Friday, March 31, 2017

Fellow Spotlight: Missionaries and Motherhood

Cassandra Berman, Library Company Fellow
In January, I had the good fortune to be in residence at the Library Company as an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow. I spent my month in Philadelphia searching for misbehaving mothers – for those women who had, for a variety of reasons, broken laws or social norms and had attracted the fascination of the public for doing so.  To my delight, the Library Company was full of stories of women who had violated the boundaries of nineteenth-century motherhood.   

Not unlike today, women in the nineteenth century were inundated with advice on how to birth and raise their children.  In popular literature, idealized mothers were routinely depicted as white, Protestant, and middle-class, and motherhood was envisioned as an all-encompassing vocation.  Many women, however, were either unwilling or unable to live up to these ideals, and debate over their transgressions filled the pages of newspapers, religious tracts, health guides, and even novels.  I found one such group to be particularly well represented in the Library Company’s collections: missionary women.

Most missionary women in the early nineteenth century fit the ideals – at least on the surface – of white Protestant femininity.  Accompanying their husbands to such far-flung locations as India, Burma, and the Sandwich Islands, however, took them far from the confines of the American domestic sphere.  Furthermore, many became mothers for the first time while consumed with missionary work – translating the Bible, setting up schools, and navigating tense relationships with local people – and in trying physical conditions.  

Cecil B. Hartley. The Three Mrs. Judsons,
 the Celebrated Female Missionaries
 (Boston, 1860),
Often, the missionary lifestyle proved entirely incompatible with motherhood.  Ann Judson, for example, traveled to Burma in 1812 and immersed herself in acquiring language fluency and establishing a school for girls.  While abroad, she bore two children, both of whom died young, likely succumbing to local diseases.  In her posthumously published memoir, she discussed her missionary work in detail but made no mention of her son, Roger, until his death in 1816.

 Several years later, her husband, the Reverend Adoniram Judson, was captured during the Anglo-Burmese War.  Ann decided to follow the prisoners, who were held for nineteen months, and camp nearby in a poorly equipped hut.  This she did with her three-month-old daughter, Maria, in tow.  Both mother and daughter contracted smallpox; Ann died soon after Adoniram’s release, and the motherless Maria not long after.  Ann certainly mourned her son, Roger, and was no doubt concerned for Maria’s safety, yet her identity as missionary superseded that of mother. And while she became a popular symbol of female piety after her death in 1826, some also condemned Ann’s maternal transgressions and missionary zeal.  In the margins of the Library Company’s 1827 edition of Ann Judson’s published letters, one reader betrayed this disapproval.  Ann sought comfort in assurances that Roger was in heaven, but the anonymous reader noted that her own philosophy and inattention to her child guaranteed he was not: “The child was damned according to Mrs. Judson’s doctrine.  If millions of Burmese were to be damned because they were ignorant of what they never heard,” the note reads, “so was this child.” (Ann Hasseltine Judson, An Account of the American Baptist Mission to the Burman Empire, London: Joseph Butterworth and Son, 1827; 48-49)

Woods, Leonard. A Sermon Preached at Haverhill,
 (Boston, 1814), frontispiece.

Motherhood and mission may have been incompatible. Interestingly, however, many missionary women considered mothers and children central to their work.  Harriet Newell, whose popular memoir is also housed at the Library Company, was motivated in part to travel to India by rumors of widespread infanticide – she had read accounts of mothers sacrificing their children in the river Ganges, and by reports of widow burning – which she believed rendered many children motherless.  Like her friend Ann Judson, however, Harriet’s vocation likely imperiled her own offspring.  She spent the majority of her journey to India, and then on to the Isle of France, pregnant, eventually giving birth at sea.  Not long after, her ship was caught in a violent storm, and the infant became ill and died.  Weeks after reaching land, Harriet herself succumbed to consumption.  The library’s various editions of her letters and edited diary entries testify to the public’s enduring fascination, and perhaps discomfort, with Harriet Newell’s short life.

My immersion in these texts while at the Library Company has forced me to reconsider the parameters of motherhood in – and outside of – nineteenth-century America.  And while I hope I am not as judgmental, I am, like the anonymous scribbler in Ann Judson’s memoir, captivated by these women who defied the confines of motherhood. 

Cassandra Berman
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow

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