History of Bible Women
The Bible Women program is based on an historical program of the same name that was initiated in 1869 by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. Two early missionaries (Isabella Thoburn and Clara Swain) began to train women, initially in India, to become lay church workers whose mission was to bring good news to the poor, sick and hungry of their day. By 1879 the Society was supporting 200 Bible Women and native teachers in India, China, Japan, Italy, South America and Mexico.
The Bible Women participant lived among the people she served, spoke their language and learned the culture of their community. She would translate songs, hymns and Bible passages into their language in order to talk about Jesus’ love and tell them that all persons are God’s children. With the Bible as their main resource, the early missionaries taught marginalized, illiterate women to read, write and to become Bible Women.
Early Bible Women were trained in a six-month period of time and then went on to serve at a local community level assigned to them by the church. It was a laywoman’s avenue for service in the church. Later, two to three year courses of study evolved to train these women. In some places, courses of study toward becoming a deaconess replaced the Bible Women study and work (around the time of World War II). How many Bible Women remain alive today is unclear, but at least in the Philippines there remained 12 as recently as 2000. Historical record and even current knowledge of this work is not easy to track down.
While today’s Bible Women Program has differences from the original outreach, inspiration continues to come from the creativity and dedication of the early missionaries and Bible Women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who brought the good news of Jesus Christ to the poor, the sick and the hungry.