The Presbyterian Research Centre is full of hidden treasures. In my position as an intern from the University of Otago, it was exciting to have a diverse array of resources available to me, and I undertook a research project delving into the work of New Zealand missionaries in India. My focus fell to their impact on the lives of women, but what I found was a narrative that extended beyond: the story of a unique connection between two female communities: Kiwi and Indian.
The Indian mission field developed a focus on women that was entirely unique. In fact, when the early twentieth century rolled by, female missionaries out-numbered male missionaries for the first time. The main reason for this was that, in their most widespread cultural tradition, Indian women were forbidden from interacting with men outside very specific limits. While the mission easily reached Indian men, it was failing to contact half of its potential audience: a half vital to an Indian identity shaped around community and family with the image of the “mother” at its centre. The Church had to rethink its approach if it was going to spread the Word to all parts of India. The recruitment of new missionaries began to emphasise a need for female involvement, and as a result, Kiwi women joined those of other Christian countries, answering the call to India. A new sisterhood began to blossom.
As with any part of human history, there are negative aspects in the impact of the Indian Mission, their presence unavoidable in any bond that emerges from colonialism. It must also be acknowledged that Indian women helped reshape their own narratives and change their own lives. Not all credit can be given to missionaries. However, because this study considered sources produced in their majority from the hands of the mission itself, it will consequently have little chance to explore the less positive parts of the connection. I will attempt to deconstruct some of the questionable aspects of the sources, but readers would be advised to look into it on their own if they have further interest in the topic.
- Sashika Hendry, intern
The medical impact of the mission is the first thing to shine through in the sources. Here, missionaries brought significant changes to the quality of life for Indian women, even in small ways.
The restrictions placed on interactions between men and women did not only affect the spread of the gospel, but had impacted the health of Indian women for a very long time. Historically, in India as well and overseas, doctors and educated medical experts tended to be male. Therefore, their rights to visit women were usually restricted, not to mention the taboo subjects attached to the female form, making it difficult to discuss all factors needed for an effective check-up. There are even stories of doctors talking to women while they sat behind a curtain, able to take her pulse and hear some of her symptoms, but never to see more than her wrist. Over time, the lack of medical access began to add up. Healthcare for the women of India was falling behind.
With male doctors kept away from female patients, the obvious solution to the problem would be to bring in female doctors. It was an alternative that did exist in India to some extent. Local midwives (known as dais) were often general healers as well, and they would serve their communities using what healthcare knowledge they had. Yet they were not offered any formal education, or in fact were directly kept away from it. As a result, their abilities were quickly becoming out of date with lack of exposure to developing medical concepts, and they also had no access to modern technology which could have improved their effectiveness.
The first changes in the medical field brought by the mission were improvements made to the roles of healing women, and to general medical knowledge. In the early days, as the mission spread through new parts of India, missionaries made efforts to meet with locals wherever they could. They had not yet come to India in large numbers, and so they weren’t establishing permanent medical facilities, but they did travel into nearby communities to talk with the people. Alongside the gospel, female missionaries shared medical advice, because despite their own gendered disadvantages back home, they were privileged to have more access to effective and up to date education on the subject. They organised talks to provide simple healthcare education, and they specifically spoke with dais women to teach them tips for more effective care.
These talks were effective. Some narratives describe missionary women who were begged to return to the villages they visited by women who found their lessons life-changing. One medical missionary, Christine Tinling, describes how the simplest shifts could have a huge impact; when dais women learned to remove jewellery from their hands to minimise the build-up of germs and prevent the spread of infection, infant and maternal mortality rates saw great improvement. Of course, issues still remained with lack of access to medical care or updated technology, but these were steps toward long term improvement.
The next improvements can be seen in the presence of trained mission doctors or nurses who could actually meet with female patients, because they were also women. This may seem simple, but it really shifted the gendered structure of India’s healthcare. Their presence meant that many women finally had the chance to be properly examined and aided by a health professional. It also provided new access to medical technology, such as immunisations or much needed medicines, which they could now accept without risking their values to do so.
As time passed, and society began to change, opportunities also opened for Indian women to be educated and trained in healthcare, meaning that even more female doctors were available to meet with female patients. And finally, along with cultural shifts, the idea of a woman seeing a male doctor began to be normalised.
Finally, the founding of new hospitals and medical centres had a huge impact on the landscape of Indian healthcare. With more of these institutions, there grew a higher chance to reach and care for a wider range of people, including women. Some of the new places were even made for women. Examples of this include the centre at Ludhiana that catered toward Obstetrics and Gynaecology, about which the archives hold a lot of information. The mission would even raise money to fund travel costs for those from hard-to-access rural locations to reach hospitals where they would receive their necessary treatment.
Along with the teachings of the Bible, the mission brought other lessons. They transformed the landscape of education and work for women in India. In fact, for any New Zealander coming in to represent the Church, a huge emphasis was placed on intensive language studies. These took up many of the early days of any mission assignment. Communication with the local people was absolutely key, and it was dissolving the language barrier that helped most with the abilities of the missionaries to spread education.
In some cases, the education they provided was on a very small scale. In a country as large as India, a comparatively miniscule group of missionaries could not expect to reach every single person effectively. However, as with the education on medicine, missionaries who traveled out into different communities tried to teach what they could. The main focus was to share Bible stories, especially the gospel. They would bring visual aids and pictures to best illustrate their points, and share the narratives with one group before moving off again. As with teaching on medicine, they were often asked to return, women expressing concern over accurately remembering everything, but unfortunately the missionaries rarely had the time to do so unless the community was one situated very close to a mission base.
In other cases, local missionaries were swept into the world of education quite unexpectedly, but left their own lasting marks. One example is the story of Mrs Mullens. Like many other female missionaries, she was invited to return to the house of a woman in her local community to continue teaching her and a few friends. She took her up on the offer, and when friends and family saw positive changes in the women as a result, the word began to spread. Soon, Mrs Mullens had more students to teach literacy, and with the support of husbands and fathers, the financial aid to expand into a school. By the time she left the mission field, she had two hundred students, all financed by the men who were now supporting this female education.
Beyond more casual arrangements for education, the mission was often the first source for the set-up of official schools accepting female pupils, including adult women who had never had the chance for an education. These may not all fit our modern image of what a school should look like, but were the first steps toward progress.
In rural areas, because of the need for an entire family to be involved in upkeeping a farm for their livelihood, the woman of a household could not be spared for the most important seasonal time periods. However, it became acceptable for their husbands to let them attend local mission schools for about two months out of each year, where they lived on site. Here, alongside teachings of the Bible, and the skills of reading and writing, they would learn general life skills, such as cooking, cleaning, childcare, and basic agriculture. It was because of these practical benefits that they were encouraged to spend the slack season here. Yet it was certainly not considered time off; mothers brought their children with them, and continued to raise them while attending classes!
There were also some large Christian schools created for the purpose of educating the children of mission families, which also accepted local students. One of the larger schools was placed in the south of India, where many missionary kids found themselves separated from their parents (who tended to work in the North) for a large chunk of the year. As time passed, new schools, such as Woodstock, were founded in the North of India, far closer to the hub of the main New Zealand mission.
Additionally, smaller schools were created in numerous different places across the years to cater to smaller groups of students. Often, teachers within these schools found repeated struggles with the local communities to keep girls in attendance, especially with the issue of marriage at a young age pulling girls out of education and into the home. The archives hold collections of newsletters which detail many of these issues.
In these schools, the fields of education and work sometimes intersect. Educated Indian women, or the mixed-race children of Indians and missionaries could be employed in adulthood as teachers. In narratives left by young people attending these schools, there are shining descriptions of some of these positive female Indian role models. One example was Miss Hebblethwaite, whose strong demeanour left a lasting impression on Patricia Booth, a student at her school who included a description in her autobiography.
The mission also brought developments in both education and work which were tied to the medical field itself. As they established hospitals, missionaries helped to arrange medical training for many Indian women, providing the appropriate education as well as guiding them toward a new field of employment. Over time hospitals and attached medical schools or training centres (such as Ludhiana) thrived, their roots in their direct connections with the church.
We finish with the feature of the mission that perhaps seems the most obvious: the impact it left on culture and religion. Considering the movement was always based on its central aim to spread the Word of God, and it moved alongside a colonial intrusion, these changes were most clearly connected to missionaries. They are scattered through every source relating to their time in India.
It could often be difficult for the missionaries to actually keep track of how many people converted as a result of their influence. Missionaries writing home to New Zealand mention several people, especially those involved in mission schools, who were interested in dedicating themselves to Christianity after what they had learned. At the same time, however, many missionaries worried that these new connections might be tenuous and easily broken.
The concerns of the missionaries sprung from the confusing balance between culture and religion. The two factors were strongly bound together, Christianity associated with Western culture, and the most common Indian religions entwined with long standing cultural traditions of their own. The expectation was that, should an Indian person decide to convert in faith, they should follow by assimilating with Western culture as well. Yet this hope was unrealistic for many new Christians.
Examples can be found in newsletters sent to New Zealand from the women who ran Girls’ Schools in India. When young Hindu girls converted to Christianity and were doing well in the eyes of the mission, dedicated to learning what they could of their new beliefs, all development could be quickly cut off. Most often, it was because they left school to be married. Marriage was already a topic which made the sisterhood between missionaries and Indian women a little strained. Indian women tended to express shock when finding that Western women over the age of twenty could be unmarried, while on the other side, New Zealanders were deeply concerned by the youth of many Indian brides.
On top of their young age, these weddings were also decidedly Hindu in nature, and therefore missionaries believed a wedding to be a sign that they had lost the girl. In other cases, whole families who had converted still arranged Hindu style ceremonies for their children. They were a part of their native culture even if they truly changed religious beliefs. Yet the mission seemed reluctant to separate culture and religion, and believed these “relapses” to be failures.
The impact they left on the religious landscape of India is also difficult to define because of how much new Christians struggled to maintain their ties with the mission community. Family disapproval and peer pressure really impacted any potential converts. In one case, a ten year old girl named Shushilla decided that she wanted to be baptised against the wishes of her family. As she tried to sneak away to meet with missionaries, she was caught, and the whole affair caused a riot in protest.
Of course, the biggest obstacle to the mission’s impact on culture and religion for women was the fact that women were subject to their husbands and fathers. Even if they did hope to convert to Christianity, or to take on aspects of the Western culture they were exposed to, in most cases they would have to come to the decision with their husband or show considerable courage to do so alone. They may have had an influence over the workings of the household, but large family decisions primarily came down to the will of their partners. On the other hand, if there were women unwilling to make changes as their husbands embraced the impact of the mission, they would usually be expected to fall into step with him in the end. As westernised groups within Indian society began to grow, the involvement of women in these cultural shifts seemed to be primarily determined by the men in their lives.
There were other sweeping cultural changes Indian women saw in their lives which tie together all the features we have already discussed. The way education was opened for them, and the new potential of employment, especially in professions such as nursing, were side effects of a changing gendered culture shaped by the colonialist influence that came alongside the mission. The features of these cultural changes are more abstract and gradual than tangible, and it is difficult to define what came from the mission alone and what came from general Western influence, but it is certainly true that the lives of women were forever altered by the presence of missionaries.
Want to know more? Check out these books and many other sources in the Presbyterian Research Centre:
Women in India: Negotiating Body, Reclaiming Agency by Metti Amirtham.
Behind the Pardah by Irene Barnes.
Devotees of Christ: some women pioneers of the Indian Church by D. S. Batley.
Indian and Christian Opportunity by Harlan Beach.
Pat’s India by Patricia Booth.
Village Folk of India by Robert Boyd.
Women in Praise and Stuggle by Jyotsna Chatterji.
Society and Culture in North-East India: A Christian Perspective by Saral Chatterji.
Women’s Movement in India: Conceptual and Religious Reflections by Gabriele Dietrich.
Christian Ethics and Indian Ethos by Somen Das.
Women in India: problems and prospects by Somen Das.
In Heavenly Love Abiding by Catharine Eade.
The Emerging Christian Woman by S. Faria, A. V. Alexander, and J. B. Tellis-Nayak.
The Church as Christian Community: three studies of north Indian churches by Victor Hayward.
Frontier Doctor by Sir Henry Holland.
Women as Subjects: South Asian History by Nita Kumar.
Women of the Raj by Margaret MacMillan.
Pushing Boundaries: New Zealand Protestants and overseas missions 1827-1939 by Hugh Morrison.
Out of Bondage: Christ and the Indian Villages by Stephen Neill.
A History of Missions in India by Julius Richter.
India’s Womanhood by Christine Tinling.
Church and Women in the Third World by John C. B. Webster.