If I asked you to think of Christian missionaries, pioneers, founders of charities, game-changers, evangelists, and do-gooders, who would you name?
Maybe you’d tell me about George Muller, evangelist and worker of orphanages in Bristol.
Maybe you’d think of William Booth; Methodist Preacher and founder of the Salvation Army. Or maybe, you’d think of a different William; William Carey - the missionary in India who translated Bibles and founded the Baptist Missionary Society.
Perhaps your mind would jump to the well-known story of the God-Smuggler and founder of Open Doors, Brother Andrew.
Would you think of the great David Livingstone; congregationalist, physician, pioneer, missionary, explorer and anti-slavery crusader?
Who else springs to mind? William Tyndale, David Brainerd, John Wycliffe, Hudson Taylor, George Hoffman, Billy Graham?
I love aesthetically pleasing, hardback books; ones about hygge, limited edition children’s books, travel books. My weakness is that I don’t tend to read them, only leave them out on coffee tables on an aesthetically pleasing page. Two books I irregularly flick through, usually when I can’t sleep, are Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls and Bad Girls Throughout History. Although they aren’t faith-based books, I hoped to find some Christian missionaries inside the beautifully illustrated page, but nobody popped out. I would assume that in looking deeper, and perhaps further research, a handful would be. But ‘faith’ ‘religion’ or ‘God’ (notice the ‘big G’) are absent words.
I am aware of Irene Howats, ’10 girls who…’ series, which includes book such as ’10 girls who used their talents’, ’10 girls who changed the world’ and ’10 girls who made history’. I think I may have read a couple of them when I was younger. I am pleased that these books are available for children (and of course adult too).
I’m also aware that, perhaps as part of Generation Z, I ‘shop with my eyes’. These books by Howats aren’t the most aesthetically pleasing, engaging or exciting. Perhaps I’m picking holes. It’s great to see these books on the shelves of Christian bookshops! And, to be fair, after further research I did find a book on Amazon that is more similar to the popular ‘Rebel Girls’ tales than a small, paperback, picture less book published over ten years ago. But what would be greater is if these books (or ones with slightly more colour and excitement) were available in the highstreet well known, chain shops , and if children, young people and adults were taught about Christian game-changing women, as well as game-changing men.
I wrote a thread of tweets and had many great responses from people suggesting great female missionaries. I had heard of approximately half of those mentioned, the other half were new to me and I enjoyed researching them. Even so, with all these new names, I still think I could name double, if not triple the amount of male missionaries. One of the replies was from my youth minister I had growing up who suggested that I “change the narrative”.
Here are just a couple of inspiring stories, but I really recommend you look further…
Gladys Aylward was born in 1902 in England. She worked through her teens as a housemaid, before being called to China. Although she completed a three-month course for aspiring missionaries, she was not offered further training by the China Inland Mission, as her Chinese language was not quite up to scratch.
In 1932, she spent her life-savings on a trip to Yangcheng, Shanxi Province, China. When she arrived, Aylward worked with an older missionary, Jeannie Lawson, to found The Inn of the Eight Happinesses, based on the eight virtues: Love, Virtue, Gentleness, Tolerance, Loyalty, Truth, Beauty and Devotion. There, she provided hospitality for travellers, as well as sharing stories of Jesus. For a time she served as an assistant to the Government of the Republic of China as a "foot inspector" by touring the countryside to enforce the new law against footbinding young Chinese girls. Later on, she took in orphans and adopted many. She intervened in a volatile prison riot and advocated for prison reform, risking her life many times to help those in need. In 1938, the region was invaded by Japanese forces and she led more than 100 orphans to safety over the mountains, despite being wounded, personally caring for them.
Lottie Moon was born in 1840 in Virginia to affluent parents. She was well educated and in 1861 she received one of the first Master of Arts degrees awarded to a woman by a southern institution.
In 1873, Lottie moved as a missionary to China. One year prior to this, her younger sister Edmonia became the first single woman to go to North China as a Baptist missionary.
She became frustrated that, although she had found her passion - evangelism and church-planting - she was not allowed to do this, being a woman. She wrote,
Can we wonder at the mortal weariness and disgust, the sense of wasted powers and the conviction that her life is a failure, that comes over a woman when, instead of the ever broadening activities that she had planned, she finds herself tied down to the petty work of teaching a few girls?
Lottie waged a slow but relentless campaign to give women missionaries the freedom to minister and have an equal voice in mission proceeding
She and her sister taught in a boys school, until Edmonia had to return due to bad health, and Lottie gave up to become a full-time evangelist.
Aware of burn-out and stress, she took time off in America in 1892 and again in 1902. The mindset at this time was “go to the mission field, die on the mission field”. Moon argued that regular rest every ten years would extend the lives and effectiveness of seasoned missionaries.
Throughout her time as a missionary, she experienced plague, famine, revolution and warm. She helped many out of her own pocket, as resources and finances weren’t available from the mission board.
Lottie Moon died as she returned home for another rest from mission in 1912, due to lack of finances (after helping so many others in need) which affected her physical and mental health.
Another great female, Christian game-changer is Amy Carmicheal, who served in India for over fifty years. She worked with girls and women, many of whom were saved from being sex-trafficked. During this time, many children in Hindu temples were dedicated to the gods and forced into prostitution. Amy Carmichael helped these girls escape and then provided them with shelter. Many called her “Amma” which means “mother” in the Tamil language.
Others that were suggested to me include Jackie Pulling, Corrie Ten Boom, Catherine Boothe, Katherine Bushnell, Dorothy Sayers, Josephine Butler and Elisabeth Eliot.
This started with me doing a session plan about missionaries, and only being able to think of male missionaries. After research (if you can call a twitter-thread 'research') I've learnt about many incredible, fierce, inspirational, empowering women of faith.
The question still sits with me though, why could I only think of male missionaries? How many other people could name many more male missionaries (or expanding that phrase more generally to 'do-gooders/game-changers) than female? Is this a narrative that runs through our kids groups and youth groups, our sermons and seminars, our schools and homes? The narrative needs changing.
Who can you think of, past and present, that are Christian female missionaries, game-changers, pioneers, activists and founders?