Yale-Edinburgh Group
on the History of the Missionary Movement
and World Christianity

Consultations sponsored by the Centre for the Study of World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, Yale Divinity School, and the Overseas Ministries Study Center

Theme for the 2014 Yale-Edinburgh Group Meeting

University of Edinburgh, June 26-28, 2014

Gender and Family in the History of Missions and World Christianity

The topic for the next meeting of the Yale-Edinburgh Group combines two distinct but related themes. Gender and family issues have often been crucial in the way missions have operated, and contemporary World Christianity reflects the meeting, clashing and merging of different cultural traditions in relation to gender and the family.

The issue of gender within the missionary movement has not been exhausted by the many studies that already exist. The word “missionary” itself was initially heavily gendered. We may hope for papers on the Catholic female missionary orders, and the formidable figures who founded them. For Protestants the word was also gendered; William Carey, for instance, argues that the missionary vocation is simply an extension of the ministerial, and at the period in which he wrote, the ministry of the churches was essentially male. (There is always room for papers on exceptions, such as Hannah Kilham, pioneer of African vernacular education, who in the 1820s was heading a mission party of both male and female members of the Society of Friends - probably the only major denomination where this would have been conceivable.)

But female Protestant missionaries soon appeared in many missions, if not always at first by that name. Various factors brought this about, notably the cultural barriers for male missionaries in societies where women were secluded, but perhaps the greatest single factor was the frequency with which a missionary wife, hidden behind her husband's identity, had undertaken a missionary task too important to be abandoned when she was no longer there to perform it. The time was to come when women missionaries threatened to outnumber men, so that a mission recruiter among students complained that the attitude of young men had now become: “Lord, here am I; send my sister.” The recognition of women as missionaries in their own right, and the burgeoning of their numbers seem to be linked with the mid-life crisis in Protestant missions that produced the China Inland Mission and the other “faith” missions; we may hope for some illumination on this matter at our meeting – and also on the story of women in the field governance of missions. We need to hear more about the activities of women's organizations within the home church and their influence: Miss Rainy of the Free Church of Scotland had to rein in the indignation of her more censorious members at hearing that yet another of the teachers they had sent to India had married a missionary with the reminder that “Marriage, ladies, is not apostasy.” And perhaps we may learn more of the importance of women in the support mechanisms of missions, to which the Victorian novelists bear witness (think of the forum Thackeray's Mrs Sophia Alethea Newcome provided for “the most gifted missionaries and the most interesting converts from foreign islands,” and Charlotte Bronte's portrayal of the circulation of “the missionary basket” round the ladies of the parish.)

We may expect an equally profitable set of paper exploring the missionary family. This institution marked a divide between the two great sections of the Western missionary movement: “Catholics have better quarters, Protestants have better halves” was a saying among missionaries in the 1950s. Perhaps we may hear something of the family, or group of families as a missionary unit in the practice of Moravian missions, which offered a paradigm for some other early Protestant missions, and about early debates as to whether missionaries should or should not, as a general rule, be married. (It may not be insignificant that David Brainerd and Henry Martyn, long the most revered icons of the Protestant missionary, were men who desired marriage but did not attain it.) Certainly we can expect to learn more about the ideals and the practice of missionary domesticity, and of its place and effects in mission teaching, and perhaps of that often painful aspect of missionary family life, the long separations. We may have studies of those multi-generational missionary families, some of them effectively dynasties, and those where the missionary element was transformed into the settler in later generations. Nor should we forget the unconventional and surrogate families, such as Mary Slessor formed from abandoned twins, and Amy Carmichael from young girls against the background of temple culture.

With such fruit to look forward to from the comparatively narrow field of the Western missionary movement, how rich the harvest must be when studies are brought of the interaction of these principles and practice with the norms of gender and marriage and family in other societies. Still greater will it be as gender and family are studied within the history of the churches of Africa, Asia, Latin and Caribbean America and the Pacific. Our theme of Gender and the Family offers us a means of studying the history of missions and World Christianity in relation to some of the most crucial dynamics in human life.

A formal call for papers will be issued in January 2014, with titles and abstracts due by mid-March. Our pattern has been to have each oral presentation limited to 20-25 minutes, followed by discussion. Full papers are welcomed and, if submitted by a deadline determined by the organizers, will be made available on a directory accessible to all participants.


For more information contact: Martha Lund Smalley, conference coordinator: Yale Divinity Library, 409 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511 --- Phone: 203 432-5289 --- Email: martha.smalley@yale.edu