Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries

Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries

Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries

Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries

Synopsis

American women played in important part in Protestant foreign missionary work from its early days at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This work allowed them to disseminate the Prostestant religious principles in which they believed, and by enabling them to acquire professional competence as teachers, to break into public life and create new opportunities for themselves and other women. No institution was more closely associated with women missionaries than Mount Holyoke College. In this book, Amanda Porterfield examines Mount Holyoke founder Mary Lyon and the missionary women she trained. Her students assembled in a number of particular mission fields, most importantly Persia, India, Ceylon, Hawaii, and Africa. Porterfield focuses on three sites where documentation about their activities is especially rich-- northwest Persia, Maharashtra in western India, and Natal in southeast Africa. All three of these sites figured importantly in antebellum missionary strategy; missionaries envisioned their converts launching the conquest of Islam from Persia, overturning "Satan's seat" in India, and drawing the African descendants of Ham into the fold of Christendom. Porterfield shows that although their primary goal of converting large numbers of women to Protestant Christianity remained elusive, antebellum missionary women promoted female literacy everywhere they went, along with belief in the superiority and scientific validity of Protestant orthodoxy, the necessity of monogamy and the importance of marital affection, and concern for the well-being of children and women. In this way, the missionary women contributed to cultural change in many parts of the world, and to the development of new cultures that combined missionary concepts with traditional ideals.

Excerpt

As a student at, Mount Holyoke in the late 1960s, I was aware that the college was America's first publicly endowed institution for women's advanced education, and also that it was founded as a religious institution. The exact nature of the original religious vision was vague, but I knew there had been such a vision and that it persisted, somehow, in the communal character of campus life and in the expectations of personal achievement my teachers transmitted. On my first day as a student at Mount Holyoke, President Richard G. Getell made an oblique reference to this original religious vision in a speech he delivered to new students that proclaimed us the new generation in a long line of "uncommon women." The exact meaning of the epithet uncommon was unclear to me, and I recall some jokes about it after the speech. The president had referred to our SAT scores, which he expected us to live up to, and to our virginity, which he expected us to keep, but he also meant something else by "uncommon," something spiritual and historic, although he was not very explicit. I had the sense of just having acquired a pressing but obscure responsibility, along with a peculiar female ancestry, whose spirits I imagined lurking in the rafters of the auditorium.

The feeling of belonging to something I did not well understand sometimes recurred when I passed the grave of Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1837, on my way to classes or the library. A monument marking her grave stood at the center of a rise at one end of the main quadrangle at the highest point on campus. To read the inscriptions on the . . .

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