Women's History Month

Methodist Women: Sisterhood of Grace

A History of Women in Mission

Methodist Women: Sisterhood of Grace
Thirtieth annual meeting of the Women's Home Missionary Society, South Park Methodist Church, Chicago, June 1930

Women’s leadership has been an important part of the life of the Christian community. From biblical times, we have a record of women like Mary and Elizabeth, and also of Mary Magdalene, Eunice and Lois and Lydia, who were not only believers but were active participants in the ministry and missionary activities of the new church. The work of women in missions has been about breaking boundaries and creating new opportunities for women. Women’s leadership has often been restricted by the rules of society and by the limits imposed by their own national and racial identities. But they have been ever fearless, daring to be outrageous and “unladylike” to carry forward the understanding of their role in God’s plan for transformation.

Women’s History Month is a perfect time to celebrate just some of the amazing stories of leadership and to be inspired to meet our own leadership challenges.

In the 1880s, Christian women affirmed the importance of mission, organizing to raise funds and offering themselves as volunteers. At the same time they found that in order to be active in missions they often needed to overcome social restrictions put on them because of their gender.

Ann Judson
Ann Judson was a minister’s wife who went to India in 1812 as a part of the first group of missionaries sent to India. She was considered only “assistant missionary,” but she was urged by her agency to “teach these women. Do all in your power to enlighten their minds and bring them to the knowledge of the truth. Teach them to realize that they are not an inferior race of creatures, stand up on a par with men.”

From the beginning, the work of women in missions has had more than one goal. It had the goal of evangelization, but it also had the goal of empowerment of women. Many different women responded to the call.

Amanda Smith
Amanda Smith was born a slave in 1837 and became a world famous Methodist evangelist. She worked for many years as a domestic servant, but gave it up to become a full-time evangelist in 1870. She did much to expand the accepted role of women in both the Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal church.

Isabella Thoburn and Clara Swain
Isabella Thoburn and Clara Swain were the first women to be sent out by the new Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, established in 1869 by Clementine Butler and Lois Parker. The society’s determination to support Ms. Thoburn and Ms. Swain was expressed thus: “Shall we lose Ms. Thoburn because we have not had money on hand to send her? No! Rather, let’s walk the streets of Boston in calico dresses, if need be, and save the expense of more costly apparel! I move the appointment of Ms. Thoburn!”
Mary Scranton and Mary Stone
In the late 1880s the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society turned its attention to Asia. It supported work in China and sent Mary Scranton to Korea. She opened the first girl’s school to exist in the 5,000-year history of Korea. This school was the first of many schools opened by Methodist missions in Korea.

Dr. Shih Mei-yu (Mary Stone), daughter of Methodist parents who refused to bind her feet, was the first female medical missionary in all of central China. She was supported by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. Dr. Shih’s model of holistic healing is still being followed in the work of United Methodist Bible Women throughout Southeast Asia.

Kim Seji
In 1899 Kim Seji, with support of U.S. Methodist women, became the first Korean Bible Woman visiting other women to sell Bibles, preach, comfort and organize Bible and literacy classes.

Anna Hall
In 1901, Anna Hall was the first African-American woman commissioned as a deaconess and sent to Angola.

Alma Mathews and Gum Moon residences
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women of faith were looking toward problems faced in cities and communities within the United States. A home missions society was developed to meet the needs of women in urban areas. Alma Matthew’s Home for Immigrant Girls was opened in New York City to serve immigrants and young women coming from rural areas into New York City, and Gum Moon house was opened in San Francisco to serve Asian immigrant women in need of secure housing. These were the first of many national mission institutions supported by Methodist women.

Sallie Sawyer and Picture of Bethlehem Center
National Mission Institutions, many of which are called “Bethlehem Centers” and operate in ethnic minority and disadvantaged neighborhoods on property owned by United Methodist Women, were an early 20th century product of the efforts of southern churchwomen. The Bethlehem Center in Nashville, Tennessee, is the result of the efforts of Mrs. Sallie Hill Sawyer, a member of the Christian Methodist Episcopal church, who enlisted the help of Methodist women in Nashville and the Tennessee Conference Women’s Missionary Society to make Nashville Bethlehem Center a reality.

Rev. Lois G. Neal
The Rev. Lois G. Neal followed the path of many native women of faith to ordained ministry. Now a retired pastor in the Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, she was the first native woman named as a district superintendent. The Rev. Neal mentored other native women on the importance of women answering God’s call. “Women (should) accept their call because as women, we have a personal call,” she said. “I tell women, ‘You have your own calling to fulfill.’”

Mary McLeod Bethune
In 1939 the Methodist church, the Methodist Episcopal Church–South, and the Methodist Protestant church contemplated merger. The terms of the merger included the creation of five white jurisdictional conferences and one all-black jurisdiction. The segregated structure was defended as “a means to safeguard union and to build unity.” Mary McLeod Bethune, a Methodist woman active in the Florida conference who was an advisor to Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, spoke out strongly against its creation. Even though almost all African-American annual conferences voted against it, one all-black jurisdiction was created. Methodist women black and white responded to the new reality.

The women of the central jurisdiction created their own Women’s Society of Christian Service in 1940. For the next 28 years, African-American women maintained their commitment to a fully integrated organization by allowing women of all races to attend their events.

Elida de Falcon
Spanish-speaking women had long been involved in the Methodist Church through Methodist missions in the Southwest. They were active not only locally but also regionally and nationally. However, it had always been necessary for them to read basic materials from Women’s Society of Christian Service in English. In 1943, Elida Garcia de Falcon began translating the Program Book into Spanish. She continued this work of translation for the next 26 years. Later her daughter Clothilde Falcon Nanez assisted her in the translation work.

Ellen Barrett
The vision of mission expanded in 1949 when Ellen Barrett became the first African-American woman to be sent as a missionary to a country other than Africa. She was sent to India.

Pauli Murray
Based on a 1948 National Seminar recommendation, in 1952 the first of a series of Charters for Racial Justice was formulated by Methodist women. The language of the first charter was heavily influenced by the reality of segregation both in the nation in the Methodist Church itself. Civil rights lawyer the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray, the first female African-American Episcopal priest and co-founder of the National Organization for Women, was commissioned by the Women’s Division to write an analysis of state laws governing segregated education in a paper titled “States Laws on Race and Color.” This document was influential in the work of lawyers arguing the Brown v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregated education was inherently unequal.

Mai Gray
In 1976 a revised charter for racial justice was presented at the first meeting of the newly created United Methodist Women. It was introduced by the organization’s first president, Mai Gray, an African-American woman. The charter’s content reflected the changing racial situation in the nation and placed emphasis on action against institutional racism in the church, in the world and in the women’s organization.

As the 21st century dawned, United Methodist Women continued its commitment and support for cutting-edge ministries of mutuality around the world. Five regional missionaries, Bible Women, Asian women’s leadership training and dialogue, the Scranton Center in Korea, the Higher Education Initiative and other efforts all give testimony to the ever expanding vision of mission and faith of United Methodist Women.

We honor and celebrate the women who have given so much to make the mission and purpose of United Methodist Women a reality.

Posted or updated: 3/20/2014 11:00:00 PM


Give Thanks. Give Now.