Recovering the stories of early Welsh women missionaries
Tracing its roots back to the first International Women’s Day in 1911, Women’s History Month which takes place in March celebrates the contributions of women throughout history. It aims to address the gender imbalance of history by researching, reclaiming and retelling stories that have been buried under years of bias.
The Welsh women missionaries of the late 18th and 19th centuries show us why Women’s History Month is important for church history. These women remind us why we should learn about our historical sisters and what their stories can show us of God’s work throughout history.
Early missionary societies
The closing years of the 1700s saw the foundation of multiple missionary societies. One of these was the London Missionary Society (LMS) founded in 1795 by Welsh congregationalist minister, Edward Williams. Until the foundation of the Foreign Mission of the Welsh Calvinists in 1840, LMS was the leading missionary group in Wales with God calling hundreds of Welsh men and women to work with them.
However, whereas today we would use the term ‘missionary’ to refer to both men and women, at this time ‘missionary’ was an exclusively male noun, so the accounts that list the people trained, sent and serving on behalf of the missionary societies, only record men. The women who stood alongside these men remain largely unnamed and unnumbered. Their involvement in the work was never intentionally recorded, and when they do appear, it is often only in fleeting descriptions of events focusing on the male missionary’s activities. Piecing together what life looked like for these women in the mission field, the work God prepared and led them to, can therefore be a difficult task, and in some cases, nearly impossible.
Nevertheless, women continued to faithfully answer God’s call to teach the Word across the world. One of the first Welsh female missionaries to be recorded in some detail is Margaret Jane John.
Margaret Jane John
Margaret was born in 1830, the daughter of LMS missionary parents David and Mary Griffiths. Originally from Carmarthenshire, the couple were based in Madagascar when Margaret was born. David and Mary were involved in running a night school and translating the Bible into Malagasy. A change in the political situation in Madagascar and growing anti-Christian persecution led the missionaries to temporarily leave the island when Margaret was five years old and to leave again, this time permanently, when she was eleven. After this, Margaret and her family settled in Hay-on-Wye where her father formed a new congregation and continued to aid LMS in Bible translation.
In 1853, when Margaret was twenty-three, a visit from a prospective missionary student would see Margaret once again being brought into the work of international mission. The student was Griffith John who was planning on going to Madagascar after completing his studies. The two married in 1855 and the couple waved goodbye to their friends and family only a week later. However, in the years between meeting Margaret and completing his training, LMS had persuaded Griffith not to go to Madagascar, but to go to China instead. Therefore, in September 1855, Margaret found herself stepping off a boat on to the docks at Shanghai.
Working in China
Travelling together, Margaret and Griffith were the first missionaries to work in the provinces of Hubei, Hunan and Sichuan. The couple met up with other LMS missionaries and established a base in Hankou, in the Hubei province. What Margaret did during these years is never explicitly recorded. Nelson Bitton, Griffith John’s biographer, writes only that ‘a good work was done in the city’ by her. Yet, as the mission grew, so did the opportunities for Margaret and the other women missionaries present. In 1864 the first school was opened by the group, followed in 1866 by the establishment of a hospital in which Margaret was especially involved. While a medical missionary oversaw everything, Margaret worked as a nurse and later became the matron of the hospital. This was all done with the backdrop of growing civil unrest, times of violence and growing anti-missionary sentiment from local authorities.
By 1869, the growing hostility in China caused LMS to call the family home, so in 1870 Margaret found herself back in Wales for the first time in 15 years. The time in China had been difficult, the physical effects of which were evident by the time of their arrival. Griffith John suffered from continued ill health, but Margaret was considered an invalid. Yet, despite her ill health, Margaret’s heart for China and her commitment to the work there never ceased. Margaret continued to accompany Griffith in Swansea and the surrounding area telling people what God was doing in China. When it was time to return to Hankou, although her health had deteriorated even further, she was determined to return. Margaret died on the voyage, passing away on the 18th of February 1873 in Singapore.
In the following years, Griffith would go on to establish more hospitals in neighbouring provinces. He later financed the building of a women’s hospital in Hankou that he named the ‘Margaret Memorial Hospital’ in honour of his late wife’s devotion to the people of the town.
It was two years after Margaret’s death, in 1875, that LMS decided to start hiring women as missionaries in their own right, regardless of marital status. Margaret and previous women like her, had paved the way for these future generations of female missionaries. Though their actions were rarely recorded, they had not gone unnoticed. Although there had been early doubts about the place of women in the mission field, these early female missionaries had shown that women were not only capable of supporting male missionaries but were valuable assets as missionaries themselves.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day on the 8th of March is #BreakTheBias. A simple way for us to break the bias in church history is to ask, ‘Where are the women?’ As Welsh women missionaries like Margaret have taught us, women have always been active in God’s work, even if their contribution has not been preserved for us today. Recovering what we can of their stories will only increase the amount we have to celebrate and learn from our brothers and sisters who have come before us.