gained confidence she reached out to the Tamil-speaking population.  Grace knocked on doors, collected seventeen pupils, and began teaching them English, Tamil and sewing. Eventually she was running a Methodist girls' orphanage and supervising nine day schools with nearly six hundred pupils, a boarding school, and nine Sunday schools. In 1886 she opened zenana work in Madras. Zenanas were the women's quarters in which upper caste Hindu women were secluded—segregated from men and persons of lower castes. These women were usually married off as children. Strict taboos ruled their lives. Eventually Grace was supervising a visitation and educational ministry among five hundred secluded upper caste women. She edited Tamil-language publications for women and girls.v

Grace Stephens was an incredibly gifted missionary who believed in the power of the Christian faith to improve women's lives. Because Stephens was teaching women to read and opening their world view beyond their virtual enslavement in women's quarters, men fiercely opposed her work. She wrote, "The men were my chief hindrance. . . They advised me to leave them alone, and said that if the women cooked their food, and kept to their homes, it was quite enough for them. Never shall I forget the words of the late Judge Pooneswamy as I stood in his grand house and pleaded with him to allow me to teach his ladies. ‘To give the women education,' he said, ‘is like giving them liberty, and liberty to them is like giving wings to a bird, they lose themselves and want to fly away.'" vi

Over the years, Stephens' relational form of mission broke down barriers between Hindus and Europeans, and she improved the home lives of many secluded women by creating more respect for women among Hindu men. vii However, if women became Christians they were often thrown out of their homes. One Brahman from an elite family, Sooboonagam Ammal, decided to follow Christ and was declared dead by her family, who even held a funeral for her. Sooboo broke her caste to live equally with other Christians, partnered with Grace Stephens in visitation work, and taught low caste children. The example of Jesus Christ gave Sooboo the courage to break taboos and live in equality among people she had been raised to believe were inferior subhumans.

So it was as the acknowledged supervisor of Methodist zenana work throughout India that Grace Stephens attended the World Missionary Conference as one of only two hundred female delegates, and the only woman from Asia.  Her strong belief in the power of the Gospel to transform women's lives makes her a role model of "faith in action."

B. Clementina Butler, "Hope in Action"

Clementina Butler is an example of "hope in action". Her parents William and Clementina Butler were the first India missionaries sent by American Methodists. Her mother, Clementina Rowe Butler, was known as the "Mother of Methodist Missions," both for having been the pioneer missionary in India, and for organizing the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society while on furlough in Boston.  The Butler family also helped found Methodism in Mexico, and Clementina's brother John was a missionary there for forty years.

The reason to remember Clementina Butler today is because of her contributions behind the scenes to the organization and support of women for mission. With experience in both India and Mexico, but based in the United States, she acted as ambassador representing women's mission interests to North Americans. Even though she has been completely forgotten, and pictures of her are hard to find, she was one of the most important national leaders of Methodist women's organizations in the early 20th century, and we can still feel her imprint today. Along with Grace Stephens, she represented Methodist women at the Edinburgh missionary conference of 1910.

Clementina Butler symbolizes "hope in action" because she spent her life envisioning and planning for the future. Her passion was Christian education for women and children. She acted as secretary-treasurer of the ecumenical Committee that planned and published annual mission study books read by women all over North America. She launched the first summer school of missions for women, held in Northfield, Massachusetts. She served many decades as an officer in local, regional, and national women's mission societies. She also served as the Executive director of a national committee to support Pandita Ramabai, an Indian woman who rescued and educated child widows, and who was a close family friend. 

But to focus on just one of her many achievements, let us recall her founding role in the Committee on Christian Literature for Women and Children, and its structure for financial support, the World Day of Prayer. In 1906, Clementina Butler visited India for the fifty year jubilee of Methodist missions and was disturbed to find that children of Christian parents had little support for their faith. She was gripped by the idea of providing Christian literature for children and teenagers in their own languages as a way of supporting their spiritual growth amid situations unfriendly to Christianity. A discussion at the Edinburgh conference strengthened her resolve to do something about the problem of how to keep children in the faith after they graduated from mission schools. So Butler called for the founding of a committee to raise money for the production and distribution of Christian literature for young people in their native languages. The cooperative women's mission boards adopted her proposal.  Thus in 1912 was born the Committee on Christian Literature for Women and Children in Mission Lands. As missionary women around the world founded the World Day of Prayer, the women's annual thank offerings supported the literature ministry. This amazing committee lasted until 1989. Clementina Butler served for many years as its chairman.

In its first fifty years, the CCLWCMF sponsored twenty-seven Christian magazines in different languages. The magazine The Treasure Chest, for example, in 1922 featured stories, plays, poems, and articles. Children wrote letters to the editor, and enjoyed departments on the flora and fauna of India, biographies of famous people in Indian history, and travelogues. In the late 1930s, the National Christian Council of India endorsed The Treasure Chest, which by 1938 was being published in English, Urdu, Malayalam, Telegu, Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Burmese, Gujerati, and Bengali editions. viii In 1939, Clementina Butler noted that not only did such periodicals strengthen Christian homes, but missionaries found them helpful "in education for world understanding, cooperation and peace." ix

Under Clementina Butler, the CCLWFMF became the first mission organization to systematically sponsor native Christian art. Concerned that converts in India only had cheap pictures of Hindu gods with which to decorate their homes, Clementina began commissioning Christian pictures in Indian styles in the 1930s.  Sold at cost for 2 ¼ cents a piece, response to the first ten pictures was immediate. "The Good Shepherd" sold 27,000 copies in the first year, and later E. Stanley Jones' Ashram in Lucknow sent 2600 copies as Christmas presents to workers among the poor. The CCLWFMF held annual contests for the best indigenous Christian art in India. x In China, in addition to its magazines, the Committee sponsored a Pictorial Life of Our Saviour in five volumes. The first volume sold 23,000 copies in the first eighteen months. A missionary made filmstrips of the series watched by thousands, accompanied by rhymes sung by spectators. xi At a time when most mission literature was still using pictures of blonde and blue-eyed madonnas, the CCLWC was commissioning native art for the covers of its magazines and books.

The impact of Clementina Butler's "hope in action" remains with us in the summer schools of Christian mission, the local and regional women's circles, the annual mission studies, the World Day of Prayer, and our long history of sponsoring literature and art for women and children. Butler linked the Gospel with literacy education and the improvement of women's lives. Her unique cross-cultural perspective meant that she saw how global Christianity could not be separated from the local actions of women's circles across the United States. 

C. Martha Drummer "Love in Action."

Women's care for the poor has been central to the Gospel message since biblical times, and is a major reason for the growth of the church in early centuries. In the late 1800s, Methodist women rediscovered the role of the deaconesses as workers among the poor both in American cities, and in cross-cultural missions. The woman I wish to celebrate as "love in action" is the deaconess Martha Drummer. Unlike Grace Stephens and Clementina Butler, Martha did not attend either big missionary conference.  She was at her mission post, one of the poorest in the church—an orphanage in Quessua, Angola, that was 85 miles away from the nearest railroad. But she wrote a letter back home in 1910, rejoicing at the presence of women mission leaders at the World Missionary Conference, and excited about the response of women to the Jubilee celebrations. xii

Martha Drummer lived the life of loving service that characterized the holistic work of so many Methodist deaconesses, missionaries, and Bible women. Martha herself was born very poor, and she worked her way through Clark College in Atlanta by doing house cleaning and laundry. Clark was one of the new Methodist colleges founded in the South after the Civil War to educate African-Americans. During summers Martha taught poor rural black children for what money the parents could give her. Around 1901 she entered the Boston Deaconess Training School. There for two years she studied sociology, urban evangelism, and related subjects, followed by three years' of nurses' training. Then Martha was appointed a missionary by the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society. As one of the first formally trained African-American Methodist deaconesses, and the first one educated as a nurse, Martha went to Angola in 1906. She remained there for about twenty years.

Quessua mission station had been opened in 1890. It included a house, a farm for industrial training, and a girls' school. In 1898, Miss Susan Collins was transferred there to become matron and teacher of the girls' school, and head of the orphanage. xiii In 1901, the girls' school and orphanage were put under the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society. Together Collins and Drummer made up an effective team of African-American missionary women, in charge of about sixty girls who lived on the mission and attended school.

As a nurse deaconess, Martha Drummer undertook a combination of educational, medical, and evangelistic work. During the dry season, she itinerated with a helper through villages full of people suffering from tropical diseases, and she treated them for malaria, fevers, boils, and numerous medical problems. Because she was the only nurse in the vicinity, she commented that by 1911 she had treated persons of twelve different nationalities, including delivering babies. On her visits to villages, she preached outdoors to hundreds of people. Her "regular" work consisted of caring for and teaching orphan girls. She was sharply critical of the way girls were treated by men in Angola. She believed that their life choices would be increased through education. Because the mission was so poor, she contributed much of her salary into her work. She wrote, "I started to ask the Lord for twenty-five desks for the school; but I got ashamed and got up to answer the prayer myself. I am negotiating now. If my fifty dollars won't cover buying and freight, I will ask the Lord to raise what is lacking. Pray for me. I am engaged in the best of services, for the best of masters, and on the best of terms." xiv               

Martha Drummer is often remembered for something she said on furlough in 1918, after attending many meetings with white women supporters. She grew frustrated because church women prayed by name for China, India, Mexico, the South Pacific, Japan, and South America by name, and then for "all the rest." Drummer wrote, "There isn't any all the rest but Africa . . . Call it by its name. Say Africa when you pray, and then maybe you will think to pray for it oftener." xv Martha retired from Angola in ill health from severe asthma with complications. But her beloved Quessua Mission still exists today. Although it was destroyed in the Angolan Civil War, it is being rebuilt by United Methodists in Angola, and includes a theological seminary in addition to the lower school and orphanage that benefited from Susan Collins and Martha Drummer's work a century ago.

Whether working in community centers, as nurses, social workers, teachers, or missionaries, the work of deaconesses like Martha Drummer represents "love in action." Dedicated missionaries combined outreach and advocacy to improve the lives of women and children everywhere.  

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Last Updated: 04/11/2014

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