Presbyterian Missions (8th of 12): The Extraordinary Rise of Presbyterian Women’s Mission Societies Following the Civil War

The era of women’s mission societies began in the United States early in the 19th century. I wrote about that era here.[1] Following the Civil War, Presbyterian women (and Methodist and Baptist women) organized hundreds of new mission societies, until a mission society was organized in nearly every local church. It was like a great missionary awakening. The relationship between local women’s societies and the Presbyterian Church mission administrators between 1870 and our present time can be divided into six parts: commencement, confrontation, commendation, centralization, near collapse, and, finally, successful collaboration.

Commencement, 1865-1870. Presbyterian women in nearly every congregation began organizing mission societies, raising money and designating support for single female missionaries. In 1870 Presbyterian women organized themselves into the Foreign Missionary Society, an association of hundreds of independent women’s mission societies, and began publishing Woman’s Work for Woman.

Confrontation. In 1870 the Presbyterian headquarters in Philadelphia sent one of its secretaries to talk it over with the women. The minutes recorded that the propriety of an independent organization was questioned, and the secretary from headquarters expressed his opinion that the work could be more efficiently and more economically accomplished through unified mission giving. He suggested that the women’s societies trust headquarters with the distribution of all funds.[1] The women responded that they would continue spending the money they raised in the way they saw fit and carry on with the work of sending single female missionaries.

Commendation. The furrowed brows of Presbyterian board executives brightened considerably when the women’s societies proved themselves denominationally loyal and financially generous. In 1872 the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in North America (UPCNA) asked women members to devise some way to systematically raise money to support women missionaries in the field. In 1875 Sarah Foster Hanna spoke to the General Assembly and received permission to establish a national organization, the Women’s General Missionary Society.[2] The 1875 General Assembly authorized this society “to represent and promote” the interests of the Church while “using its own methods, independent of other control.”[3] Soon there were seven regionally based women’s boards, governed by women and independent of the General Assembly’s Board of Foreign Missions. By 1879, women’s societies were supporting Presbyterian missionaries in Syria, Persia, India, China, Thailand (Siam), Japan, Africa and Mexico, as well as missionaries to Native Americans.[4]

By 1883 the Board of Foreign Missions reported enthusiastically: “We have enrolled 1284 women’s societies and bands in 49 presbyteries.”[5] This was extraordinary growth in just thirteen years. The Women’s General Missionary Society assumed support of all unmarried women in the foreign fields, a responsibility that it continued until 1922.[6] Arthur J. Brown marvels that between 1870 and 1920, 30% of the total receipts of the Board of Foreign Mission were credited to the women’s boards and societies:

The total receipts for the 50 years from Presbyterian women for Foreign Missions, were reported to be $17,154,630, an almost unbelievable sum when one realizes that the gifts did not represent large plate collections, but the tithing of small sums and gifts of self-denial and sacrifice. Prayers were the secret of this magnificent giving.[7]

Centralization. A cordial relationship between local women’s societies and the Presbyterian headquarters continued for the next forty years. But in 1923 the Presbyterian Church centralized the women’s societies and created a unified budget controlled by the General Assembly. In this way the Presbyterian Church achieved organizational “unity of the church.” Even the celebrated Robert Speer took a swipe at the existence of independent women’s mission societies:

If we have in our churches women’s organizations, what have we got? Haven’t we got two churches? We have one church made up of men and women, with a social program, an educational program, and a religious program. Then we have a separation of women, with identical programs except for worship. We do not want to divide what is spoken of as “the church” and “the women.” The great danger is that the women will think that their society is the only thing they have to work over.[8]

The 1923 General Assembly voted to gather the bank accounts of thousands of women’s societies into a central budget and manage a single fund from New York City. After that year the General Assembly minutes stop reporting the activities and giving of individual women’s mission societies. Blincoe: my own attempts to uncover the record of donations by women’s societies after 1923 have been fruitless: the director of the Presbyterian Historical Society told me that the General Assembly changed the way financial records were recorded after 1923, making any comparisons to prior years impossible.[9] R. Pierce Beaver said that “centralization” led eventually to “the destruction of the women’s foreign mission movement.”[10] He elaborated:

It was frequently alleged that the women were competing as rivals with the official church organizations. Money was supposedly deflected from the denominational budget. Pastors and higher central officials disliked their inability to control such funds, and this second line of giving went against the trend toward centralization . . . Some declared that the women always had plenty of money for their projects, while the general work starved. It was frequently stated that if there were only one organization everything might then be kept in proper balance.[11]

By the late 1930s a growing number of leading Presbyterian men were calling for a national organization of women that would appeal broadly to all the women in the church, whether they felt any interest in mission. When all women were said to be members, Presbyterian Women became a modality. The two things that all the members had in common were that they were women and Presbyterian. In a remarkable book, Presbyterian Women in America: Two Centuries of a Quest for Status, Lois A. Boyd recounts what happened at the 1943 General Assembly:

Council member Helen Weber assured commissioners that the proposed new organization would represent all churchwomen, “not just the missionary-minded who form our present set-up and who constitute less than half of all Presbyterian women.” [emphasis added].[12]

That General Assembly established a National Council of Women’s Organizations, representing all church women, and insuring, Helen Weber advocated, that mission-minded women would be a minority, and that the minority would not be able to initiate any actions. No wonder Dana Robert could write that “the dismantling of the woman’s missionary movement makes for depressing reading”: 

In each case, women fought and resisted the mergers, but they were either powerless to defend themselves because they had no laity rights in the church, or else they were forced to accept compromises that slowed but could not stop the ultimate dissolution of their organizations . . . Men argued against women’s missionary societies throughout their history based on pretexts that women diverted the attention of the denomination from the primary missionary task, that women did not know how to handle money, and that single women missionaries caused trouble on the mission field.[13]

But today is a better day, and women in the Presbyterian church are again taking initiative to direct their own mission donations. It is a new day of collaboration.

Collaboration. The new name for the National Council of Women’s Organizations is Presbyterian Women. Presbyterian Women recommends that its members partner directly with mission agencies. This is good. Here are ten of the recommended mission agencies featured on the Presbyterian Women website: Bread for the World, Habitat for Humanity, Knitting for Peace, Church World Service, Days for Girls International, Heifer International, Children’s Defense Fund, Partners for Just Trade, SERRV, and CARE. This is good. The most amazing collaborating partner is CARE, because 60 years ago the Presbyterian Church urged its members to not give to CARE. Robert Weingartner writes:

In 1960 Presbyterian Church U.S. reminded its members that non-Presbyterian mission agencies, including CARE, World Vision and Christian Children’s Fund, “are not related to our Church and are not recommended as approved channels for the relief activities of our own people. All members of our Church are urgently requested to send their relief funds through their churches.”[14]

Blincoe: Women have always led the way in mission, and women have never felt intimidated by the barriers raised against them by administrators. As it was in the beginning, there are two kinds of structures of God’s redemptive mission, what we normally call “church” (the gathering of the entire membership, in this case all Presbyterian women) and small, appropriate mission structures concentrating their efforts on certain good deeds. The partnership between these two is what Ralph D. Winter called “desired symbiosis.” Every congregation can feature approved mission partners on its website. These wonderful connections are changing the world.

[1] Brown, One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. 114


[3] General Assembly minutes, 1875

[4] Brown, One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. 117

[5] General Assembly minutes, 1883

[6] W. Stanley Rycroft, The Ecumenical Witness of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A (New York: Commission on Ecumenical Mission and Relations, United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., 1968). 81    

[7] Brown, One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. 135. See also Drury, Presbyterian Panorama; One Hundred and Fifty Years of National Missions History. “The Women’s Missionary Boards,” pages 197-219. Giving by Presbyterian Women was about $237,000, or 2.27 percent of the Worldwide Ministries Division 2005 budget,[8] compared to 30% of the Foreign Mission Board budget, an amount that held from 1870 to 1920. Women are directing their giving to other, more desirable (for them) mission causes.

[8]Lois A. Boyd, R. Douglas Brackenridge, and The Presbyterian Historical Society., Presbyterian Women in America: Two Centuries of a Quest for Status, 2nd ed., Contributions to the Study of Religion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996). 60-61

[9] Blincoe: Here is the email I received from Bridget Arthur Clancy of the Presbyterian Historical Society, April 24, 2003: “Re: Women’s giving. Dear Mr. Blincoe: Thank you for your phone call and follow-up email to the Presbyterian Historical Society for information about the history of giving by women’s mission groups in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. As you mentioned during our telephone conversation, the contribution amounts from women’s groups began to be reported along with youth societies’ offerings in 1921. However, during the 1923 reorganization, the work of the various women’s boards was subsumed under the other agencies of the church. You were hoping to find someplace that still listed the contributory amounts broken down by the individual groups. I have done a check of the ‘Minutes’ of the General Assembly from 1930 through 2000, and I have not been able to locate any separate tables with these details. Sincerely, Bridget Arthur Clancy,” Reference Librarian Presbyterian Historical Society. 425 Lombard St. Philadelphia, PA 19147-1516 (215) 627-1852 (215) 627-0509 (fax)

[10 R. Pierce Beaver, American Protestant Women in World Mission: A History of the First Feminist Movement in North America, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980); ibid. 184ff

[11] All Loves Excelling: American Protestant Women in World Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968). 178

[12] Boyd, Brackenridge, and The Presbyterian Historical Society., Presbyterian Women in America: Two Centuries of a Quest for Status. 37

[13] Dana Lee Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice, ed. Wilbert R. Shenk (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997). 303

[14] Robert Weingartner, “Missions within the Mission,” in A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944-2007 (Louisville: Geneva Press, 2008), 112.

Presbyterian Mission History. This is Blog #8 in a series 12:

  1. What Francis Makemie Envisioned : Beneficial Relationships between Presbyterian Churches and Mission Agencies
  2. What Early Presbyterian Churches Enjoyed: Denominational Support for Voluntary Societies
  3. How the General Assembly of 1837 Expelled 60,000 church members on account of their partnership with mission agencies.
  4. The General Assembly Establishes the Board of Foreign Missions. An Extraordinary Mission Era Begins.
  5. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 19th Century
  6. Exemplary Presbyterian Missionaries of the 20th Century
  7. Ninety-Five Notable Presbyterian Missionaries in Gerald Anderson’s Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions
  8. The Extraordinary Rise of Presbyterian Women’s Mission Societies following the Civil War
  9. What the General Assembly of 1902 Endorsed: Recognition and Regulation of “Special Interest Organizations.”
  10. Time to say Good-bye, Perhaps. How Everything Seems to be Ending.
  11. This is not the End. The Holy Spirit Enables New Mission Initiatives.
  12. Presbyterian Mission History: A Bibliography.