When I was a child, there were two things I always wanted to do—become an archaeologist and become an astronaut. I couldn’t decide which was more intriguing—the hidden secrets of the past or the things yet to be discovered in the future. I read medieval fantasy and science fiction voraciously, anything that would whisk me away to another world. And my favorite movies were Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and Star Trek. Perhaps it was no surprise that I received a call to missions: I love God, and I love travel, culture, anthropology, and eschatology: voila—missions!
The word “missionary” often conjures up images of Indiana Jones-type explorers like David Livingstone and Adoniram Judson and Hudson Taylor. Reading missionary biographies convinced me that if Christians could only see what God himself has done and is continuing to do in this world, escapist literature and movies would not be necessary. However, women—especially single women—have outnumbered men two to one in the history of Protestant missions. Despite their numbers, their stories have been neglected. Before the context and implications of this can be understood, the year 1792 must be highlighted.
Perhaps the most prominent missionary in Protestant history was William Carey, often called the “father of modern missions.” In 1792, he famously advocated for the formation of mission societies, since there was no such structural apparatus for Protestants. Catholics have long had monastic orders like the Dominicans, Franciscans, and Jesuits, who have mobilized themselves for missions. But obviously, these missionaries were all men. When Carey set in motion the formation of the BMS (Baptist Missionary Society), the CMS (Church Mission Society), and the LMS (London Missionary Society), suddenly there were opportunities for women to serve overseas.
Though there are many items I can list in support of women in missions, below I have chosen to highlight: 1) a modern reason, 2) a biblical precedent, and 3) a practical outcome.
1. A Biblical Precedent: The Faithfulness of Women
Jesus has long had a special ministry to women, from the woman caught in adultery, to the woman who hemorrhaged, to the woman at the well. However, women were not only on the receiving end of Jesus’ work—it was the women who really stood by his side at the cross, when all the men fled except for John. Perhaps it is no surprise that the first missionary to spread the word about the risen Christ was a woman. Mary Magdalene (often erroneously identified as a prostitute) was not only the first evangelist—telling people the good news—but she was the first to actually lay eyes on the resurrected Jesus and recognize him for who he truly is. It took the men a lot longer to accept the reality that their Lord had returned, either because they could not recognize him (like on the road to Emmaus) or because they refused to believe without irrefutable proof (like Thomas). Women continued to have prominent roles in the church, from Lydia (the first European convert), to Priscilla (Paul’s fellow tentmaker), to the nameless widows found in Acts and the Pastoral Epistles.
2. A Modern Reason: Mission from the Periphery
Women have had a history of marginalization in society and in the church. But often, the most marginalized are the ones who accomplish the greatest things for the kingdom. For example, the first missionaries to reach China were the Nestorians, who were expelled from the Western church for their beliefs. Single women in the Western church often felt marginalized as well because society expected them to marry and bear children—and that was to be the entirety of their ministry. Without diminishing that as a valuable calling, many women found themselves unmarried for a variety of reasons, longing to serve the church. Forbidden to do so domestically, they found their calling overseas.
3. A Practical Outcome: Holistic Missions
Women often were not only allowed access to many places that men could not go, but moved about less obtrusively and thus were able to serve more effectively. Their holistic work included medical care, teaching, evangelism, home visitations, and access to women and children. However, they sometimes were not afforded access to the centers of power like national leaders. But it made for a more all-around kind of ministry, one which ministered to hearts, minds, bodies, and souls. And, they were willing to do things that were daunting to many men—their toughness was legendary.
Two questions need to be asked, however, about the past and the future of women in missions.
Regarding the past: if Carey was the “father” of modern missions, was there a “mother?” Certainly, many prominent women have made their mark. Lottie Moon is considered the patron saint of Southern Baptist missions. Ann Judson was every bit (if not more so!) as capable a missionary as her husband Adoniram. Gladys Aylward (the “Little Woman”) had a spiritual stature that belied her physical one.
Regarding the future: the sudden decrease in the number of female missionaries being sent abroad ironically occurred because of the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Both were worthy causes, but unfortunately, one took the wind out of the other’s sails. Could we see a revival of women missionaries in the present?
Women have historically been a force in mission work, from biblical times to the present. It often seems that the more difficult the task, the more women are up for it, and have “boldly gone where no man has gone before” (to steal a line from Star Trek)! If men were Indiana Jones and went deep into new territory, women went to the cosmic ends of the earth. It was sometimes lonely, often exhilarating, and always difficult. But following in Jesus’ footsteps faithfully is never easy.