This is a book about American mission societies established by women in the 19th century. Mary Webb, at her pastor’s urging, invited seven Baptist and six Congregationalist women to found the “Boston Female Society for Missionary Purposes.” The society would consist of “females who are disposed to contribute their mite towards so noble a design as diffusion of the gospel light among the shades of darkness and superstition.” Over the next 50 years, Mary Webb’s enthusiasm and influence brought into existence the Female Cent Society (1802), the Children’s Cent Society (1812), the Corban Society (1811), the Fragment Society (1812), as well as mission societies that ministered to ethnic minorities and prostitutes. By the 1820s women were generally conceded the right to organize these societies, and so a great age of fund-raising, prayer and education of women and children with respect to mission had begun. Other women formed hundreds more mission societies to send and support women missionaries overseas. Mrs. Ann Winsor founded the Free Baptist Women’s Missionary Society in Providence, Rhode Island in 1841. R. Pierce Beaver writes of dozens more women’s mission societies forming in the years prior to the Civil War. In 1839 there were 923 men’s associations and 680 women’s associations. Mission support among Methodists was also taken up by women’s societies. In New York City, Mary W. Mason gathered women from every Methodist church in the city and they organized the New York Female Missionary and Bible Society. Each church had a manager to collect the funds. The Society supported Mrs. Ann Wilkins, a missionary in Liberia. It was the model for other women’s organizations among the Methodists.
Single Women Missionaries. There were grave misgivings on the part of mission boards about appointing unmarried women as missionaries. Single women had been appointed as missionaries to the American Indians with regularity; but it seemed another thing altogether to send them to Asia or Africa or the Middle East. William Carey would not allow single women where he served. The Moravians only sent married women. Rufus Anderson disapproved of sending unmarried women as missionaries. The first single women sent overseas was Betsey Stockton, “a colored woman, Domestic Assistant.” She arrived in the Sandwich Islands in 1823 and was there attached to the family of Rev. Charles S. Stewart. She returned to the United States in 1825. Other pioneer single women missionaries noted in All Loves Excelling were Cynthia Farrer (India, 1827), Orpha Graves (India, 1834), three “female teachers” who were sent to Ceylon in 1838, Mary E. Pierce (Bangkok, 1839), Fidelia Fiske (Persia, 1843), and Maria Abigail West, who went to Turkey in 1852. R. Pierce Beaver has enabled us to know their names, and the names of others, thanks to the research he undertook in writing this book.
The Women’s Boards of Foreign Missions. After the American Civil War, women organized literally thousands of new mission societies, nearly one for every congregation in the country. Many northern women had been active in the abolition movement. Made conscious of their administrative capacity during the American Civil War, when their management skills were tested and refined on the home front, they took the matter of sending missionaries into their own hands. A second cause of this phenomenon was the number of women who were being educated at the high school and college level. By 1900 there were forty-one women’s boards in the United States and seen in Canada.
The advance of missions was sudden and dramatic. Tremendous new financial resources were brought to the overseas work. Unmarried women missionaries became just about as numerous as wives, and the missionary staff was predominantly female. Hundreds of thousands of American women were enlisted in a cause they passionately, intelligently, and prayerfully supported.
However, church leaders objected, as more and more money bypassed their offices. Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist—spoke of their concern for “church unity” and “efficiency” in expressing their wish that the women would “trust the system.” “There was a dislike of any such intermediary organization between congregations and denominational treasuries.”
Presbyterian Women’s Mission Society—A Story with an Arc. In 1870 Presbyterian women in Philadelphia organized themselves into the Foreign Missionary Society and began publishing Woman’s Work for Woman. But the New York headquarters sent one of its secretaries to talk it over with the organizers. The minutes recorded that the propriety of an independent organization was questioned, and that the opinion was expressed that the work could be more easily, cheaply, and better done through the regular agencies of the Church. But the furrowed brows on the faces of board executives brightened considerably when the women’s societies proved themselves loyal—and generous. The General Assembly of 1875 authorized the Woman’s Board “to represent and promote” the interests of the “using its own methods, independent of other control.” 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.
By 1883 the Board of Foreign Missions reported enthusiastically: “We have enrolled 1284 women’s societies and bands in 49 presbyteries.” This was extraordinary growth, in only thirteen years. The Women’s General Missionary Society accepted responsibility to raise support for all unmarried missionary women in the foreign fields. 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.”
How the End Came, and Farewell to all That. Women in the 19th century established more than 10,000 local mission societies. Unfortunately, denominational leaders, jealous to reclaim donations whizzing passed their offices, formed separate denominational mission boards, directing their members to refrain from cooperating with non-denominational mission agencies. R. Pierce Beaver said that “centralization” led eventually to “the destruction of the women’s foreign mission movement.” 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.
It is no small irony that denominational mission boards, brought into existence by bureaucrats for the sake of church unity, effectively sundered the collaborating efforts that Mary Webb and hundreds of other women had organized. Robert Speer, General Secretary of the Presbyterian Board of foreign Missions, supported the spoliation of independent women’s societies. Speer wrote:
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.
Paralleling the experience of the Presbyterian Church, the National Council of the Congregational Churches in 1924 “politely but firmly” coerced the three Women’s Boards of Mission “to merge with the American board by appointing a Committee on Missionary Organization to achieve organizational unity on the grounds of improving efficiency.” The Methodist women held control of their mission societies for three more decades until 1964, when reorganization of their societies was effected at the insistence of the bishops, “who were bent on integration.” In the official documents the recurring word is “elimination of dual control.” Dana Robert writes 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.
Unfortunately, church administrators arrogated to themselves the sole right to collect and disburse mission money. This brought an end to small, local, loyal women’s mission societies. It is time for a new era of local initiative and startling mission ideas. The world cannot end like it is now, in the doldrums of mission. Who will stand up and lead a new movement? Let’s see what is about to happen.
Beaver, R. Pierce. All Loves Excelling: American Protestant Women in World Mission. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968.
———. American Protestant Women in World Mission: A History of the First Feminist Movement in North America. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980.
Boyd, Lois A., R. Douglas Brackenridge, and The Presbyterian Historical Society. Presbyterian Women in America: Two Centuries of a Quest for Status. Contributions to the Study of Religion. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Brown, Arthur Judson. One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. New York: Revell, 1936.
Drury, Clifford Merrill. Presbyterian Panorama; One Hundred and Fifty Years of National Missions History. Philadelphia,: Board of Christian Education, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1952.
Robert, Dana Lee. American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice. Edited by Wilbert R. Shenk. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1997.
Rycroft, W. Stanley. 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.
 R. Pierce Beaver, All Loves Excelling: American Protestant Women in World Mission (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968). 14
 Ibid. 14
 Ibid. 16-17
 Ibid. 37
 Ibid. 40
 Ibid. 41
 Ibid. 67
 Ibid. 70-71
 Ibid. 86
 Ibid. 86
 Arthur Judson Brown, One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the USA (New York: Revell, 1936). 114
 General Assembly minutes, 1875
 Brown, One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. 117
 General Assembly minutes, 1883
 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
 Brown, One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the USA. 135. See also Clifford Merrill Drury, Presbyterian Panorama; One Hundred and Fifty Years of National Missions History (Philadelphia,: Board of Christian Education, Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 1952). “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, 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.
 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
 All Loves Excelling: American Protestant Women in World Mission. 178
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
 Beaver, All Loves Excelling: American Protestant Women in World Mission. 183. But the Baptist story is quite different, Beaver adds: “In some inexplicable manner there was adopted in 1929 a new basis of cooperation which recognized the sovereignty and independence of the WABFMS in women’s work” (184-185).
 Ibid. 188
 Ibid. 188
 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