Christian History Home > Issue 52 > Unbecoming Ladies
Women played a controversial but decisive new role in China missions.
"Hudson Taylor makes extraordinarily ample use of the services of unmarried ladies," wrote a German missionary in 1898, adding that he thought the idea "unbecoming and repellent."
He was not alone—many missionary societies severely criticized the idea of sending single females to the mission field. But by 1898, the tidal wave of evangelical missions was sweeping away strict gender roles. The Women's Missionary Movement, begun in America in the early 1860s, had already given birth to 40 "female agencies"—mission societies that sponsored only single women. Barred from ordained ministry in their homeland, hundreds of women eagerly volunteered to serve abroad.
A large measure of this change can be attributed to the policy of Hudson Taylor. Women were vital to the China Inland Mission from its inception. In 1878, he took a much criticized step in permitting single female missionaries to work in teams in the interior of China. By 1882, less than 20 years after its founding, the CIM already listed 56 wives and 95 single women engaged in ministry.
Women labored sacrificially and with distinction in virtually every capacity of Taylor's mission. The following stories represent the thousands of women who volunteered for missionary service in China.
Most of the single women missionaries in the CIM worked with a female partner or on teams that included married couples. But some struck out independently.
Annie Royle Taylor (no relation to Hudson), who arrived in China in 1884, was described as "the lone wolf" and an "individualist, so bad at harmonious relationships with colleagues that she would have to be returned to Britain or stretched to her own limits." She chose the latter option and set her sights on bringing the gospel to the forbidden city of Lhasa in the heart of Tibet.
She faced many obstacles and setbacks, and Taylor wrote in 1890 of "dear Annie Taylor [having] a very hard time of it." But she did not give up easily. By 1892 she was ready to make the thousand-mile journey into Tibet with her Tibetan convert, Pontso, a Chinese man and his Tibetan wife, and two other men to help with her 16 saddle and pack horses. She adopted native Tibetan dress and shaved her head in the fashion of a Tibetan nun.
Taylor's party faced one obstacle after another. Bandits stole their tent and clothing and killed most of their animals. One of the workmen died, another turned back. The Chinese man demanded money, and when that was refused, he brought accusations against her to Tibetan authorities that led to her arrest. Yet, according to A. J. Broomhall, "she kept a daily dairy, never complained in it, and gamely made a Christmas pudding with the currants and black sugar, flour and suet she had brought with her."
Taylor met face to face with the government officials who arrested her, but the confrontation ended with an escort, horses, and provisions for her to continue her journey. After more setbacks, Taylor finally established her own agency, the Tibetan Pioneer Mission, and soon 14 candidates from London arrived to help her in 1894.
In less than a year, however, the infant mission was in shambles. The new missionaries repudiated her leadership and called on the CIM for assistance. Taylor would not be deterred. She wrote back to London asking for female recruits because, "the Tibetans respect women and do not even in time of war attack them."
Taylor continued for more than 20 years, working mostly alone—except for her faithful convert Pontso.
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