Mission: a dangerous enthusiasm?

Or thoughts prompted while organizing my folder of public domain images…

(Woman’s Holy War, 1874, By Currier & Ives [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As I worked through my PhD, I developed a basic argument that went something like this:

Evangelical religion allowed women in the nineteenth century to do things that they would not normally be allowed to do.

For example, if a woman felt strongly that she had been called by God to be a missionary (or, in the early period, a missionary’s wife), she could leave the domestic sphere and go out to the mission field, where she would usually experience more agency and power than women back at home. (It has to be remembered that missionaries were often ill, and wives often temporarily took over the running of the mission.)

Other women became activists in the anti-slavery or temperance movements, because they believed that their religion required them to act. Still others became successful writers of religious tracts and even novels, in order to use their talents for a godly cause. And later in the century, Constance Maynard believed that she had to establish a university college for women, because that was what God had called her to do.

The advantages that these women enjoyed have led some of us in the 20th/21st century to question whether they perhaps feigned their faith in order to access life beyond the domestic sphere. In fact, I started out at this position.

I changed my mind though, when faced with the evidence of emotions felt by these women – and men – on embarking upon their various missions. In the early nineteenth century, sailing to the mission field was highly dangerous and pretty much meant never returning to your home and family. Missionaries, and their families, did not live very long. Biographies made these facts very clear, and letters from missionaries to loved ones show their understanding of the case.

Later in the century the interaction between faith and ambition may have been more complex. I was often struck by how convenient it was that Constance Maynard’s god-given vocation was so in line with her aspiration to become the principal of a London college… However, certainly in Maynard’s case, evidence suggests that vocation was an emotional issue, involving serious soul-searching and inspired by enthusiastic faith. I was struck by her description (in her diary) of how she felt that her struggle to establish a women’s college was part of the evangelical crusade:

I would like to fly high, to attack the very top, storm the very citadel within, to shew my brothers that nothing is too strong if we have the Lord with us, and that after very patient, skilful obedient working, we may shout for the Lord hath given us the city!

(La Battaglia di Legano By Amos Cassioli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I decided to take women missionaries’ and activists’ attestations of faith seriously, and it led me to a greater understanding and sympathy of Victorian woman, beyond my initial judgement: ‘Victorians were crazy’.

Of course, another question is whether other Victorians believed that women activists were being truthful about their motivations. The image above ‘Woman’s Holy War’ would suggest that many in America around the time of the Temperance movement did believe in the notion of religiously motivated, righteous women agents taking action to redeem mankind. However, this other image of the American temperance movement (1874) reminds me very much of Dickens’s attitude towards women missionary supporters (for so long one of the only mentions of women and mission I could think of in literature!):

(By BPL (Flickr: Mother’s Gone Crusading) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Like Dickens’s Mrs Jellyby (in his novel Bleak House), these women campaigners are neglecting their home duties for the sake of what they present as their religious duty to go ‘crusading’. The main criticism of activist women is that they have misunderstood their religious duties – which clearly lie in the home with their angelic children, saving their babies, husbands – and pets – from the distress of their absence. (Library catalogues use keywords such as ‘distress’ and ‘children crying’ to categorise this image.) But is there also in this image a suggestion that some Victorians didn’t buy women activists’ justifications of faith for their activities outside the home? The women’s studied expressions of harsh solemnity, the hands prominently folded to indicate prayer, are depicted in a way to accuse them of cant and hypocrisy. Though the women can be seen as martyrs being burnt at the stake (the steam of father’s tea-making becomes the smoke surrounding them), it is their family, the artist suggests, who are the real martyrs.

The song itself (available here) might be taken to continue this theme as it is from the point of views of the neglected child at home, who sings of the happiness of family life when alcohol is absent:

There’s no cruel blows at our home, no bitter words or brawls. And King Alcohol don’t know us, And so he never calls.

In fact, though, the song is not that critical of mother going crusading; the child is proud of his mother and calls on others to join the crusade. The text of the song was written by Mrs M.A. Kidder, who also wrote hymns. And in its advertisement for the song in 1874, the Folio (a Boston musical journal) promoted it for the use of temperance societies:

A wide awake Temperance song […] It hits the spirit of the times to a T, and all Temperance people and societies should have it. Selling fast. A humorous lithograph title-page. (Folio, July 1874)

The popularity of the song would suggest that temperance societies weren’t put off by the ‘humorous’ title-page.

It is possible to blame people other than the crusading women for the domestic chaos depicted in the lithograph. The father, though he is said to be ‘for temp’rance’, does not crusade with his wife and by the end of the song is ‘fast asleep’. As the descriptor used in the Folio’s advert shows, the temperance movement used the phrase ‘wide awake’ for themselves and their songs, meaning that they were so alive to the evils of the alcohol industry they simply had to take action.

And of course, the alcohol industry and ‘the times’ themselves can also be blamed. The fact that a mother, in her zeal to save people from the broken homes caused by alcohol, in effect ‘breaks’ her own domestic haven through neglect can be read as ironic. But it can also be read as a necessary – and temporary – sacrifice: until ‘other fellows fathers […] go for temp’rance too’, until others can enjoy ‘happy households’, these women must sacrifice their domestic havens and take to a life of crusading martyrdom.

In the end I tend to come to the conclusion that when Victorians accuse activist religious women of hypocrisy they aren’t usually questioning the faith that inspires their activism. What’s more in question is whether they are truly being martyred. I think Victorians accepted that it was ok that evangelical religion caused women to do things that they would not normally do. As long as they didn’t enjoy it.

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