Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Mission Accomplished!

The author, Andrea Pass, in the archives of St Stephen's Community in Delhi.
Two weeks after my viva voce examination, I am emerging from a world of missionary adventure. My doctoral thesis on ‘British women missionaries in India, c.1917-1950’ explores the experiences of single women of the two leading Anglican societies – the high-Church Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) and the evangelical Church Missionary Society (CMS) from recruitment to retirement. From hobnobbing with Vicereines and rescuing a kidnapped British girl from Afridi tribal territory, to performing life-saving operations on the floor of a village mud-hut and serving in Delhi refugee camps in the midst of post-Partition violence, the lives of women missionaries were never dull. During three years of research in missionary archives, their annual reports, letters, minute books, memoirs, and photograph albums have told me tales of joys and successes, frustrations and disappointments. I have begun to understand these strange, corseted figures in pith helmets preaching under palm trees in the foreign mission field.

Missionary archives are bursting with material, yet it is often difficult to access the unqualified opinions or feelings of women missionaries. High-Anglican women were particularly reticent in writing about their spiritual motivations. Most of the available letters and reports were written by women to officials of SPG and CMS at mission headquarters in London. It is likely that grievances and scandals were sometimes left unreported for fear of censure. Success may have been exaggerated and failures overlooked in the hopes of encouraging increases in financial support. An annual progress report, part of which could be used for publication in a missionary journal, was not the ideal medium for discussion of the innermost matters of one’s heart. Deep in the archives, however, I have discovered three sets of sources which are uncommonly frank and revelatory...

The first is located in the archives of SPG at Rhodes House Library in Oxford. Amidst the papers of the Committee for Women’s Work, there exists a fascinating collection of letters sent by women missionaries during the 1920s to the Society’s Foreign Secretary, Miss Hilda Saunders. Alongside details of their daily work, missionaries told Miss Saunders of their views, squabbles and sadnesses with a candidness unseen in more formulaic annual reports. Some were struggling with crises of vocation, feeling God was calling them away from missionary service to other careers, familial duties, the Religious Life, or marriage. ‘P.M.F.’s attitude took my entirely by surprise,’ Maud Tidmarsh confided about her fiancé’s proposal in February 1927. ‘It all seems to have happened so suddenly, and yet I have known my side of it since last June.’[1] Others were frustrated with the shackles of SPG and trying valiantly to live on a level with Indians. 'Committees of big societies are the most baffling things there are, I think! I offer my whole life to Delhi, and all I get is snub!’ Nora Karn complained during one such attempt in 1928.[2] Relationships in the mission field were also discussed. I uncovered generational clashes between young recruits and old timers on remote outstations. In 1926, one superior even sought to control her colleague’s choice of hairstyle: ‘It may have sounded playful to you, but before she left
India she was much against my having it cut...’[3] ‘Exclusive friendships’ also caused problems. Such comment was made about a particularly controversial relationship between a probationer of St Hilda’s Society in Lahore and the eccentric, Roman Catholic wife of the Governor of the Punjab.[4] In these letters, the physical and psychological realities of life in the mission field were displayed.

The small collection of missionary Personnel Files at the CMS archives at the University of Birmingham was also invaluable.[5] The thirty-four open files contained the completed application forms of CMS candidates who eventually sailed to India. Sixteen files also included letters, references, and interview reports, charting candidates’ progress from their original offers to the Society to their departure for India. Form B of the CMS application focused upon candidates’ missionary motives, Biblical and doctrinal knowledge, and personal beliefs. They were asked to give reasons why they felt called to missionary service and their opinions of a missionary’s chief aim, as well as details of their own efforts, hitherto, to advance the missionary cause. They were also requested to give their reasons for membership of the Church of England, their assessments of ‘the fundamental doctrines’ of the Christian faith, the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, and details of their beliefs concerning the Trinity, Sin, the Atonement, and Personal Salvation. These sources gave me important and unusual clues as to what made women missionaries tick, what motivated them to make the radical decision to offer themselves for overseas service. They also revealed that CMS recruitment practices were far more flexible in reality than one might expect from their recruitment propaganda. Despite being ‘modern’ in theology, ‘thoroughly Scotch in her reserve,’ and ‘quite the most difficult candidate’ that her interviewers had ever seen, Dorothy Lyon was accepted for training and went on to a long and successful missionary career in the Punjab![6]

Not all of my archival research was conducted in Britain, however. I also explored the archives of the United Theological College in Bangalore and of St Stephen’s Community in Delhi, a community of women missionaries affiliated to SPG. In Delhi, I had a mini adventure of my own! The metal cupboard in the office of St Stephen’s Home, where the Community’s records were apparently housed, was firmly padlocked shut. Despite the efforts of the housekeeper to produce the keys, they were nowhere to be found. It was agreed a handyman should be sent for to break down the door and I should come back the following day. Upon my return, I discovered much to my dismay that the handyman had broken down the door to the wrong cupboard! The papers remained beyond my reach and I had only three days left in Delhi! Fortunately, the padlock was eventually broken and I was presented with a pile of minute books dating from the Community’s foundation in the 1880s to the present day and covered in thick, black dust.[7] Their contents provided me with a fascinating insight into the inner workings of a group of women missionaries in the field. I read of debate regarding Nora Karn’s attempt to subvert SPG regulations, attempts to attract Indian members to the Community, and rumblings of discontent with its Rule of Life. Here was St Stephen’s in its own words – not the edited image it presented to SPG in London. Here was mission in the field.

The researcher’s mission, therefore, is simply to keep reading and keep digging. Amongst piles of paper and reams of repetitive reports, and sometimes in the most unexpected places, there are some real jewels in the mission archives’ crown!
Andrea Pass has just completed her D.Phil. at Magdalen College, Oxford.

[1] USPG Archives, Rhodes House, Oxford. Committee for Women’s Work (CWW) Papers. 277/1-3. Original Letters Received. (Chota Nagpur, Lahore (1 box) 1927-1929, Dornakal 1926-1929). 1926-1929. p.14.
[2] Ibid. p.8.
[3] USPG, Rhodes House. CWW282. Letters Received (India, Burma) 1926. p.80.
[4] USPG, Rhodes House. CWW146. Original Letters Received. Lahore, 1924.
[5] CMS Archives, University of Birmingham. C/ATw2 Candidates papers: white and blue packets.
[6] Ibid. Miss Dorothy Lyon.
[7] Archives of St Stephen’s Community, Delhi. Minute Books.

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