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.

May’s Tips for Tuesday

In case anyone missed them, here are the pieces of advice (or anti-advice in one case) from Twitter and the blogosphere that I found most helpful in the past few weeks.

First, from one of my most trusted blogs, advice on how to revise a messy first draft: https://patthomson.net/2016/04/25/tackling-a-messy-first-draft/

Some of the advice reminded me of my experience revising a chapter submitted about a year before, that I wrote about here.

And then Will Pooley’s blog post was just what I needed as I struggled over yet another job application: https://williamgpooley.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/the-advice-you-didnt-ask-for/

I love my research, even though it’s a topic that sometime other people sneer at.

I like social media: I think it contributes to my career, and I find it useful.

I applied for jobs people told me I would never get. And I got some of them.

Well I can honestly make the first two statements about my own work and life, so hopefully I’ll be writing similar advice about jobs in a few years time!

April’s favourite blogs

I had three favourite blog posts this month – though really one of them comes from January 2015!

That one was Lucinda Matthews-Jones’s post on Henrietta Barnett’s office, which was re-posted to link with the Guardian Higher Ed’s #MyHEoffice. Despite feeling rather jealous – my ‘portable office’ of a laptop and library gear has to be lugged around with me in a Penguin bag – I’ve enjoyed peeking into others’ work spaces, and this piece on Henrietta Barnett made me think of the physical lives of the professional women I write about, such as Constance Maynard, from a similar time period.

Lucie screenshot

More recent was this post from the Snapshots of Empire project at the University of Sussex: Security, Economy and Education in Mauritius, 1857. It’s not a part of the world that has featured in my research, but the to-and-fro between pragmatism and idealism on the part of the Imperial government was familiar to me from my research on missionaries.

Finally, I really enjoyed Charlotte Mathieson’s blog post on literary tourism in Charlotte Brontë’s Brussels. Brontë, of course, was born almost exactly 2o0 years ago (last Thursday), and I’m looking forward to attending Chawton House Library’s conference marking this anniversary in May – and presenting some of my own thoughts on Brontë and literary tourism.

Women missionaries and religious life writing at INCS

My paper for INCS was on how Victorian women missionaries’ understandings of history enabled them to see themselves as important actors in the mission movement. So much so that some of them wrote about themselves with an eye to posterity, and were immortalized in biographies.

I focused on Ann Judson, who was a founding member of the American Baptist Church’s mission in Burma in the 1820s, and Constance Maynard, who was the principal of Westfield College in London in the 1880s. Though you might imagine that these women would be rather different from each other, they in fact thought about history and the mission movement in very similar ways.

19th Century Evangelical Beliefs and the Mission Movement

There were a number of evangelical beliefs that supported the nineteenth-century mission movement, and which Ann Judson and Constance Maynard both adhered to. Firstly, evangelicals believed in Divine Providence – that God directed and aided missionaries in their work. Some also held millennial beliefs – that the second coming of Christ was imminent, making missionary work even more urgent. In the high Victorian period, this belief supported Britain’s imperial project – missionaries held that the British Empire was divinely ordained to ensure the conversion of all peoples.

Women had a special responsibility when it came to converting women in other countries. Differences in the treatment of ‘native’ women and western women were stated to be the result of the western world’s Christianity: this had the power to raise the status of women to that which western women enjoyed.

Christianity alone teaches the true rank of women; and secures the loveliest and best portion of our race the respect and influence which belong to them.

J. D. Knowles (ed.), Memoirs of Mrs. Ann H. Judson

Lucky western women were told that they therefore had a duty to support the spread of Christianity around the world in order to raise up their more unfortunate sisters.

Ann Judson

In her ‘Address, to females in America relative to the situation of females in the east’, Ann Judson was able to base a rhetorically stirring call to women to become missionaries and to support the mission movement on her religion’s teaching of women’s ‘true rank’:

Shall we, my beloved friends, suffer minds like these to lie dormant, to wither in ignorance and delusion, to grope their way to eternal ruin, without an effort on our part to raise, to refine, to elevate, and to point to the Saviour who has died equally for them as for us? Shall we […] leave beings like these, flesh and blood, intellect and feeling, like ourselves, and of our own sex, to perish?

Ann H. Judson, ‘Address, to females in America relative to the situation of females in the east’

Judson stresses that women of all races are the same, but that American women’s agency is required to secure respect and influence for ‘females of the east’.

As one of the first women missionaries, Judson was one of the first women to express an understanding of her actions as being part of God’s plan for the world. The way she expressed this was pious and self-effacing, which had been a typical approach of male missionaries, such as David Brainerd. When her Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire was published, it included a preface, in which Judson downplays the quality her literary execution, justifying her foray into publishing by the good the story of the mission will do the cause:

Poor as is the garb in which these letters are attired, a full conviction that the providential circumstances therein detailed, will have a tendency to excite grateful emotions in the hearts of many of God’s dear children, induces me to make an immediate and joyful offer of this little work.

Ann H. Judson, Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire, in a series of letters addressed to a gentleman in London

Judson’s awareness of the value of her own missionary narrative was increased when the Burma mission was attacked as part of the Anglo-Burmese war. Through these sufferings, Judson was able to see herself as playing a part within a spiritual war, and felt compelled to write her tale in full, even if it meant re-living the horrors, as she explained to her brother-in-law:

I have frequently been induced to throw it aside altogether, but feeling assured that you and my other friends are expecting something of this kind, I am induced to send it […] This letter, dreadful as are the scenes herein described, gives you but a faint idea of the awful reality. The anguish, the agony of mind […] Pray for us, my dear brother and sister, that these heavy afflictions may not be in vain, but may be blessed to our spiritual good, and the advancement of Christ’s church among the heathen.

Ann H. Judson, Memoirs of Mrs. Ann H. Judson

51gkexydwjl-_ac_ul320_sr198320_The psychological and physical suffering were caused by inhuman treatment prompted by a politically motivated war. However, Judson here reframes and redeems this suffering, as it is represented as a result of the Burmans’ heathen nature. The drama of an imperial war is harnessed by Judson in the cause of the spiritual war being waged by the missionaries – to further excite proper feelings about the mission. Although written as a letter to her brother-in-law, Judson refers to ‘her other friends’ as a possible audience which, in the language of a religious community, could mean any of the family of God that supported her mission.

Her narrative was also written in such a way that ensured it could be published in a stand-alone form – as it was in America, in the National Gazette and Literary Register – as well as in her biography.

Constance Maynard

Like Ann Judson, Constance Maynard saw the mission movement as engaged in a historic, supernatural battle, to win the Kingdom for Christ. And she saw herself and her students at Westfield College in London, as ideally placed to play leading roles in this historic battle.

By Maynard’s time, evangelical understanding of the missionary imperative to save degraded heathen population could be combined with imperial discourses. Maynard expressed strong feelings of patriotism as part of her mission enthusiasm; for example in her description of a YMCA meeting she attended to celebrate the reopening of Exeter Hall in 1881. In her writing, the very building becomes a symbol of Britain’s providential role in the expansion of Christianity, in that its walls had ‘heard the rise of the Bible Society and of the CMS and had echoed with rejoicing over the Abolition of Slavery’. These national, political, movements are interpreted as the key events of Christian progress in the world. Maynard continues to link Church and State in the figure of Lord Shaftesbury, who is transfigured into one of many ‘saints of God’, as Maynard terms the public figures on the platform. And when the congregation joins together in singing a hymn, Maynard experiences patriotic, rather than simply religious, emotion:

I felt as if every heart there present must be springing aloft in a glory of patriotism never felt before. Was there ever such a country as England? Has there ever been another capital where the central heart, the young men, have stood up close packed together and with one heart and one voice has ascribed all honour to Jesus?

Maynard, Diary, April 3rd 1881.

The success of evangelical movements and politicians, along with the ‘opportunity’ of the British empire, convince Maynard of the providential role her country has been granted in bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth.

She communicated this belief to her students in the college newsletter; in a piece about her travels in the Holy Land, she described the progress of imperialism very positively:

‘British rule is leading to ‘poor Egypt […] lifting her head slowly from the mud and dust of her degradation […] We English are doing wonders there.’

Maynard, Hermes, October 1900.

Maynard saw a role in Britain’s providential task for herself and her students: ‘We English’. During a trip to South Africa, she wrote to her students:

It makes one proud and thankful to belong to these dear islands. Wherever we come, law and order begins, […] there is a settled condition of peace, which, if not much in itself, is the groundwork of what is better. […] How I should like to [see you] and give an account to you of the charm of these wild lands, and of the tremendous responsibilities of being English.

Maynard, letter, October 1897.

Associating herself and her fellow Christian students with her national, empire-making compatriots, Maynard teaches her students that the white man’s burden was also the religious woman’s burden.

In her fullest expression of the historic role she believed she and her students were to play in the world, Maynard wrote:

When we see even a glimpse of the needs of the world in every direction and see too, even if imperfectly, the sufficient and beautiful supply that is ready for those needs, and see lastly that we are asked and expected to be the link between the demand and supply – how can we help our choice as to what is the main object of life?

Maynard, letter, 3rd June 1887.

Here, not only does Maynard express her view that she and her students are providentially chosen to be central to the world’s positive imperial future, but she also uses the rhetoric of supply and demand. She incorporates the discipline of political economy into her Utopian evangelical faith, arguing that God has designed the world in a way that all needs can be met – as long as all the supply is used. Women are chosen as a supply by God, and mankind must now utilise this much needed supply of social workers. More than this, Maynard’s women at Westfield are chosen to be the link between demand and supply – therefore they are more than simply workers, they are leaders in this movement.

Conclusion

In the early nineteenth century, Ann Judson’s evangelical faith allowed her to understand the historical value of her own actions in the mission field to such an extent that she spoke publicly in support of the movement and wrote what became incredibly influential accounts of the Burma mission.

By 1925, Constance Maynard, who had been inspired by the same evangelical faith, began writing an autobiography in which she presented herself as at the centre of fin de siècle educational and religious reforms, writing that her own life:

Shews the inception and traces the course of a great national movement [women’s higher education] […] the first struggles and the first victories of this beneficent and world-wide movement [Mission] [and] the great battle […] between faith and knowledge.

Constance Maynard, unpublished autobiography

In a century when theories of history were discrediting ideas of progress, and the ability of the individual to make a difference, women involved in the mission movement were able to see the world very differently. Ann Judson and the women who came after her saw themselves as important agents in the national and international historical movements of their time, called by God to fulfil their duty, acting according to, and within God’s providential design, to bring about what they believed to be the Christian destiny of the world. Their life writing reveals their growing awareness of the value of their own lives to this mission.

 

Works consulted

Bebbington, D. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989

Bradley, Ian. Call to Seriousness: The Evangelical Impact on the Victorians. London: Cape, 1976

Burton, Antoinette. Burdens of History: British Feminists, Indian Women and Imperial Culture 1865-1915. London: University of Carolina Press, 1994

Etherington, Norman. Introduction. Missions and Empire. Ed. by Norman Etherington. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005

Gilmour, Rachael. Grammars of Colonialism: Representing Languages in Colonial South Africa. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2006

Schlossberg, Herbert. Conflict and Crisis in the Religious Life of Late Victorian England. London: Transaction Publishers, 2009

 

 

Period Drama Wedding Dresses at Biltmore

prideprejudice__large__large
Wedding costumes from the BBC’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’

While I was at INCS in Asheville, I spent a morning visiting Biltmore House, part of the Vanderbilt Estate. I wrote about my visit to the house and grounds in my travel blog (here), but I thought the exhibition at the house deserved its own post.

The exhibition was of the wedding dresses (and some other dresses) used in period dramas based on novels. The implications of this seemed to me particularly apt for an audience that was attending an interdisciplinary conference on the nineteenth century, which included plenty of Neo-Victorianists. I certainly had my own views about the exhibition, which I hissed to my husband as we pushed our way through the crowds.

mary_shellys_frankenstein__large__large
Wedding costume from the 1994 ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’

My main gripe was that the wedding costumes were presented out of context. And I mean completely out of any context whatsoever. The effect was impressively postmodern, but I don’t think that’s what the exhibition’s designers were going for…

Historical context

In a way that (again I’m pretty sure unintentionally) mimicked the chaos of architectural style that characterises Biltmore House, the dresses from the various period dramas (therefore representing a variety of historical periods) were placed randomly throughout the house. Very few of them reflected the time periods in which the house would have been occupied, and the effect was to reduce the historical past to ‘once upon a time in period drama land’.

Literary context

Further, as my husband pointed out, the information panels about the dresses often neglected to give any details about the original texts upon which the period dramas were based. In a way this actually shows a concern for accuracy – these are not the dresses of Lizzie Bennet and Elinor Dashwood after all, they are the dresses worn by the actresses portraying those characters. And ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ is not in fact Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but a very new and different text. However, I don’t think it would have been out of line to at least credit the original authors of the texts which inspired the adaptations…

middlemarchbiltmore__large__large
Wedding costume from the adaptation of Middlemarch

Context of the text itself…

Finally, I was most disturbed by the emphasis on wedding dresses from period dramas based on texts which questioned the state of Victorian marriage. The dresses for George Eliot’s heroines Dorothea Brooke (Middlemarch) and Gwendolyn Harleth (Daniel Deronda) were on display in the same spirit as those of Austen’s heroines. Reducing Austen’s complex novels to ‘happy ever after’ plotlines for period dramas is one thing, but George Eliot’s??

I was left wondering what the point of the exhibition really was – it shed no light on the original texts, or even really the new texts of the adaptations. I went back to the information provided by the exhibition designers themselves for answers:

In celebration of Biltmore’s long history as a location for weddings and romantic getaways, the estate is hosting a new costume exhibition highlighting love stories from iconic films. Fashionable Romance: Wedding Gowns in Film, presented by Belk, showcases wedding dresses and attire from major motion pictures spanning centuries of design.

More than 40 award-winning costumes from 19 classic films will be displayed throughout the grand rooms of Biltmore House. Costumes illustrate changing styles in wedding fashions from the 1700s through the 1940s and the exquisite attention to detail that Cosprop Ltd., London, brings to its film costume projects. Accenting the costume displays will be elaborate floral arrangements complementing each film’s era, created by Biltmore’s Floral design team.

At this point I realised that this exhibition was really advertising masquerading as a historical exhibition. If you count, in this exhibition description there are references to at least four commercial organisations, as well as the motion picture industry arching over the whole thing. Belk is a department store/online retailer, and at least one of the purposes of the exhibition is to advertise Biltmore’s wedding industry. Really only half a sentence of the description provides an indication of the historical value that the exhibition might have (highlighted above) – and that’s probably debatable by historians of fashion.

In the process of becoming veiled with history though, I realised that the exhibition could actually, unintentionally, turn into something that could be read as postmodern art. And this enabled me to enjoy it far more.

What do other people think? Did anyone else from the conference  have thoughts on Biltmore or the exhibition? Let me know by leaving a reply below!