North American Foreign Missions, 1810-1914: Theology, Theory, and Policy

By Wilbert R. Shenk | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 5
Evangelist or Homemaker?
Mission Strategies of Early Nineteenth-Century
Missionary Wives in Burma and Hawaii

DANA L. ROBERT

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 of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) 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

1. For the text of Allen’s sermon, see R. Pierce Beaver, ed., Pioneers in Mission: The

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