Women and the China Inland Mission
One of the first ways these missionaries began reaching out to Chinese women and children was through schools. The Society for Promoting Female Education in the East (SPFEE) believed that schools were the gateway for reaching both mothers and their children. Although many traditional mission societies would not accept women, they did employ women teachers. The teachers taught classes on the Bible, hoping to lead their students to a belief in Christianity. In this way, women were able to serve as unofficial missionaries.
J. Hudson Taylor went even further with the China Inland Mission. He urged women to evangelize and plant churches. Taylor’s actions were controversial, but he realized that the only way to reach women in China was through women missionaries. He insisted that married women, not just their spouses, were missionaries. The wives were expected to serve alongside their husbands, not just to run the home and the family. Missionary life was especially difficult for married women, who often died from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Taylor also encouraged single women to serve in China as equals alongside men. This decision was extremely radical at the time, but Taylor believed that he needed the help of women to access wives and mothers in China. Women responded to the call, and by 1900, there were two missionary women in China for every man.
Taylor saw that women had several advantages in the missionary field, as compared to men. For one thing, they could often gain access to places men could not, as they were perceived as less threatening than men. The Chinese viewed women as inferior to and less significant than men, so they were more accepting of female missionaries. Another advantage the women missionaries possessed is that they were free to enter into the homes of Chinese women and children, enabling them to form close friendships and gain a more intimate knowledge of Chinese family life. A third way women could be more effective than men is that their presence in the Chinese church encouraged the development of indigenous leadership. Chinese men deferred to Western men in the church, but Chinese men did not see the Western women as figures of authority, and instead viewed them as a source of encouragement and help. Their presence in the church encouraged Chinese men to take leadership.
Biographies of Women in China
Griffiths’ book not only chronicles the history of women in the mission field in China, but also provides mini-biographies of some of the more influential female missionaries. From Mary Ann Aldersey, the first single Western woman to set foot in China, to Phyllis Thompson, who wrote over forty books publicizing mission work and the church in China, these women made significant contributions to the Chinese church. There was Maria Dyer Taylor, who laid the foundations for the women of the China Inland Mission, and Nellie Marchbank, who vastly expanded the church presence on Guangxin River and touched the lives of thirty-seven other female missionaries by training them. Marie Monsen was a prominent leader of the Shantung Revival, and Annie Garland and her sister Susie developed a Chinese form of Braille and a phonetic script for teaching the illiterate to read.
Others included Jennie Faulding Taylor, Emily Blatchley, Anna Christensen, Jessie Gregg, Margaret King, Fanny Clarke, Annie Faussett, Katie Macintosh, Agnes Gibson, and Florence Tapscott, to name a few. Griffiths briefly touches on the lives and contributions of these women and many others, but she goes into depth describing the work of some of the more well-known missionaries.
Multiple chapters are devoted to the Trio (Mildred Cable and Eva and Francesca French), who traveled extensively along the Silk Road during the early 1900s, spreading the message of Christianity to remote areas which had never been exposed to the gospel previously. The Trio were always asking themselves what the Chinese church currently needed and using that answer to determine their approach to ministry. During their early years in China, they determined that, despite their love for village work, what the church in China really needed was more educated Christian women, both to serve as Bible women and evangelists, and to be Christian wives and mothers. So they opened a girls’ school in Huozhou, where they taught literacy, Christianity, and Chinese classics. Their school produced Bible women and teachers, and, over a period of twenty years, they educated an estimated 1,000 girls. When the Chinese government needed more teachers for their schools, they called on the students in the Trio’s schools to serve as teachers, and the Trio again began to ask God for guidance on what China needed most at that moment in time.
The Trio felt a calling to move on from their settled station to regions which had not yet been evangelized. They were challenged by a report revealing the absence of any Christian witness for 1,000 miles along the Silk Road from Gansu province to Xinjiang province. In 1923, the Trio, now in mid-life, set out to share the gospel with the Muslim population in these provinces. They became well-known along this stretch of the Silk Road. By the time they left China in 1937, they had traveled the route five times, and were known among the Muslims as “the Teachers of Righteousness.” Although the subsequent civil war stunted the growth of the infant churches the Trio had established, their achievements in spreading the gospel were considerable.
Griffiths highlights how these women achieved liberation through their work in China. The Western women were liberated from the Victorian customs back home, where they would not have had the opportunity to teach or evangelize. Chinese women were also liberated from oppressive traditions in their own country. The message of Christianity that the missionaries brought with them enabled Chinese women to attain an education and to travel around the country, assisting in spreading the gospel as Bible women. These freedoms would not have been possible before the arrival of the missionaries.
This book is a well-written and engaging picture of women’s missions in China. It challenges us with stories of the courageous acts these women performed while offering their lives for the sake of the gospel. Part history lesson, part argument for women’s leadership in missions, the book draws on our sympathies as it tells the lives of these missionaries. It also insists that we understand how much these women gave up to bring the message of God’s love to their sisters in China.