Academic journal article Journalism History

Cross Purposes: Publishing Practices and Social Priorities of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Missionary Women

Academic journal article Journalism History

Cross Purposes: Publishing Practices and Social Priorities of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Missionary Women

Article excerpt

Focusing on the women's foreign missionary movement, this article looks at the publication practices of Protestant women to determine the ideas they cultivated about womanhood and social involvement and how these ideas were linked to the Progressive political climate of the time. The primary construction of womanhood coalesced around themes of piety, sacrifice, education, motherhood, and service to others. Most significant, however, was the emphasis on influencing others and the use of missionary publications to further this goal. Publications were widely distributed in the United States as well as to women in other countries. Thus, through content of the publications and distribution practices, missionary women supported an ideology of intervention and service that formed the backbone of the social and political agenda of U.S. political life during the emergence of the Progressive Era.

The link between successful social movements and the press has long been explored by journalism historians. Effective communication practices can work to mobilize supporters and educate others, demonstrating a particular power and function of the press. In addition, it is important to consider how the press has responded to the needs and demands of particular groups and moments in time. An example of this reciprocal and powerful relationship between a culture and its communication practices is the growth and propagation of the religious press and women's social and political involvement in the nineteenth century. This was a vola tile period of growth and expansion for the press, religion, and women's social and political involvement. How these areas intersected is the focus of this article on the women's missionary press of the nineteenth century. Although the content of women's religious publications has been used as source material for histories of the missionary movement, its ideological and cultural role within the United States has not been a specific focus.1 The purpose here is to look at the publication practices of Protestant women in missionary movements to determine the ideas about womanhood and social involvement that they cultivated and how these ideas were linked to the Progressive political climate of the time.

The origins of Protestantism contained the seeds of faith in the press and in education. Enlightenment and revolt were linked as Protestants sought to educate themselves and as they embraced the technology of print that was central to their cause.2 Thus, education, individualism, and freedom merged as attainable goals within a mass-mediated Protestantism, and the number of religious periodicals increased as nineteenth-century church officials recognized that those publications were a powerful mechanism for propagating the faith.

With a strong belief in the power of the printed word, denominational and mission organization leaders seized the opportunity to create their own literature-tracts, novels, and newsletters-designed to function as preachers via the printed page. Religious publishers were in awe of the power of the printing press and drew on a theory of reading that suggested that "reading, even cursory reading, could have powerful, direct, instantaneous, almost magical effects on the reader."3 Religious publishing activity escalated in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, with a special link to missionary activity.

Beginning in 1868, women founded their own missionary organizations to minister to women at home and abroad. Although comprised of different denominations, the foreign missionary movement was the largest women's movement in the late nineteenth century, numbering 3 million and exceeding in size the suffrage, temperance, and women's club movements.4 The women's missionary movement flourished under an ideology of a special mission, specifically, "Woman's Work for Women."5 The earliest women missionaries were wives who accompanied their husbands to foreign lands, but between 1868 and 1873, various denominations established a branch of mission work specifically for single women to reach women in other countries. …

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