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.


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




Olive Schreiner’s religious feminism

story of african farm cover

At BWWC this year I was moderating a panel that contained three papers on Olive Schreiner, especially focusing on her novel, Story of An African Farm. Before writing my thoughts about this year’s Schreiner papers, I thought I’d remind myself of the paper I gave on Schreiner last year. For those who haven’t read The Story of an African Farm, it is available online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1441/1441-h/1441-h.htm, as is her collection of allegories: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1439/1439-h/1439-h.htm (though I would really recommend Elisabeth Jay’s edition, available from Amazon).

‘Sitting Apart in Silent Contemplation’: The importance of religious reflection in the New-Woman writing of Sarah Grand and Olive Schreiner

Last year’s BWWC theme was ‘Reflections’, and my paper compared Sarah Grand’s New Woman writing and religious beliefs with those of Olive Schreiner. Both Grand and Schreiner were involved in campaigning for better conditions for women. Grand left her husband and took up work as a writer and journalist, and Schreiner engaged in social work with prostitutes as well as philosophically exploring the relations between the sexes with Havelock Ellis and others at the radical Men and Women’s Club. While Grand’s work suggests that she retained a relatively conventional Christian faith (which supported her linked faith in the better future to be brought about by the New Woman) Olive Schreiner famously lost her faith in Christianity.

Because of this, faith in a better future was more difficult for Schreiner than it was for Grand. While Schreiner did not wholly embrace agnosticism, she certainly lost any secure faith in an afterlife. Her only comfort lay in the ‘unknowable’ nature of the world, which was not enough to base any belief in heaven. For her, any happy future would only be experienced by those women who came after. Her book of allegories, Dreams, was dedicated

‘To a small girl-child, who may live to grasp somewhat of that which for us is yet sight, not touch’.

Schreiner’s reflections on religion then, made her work as a campaigner for women even more difficult – for her there would be no reward, only the struggle.

My paper therefore argued that for Schreiner, being an agnostic feminist in the 1880s required a form of heroism, and that this was emphasized in her novel The Story of an African Farm.

Religious references in Schreiner

Despite her loss of faith, Schreiner’s work still contains a great number of references to Christian religion and the Bible. One thing I noticed was that both Grand and Schreiner make references to the story of Elijah. In Grand’s Heavenly Twins the church bells of Morningquest, where her story is set, chime the first phrase

‘He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps.’

Both writers also seem to make use of the fact that Elijah discovers God not in a storm or the fire, but in a ‘still small voice’, with which they associate their New Woman prophets.

In the first part of African Farm the child Lyndall is a promising New Woman and is the very personification of the ‘still small voice’. When Lyndall and her cousin, Em, are being unjustly punished by Tant Sannie and Bonaparte, she quietly, almost passively, exerts her will over their tormentors. She stops Tant Sannie beating Em through simply laying ‘her small fingers on the Boer-woman’s arm’; and her simple commands, in their quiet deliberateness, have the power to give her temporary authority over her elders.

Sadly, though, by the end of the novel, Lyndall is a failed New Woman; and her death makes difficult reading.

Then the white face on the pillow looked into the white face in the glass. They had looked at each other often so before. It had been a child’s face once, looking out above its blue pinafore; it had been a woman’s face, with a dim shadow in the eyes, and a something which had said, “We are not afraid, you and I; we are together; we will fight, you and I.” Now tonight it had come to this.

The dying eyes on the pillow looked into the dying eyes in the glass; they knew that their hour had come. She raised one hand and pressed the stiff fingers against the glass. They were growing very stiff. She tried to speak to it, but she would never speak again. Only the wonderful yearning light was in the eyes still. The body was dead now, but the soul, clear and unclouded, looked forth.

Then slowly, without a sound, the beautiful eyes closed. The dead face that the glass reflected was a thing of marvelous beauty and tranquillity. The Grey Dawn crept in over it and saw it lying there.

Had she found what she sought for—something to worship? Had she ceased from being? Who shall tell us? There is a veil of terrible mist over the face of the Hereafter.’

As Schreiner portrays the dying Lyndall looking into her own eyes in the mirror she telescopes the life of her heroine: reminding the reader of her childhood power and potential as well as her still strong sense of self. Lyndall’s awareness of her failure and impending death, and her continuing lack of faith in any afterlife, shows what it really means to sacrifice the comforting promises of Christian faith. The veil that obscures our knowledge of the hereafter is ‘terrible’ to Schreiner at this time.

Schreiner’s allegories

Far easier to bear are the struggling women in Schreiner’s later allegories, published in Dreams.

In ‘Three Dreams in a Desert’, a woman has to give up love of man to become a pathfinder to the Land of Freedom for the human race. Her suffering is plain as she cries of her loneliness. However, what remains with the reader is the woman’s fortitude as she ‘grasped her staff’ and set off to dedicate herself in the very slow process of making a track to the edge of the river – so that one day the bodies of women like her might form a bridge over which future women will cross.

The allegory makes clear the woman’s pain and sacrifice, but makes it bearable through the religious form of the allegory – the woman’s emotion is contained within this bigger narrative: the service of a better future.

A potential comfort in Story of an African Farm is another allegory, placed directly before Lyndall’s return to the farm as an adult. The allegory of ‘the Hunter’ is told in this novel by a stranger, but was also printed as a stand-alone allegory in Dreams. Although this story appears to be non-Christian, it actually contains many religious aspects.

The story takes place in a primitive world, where characters such as Wisdom and Knowledge direct the Hunter’s quest for the elusive silver bird, Truth. His quest demands the Christian virtues of patience, hard work, suffering and self-sacrifice, as he engages in a life’s work building a stairway up the mountains to where Truth will be found.

Like Lyndall and the heroines of Dreams, the Hunter is required to renounce any belief in ‘Reward after Death’. But he nevertheless heroically commits himself to his mission to enable future generations to reach Truth. And in death, his last words communicate his certainty in his mission:

‘Where I lie down worn out other men will stand, young and fresh. By the steps that I have cut they will climb […] My soul hears their glad step coming,’ he said ‘and they shall mount! They shall mount!’

Schreiner allows the Hunter’s soul to outlive his worn out body: his soul is enabled to ‘hear’ as he experiences a supernatural aural ‘vision’ of the success to come. This metaphysical comfort is held out to Schreiner’s New Woman workers in their sacrifices. Rather than Elijah’s triumphant rising to heaven in a fiery chariot, Schreiner more often references Moses, who died before he could reach the Promised Land, but could similarly be consoled by the promise that his people would reach it because of his work.

Illustrated by E. M. Synge (On the shores of Great Seas) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A tentative conclusion

For Schreiner, in the midst of agnosticism, religious reflection was hugely important. Though she could not provide readers with hopes of rewards in heaven, her use of religious tropes and forms had the power to foster a faith in a better future. This brought comfort to what would otherwise be starkly painful tales of sacrifice for a future that her New Woman heroines would never see.

Converting Emotions: Podcast now available

The paper I gave at the Colonial/Postcolonial New Researchers’ Workshop can now be accessed as a podcast on the IHR website:


There were lovely pictures displayed on the day and I’ll try to put these into a gallery and post here. I’m never sure as to the copyright when I’ve taken pictures from the web, but hopefully most of them are too old for this to apply…

Summary of my Maynard paper published on the History of Emotions blog

Unfortunately we were not able to record and pod-cast the papers from the Maynard Symposium (I’m sure one day technology will deliver on all its promises…!) but Thomas Dixon suggested I produce a short version of the paper, with some pictures, for the History of Emotions blog. It was uploaded today, so is now available here – enjoy!