My interest in women and missions of the 1800s has been reinvigorated by several experiences I’ve had lecturing at Christian colleges and seminaries around the county.
When I’m invited to speak for chapel services, I make an effort to learn something about the school—particularly the achievements of its founders and graduates. In doing so, I have discovered a vast number of 19th century women graduates of evangelical Bible schools who became leaders on the mission field in the United States and abroad. This pattern is well-documented by Jeanette Hassey in her book, No Time for Silence.
I am often interested in the responses I receive when I include these discoveries during my lectures. Some of these Christian colleges seem surprised and sometimes a little embarrassed to learn of the number of women in significant leadership positions and who were trained in this capacity by their institutions.
Recovering the heritage of women leaders in Christian missions
For example, I was recently invited to speak in chapel at a Christian university that began as a Bible institute in the early 1900s: Northwestern University in St. Paul, Minn. As I did my research on Northwestern founders and graduates, I came across a few interesting photographs.
In a photograph of a student group known as the “Missions Band” (so called because of their interest in global evangelism), there are seven men and 46 women. A photograph of the graduating class of 1915 also shows far more women than men.
This example is typical of other Bible schools around the same time period, which had many more women than men enrolled. Why? Because Christians in the 1800s, influenced by premillennialism, believed that Christ’s return was imminent—and therefore, they were far more concerned about obeying the Great Commission than they were about gender. As a result of this freedom to serve in ministry, women outnumbered men on the mission field, two to one. This led to one of the largest expansions of Christian faith in history during what has been called the Golden Era of Missions, and women were a driving force behind this movement.
In preparation for global missionary service, women enrolled in Bible institutes like Moody, Gordon, Northwestern, BIOLA, and others. These Christian institutions trained and authorized women to preach and teach Scripture to both men and women all over the world. These institutes carefully documented and celebrated their graduates’ achievements in archives filled with letters and journals from female missionaries whom they trained.
Biblical equality and the Great Commission
Women not only served as missionaries, they also became founders and funders of missions organizations. This legacy has shaped groups like the Women’s Missionary Union, an auxiliary of the Southern Baptist Convention that equips Christians to become radically involved in the mission of God all over the world.
Over time, however, some of these organizations began excluding women from positions of leadership, and men gained control over the missions organizations women established. Moreover, as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy raged in the United States, churches and institutions that did not adopt a literalistic interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11–15 as the primary biblical passage governing women’s ministry were considered to be liberal—as denying the authority of Scripture.
In response, many Bible institutes began excluding women from the very courses that once prepared women for leadership on mission fields around the world. What was the result? Missiologists and historians have much to say on the impact of a wooden reading of 1 Timothy on missions and evangelism. Come to our conference this summer in Toronto, where leaders in missions will explore the importance of biblical equality for fulfilling the Great Commission. We want to share this important conference with friends like you. Please join us.