Founded by the forward thinking Mary Lyon (1797-1849), Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts (today known as Mount Holyoke College) was not her first educational venture. Lyon taught for several years along the Massachusetts countryside in smaller, elementary schools (often paid far less than the men in the area for the same amount of work). From 1817 to 1821, she attended Sanderson Academy and later taught there, as well as at the Adams Female Seminary in New Hampshire and Ipswich Female Seminary. Mount Holyoke opened in South Hadley in 1837 with eighty students, and it is Fidelia Fiske (1816-1864) who became its first graduate to enter into international missions.
Fiske was said to be a precocious young girl, reading Cotton Mather’s Magnali Christi Americana and Timothy Dwight’s Theology by age eight. She came to Mount Holyoke in 1839, but her education was interrupted when she contracted typhoid fever. Forty students contracted typhoid fever at the same time and nine died. It was thought that she, as one not known for good health, would be on that list. Her father, sister, and mother helped her pull through, though her father and sister also picked up typhoid fever and died in the process. Her mother, Hannah, did not want her to drift too far away after her near-death experience, so for a short while Fidelia taught at the local schools. Once she had recovered, her mentor and good friend, Mary Lyon, encouraged her to return to school and finish her education. After completing her degree, she was overwhelmingly approved by the trustees to be a full time instructor at Mount Holyoke.
As is often the case, life changes quickly. A missionary on furlough named Justin Perkins wrote a book called Eight Year’s Residence in Persia. Fidelia read it with eagerness. The book described the world of Persia (modern day Iran) and the needs of the people in such detail (including full color artwork) that she wondered if she would be better serving Christ in that world.
Within little time, word came that Perkins was nearing the end of his stay in America and had not located someone to replace Judith Grant, a missionary in Persia who had started a day school for girls, but passed away a few years earlier. Mary Lyon called all the instructors and students of Mount Holyoke together for an emergency meeting, informing them of the need. Those interested were told to drop a note in a box. While Fidelia and others were certainly academically qualified, it was later recalled by Perkins that Fidelia’s note was the only one that said, ‘If I am found worthy, I would like to go.’ The others regaled the missionary with their curriculum vitas, but because Fiske saw it as a spiritual engagement, she became their first and natural choice.
With little time to work, she immediately sent out a letter to her mother asking for her blessing. She also sent out letters to other family members, asking for their opinions. All of them told her that she was not healthy enough to enter into a mission field. Some pointed out that she could be leaving her family for good if she did such a thing. With good intentions, they reminded her that she was not the type of person to go off on adventures (clearly ignoring the fact that her interest seemed to indicate otherwise). There was also the added point, being a single missionary woman in the field was nearly scandalous - a sentiment still living on in some circles today.
Heeding their concerns, Fidelia turned down the offer and tried to move on. The position was offered to another woman, whose family told her the same thing. It was then that Mary Lyon came back to Fidelia and asked her to reconsider. Fidelia asked to sleep on it - something she was not able to do easily. Very early in the morning she knocked on Lyon’s door. She was willing to go to Persia, but on one condition: Lyon had to help her convince her mother. On that snowy winter day, she took a sled ride with Lyon to her mother’s home and spent the weekend discussing the issue. By Sunday evening, her mother gave her blessing.
It was a decision that changed her life. She boarded a ship with Perkins and his family and journeyed off to Oroomiah, arriving in June of 1843. There she made the school of Grant into an effective boarding school modeled after Mount Holyoke. She entered into a hostile culture that found no value in women and saw no reason to educate their daughters. Given such a world, one of the first phrases she learned in their language was ‘give me your daughters.’
Fidelia spent fifteen years in Persia declaring the value of women. She convinced families to let her educate their young daughters instead of abandoning them or selling them into slavery. She became a mother and a teacher to these girls.
By 1858, her struggle with sickness got the better of her and she returned to America. During that time she toured New England, raising awareness of the work still needed to be done in international missions. She returned to teaching at Mount Holyoke for a while and later published several books, including a biography on Mary Lyon. She died in 1864.
Under the guidance of Mary Lyon, Fidelia was encouraged to get a quality education and had her individual gifts nurtured. She did not allow herself (or the girls she ministered to in Iran) to be pigeonholed based solely on their gender. Each of us could serve as a Mary Lyon to someone who needs nurturing. Organizations like CBE and its members call Christians to minister by giftedness, not by gender.
How do you do the same in your local congregation?
For more information on Fidelia Fiske, see Faith Working by Love here.