My first full-length novel, All The Day Allows, was inspired by research about real-life Canadian missionaries during the early 1900s. It was a decade in the writing, and, with a major move from Collingwood to Muskoka in 2015, my protagonist’s hometown moved with me. The early versions had Marjory McAllister born and raised on Manitoulin Island, where the stark and stunning terrain felt exactly right for Marjory’s solitary nature. However, when I relocated to Muskoka, I realized that here, where much of the rugged landscape remains barely touched by civilization, is where Marjory’s life should begin. And so, Marjory McAllister was born and raised in Port Sydney, not far from my own real-life home.
The Impulse to Missions: Women’s Role in the Missionary Movement
One of the most intriguing lines of enquiry I followed was the role women played in early missionary endeavours. Women missionaries are not generally characterized as catalysts for the women’s movement, but they were!
My initial interest in this story was disbelief that mothers chose to leave their children in Canada for five years at a time while they served in inhospitable lands. But my research, including interviews with mature missionaries’ children “left behind”, left me in awe of the courage and selflessness shown by missionary mothers. Faced with an impossible choice, women missionaries of the early twentieth century followed their vocational calling, shedding the constraints of women’s traditional roles.
History is filled with examples of missionary women demonstrating, through leadership, the importance of organizing to bring about change. In a publishing climate dominated by men, the history books may have failed to recognize these warriors for equality, but we can now follow direct threads from the writings of missionary women to the birth of the women’s movement.
As early as 1812, women missionaries were demonstrating their leadership qualities, inspiring and demanding equality between men and women. The forerunners of the power struggle between men and women, female missionaries showed remarkable resilience and courage, leaving written records of their achievements and exploits to inspire new generations.
In institutional settings, female missionaries have encouraged women to organize amongst themselves to call attention to and resolve issues of equality affecting their everyday lives, including equal access to education, work outside the home and decision-making over home and family.
A Model for Leadership
In her paper entitled “The Influence of American Missionary Women”, historian Dr. Dana L. Roberts writes, “The woman missionary was the most important model for leadership among ordinary church women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries…As saints and heroines, role models for women’s leadership, and communicators who put a human face on the non-western world, missionary women have influenced the church people who sent them…who funded them, prayed for them, packed boxes for them, and heard their pleas for the unsaved and the oppressed.”
Despite their worldwide influence on the work of missions, as a role model for leadership women missionaries have remained largely invisible. Though their published works and public personas have received much attention amongst evangelical Christians, their stories have escaped wider public notice. Dr. Roberts writes:
“The woman’s missionary movement…was the chief means by which ordinary American church women gained information on non-Western religions, cultures, and women’s issues around the world in the early twentieth century. It is impossible to gauge the impact that such a large grassroots educational movement had on its constituency…
“Before the ordination of women became widespread, mission work was the preeminent ‘woman’s cause’ in mainline churches, the purpose around which denominational women organized themselves…Without examining the influence of missionary women on their home constituencies, it is impossible to grasp the full significance of a woman’s movement in the churches that began around 1800 and continues in various forms today, especially in conservative evangelical churches. Until the 1970s, the study of women missionaries was largely confined to denominational in-house publications that treated the missionary as a spiritual heroine. When historian John K. Fairbank of Harvard University called the missionary the ‘invisible man of American history,’ the missionary woman was not even considered worth mentioning.”
Roberts tells us that as early as 1868, Congregationalist women set the example for women of other denominations to establish and fund their own missionary societies. These societies were often run by women who raised their own funds, attracted and dispersed their own missionaries, and printed their own periodicals promoting their cause.
“…by the 1900s,” Roberts writes, “women constituted around 60 percent of the mission force. By the twentieth century, approximately three million women were dues-paying members for more than forty women’s denominational missionary societies.”
There was a dark side to this missionary activity, though—the inevitable tearing down that accompanies change. While history shows missionaries, particularly women missionaries, played a significant role as health care providers and educators, their well-intentioned intervention in cruel and harmful practices also introduced Western culture into indigenous-occupied Africa. This was the single greatest factor leading to the near-erasure of the continent’s indigenous culture, a lost inheritance modern generations are attempting to revive.
 In the Congregationalist (Protestant) system, each member church is self-governing.
Exploits of Missionary Heroines
As we’ll learn later in our story, Marjory’s naïve notions about mission life are coloured by glorified accounts of the exploits of renowned missionary heroines. So, who were some of these heroines? Below you’ll find links to read more about the missionary heroines Marjory would have read about in the 1920s and ’30s.
Harriet Newell – 1793-1812 – Harriet Newell died in 1812 at the age of 19, only ten months after leaving her home in Massachusetts for India. Dying in childbirth at sea in the midst of a storm, Harriet asked her husband to promise he would have her mission diaries published to inspire her “worldly friends back home.” The Memoirs of Harriet Newell went into several editions, becoming “a spiritual classic…inspired many young people to take up where she left off.” Read more here.
Ann Judson – 1789-1826 – American Baptist pioneer Ann Judson, whose grave in Burma (Myanmar) is still maintained by the Burmese Baptist Church, was heralded as the missionary heroine of the age, with several editions of her journals and biographies published in the nineteenth century. Read more here.
Charlotte Moon -1840-1912 – The pioneering Southern Baptist evangelist missionary Charlotte (“Lottie”) Moon founded the annual Christmas offering later named in her honour, urging Southern Baptist women to organize in order to support Southern Baptist missions abroad. This led to a fund known as the Lottie Moon offering that by 1997, 85 years after her death, had raised over 102 million dollars. Her example propelled Southern Baptist women to establish a strong base of influence, not seen in other conservative denominations that historically took a dim, even hostile view of leadership roles for women. Read more here.
Helen [Chapman] [Rasmussen] Springer – 1868-1946 – Helen Springer was born in 1868 in Massachusetts. In 1921 she joined her brother, Rev. Edward Everett, a missionary with the Methodist Congo Mission Conference, serving as a trained nurse and teacher. Helen was a pioneer linguist, a significant reason for her success among the indigenous of Zaire. In 1905 she established a Bible institute in Mulungishi, Congo [Zaire] and was “in great demand as a speaker and writer of mission books for girls.” Her speeches and reputation drew many young people to missionary work in Zaire. Read more here.
Georgia Harkness – 1891-1974 – Georgia Harkness, inspired by missionary heroine Helen Springer, took her place in American history as its first female theologian. Harkness served on the faculties of: Elmira College, 1923-1937; Mount Holyoke College, 1937-1939; and was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute, 1939-1950 and Pacific School of Religion, 1950-1961. She was the first woman to obtain full professorship in an American theological seminary. In addition, Harkness authored 36 books and took a firm stand on gender equality. Read more here.
The Souls of Black Folk – W. E. B. DuBois
In the decades after the American Civil War, racial segregation continued long after the official abolition of slavery. “Color line” was a term coined by Frederick Douglass his 1881 paper, “The Color Line”, published in the North American Review. Though Douglass came up with the term, W. E. B. Du Bois made it famous. Du Bois, an African American from Massachusetts, repeatedly employed the phrase in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk (1903), which combined a historical sociological viewpoint with literature in a collection of essays around race, based partly on personal experience.
Tommie and Ethel Titcombe – SIM’s First Missionary Couple
You may recall an earlier post where I mentioned Tommie Titcombe, the first SIM missionary to successfully establish the nucleus of a Christian community in the territory Reverend Bingham’s generation called The Sudan.
In the early 1900s, in Patigi, Nigeria, SIM had attracted a few followers, one of whom was an escaped slave who, as a boy, found protection under the missionaries in Lagos. When missionaries converted a group of his own people, the Yagba, he returned to his home territory, anxious to continue the work of his missionary friends.
Meanwhile, back in Canada, R. V. Bingham was busily recruiting candidates for his mission. Applicants came from all echelons of society, both educated and illiterate, some raised in orphanages, others from amongst the privileged class. Bingham tells the story of one stubborn candidate who, when refused time and again, persisted in his campaign for acceptance into service with the Sudan Interior Mission:
“At that very time  we had a young candidate whose application was perplexing us. He had been to see my nearly three years before, but he was so deficient in scholastic preparation that I gave him little encouragement that he could ever be a missionary. I outlined courses of study that would be necessary as a minimum, and as he had no means, having had to leave school early in order to help support a widowed mother, I thought…impossible. But I had to learn the lesson that if you turn down God’s man , he will assuredly turn up again.
“And so it came to pass that this little Englishman, Mr. Thomas Titcombe, who had settled in Canada, renewed his approaches, after several years, assuring me that he had take the prescibed course and that he was ready to go out to the field.
“He was still very limited in his preparation, but he had an indomitable spirit and a love for souls: and that is a preparation that no college can furnish…And so Mr. Titcombe was accepted and sent out…
Tommie Titcombe arrived in Patigi in 1908, joining Scots-Canadian, Dr. Andrew Stirrett. Never one for subtlety, Dr. Stirrett spent a few weeks instilling the tenets of “salvation warfare”, in Bingham’s words, into the new recruit and let him loose—all on his own, without the rudiments of any African language—to introduce Christianity to the Yagba people of the historic town of Egbe. Titcombe lived amongst the Yagba in a crude dwelling, steadily building his knowledge of the local dialect, difficult to master with its many subtle intonations.
What Titcombe lacked in knowledge, he more than made up for in a raw gift for evangelical erudition. After 17 years of SIM’s dogged persistence attempting to convert indigenous Africans to Christianity, Titcombe’s humility and powerful preaching was finding a warm reception, drawing growing numbers into the Christian faith.
Egbe Mission Station
In 1942, a few years before his death, Bingham wrote of his 1914 visit to Egbe, by which time Titcombe and four other SIM missionaries had nurtured a strong Christian community:
“On the occasion of our first visit to Egbe in 1914, Mr. Titcombe had arranged his first Bible Conference…over one hundred converts, who had been examined with the greatest care, publicly followed their profession of faith in Christ with baptism…From this centre the gospel spread among the Yagba people until today there are more than a hundred stations and out-stations each with its little group of believers.”
Tommie Titcombe is one of the most fascinating historical characters I ran across in my research. The little I’ve given you here barely hints at the enormity of the man’s personality and influence. Titcombe and Stirrett, both small in stature, were huge in courage and tenacity, and together they changed the fortunes of the Sudan Interior Mission.
But just as important was the influence wrought by Tommie Titcombe’s young bride, Ethel, when she agreed to leave her comfortable existence in England to join her husband in the field. The way this came about is a story worth sharing, and I will let Reverend Bingham tell it in his own words, penned in 1933:
“One of the touching things in my first visit  was the appeal of about one hundred women, who waited on me with one petition. They said: ‘The missionary has taught us a lot, but he is a man. Have you no white sister in your country who will come out and be a missionary to us women? If we had a white sister there are so many things we could ask her that we want to know.’ In that crowd of mothers there was not one of them who knew any better, when their babies were born, than to follow local custom and for the first days of the little life to pour down their throats the thickest, filthiest water obtainable, and then they wondered why their babies died.
“And so their appeal was for a white sister. They happened to know that while on furlough [Titcombe] had the promise of a certain young lady that some day she would come out and join him in his work. They wanted to know whether I could not hurry the matter up somewhat. I was touched by the pathos of their appeal.
“It was thus that a little later a white sister, the first white woman in the tribe, arrived. When she had the language sufficiently, she undertook to build what, for want of a better name, we called a ‘maternity hospital’…Scores of lives of mothers and babies were saved there. Moreover, it did more to break the common practice, the diabolical custom, of murdering twin babies than any other agency.
“When, years later, the Government sent a doctor down to investigate the influences that were so powerful in breaking the inhuman practice of the tribe, he was taken to see this ‘maternity hospital’. In his report he describes its mud walls, thatched roof, from which the rats and lizards sent down showers of dust; the little tiny holes in the wall that did duty for windows; the mud floor: all simply horrible to the ‘antiseptic’ doctor. ‘But,’ said Mrs. Titcombe, ‘if I had built a modern hospital you could not have got those women to come within a mile of it.’
“And so it served its purpose until she had the confidence of the women of that tribe…and then thatched roofs gave place to iron sheets, and mud floors were displaced by cement. Girls and women by the hundreds, today, are being taught by the white sisters.”
There’s an important footnote to this story about Ethel Titcombe. In 1990, the Royal Ontario Museum held an exhibition entitled Into the Heart of Africa. It was intended, said the curator when a bru-ha-ha ensued (resulting in her dismissal) to “expose the smug imperialism” of white Colonials, including missionaries. One photograph in the exhibition showed Ethel Titcombe giving a “laundry lesson” to a group of Yagba women. The exhibition provoked a public outcry from Toronto’s African and West Indian communities and a wide group of supporters. I won’t go into the details of the controversy but you’ll find a link at the end of this post to read more.
Daniel Coleman, the son of SIM missionaries who served in Ethiopia during the 1960s-1980s, wrote an exquisite memoir of his Ethiopian childhood, called The Scent of Eucalyptus. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a beautiful read on so many levels. In it, an essay entitled “The Babies in the Colonial Washtub” presents an alternate viewpoint of missionaries, Colonialists by definition, including the Titcombes, who were heroes of legendary proportions in Coleman’s childhood. To synopsize Coleman’s beautifully rendered perspective on the “ROM fiasco”, which hardly does the essay justice, he points out the choice of photographs used in the exhibit seemed chosen for the narrow and negative representations of Whites in Colonial Africa.
Amongst the photographs the curator chose not to use, was one of a very young Ethel Titcombe, shy for the camera, cradling two black infants in her lap. These were the first twins to be saved from infanticide—rescued in a heart-stopping moment of decision by Ethel, at tremendous risk to her own life, and Tommie’s. Under the Titcombes’ protection, the babies and their mother thrived with no calamity befalling the village or themselves, thus proving they were no different than any other infant. In demonstrating the untruth of the long-held belief, Ethel Titcombe ended the ancient practice of infanticide, something authorities had long been trying to accomplish, without success. King George V recognized Ethel Titcombe with a medal, in 1935, for her action.
The story of the Titcombe’s courage in this incident and many more are examples of the enormously positive effect missionaries had on the people whom they served.
When my research began, I was convinced I would find stories of cold, uncaring mothers who abandoned their children to chase a life of religious zeal. I did encounter Colonial, disparaging and yes, racist, commentary and opinions. In the context of their time none of it is very surprising. I’m thankful to be born in a time when fairness and equality is being demanded on all levels. But one of the great lessons of my research has been to ease up on my own judgments of people’s choices and behaviours. The children of Gowans Home were very much loved by their parents. In future posts, I hope to present more from at least one mother commenting on her decision, and the warm reflections of childhood of many of the “Gowans Kids” I interviewed.
 Even in the early 19th century, it was still common practice for African tribes to raid the villages of rival tribes, taking captives as slaves.
 Bingham is referring to the practice of feeding newborns a dubious concoction whipped up by often unscrupulous medicine men, sold at the price of a chicken or other high-value barter, instead of breastmilk.
 Pagan beliefs held that the duality of good and evil exists in all of nature. In the case of twins, this meant one must be good and the other evil. But because even a mother cannot know the good child from the evil one, both must be killed. Common practice was to leave the newborns in clay pots in the jungle, where they were killed by predators or died from exposure. Curiously, much has been made in recent times of Lagos, Nigeria having the highest incidence of twin births in the world; the research into this phenomenon is on-going.
Sources for this post include: Dr. D. L. Roberts.“The Influence of American Missionary Women,” c. 1998; J. M. Hunter, LLD. A Flame of Fire: The Life and Work of Dr. Rowland V. Bingham. The Sudan Interior Mission, 1961; Daniel Coleman.The Scent of Eucalyptus. Goose Lane Editions, 2003. Daniel Coleman’s “The Babies in the Colonial Washtub,” published in the New Quarterly, won a Silver Medal in the National Magazine Awards.