Women “Rule the World”: The Lives and Impacts of Female Missionaries1

Project Group: Revital Bernstein, Miriam DuVall

Student Editor: Joanna Wiley

The members of the Oberlin Young Women’s Missionary Society, which existed from 1879 to 1894, harnessed mainstream conceptions of womanhood to further their own impact on society. Missionary women in the late nineteenth century found ways to act on their Christian beliefs with a personal independence that would not have been as acceptable outside of a religious context. This Society sponsored missions to Indian reservations as well as missions overseas.

Luella Miner’s graduation portrait.
Luella Miner’s graduation portrait.

Missionary women’s ideas echoed those of other first­wave feminists like Angelina Grimké and Jane Addams, but contrasted with the politically based feminism of the suffrage movement. Two of the three women featured in these documents, Sarah Luella Miner (1861­-1935) and Margaret J. Evans (1842­-1926), drew from the rhetoric and ideology of American religious imperialism. At the same time, they utilized this ideology to promote greater  independence among Christian women and enhance their agency. Judging from the documents on Lan Hua Liu Yui, these converts could make accomplishments without assimilating into American culture.

The first document in this mini­-edition is a speech by Margaret J. Evans. Known as Margaret J. Huntington after she married, she did not attend Oberlin College but went to Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. In Northfield, Minnesota, at Carleton College, she was Lady Principal and Dean of Women from 1874 to 1908. She also served as president of the Northfield branch of the Women’s Board of Missions of the Interior (W. B. M. I).2 Young Women’s Missionary Society donated money regularly to the W. B. M. I.  On 3 November 1887, she gave this speech at the annual meeting of the W. B. M. I. entitled “The Relation of Christian Schools to Missionary Work.”3 duty to utilize the knowledge and privileges they gained from education and pass them to others who had not yet learned of the “civilized” Christian religion. She added that mothers, girls, and children were “three classes which do not have so much influence at any given time, as do men, but who, in a lifetime, really rule the world and have the future in their hands.”4

Luella Miner’s career supported Evans’ claims about the importance of women in the foreign field. Her position as a female missionary allowed her to work with Chinese women in a way that male missionaries could not. In her letter she wrote “The women of China will be saved by women” to articulate the special responsibilities of female missionaries.5

Luella Miner attended Oberlin from 1878 to 1884, her graduation year, and in 1887 became a missionary in Tientsin, Pao­ting Fu6, China7. She received a Doctorate of Letters. In recognition of this achievement, acquaintances referred to her as “Dr. Miner” instead of “Miss Miner.” The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions appointed her to go to Pao­ting Fu (she went independently of any Oberlin mission). She had a long career as an educator, starting the North China Union Women’s College in 1905 in Beijing, the first institution of higher education in China to admit women. There, she served as President and Dean. She later worked at Shantung Christian University as Professor and Dean of Women. From 1914 to 1915 she was president of the Society for the Protection of Women and Children and held many other positions related to Christianity in northern China. After her own school merged with Peking University in 1920, Miner became a member of its Board of Trustees. She published several books in English and Chinese (which she learned during her years abroad.)8 In 1935, in Shantung province east of Shansi, Miner died after a sudden instance of pneumonia.

Miner defined “truth” as the Christian gospel, and believed that without Christianity, Chinese women lived in ignorance. While Miner and Evans engaged in imperialist rhetoric and behavior, they became quite independent for turn­of­the­century women. Evans married late in life, and Miner never married at all. They served as models for other women. Under Luella Miner’s leadership, no female student in the first two graduating classes of the North China Union Women’s College married. Shantung Christian University became co­educational.9 too, set an example for young single women as Dean of Women at Carleton College.

The last document in this collection concerns Lan Hua Liu Yui (1893­?), a student of Miner’s and later an educator. She grew up Christian in Taiku10, Shansi where she attended a mission school. Because of connections with Miner’s mission schools, Yui could go study in the United States. She attended Oberlin, graduating in 1925. She also received an M. A. from Columbia University and continued her career in the U. S. and China, even after marrying. Her last recorded position was Dean of Women at Shantung Christian University, a position once held by Miner. The two were close friends by either’s account. Few records of Yui exist after 1928, but the documents confirm that she was Dean of Women after that year, and she was alive and in touch with Miner in 1935 passing on the news of Miner’s death. She attended and spoke at Miner’s funeral. Yui liked and respected Luella Miner, but fashioned her own independent role as a Chinese Christian woman.

The themes encompassed in these documents and the endeavors of the Young Women’s Missionary Society generally fit within the larger framework of first­wave feminisms. Prominent thinkers of this time such as Jane Addams and Angelina Grimké were concerned with the same issues of empowerment and societal improvement. In her speech to the W.B.M.I., Evans spoke of the mutual benefits of mission work. Luella Miner also acknowledged the privilege of working as hard as she did, and made clear the type of moral superiority she gained by sacrificing her time and energy. Both Miner and Evans would probably have agreed with Addams that while they were proud to be independent, their work still fell within the “old ideal of womanhood.”11 They believed that missionary work was a duty of womanly protection for the people they intended to educate as Christians. Nevertheless, Luella Miner encouraged Oberlin women to leave their parents and pursue a life dedicated to service outside the home. Evans, too, championed women’s ability to have a significant impact on the direction of society through work as foreign missionaries.

Miner and Evans shared a vision of civilization that was driven by their experiences as white, Christian, privileged women. Their rhetoric presents Christianity as the “light” which would penetrate the “darkness” in nations not Christianized. “Social improvement” in the context of this time period would have entailed these sorts of endeavors. Similar to suffragists during the time of U.S. expansion abroad, missionary women utilized this expansion to travel and develop their own agency as women. For suffragists, debates about citizenship spurred by U.S. imperialism presented a political opportunity. Meanwhile, the women involved in organizations such as the Young Women’s Missionary Society used the opportunity to spread their religious and moral ideology.12

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Both these women freely expressed ideas representative of the period in which they lived. Work like theirs was a prominent facet of first­wave American feminisms. Evans’ insistence that Christian women will “decide the religious history of the world” and Miner’s unique experience as a woman missionary reveals how women’s missionary work was not only a platform for spreading the Christian gospel based on the assumed superiority of American civilization, but an avenue for empowerment.13 They helped create opportunities for women in other countries to become educated. According to Jane Hunter, “[Women missionaries’] special concern with the details of domestic life made them both the most dedicated and the most successful emissaries of an entire civilization.”14

1 Margaret J. Evans, “The Relation of Christian Schools to Missionary Work,” Student Life: Religious Organizations Records, 1852­2010, Box 2, Oberlin College Archives.

2 “The 1903 Conference of Deans of Women of the Middle West,” Kent University, accessed May 4, 2015, http://www.personal.kent.edu/~jgerda1903ConfDOW.html.

3 Brevities, Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL), Tuesday, November 1, 1887; 7, Issue 220.

4 Evans, “Christian Schools.”

5 Sarah Luella Miner to Young Women’s Missionary Society, 16th February 1888, Student Life: Religious Organizations Records, 1852­2010, Record Group xx, Box 2, O.C.A.

6 For convenience’s sake, this mini­edition will refer to some Chinese place­names using the spelling Miner used.

7 Her mother and father also studied at Oberlin, though only her father graduated in 1858. He owned a grocery store in Hayward, Wisconsin.

8 Jane H. Hunter. “Miner, Sarah Luella.” American National Biography Online, Feb. 2000, accessed May 7, 2015, web address.

9 Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn­-of­-the-­Century China. (New Haven, NY: Yale University Press: 1984), 248. Although Miner did not discourage women from forming families, remaining single was popular among students of missionaries. “Decisions not to marry had little sense of sacrifice about them for Chinese girls, who had come to think of married life in China as an oppressive burden” (Hunter, Gospel of Gentility, 251.)

10 Also transcribed as “Taigu.”

11 Jane Addams, “Bread Givers,” Rockford (Illinois) Daily Register, April 21, 1880. Reprinted in Jane Addams, A Centennial Reader (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1960), 104.

12 Allison L. Sneider, Suffragists in an Imperial Age: U.S. Expansion and the Woman Question 1870­1929. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press), 2008.

13 Margaret J. Evans, “The Relation of Christian Schools to Missionary Work,” from pamphlet in Student Life: Religious Organizations Records, 1852­2010, Box 2, O.C.A.

14 Hunter, Gospel of Gentility, xiv.