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Published Date: November 2, 2023

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The Biblewomen of South India: A Professional Pathway to Dignity and Empowerment

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Among the many motifs that decorate the tapestry of colonial India (1858–1947), the “Biblewomen” movement in Northern Circars1 was a direct outcome of the missionary influence in the sub-continent. The origins of the movement can be traced to the establishment of the London Missionary Society (LMS) in this region2 in 1822. The faith brought by British missionaries found favour among the natives, not because it was imposed on them, but because of the upward mobility it offered from an oppressive and rigid caste system. Dalits, or outcastes, are outliers beyond the lowest of the castes. They are considered untouchable and, therefore, disenfranchised from public spaces like schools and temples. Even their shadows were once considered capable of polluting. Dalits eagerly responded to the perceived egalitarianism that the missionaries offered, resulting in mass conversions in the year 1851.            

Meanwhile in distant London, Ellen Ranyard set up the Bible and Domestic Female Mission (BDFM) to cater to the spiritual needs of women in the slums of urban England. Set up as a woman’s mission to women, the aim was to help women help themselves. In this ministry, in 1857, Ranyard initiated the idea of the Biblewoman, an epithet drawn from her identity as the female equivalent of Bible colporteurs or Biblemen popularized by the British and Foreign Bible Society (BFBS).3 A Biblewoman served as a missionary and social worker who belonged to the same social class as those whom she sought to reach. She was the “missing link” between the poorest families and their social superiors.4 In this context, Ranyard published Missing Link, a magazine which served to report on her outreach. It doubled as a community forum for her constituency and was a means to reinforce the gospel message.

Back in India, Edward and Martha Porter, a married couple, were appointed as missionaries in Cudappah in the year 1844. Martha Porter was a regular reader of the Missing Link, and from this resource she adapted Ranyard’s model of “Mother Meetings” into her local Indian context.5  These meetings were a major part of Ranyard’s programme that catered to underprivileged married women. Ranyard’s view was that if the condition of the poor was to be improved, the reform of mothers was crucial. Tips on housekeeping, including cooking and cleaning, formed a key component of these meetings. After her retirement in 1868, back in England, Porter floated the idea to Ranyard about appointing Biblewomen in the region of Rayalseema. Porter offered to liaise between the two countries and collate reports. She also promoted the need through a series of articles in the Missing Link and appealed for funds from readers in England.

Martha Porter’s efforts bore fruit. Mary Wesley and Martha Reuben were appointed as Biblewomen in 1871, followed by a woman named Bathsheba in 1872 (these names and several more below are post-conversion names). While Mary and Martha are believed to be from the Dalitcommunity, Bathsheba was from a higher caste. They became the pioneering Biblewomen among the Telugu-speaking language group. Martha Porter received monthly reports and was responsible for raising funds for salaries, which amounted to twelve pounds per woman per year.6  By 1880, Hariamma, Papamma, and Pantagani Annamma were working with Canadian Baptist missionaries in the coastal districts, while Kaveramma, Ratnamma, and Charlotte were employed by the Canadian Missionary Society (CMS) missionaries.7 As the ministerial office of Biblewoman was transplanted to various milieus, an array of local needs and cultural factors contributed to the process of its appropriation.

Sociocultural Context

Indian society then, and to a good extent today, was rigidly dividedinto castes. Women played a crucial role in perpetuating the caste legacy by transmitting its cultural norms and customs within families. Since caste was inherited, it was possible for women to sabotage the system through association with men of lower castes. Therefore, the higher the caste was in the hierarchy, the more stringent the restrictions on its women through vigilant moral policing, at the expense of women’s freedom of choice. Even today, a man from an oppressed caste would risk his life by venturing into a relationship with a woman from a forward (that is, higher) caste.8

Women at the bottom of the social ladder, on the other hand, had greater freedom, as their interactions seldom altered their status within the caste system. The Hindu document Manusmriti sets the tone in favour of the upper castes, “A woman is not liable for punishment if she has physical relations with a man from the ‘higher castes.’ But she is due for harsh punishment for having sex with a man from a ‘lower caste.’”9 This sets the backdrop against which Biblewomen came into their own.    

A Leadership Role for Christian Women

A Telugu proverb says: “If coconuts are available at hand, monkeys use even them as weapons.”10  An application of this proverb is that despite being subjugated for centuries, the socially weak can skilfully use available resources to neutralize the powers of the dominant. This was the case with the Telugu Biblewomen, women who typically belonged to outcaste communities. They appropriated the evangelical Christianity that Protestant missionaries introduced, deftly melding it with their local customs and concepts. The Protestant emphasis on Scripture (in contrast to the Roman Catholic emphasis on liturgy and the sacraments) allowed these women to exercise their authority as informal agents of the Bible’s transmission. Their basic commission was to sell Bibles, as their male counterparts did. But they went beyond, employing various strategies to make Scripture available. According to the demands of each cultural context, they would vend Bibles, do public readings of the Bible, and preach. Some of them became professional preachers, often leading their families and communities to conversion. Other Biblewomen led and served their communities as schoolteachers and nurses. All this was possible because of the training they received.

Training

The initial Biblewomen recruits from the 1870s were not formally educated. The best the missionaries in the Northern Circars could do was to gather potential Biblewomen for informal training sessions, after which they were assigned to different locations. Their lack of literacy could be compensated by other skills, such as an ability to commit material to memory or a gift for public speaking. Addepalle Mariamma from Bodaguntla, for example, was previously a Dalitpriestess, a role which helped her gain the necessary confidence to engage in rhetoric with higher caste men.11

Later Biblewomen recruits were literate. One reason for this was that, following the mass conversion of Dalits recorded in 1851, LMS missionaries introduced schools. There is a possibility that some of the later Biblewomen recruits may have received education through these mission schools. Some Biblewomen who were widows of pastors had acquired reading skills while their husbands attended classes in seminaries. An example is Jeevamrutha Patasala, a seminary founded by Canadian Baptist missionaries at Samarlakota.12 While the men undertook theological studies, their wives had special classes on biblical literacy and home management. This added to their experience in church work and qualified them to be Biblewomen. One such is G. Shanthamma of Srikakulam, the widow of an Indian pastor, who briefly served as a Biblewoman from 1881 until her death in 1885.13      

Unlike many women of their social status, who were forced to marry their cousins or maternal uncles—an economically driven tradition to ensure property stayed within the larger family—Biblewomen had considerable freedom of choice within the mission. Encouraged by their supervising matron, they found spouses from among pastors and schoolteachers within the mission infrastructure. Eligible male employees of the mission also preferred a wife with an income.
In some regions it appears that the missionaries thought it safe to employ women based on “age and ugliness,”14 since marriage was preferred to celibacy. But largely, being a married woman offered social respect and made Biblewomen more welcome into homes.15 

This pattern of preparing Biblewomen as individuals and in small groups was eventually replaced by more formal programs of training. American Baptist missionaries founded a Bible Training School in Nellore in 1913, while Canadian Baptist missionaries founded a similar institution in Palakonda in 1922.16 This was later shifted to Tuni and renamed the Eva Rose York Bible Training School, in honour of the Toronto donor. Similarly, in 1926, Augustana Lutheran missionaries from the United States founded the Charlotte Swanson Memorial Bible Training School in Rajahmundry. The usual enrolment criterium was an elementary school pass certificate. Those without any reading skills took a preparatory year before entering the programme. Thus, many a Dalitwoman became literate. The programme spanned two years. If a student decided to drop out at the end of the junior level, she was awarded a Lower Elementary School certificate. Those who went on to complete the final level received a Higher Elementary School certificate. Either of these certificates ensured placement. At times, “faithfulness” could be used as a substitute for a failure to earn a certificate and became the basis for placement. This lack of academic rigor could have been due to the special nature of the job, or because of the need for staff numbers to justify the contributions by sponsors, or because of a belief that “gifting overruled qualifications.”

Academic formalization brought with it a reduced emphasis on field exposure. What was earlier almost completely on-the-job-training became a mix of classroom and field work, with practical work relegated to twice a week. Missionaries and their native colleagues offered classroom instruction four days a week—Monday through Thursday. Practical training exercises, such as village camping, Sunday school teaching, and house visiting, took up the other three days of the week. As part of their field education, trainees offered literacy and Bible classes to children every Thursday evening. They conducted itinerant work in nearby villages Friday and Saturday, and then returned to the seminary on Sunday to attend worship service.

Traditionally, Brahmin men demanded deference because they could read sacred texts and legal deeds. Biblewomen, who had been denied educational opportunities on account of their birth as women and/or as Dalits, were now learning not only to read but also gaining skills that would earn them social respect. The larger education offered in the seminary was aimed at enabling Biblewomen to be well received in Hindu homes. However, reports sent out by the Basel Mission in the neighbouring state of Karnataka indicate that Brahmin households were not always accessible to oppressed-caste Biblewomen.17

The Wesleyan Mission was even more candid. Sanjivi, a Biblewoman praised for her intelligence, piety, and sincerity to her task, is referred to as having only one drawback: “she came into this world branded with the curse of being low-caste.” Though she is appraised as “doing her best,” a mission report says that the missionaries were anxious to get another recruit from a “social position” more suited to reaching the “respectable people of the city.”18                      

While literacy and education attempted to build equal opportunities for the oppressed castes, traditional gender roles continued. In Bible school, men were taught carpentry,19 while women were taught sewing.20 

Job Description

Reading the Bible and narrating stories from it became the primary job description for these new professionals. For some of these women, especially those who had been Dalit priestesses, becoming a Biblewoman entailed a major shift. Their previous vocation called on them to perform as divine oracles. During communal ceremonies they would enter into a trance, stimulated by the sight of flames of fire and the sound of musical invocation. In this trance state, they would speak on behalf of the deity. But now they had to trust the written Scriptures as the infallible and immutable word of God.

Eliza F. Kent calls the Biblewomen “masters of improvisation” who bridged a cultural and social gap to bring the gospel to their Indian audiences. They could identify the concerns of enquirers and match their questions with appropriate hymns or verses from the Bible.21 A distinctly favourite passage was Matthew’s rendering of the parable of the sower (Matt 13:1–23). Anna Kugler, founder of the Women’s Hospital at Guntur, explained that Biblewomen in her hospital repeatedly told this story because the audience of agricultural labourers readily identified with it.22 They knew all about scattering seeds and kinds of soils. Another attractive aspect of this story was that Biblewomen were quick to recognize themselves in the role of the sower. Through repeated narration, they not only trusted in the ability of Scripture to produce faith but also celebrated their own participation in heralding the kingdom of God.

Another story that addressed the hearer’s felt need and introduced the Christian God as one capable of meeting their needs was the story of the pregnancy of Elizabeth (Luke 1). Abishekamma, a chief nurse and Biblewoman at Medak Hospital, founded by the Wesleyan Methodist missionaries, repeatedly related this story to waiting outpatients. Arley Munson, a doctor in the hospital, reported that many patients, especially the childless, returned to hear the story again.23 The story of an elderly Elizabeth bearing a child brought hope to childless women. Stigmatised in society, they were drawn to a God whom they hoped would bless them similarly.

Along with Scripture, songs were the other tool that Biblewomen employed in their ministry. The lyrics mostly drew their content from Bible passages. They celebrated the life of Jesus or described an ideal Christian home. The songs of Gnanaratnamma Philip, Vesapogu Gulbanamma, and Katta Chandramma, all of whom were schoolteachers, reflect this focus on Christ and the model Christian family.24 As a forerunner to the choreographed songs of today, Biblewomen associated with the Methodist movement composed action songs based on the parables and miracles of Jesus. Some of these action songs further developed into dramas.25 Another category of songs was similar to “spirituals”—group songs to ease the ardour of farm labour. Typically, these were songs of dissent. The lyrics were a coping mechanism used by the oppressed castes against their perpetually subordinate status. The irony was that pre-conversion, DalitBiblewomen were not permitted even to hear the Hindu scriptures being recited. In contrast, low-caste Biblewomen could now sing the Christian Scripture, positively renegotiating their new social standing.

Biblewomen focused primarily on ministering to women and children at their homes. Women, in their role as homemakers, were identified as naturally influential over the family. The strategy was based on the reasonable assumption that, once persuaded into the Christian faith, a woman would lead her entire family to the faith. Although women and children received special attention, men were not completely outside the sphere of Biblewomen’s activities. There were instances when they specifically reached out to men, even outside the context of the family. An astonishing example is that in the Northern Circars, some Biblewomen were recognized and highly regarded for their religious discourses with Brahmin priests.26

Another logical locus of ministry was in schools, considering the Biblewomen’s training and literacy. In Samarlakota, Americus V. Timpany, a Canadian Baptist missionary, started a school in 1880, and Ellen, an Anglo-Indian Biblewoman, became its founding teacher.27 Occasionally, a Biblewoman played all the roles that a school needed. For example, Neela, a Biblewoman at Bobbili, was a chef, teacher, and matron of the boarding school, while her colleague and sister-in-law, Sayamma, was a regular schoolteacher.28

A unique category of Biblewomen were zenana workers. Zenana is Persian for “inner chamber.” In India in the mid-nineteenth century, Muslim women followed the purdah (“curtain”) system, that is, a system that confined them to women’s quarters known as zenana. The purdah system isolated these women from education and healthcare. Such segregation of women was also practised in forward-caste Hindu homes. To reach out to these cloistered women, the Baptist Missionary Society inaugurated zenana missions in the year 1854. Some Biblewomen made it their special vocation to minister to these women—Muslims and high-caste Hindus—who were confined to their homes. They taught reading skills on a regular basis and occasionally gave lessons on the Bible. Perhaps initiatives such as the zenana mission led to the founding of an Urdu school for Muslim girls, in Guntur in 1884.29 

The majority of Biblewomen, however, visited women of oppressed and outcaste status and focused on teaching the Bible rather than literacy. One story of Bathsheba’s ministrations is illustrative of the Biblewoman’s strategies to lead these women to Christ. Bathsheba was sent for by an ailing woman. To introduce the woman to the Great Physician, Bathsheba read from the Gospel accounts about the woman with the issue of blood (Matt 9:20–22). Two days later, Bathsheba visited her again and read about the crucifixion. During her next visit, the woman lay dying and asked Bathsheba, “I am praying to Jesus, will he forgive me?” Bathsheba comforted her with the assurance from Isa 1:18, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (NIV).30         

Outcome           

The office of the Biblewoman was in many ways a support role to the missionaries. The provision of a regular wage allowed them to consistently and professionally undertake this commitment. Their access to Indian women and their families and their reading, preaching, and narration of the Bible inevitably led to conversions.Ina survey undertaken by the National Christian Council of India,31 Pickett estimates that at least 15,000 from the lowest of the castes converted to Christianity between 1928 and 1932 in the six mission stations that his team studied.32 The aspiration of the outcastes for social improvement, according to Pickett, was one of the motives behind the conversions. Later, Pickett affirmed that Biblewomen were responsible for these mass conversions, especially among the Telugus.33 Mrs. Calvin F. Kuder, a missionary wife at Rajahmundry, for example, proudly informed her readers about the “increasing number” of oppressed caste conversions.34 American Lutheran missionaries responded to this by appointing more Biblewomen. While there were only 113 Biblewomen working with American Lutherans in 1920, the number increased to 217 by 1930, showing a remarkable growth rate of 92 percent.35 

Conclusion: A Symbiotic Relationship

In the bigger picture of Christian missions in south India, missionaries and Biblewomen enjoyed a mutually beneficial collaboration. Foreign missionaries depended on the local women to gain access into Indian homes, and Biblewomen often made the introductions and served as interlocutors.

Employing native women was financially viable as well. Missionaries soon discovered that Biblewomen, as female workers, could be paid minimal wages for maximum gain. A Biblewoman usually was paid five rupees per month. This was less than five percent of what a foreign female missionary received and only one-third of what a male Indian preacher earned. While male Indian catechists who collaborated with American Lutheran missionaries received ten rupees per month, Biblewomen received between three and five rupees. According to an 1883 report, Hariamma and Shanthamma together received 120 rupees per annum (CAD 46) while their employer Carrie Hammond, a Canadian Baptist, received 1300 (CAD 500).36 But Biblewomen also received non-monetary benefits.

Biblewomen learned to read and recite portions of Scripture; they also developed the capability to interpret and contextualize the text. True to their title of “Biblewomen,” they appropriated the Bible in a uniquely personal way, carrying it wherever they went, respecting it as sacred. Through daily interaction with the transforming word, it is reasonable to assume that many Biblewomen’s spirits broke free from centuries of social oppression, gender discrimination, and economic deprivation while they themselves played their part in building a kingdom not of this world.

Notes

  1. The Northern Circars (also spelt Sarkars) was a division of British India’s Madras Presidency within the present-day states of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha. Biblewomen formed a vital part of missionary enterprises in different parts of India, such as the German Evangelical Mission in Chattisgarh,  the Basel mission in Karnataka, and Amy Carmichael’s..Church of England mission in Tirunelveli. This article restricts itself to the Northern Circars.
  2. Specifically, in Cuddapah of the Rayalseema area, Andhra Pradesh, comprising the ceded districts which  formed the Northern Circars during the British Raj.
  3. Elspeth Platt, The Story of the Ranyard Mission, 1857–1937 (Hodder and Stoughton, 1937) 61.
  4. Frank Prochaska, The Voluntary..Impulse: Philanthropy in Modern Britain (Faber, 1988) 48.
  5. Prochaska, The Voluntary Impulse, 49.
  6. C. Chandra Sekhar, “Dalit Women and Missionary Christianity: Telugu Bible Women as Teachers of Wisdom,” Economic and Political Weekly 56/11 (2021) 58.
  7. James Elisha Taneti, Caste, Gender, and Christianity in Colonial India: Telugu Women in Mission (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) 131.
  8. Siddharth,..Inter-caste Marriage Isn’t the Problem, Marrying a Dalit Man Is,” The Print, 13 July 2019.
  9. This is the Law of Manu, 8 §365, a Hindu legal text delineating how society should be run.
  10. Taneti, Caste, Gender, and Christianity, 1.
  11. Daniel Orville, Moving with the Times: The Story of Outreach from Canada into Asia, South America, and Africa (Canadian Baptist Foreign Mission Board, 1973) 47. Taneti, in Caste, Gender, and Christianity, ch. 3 n. 106, says: “The ability to debate with Brahmin men was a celebrated gift.” See also a report from Mrs. Isaac Cannaday, entitled “Meenakshi: The Bible Woman,”..in..Lutheran Woman’s..Work..14:3 (March 1921) 83–84.”
  12. Taneti, Caste, Gender, and..Christianity,..66. Jeevamrutha means “honey of immortality.”
  13. Mary Julia Harpster, Among the Telugoos: Illustrating Mission Work in India (Lutheran..Publication Society, 1902) 60.
  14. Eliza F. Kent, “Tamil Bible Women and the Zenana Missions of Colonial South India,” HR 39/2 (1999) 147.
  15. James Elisha Taneti, “Reconfiguring..Home: Telugu..Biblewomen, Protestant..Missionaries, and Christian Marriage,” International Review of Missionary Research 35/1 (2011) 30.
  16. Winnifred Eaton, Eva Rose York Bible Training School: Memories from the Early Days (Wolfville, Canada: Esther Clark Wright Archives, Vaughan Memorial Library, Acadia University).
  17. Mrinalin..Sebastian, “Reading Archives from a Postcolonial Feminist..Perspective: ‘Native’ Bible Women and the Missionary Ideal,” JFSR 19/1 (Spring 2003) 17.
  18. Sebastian, “Bible Women and the MissionaryIdeal,” 18.
  19. Clarence H. Swavely, One Hundred Years in the Andhra Country: A History of the India Mission of the United Lutheran Church in America, 1842–1942 (Diocesan Press, 1942) 100–1.
  20. The Union Baptist Theological Seminary, Ramapatnam, South India: Jubilee Memorial, 1874–1924, and Seminary Catalogue, 1924 (Mission Press, 1924) 54–55.
  21. Kent, “Tamil Bible Women,” 137.
  22. Anna S. Kugler, Guntur Mission Hospital, Guntur, India (Women’s Missionary Society of the United Lutheran Church in America, 1928) 73.
  23. Arley Isabel Munson, Jungle Days: Being the Experiences of an American Woman Doctor in India (Appleton, 1913) 43.
  24. Gogu Syamala, Nalla Proddhu: Dalita Streela Sahityam [Black Dawn: Dalit Women’s Literature] (Hyderabad Book Trust, 2003) 39–41, 48–50.
  25. Jarrell Waskom Pickett, Mass Movements in India: A Study with Recommendations (Abingdon, 1933) 260.
  26. Orville, Moving with the Times, 47; Cannaday, “Meenakshi: The Bible Woman.”
  27. Taneti, Caste, Gender, and Christianity, 76
  28. Matilda Churchill, Letters from My Home in India, ed. Grace McLeod Rogers (McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart, 1916) 283.
  29. Sandeep Kumar Dasari, “Missions at Work: Contribution Towards Social Change in Telugu Speaking Region” (1956) 5.
  30. Sekhar, Telugu Bible Women as Teachers of Wisdom, 60.
  31. Pickett, Mass Movements in India, 295.
  32. Church Missionary Society, Kistna, Madras Presidency, Telugu; London Missionary Society, South Travancore, Tamil; Gossner’s Evangelical Lutheran Mission work, Chotta Nagpur, Hindi; Methodist Episcopal work, Western United Provinces, Urdu; United Presbyterian Work, Punjab, Punjabi; American Presbyterian Work, Etah, United Provinces.
  33. J. Waskom Pickett, Christ’s Way to India’s Heart: Present Day Mass Movements to Christianity (Friendship Press, 1938) 75.
  34. Lutheran Woman’s Work 22/11 (Nov 1929) 523.
  35. M. L. Dolbeer, Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church: A Brief History (Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1951) 60.
  36. George Drach and Calvin F. Kuder, The Telugu Mission of the General Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in North America (General Council Publication House, 1914) 219.