This is an article from the January-March 1999 issue: Women and Missions

Wed Only to Their Master

Wed Only to Their Master

The vast majority of single Protestant missionaries who ventured forth to distant shores had no commitment to singleness. They were single for one simple reason: there were not enough male missionaries to go around. The ratio of women to men on the mission field in many areas during the early twentieth century was as high as 2:1. In many instances single women turned down marriage proposals because the suitor was not deemed suitable for or was not interested in missionary work or because his Christian ideals did not match hers.This was true in the case of Lottie Moon who endured depressing bouts of loneliness in China and yet turned down a marriage proposal from Crawford Toy, a Confederate army chaplain, who had courted her before she left for China while she was living at her family plantation in Virginia. Missionary life appealed to him, and marriage appealed to her, but his Christian ideals did not match hers. He was a Darwinian evolutionist, and evolution was a view Moon considered untenable and important enough to prohibit their future life together. Toy later became a professor of Hebrew and Semitic languages at Harvard University. Years later when she was questioned as to whether she had ever been in love, Moon responded: "Yes, but God had first claim on my life, and since the two conflicted, there could be no question about the result."1

While most of the single missionaries had no vow or commitment to singleness, the female agencies that sent them out did. It was a very serious matter for a single woman missionary, whose travel and support were financed by a mission committed to single women, to marry on the field. "The whole women's missionary movement," writes Beaver, "was built upon a celibate order of lifecareer missionaries maintained on a subsistence level. Women missionaries were expected to serve for life without ever getting married." In the event that a single missionary did marry or otherwise forsake her commission during her first term, "she was required, by a signed pledge, to return her travel and outfit allowance and sometimes her salary."2

The closest resemblance to taking vows of celibacy among Protestant female missionaries, next to that of a signed pledge, was membership in the community known as the Sisters of the Common Life, founded by Amy Carmichael in India. Carmichael was probably the most famous single woman missionary to leave the shores of England in the modern missionary period. Her 35 books detailing her more than 50 years in India were widely read in Christian circles in England as well as America. She, like so many of her female colleagues, struggled with singleness. But during her early missionary service in Japan she came to terms with that struggle, as she later related:

On this day many years ago I went away alone to a cave in the mountain called Arima. I had feelings of fear about the future. That was why I went there--to be alone with God.

The devil kept on whispering, "It is all right now, but what about afterwards? You are going to be very lonely." And he painted pictures of loneliness--I can see them still. And I turned to my God in a kind of desperation and said, "Lord, what can I do? How can I go on to the end?" And he said, "None of them that trust in Me shall be desolate." That word has been with me ever since.3

In India, Carmichael became deeply involved in children's work, most specifically in rescuing girls from temple prostitution. She established a home and school for these children. It became known as Dohnavur Fellowship. This all consuming ministry became her life, and the staff and children were her family. She soon became convinced that the single life was the only alternative for those in the fellowship, and this became the basis for the Sisters of the Common Life. Women joined the association voluntarily, and they were not bound by vows; however, they were forced to leave should they ever marry. The concept worked, and by 1952 the "family" numbered 900.4

  1. Hyatt, Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three Nineteenth-Century American Missionaries in East Shantung (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976), p. 99.

  2. R. Pierce Beaver, American Protestant Women in Mission, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1980), p. 178.

  3. Quoted in Frank Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur (London: Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, 1954), p. 62.

  4. Ibid., pp. 217-221.


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