by Ruth A. Tucker
Why do many evangelical groups who used women as pastors and preachers then now prohibit or discourage such ministry?
It is often assumed that opportunities for women in ministry have expanded over the past century, and that Christian leaders have relaxed their once tight restrictions on women assuming leadership roles in the church at home and abroad. This assumption is well-founded in most mainline churches. Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, and some Lutheran bodies have opened wide the doors of ministry on all levels to women. In previous generations these denominations systematically barred women from leadership roles, but, spurred by the feminist movement, they have legislated equality of opportunity for women in recent decades.
Interestingly, an almost opposite trend has occurred over the past century in most sectarian evangelical bodies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women in these newly formed denominations enjoyed unprecedented opportunities for ministry in every level of church outreach. This has been recently documented in a book by Janette Hassey, No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry Around the Turn of the Century.
The book opens with an illustration that shows the shift in thinking toward women in evangelical circles over the past several decades:
In 1927, the Moody Bible Institute Alumni News proudly published a letter containing an astounding personal account of the ministry of Mabel C. Thomas, a 1913 MBI graduate. Thomas, called to the pastorate in a Kansas church, had preached, taught weekly Bible classes, and baptized dozens of converts. She concluded her letter with praise, since she "could not have met the many and varied opportunities for service without the training of MBI."
Today, because of gender, female students at MBI and other evangelical institutions are barred from pastoral training courses. Why has such an enormous shift occurred since the turn of the century? Why do many evangelical groups who used women as pastors and preachers then now prohibit or discourage such ministry?
The shift in attitudes toward women has occurred partly because of the institutionalization of many of these evangelical groups. In their formative years virtually all sectarian movements throughout church history have depended on the ministry of women and lay men. But once these groups become established and seek to legitimate their ministry, women and uneducated and unordained men are excluded from office and leadership roles.
This trend has occurred not only in churches, but also in mission organizations—”especially those mission societies that were part of the faith mission movement that began in the last half of the 19th century. This was the period when, according to R. Pierce Beaver, "the women revolted and formed the first women’s board." Because the mainline denominations resisted sending women overseas as missionaries, some 40 "female agencies" were founded between 1860 and 1900. But such resistance to women missionaries found little support in the faith missionary movement. From its inception in 1865, with the founding of the China Inland Mission, women played a vital role in cross-cultural outreach, and the most prominent leaders of the movement gave them their blessing. We will cite four examples in this article: J. Hudson Taylor, Fredrik Franson, A.B. Simpson, and C.T. Studd.
J. HUDSON TAYLOR
One of the greatest missionary statesmen of the modem era was J. Hudson Taylor, the founder and long-time director of the China Inland Mission (now the Overseas Missionary Fellowship). He is regarded by some as the founder of the faith missionary movement because of his insistence that missionaries who were part of his organization be not salaried or solicit funds. His recruits were largely unordained lay persons, including large numbers of single women. In fact, in the first CIM party that sailed to China, seven of the 15 new recruits were single women. On the field single women often were stationed far in the interior and were responsible for evangelism and church planting in large regions, with no immediate male supervision.
A fascinating sketch relating to Hudson Taylor’s attitude toward women appeared in the Missionary Review of the World in 1898. Here Julius Richter, reflecting the attitude of many mainline churchmen, criticized Taylor’s philosophy and practice: "Hudson Taylor makes extraordinarily ample use of the services of unmarried ladies; whole districts of the Chinese mission field are exclusively under the management of mission sisters. I took the liberty of suggesting how unbecoming and repellent to our German ideas was the free employment of single mission sisters in the midst of entirely heathen districts."
Taylor had a ready reply, suggesting that Richter’s problem was that he viewed the situation through "German or European eyes" instead of from a Chinese standpoint. He argued that single women were secure because they were required to be accompanied by a "married Chinese catechist." But, more significantly, he emphasized the distinct advantage there was in relying on women for the work of cross-cultural evangelism:
The native catechist never comes to true inward independence at a station where he works under a European missionary; he feels himself to be only the dependent journeyman of the other, and is hardly noticed by the Chinese in presence of the overwhelming superiority of the European. It is quite otherwise when he is associated with a missionary sister; then the whole work of teaching and preaching and representing the mission to outsiders devolves upon him; he counts as the head of the mission, and must act independently. But at the same time he is under the control of the mission sister, who is with him to advise and instruct him, and to report about him. The sister herself has a sufficient sphere of activity in the female part of the heathen population and the Christian church, and if sometimes men also listen to her Bible lessons, no offense is given. Of course, a great deal of tact is necessary for the sister and the catechist to maintain their mutual position."
Taylor not only eagerly recruited single women to "man" the stations in China, he also expected married women to do their share of mission work. To a male recruit, he wrote, "Unless you intend your wife to be a true missionary, not merely a wife, homemaker, and friend, do not join us." Jennie, his second wife, certainly fit the description of a "true" missionary. In 1878, when Taylor was ill in England, she agreed to leave him and her young children behind in order to return to China with a famine relief team.
Some of the greatest traveling evangelists in China during the first decades of CIM work were women. Women such as Margaret King and Jessie Gregg traveled widely, preaching in churches and evangelistic meetings. Other women opened up new stations and did pioneer work in regions that had never before been traversed by missionaries.
Mildred Cable and Francesca French began their work in China in the 1890s, later to be joined by Evangeline French. For 21 years they conducted routine missionary work, and then shocked the missionary community when they insisted that God was calling them to the unevangelized areas of China’s great Northwest.
They traveled for months by cart, finally arriving at the last town before the border. Along the way they conducted Bible lessons for a group of untrained Christians, and after they arrived they began a ministry to traders and merchants. They were ideally located on an important trade route, and they were convinced that such a location was most suitable for their work:
Little by little the trio came to realize the tremendous importance of this network of trade routes, by means of which the cities of Central Asia are kept in vital contact with each other. The native news distributing system, whose speed, accuracy, and simplicity baffles Western understanding, might surely be a means of spreading the knowledge of the gospel, so that men on the market places should hear, not only the political happenings of Europe or Afghanistan, but also that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."
As was characteristic of CIM missionaries, their work was one of proclaiming the gospel rather than building bodies of believers. They were criticized by many because it was believed their work was not appropriate for women, but they became living legends and their memory is still honored.
As the founder of the mission that later became known as The Evangelical Alliance Mission (TEAM), Fredrik Franson was a contemporary of Hudson Taylor and a man of corresponding enthusiasm for missions. As with Taylor, the urgency of the task of reaching the lost was far more important than any quibbling over the precise role of women. He argued his views in a widely distributed but unpublished paper, "Prophesying Daughters." After quoting population statistics for various non-Western nations where the gospel had not penetrated, he wrote:
Therefore, the fields of labor are large, and when we realize that nearly two-thirds of all converted people in the world are women, then the question of women’s work in evangelization is of great importance. In China each day 30,000 people go into eternity without having heard the gospel. There is no prohibition in the Bible against women’s public work, and we face the circumstance that the devil, fortunately for him, has been able to exclude nearly two-thirds of the number of Christians from participation in the Lord’s service through evangelization. The loss for God’s cause is so great that it can hardly be described.
Franson put his words into practice when he began sending recruits overseas. One of his first volunteers was Malla Moe, who immigrated to Chicago from Norway in the 1880s, and was soon thereafter recruited by Franson to go to Swaziland, where she served 56 years. She filled many roles, including that of evangelist, church planter, preacher, and bishop. She was not ordained and was never referred to as a bishop, but she functioned as one, assigning pastors to the churches she founded and overseeing their continued growth and development.
The success of women like Malla Moe compelled Franson to speak out forcefully on the subject of women in missions.
It is amazing how one car get such a false idea as that not all God’s children should use all their powers in all ways to save the lost world. There are, so to speak, many people in the water about to drown. A few men are trying to save them, and that is considered well and good. But look, over there a few women have untied a boat also to be of help in the rescue, and immediately a few men cry out; standing there idly looking on and therefore having plenty of time to cry out: "No, no, women must not help, rather let the people drown." What stupidity!
In 1887, A.B. Simpson, a Presbyterian minister who had established himself and his family in New York City, founded the Christian and Missionary Alliance (then known simply as the Christian Alliance). Like Taylor and Franson, his "attitude toward women," according to Leslie Andrews, "must be viewed against the backdrop of his consuming passion to evangelize a lost world before the return of the King. He did not seek to placate those whose ecclesiastical agendas were, in his opinion, secondary to the task of world evangelization. If women furthered the primary mission of the church to reach lost souls for Christ, then he enthusiastically endorsed their ministry to achieve that objective."
Simpson was criticized for his open policy for women in ministry, but he was quick to defend his position. After a series of meetings in Atlanta, he responded to attacks by saying the matter was an issue "which God has already settled, not only in his Word, but in his providence, by the seal which he is placing in this very day, in every part of the world, upon the public work of consecrated Christian women." He concluded by chiding the pastor who led the attack: "Dear brother, let the Lord manage the women. He can do it better than you, and you turn your batteries against the common enemy."
Simpson’s theology also reflected his attitude toward women. A chapter title in one of his books was "The Motherhood of God." Here he rejected the common belief that God was male and confessed his appreciation for the feminine qualities of God.
The heart of Christ is not only the heart of man, but has in it all the tenderness and gentleness of women… He combined in himself the nature both of man and woman even as the first man Adam had the woman within his own being before she was separately formed from his very body.
In reference to the Holy Spirit, Simpson wrote: "As our heavenly Mother, the Comforter assumes our nurture, training, teaching, and the whole direction of our life."
Women missionaries in the early years of the Alliance experienced freedom in ministry similar to those in the CIM and TEAM. Mabel Francis began her ministry in Japan in 1909 and served there 56 years. That in itself was an accomplishment equalled by no other missionary. Unlike her colleagues, she refused to return to the States when World War II broke out. Her sister who was serving with her was put in prison, while Mabel was placed under house arrest. Following the war, Japanese officials honored her and her sister and invited them to speak at official functions. In 1962, the emperor honored her with Japan’s highest civilian award.
Long before she acquired her celebrity status, however, Miss Francis was involved in a wide variety of ministries that would normally be considered proper only for men. Even before she went to Japan, she was an itinerant preacher in New England. 15 In Japan she traveled on her bicycle and preached in and around Hiroshima. Her brother joined her in Japan in 1913, and together they established 20 Alliance churches. In 1922, she teamed up with her widowed sister, Anne, and they spent the next 40 years together, with Mabel ministering as an evangelist and Anne as a teacher. 16
C.T. Studd has become famous as a faith missionary largely because of a popular biography written by his son-in-law, Norman Grubb. Studd was a star cricket player at Cambridge University who gave up wealth and a promising career to volunteer for missionary service with the China Inland Mission. He was one of the famed "Cambridge Seven," who left behind family and friends and sailed for China. There he met and married Priscilla Stewart, and together they had four daughters. They remained in China only a decade, and after that spent some years in India ministering to English colonialists.
In 1913, when he was in his mid-40s, Studd decided to go to Africa, after reading a notice that said, "Cannibals Want Missionaries." There he founded the Heart of Africa Mission, which later became the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade (now WEC International). In the early years, the mission depended heavily on women. "Married couples put their work before their homes; one bridal couple, a few days after their marriage, even offered to separate and be on different stations for the time being, owing to the shortage of workers."
In many cases, the sacrifices and successes of single women were greater than that of their married sisters. Indeed, the single women missionaries working under Studd carried our their assignments with no apparent restrictions due to their sex. According to Norman Grubb, who was working in Africa in the early 1930s, single women conducted "long evangelizing treks among the villages, where there is a shortage of men; in one district, the worst cannibal in the region, who was reputed to have ‘a hundred black men inside him,’ was led to Christ by a single woman missionary who visited his village."
Single women also filled the more pastoral positions as mission station supervisors. "Two of the most thriving stations with congregations from 500 to sometimes as many as 1,500 are ‘manned’ by single women only. In some places where there have been only two workers, they have sacrificed human companionship and voluntarily separated in order than one may go farther afield and evangelize a new area, although the usual plan of the mission is to place them in couples."
The affirmation given women by faith mission pioneers, and the important role they played in the faith mission movement, have generally been overlooked by both missions historians and evangelical leaders. General missions histories, such as those by Kenneth Scott Latourette and Stephen Neill, give scant coverage to the faith missions. Recent studies relating to women in missions during this period hardly acknowledge the vast army of women who served in these independent missions.
This is true of R. Pierce Beaver’s American Protestant Women in World Mission and of monographs as well. Jane Hunter’s The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China mentions the China Inland Mission only in a footnote. Patricia Hill, in her book, The World Their Household: The American Women’s Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920, does not even give it that much coverage. She argues that after the first two decades of the 20th century women lost interest in missions. She maintains that "foreign missions no longer particularly gripped the imagination of large numbers of laywomen in postwar America," failing to acknowledge the significant numbers of women who were serving in faith missions.
In a time when churches are polarized about "the women’s issue," evangelical leaders in general, and especially those in missions, need to acknowledge the significant roles that women have had in missions history. In those agencies like the ones discussed above, where women were given ample opportunities to exercise their ministry and leadership gifts, this part of their history must not only be preserved, but enhanced as women face increasingly conservative strictures in some circles. In fact, mission agencies can send a strong signal to the evangelical world by offering the same kind of opportunities to women today that were offered by Hudson Taylor, Fredrik Franson, A.B. Simpson, and C.T. Studd.
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