Monday, April 07, 2008

More Missionary Women Stories

More on this topic here.

One of best books I've read in years is Valerie Griffiths' Not Less Than Everything, which is about the first missionaries in the modern era to go to China, and, in particular, the first women missionaries. I remember seeing parallel after parallel to situations in the Muslim world today, but I couldn't remember the details. So when I packed for my study/rest/reflection time in the Seattle area, I tucked Griffiths' book into my suitcase. Time for a re-read.

In the early nineteenth century foreigners were not allowed to make permanent residence in China - so, no foreign missionaries. The London Missionary Society was very interested in taking the gospel to the Chinese people, but the best they could do was settle in the nearby coastal cities with large Chinese populations, places like Singapore, Penang, and Jakarta.

In the years to come China would open up, and many of the first to walk through those open doors were women. There may have been many reasons for that, but one must have been that more women than men were needed. Think about it:
"Two hundred years ago the women of China spent most of their lives in their homes. For over a thousand years the custom of foot-binding (to produce 'lily' feet three or four inches long) had crippled millions of women, and made walking painful, if not impossible. The first missionaries to China soon realized that unless Christian women could visit them in their homes - a massive task - they would never hear the message of God's love." (Griffiths, p. 10)
One of the first openings came with setting up schools for girls. While in some Chinese families, the birth of a daughter was welcomed, in other cases daughters were seen as a financial burden, and it was rare for a girl to be educated. Even beyond the times and places where foot-binding was practiced, girls typically lost much of their freedom by the time they were 11 or 12. They would be confined to home until their early marriages, after which they would rarely leave the house. So one of the first things missionary wives and widows (not typically identified as being actually missionaries themselves, since that 'rank' was reserved for ordained men) did, was to set up set up schools for young Chinese girls in the coastal towns.

Among the early Christian school teachers were a pair of sisters named Maria and Burella Dyer, daughters of a London Missionary Society missionary couple. It was their father's dying wish that his wife and children carry on his work serving the Chinese people. After their parents died they girls spent five years in England until returning to East Asia at the ages of 15 and 18.
"When Maria Dyer married Hudson Taylor in 1858, she had already packed more adventure and achievement into her 21 years than most Victorian ladies experienced in a lifetime." (Griffiths, p. 45)
She was not the only one. By 1900 there were two missionary women in China for every man, and their work among women (and beyond) was crucial to the growth of the church in that country. Such is the case today in places like the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And while the cultures (ours and theirs) still provide varying levels of opposition to the development of the gifts of women, I'm encouraged at how these obstacles were overcome in China. And, as Griffiths points out,
"In the process, these Western women were liberated from Victorian customs and expectations; they found themselves gifted for work in teaching and evangelism which would have been impossible in their churches at home. At the same time, the Christian message liberated their Chinese sisters too. For the first time in their lives the Chinese saw women living far away from their families, educated, unmarried, able to travel, and capable of more than they had ever dreamed. They were soon working together. The uneducated Bible women taught the missionaries how to communicate with the Chinese women, and the missionaries enabled the local women to take the message of God's love to their neighbors." (Griffiths, p. 10)

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