"Women of Prayer Are Women of Power": Women's Missionary Societies in Alberta, 1918-1939

By Thrift, Gayle | Alberta History, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

"Women of Prayer Are Women of Power": Women's Missionary Societies in Alberta, 1918-1939


Thrift, Gayle, Alberta History


On Wednesday morning, the first of June in 1927, sixty delegates to the Alberta Conference Branch of the United Church Woman's Missionary Society enjoyed the fragrant scent of spring blossoms which filled Central Church in Calgary. At 9:30 a.m., their president, Mrs. A. M. Scott, opened the proceedings with a devotional service. The discipline of prayer as a central component of society fellowship was a major theme of the three-day conference. Believing that members supplied the spiritual power of the church, leaders asserted that "[p]rayer is the line of communication down which the energy of God is poured into our lives. Behind you are your prayers, and behind your prayers is God." (1)

Originally established before the turn of the twentieth century to uplift "heathen" women and children in foreign missions, members of the Alberta Woman's Missionary Societies (AWMS) appropriated conversion strategies acquired in the distant mission fields of Japan and China to pursue God's plan on their doorstep where a "pagan" immigrant population was fast encroaching upon the predominantly Anglo-Protestant society of Alberta. (2)

The province was in the midst of a social transformation driven by the cumulative effects of immigration, urbanization, the devastation of World War One, and the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. Traditional values associated with family and moral life, usually sustained through institutions such as the church seemed to be in a state of decline. Alarmed by such trends, these voluntary lay societies escalated their home mission programs to enforce social controls against these influences in Alberta. (3) Consequently, the AWMS served as a venue for Protestant churchwomen to widen the scope of their moral authority beyond the family to the public sphere.

While much has been written about the interwar years as a period of emancipation for women, this study focuses on Alberta women who sought to maintain the traditional ideology of family and Anglo-Protestant religious and moral values. (4) Their actions had a significant impact on both public opinion and provincial legislative reforms during the interwar period. The membership of the Alberta societies increased from a combined total of 2,500 Presbyterian and Methodist members in 1918 to a high of 5,500 in the Woman's Missionary Society of the United Church (WMS) in 1930. (5) They embarked upon a campaign of progressive social reform which included prohibition, preservation of the Sabbath, religion in schools, moral purity, and peace.

With the arrival of an estimated 80,000 Ukrainians to the northeast area of the province by 1924, the societies turned their attention to what they termed "the immigrant problem." (6) In efforts to "Christianize and Canadianize" the newcomers, the AWMS operated home missions which provided medical aid and educational opportunities at Vegreville, Edmonton, Kolokreeka, Wahstao, and Radway from 1904 to the mid-1930s.

An analysis of the ideology of family which inspired the policies of the societies provides insights into the gender ideals perpetuated by WMS women. Their attitudes towards gender are indicated through the expectations of members, the relationships which existed between the clergy and the AWMS, and their perception of the status of women within the church. Although women were regarded as conservators of the faith, they continued to be regarded as subordinate to men and were unable to hold positions of authority in the Protestant church. However, by virtue of their spiritual superiority, a component of the social construct of womanhood, they had the right to question patriarchal authority which abrogated the sanctity of home and family. Therefore, to circumvent their marginalization within the church, women fostered a unique spiritual relationship with God through prayer.

Mrs. Lillian M. McKillop, Presbyterial president for Lethbridge, encouraged members to participate by stressing, "[a] life without prayer is like a gun without powder. …

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