Skip to main content

Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., Women’s Board of Home Mission Records, 1866-1958


Available Downloads

AUTHOR FICHE REEL CONTENT

About this Collection

Introduction: Presbyterian Church in the USA: Womens Board of HomeMission Records, 1866-1958

Introduction: Presbyterian Church in the USA: WomensBoard of Home Mission Records, 1866-1958

 

The records of the Womens Board of Home Missions of thePresbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PCUSA, offer a wide range of documentsprimarily concerned with the churchs mission to Native Americans, immigrants,African Americans, and those in Americas rural areas, particularly the South.The Womens Board of Home Missions was also interested in work for young peopleof the church and in the temperance movement. The documents in this collectionwill be of interest to scholars studying the social roles played by members ofthe PCUSA in trying to solve some of the countrys most difficult problems.Particularly, in the years prior to the establishment of government programs toassist people in need, American churches played a crucial role in assisting theneedy. As one of the larger mainstream Protestant churches, the PCUSA wasactive in many parts of the country and drew its support from churchwomen inmany states. Scholars interested in the role of American women in publicaffairs in the years before women were supposed to play such roles will findthese materials a rich source of information.

 

Many Presbyterian women in the late nineteenth century werenot content to confine themselves to the traditional feminine role of home andfamily and sought an outlet for their talents in socially acceptable churchwork. Foreign mission work had long attracted many churchwomen, who in 1877,with the support of the Reverend Sheldon Jackson, a missionary to Alaska,convinced the PCUSA General Assembly to establish the Womens ExecutiveCommittee for Home Missions. Originally created to care for missionaries whoserved as teachers in the churchs mission schools in the American Southwestand West, the committee later expanded its work to include missions to Mormonsin Utah and to Hispanics in Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as to poor people inthe Appalachians. In 1923 the PCUSA Womans Board of Home Missions became partof the Board of National Missions.

 

This collection includes the minutes of meetings, financialrecords, correspondence, and publications from the 1870s to the 1950s, and itis a treasure trove for researchers in many fields. For example, the changingattitudes toward Native American schools and cultures are evident in theboards policies toward them. Additionally, the mission boards work amongfreedmen in the South during Reconstruction and after provides an interestingperspective on that aspect of American history. Other mission work was doneamong European immigrants in the eastern cities, and with Asian immigrantpopulations in the West. Mormons attracted special attention in Utah. After thebeginning of the twentieth century, the board expanded its work to includeSpanish-speaking populations in the Caribbean and Latin America.

 

Youth groups and other organizations serving young peoplewere another major concern. By the beginning of the twentieth century,churchwomen were very concerned with young peoples work. Board documents notein 1915 that the church had been publishing Sabbath school literature forseventy-seven years and their Young Peoples Department had been publishing itsown literature for eight years with the aim of broadening the education of YoungPeople. The church also hoped to inspire Young People to definite andpractical Christian Service, particularly along missionary lines.

 

Like most churchwomens organizations of the late nineteenthcentury, the PCUSA Womens Board of Home Missions also devoted time and moneyto the temperance movement. Although not the primary concern of the board, thiscollection includes numerous files of correspondence to and from other churcheson this subject and with the Womens Christian Temperance Union.

 

Extensive correspondence from various parts of the countrydescribes how churchwomen organized themselves into presbyterials, the womensgroups of the Presbyterian church. Generally, these records relate only to theEast, the upper Midwest, and the West, because the Presbyterian church hadsplit into northern and southern churches over the issue of slavery. However,there is some information on a few southern groups, such as those in NorthCarolina, Tennessee, and Florida.

 

Many of the papers in this collection deal with theoperations of the board - committee and meeting reports, programs, budgets andspecial financial issues such as scholarships, as well as publications. Theminutes of the organizing meeting of the board, held in May 1878 in Pittsburgh,are a part of the collection, so the entire history of the board can be traced.In its early years, the board tried to define its place within theinstitutional structure of the church. Its exact relationship vis--vis theLadies Board of Missions had to be determined, as did its funding relative tothat of other missionary agencies of the church. Board members had to decidewhere they fit into the churchs Sunday school programs, Christian Endeavorgroups, Westminster Guilds, Young Peoples meetings, and other church groups.They wanted their work to become known throughout the church, so they wereparticularly concerned that many churches had no trained leaders who coulddiscuss the needs of home missions. As a result, the board launched anadvertising campaign to publicize its leadership conferences throughout thecountry.

 

As the work of the board increased, monthly meetings wereheld between October and July, along with annual meetings of the board and, ofcourse, the General Assembly of the church. Echoing future statements from someof her church sisters, one woman reported in 1915 that she had to give up someof her mission-related duties because her husband had rebelled.

 

Among the many issues to be worked out was the transfer ofproperty from local committees to the national one. It was agreed that theSundays closest to Thanksgiving and Washingtons Birthday were to be designatedmission Sundays and the collections from Sunday schools on those days were tobe given to the board.

 

As with any volunteer organization, there were frequentdifficulties with unqualified helpers. Over the years, the women struggled withlocal treasurers who had no understanding of bookkeeping. One board membersuggested it was useless to argue with local treasurers who insisted they hadsent the money to New York; she reported that she simply asked for the checknumber and confirmation from the bank that the check had cleared. Perhaps mosttrying was the local treasurer who had served for twenty-five years and hadonly twice submitted a correct financial report.

 

At the boards first meeting, the women decided they wouldbe devoted to the evangelization of our own land. Their aim was to benational in character with a centralized board to oversee and organize the workof the various local mission boards. They also planned to distribute boxes ofclothing collected for missionary work and to publish leaflets and pamphletsdescribing the organization and its methods of home mission work. The boardclearly indicated that its goal was to introduce the gospel into the darkenedhomes and hearts among the Mormons, Mexicans, Indians, freedmen, andelsewhere.

 

Like all Protestants involved in mission work, the PCUSAWomens Board of Home Missions was interested in compiling statistics todemonstrate the success of their work. Citing just three of the many statisticsthey compiled reveals the extent of their reach: in 1894 they operated 123schools in the United States and its territories; the same year they reportedthat eighty-five churches had grown directly or indirectly from their work; andin 1910 they had an annual budget of $602,000.

 

This collection includes all the minutes of the boardsGeneral Council, as well as minutes of board conferences with the PCUSAs Boardof Foreign Missions. For example, included in the collection is the 308-pagebound report of the Executive Session of the Annual Meeting held in Louisville,Kentucky, in May 1912. Minutes of all the other meetings of the board are alsoincluded in the collection.

 

Because the board recruited so many teachers for theirschools, in the 1880s it developed a handbook detailing expectations andqualifications, along with a list of clothing the teachers would require. Bothare invaluable sources for those interested in the work American women did inthe pre-World War I period. Those who wanted to teach needed to meet four basicrequirements. (1) They needed to be members of the Presbyterian or DutchReformed churches. (2) They needed appropriate education, which usually meantgraduation from a normal school and demonstrated ability as a teacher. (3) Theyhad to be in good health and have strength for the work, which meant acertificate from a qualified medical doctor. (4) Prospective teachers alsoneeded to be adaptable to mission work because the school is intended by theBoard of Home Missions as a wedge for the entrance of the gospel. If a womanwanted to work as a matron or a secretary at a school, she had to meet all theabove-listed requirements except the teaching credentials.

 

The district superintendent of the board sometimes went onrecruiting trips across the country to seek out women who were willing to teachat mission schools. Such recruiting drives became more common after the boarddiscovered that some unsuitable teachers had arrived at distant posts in theWest. One was described as uncouth in her manners, untidy in domestic manners,and uncultivated generally as to unfit her for the work. Despite the boardsmisgivings, she was reassigned to a school where the superintendent thought shewould do the least damage, and she was still there several years later.

 

Teachers received a salary of $450 per year, paid everythree months after the board received the teachers quarterly report. Teachersin Alaska and the Caribbean were paid higher salaries. Usually, the teacher wasthe schools sole employee, so she was responsible for paying the rent for thebuilding, buying fuel for the stove, purchasing all curricular materials,collecting tuition from students and dispensing scholarships as they wereavailable and needed, and handling all other business of operating the school.These expenses had to be detailed, and were reimbursed with the teacherssalary. If the teacher recruited a large number of students, she might earn anadditional $50 per year. The board had a superintendent of schools, usually aman, who had to be consulted on textbooks and methods of instruction and madesuggestions for the running of the schools.

 

If a teacher left the job before serving three years, exceptfor medical reasons, she was expected to return her travel expenses to theboard. After three years, the teacher was entitled to a vacation in the East,and the board paid her train fare one way. If the

teacher had served five years, the board paid her fare bothways.

 

Scholars studying womens clothing will be interested in thelist the board provided detailing what the women would need at their new posts.Because these were middle-class women, most with teaching degrees, one canassume that their clothing was typical of their social class. The list setforth the following: a good strong walking dress, a grey flannel dress orequivalent, two gingham or good calico dresses, a strong underskirt orBalmoral, a water proof cloak or Ulster, as well as three pairs of strongshoes, three suits of underwear, and two to three sets of flannel underwear.One woman commented that it was about the same things one needed at home,specifying the need for plenty of good warm flannel - good substantialunderwear.

 

Scholars researching the policies of the U.S. governmenttoward Native Americans and the role of churches in educating them will findthis collection a treasure trove. The files also contain directories of schoolsand stations, along with lists of those serving as teachers, most of whom werewomen. There are also many files containing the personal correspondence ofmissionaries who served throughout the United States, some in areas termedIndian territory at the time the mission schools were established. The desireof the government and the churches to civilize and Christianize the NativeAmericans is evident in the policies they pursued. Many of the mission teacherswrote of Indian children who were orphaned and sent to the mission schools forcare and education. One file describes two girls sent from Indian territory toattend Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, in 1881; they were typical inthat they soon adapted to the dominant culture as they pursued their education.Those who worked among the Native American population in Utah found their workcomplicated by the local Mormon population and practice of polygamy.

 

The board also supported mission work in the easternAmerican cities, particularly among immigrant groups. By the late nineteenthcentury, the church had women working with Italians, Bohemians, Hungarians, andSlavs. Others worked with immigrants from Puerto Rico and Cuba, poor whites inAppalachia, and African Americans in the South.

 

Some of the files reveal how specific problems were handledby the church. For example, one extensive file from the 1920s describes achurch dependent who was determined to be slightly mentally disabled. The youngwomans mother was dead and her father, an ordained clergyman, was mentally illand confined to an institution. The file details the decision to place thewoman in a private institution at church expense, and includes a psychologicalassessment of her abilities. Interestingly, the file contains a letter writtenby the young woman, indicating a level of literacy far beyond what would beregarded as mentally disabled. In short, the file provides a detailed accountof how such a problem was handled - something one would not expect to findamong mission materials.

 

Another file concerns a complaint lodged after the closingof a Native American school in Oklahoma. The writer alleges that the schooldirector was wasting money by purchasing supplies, including bedding, fromdistant companies, instead of supporting local companies. The committee,however, determined the directors actions to be acceptable because the missionhad combined its supply orders with those of other schools and was thus able toobtain a quantity discount.

 

The board also had an extensive publishing program with manymaps, pamphlets, and brochures concerning donations to the missions,devotionals, and general interest topics. Titles include Marcus Whitman,Native Missionaries in Alaska, Tucson School for Pimas and Papagoes,Are Mormons Christians? and Mountain Whites.

 

As a whole, this collection is an invaluable source ofinformation on the work of middle-class American women in the closing years ofthe nineteenth century and in the twentieth century. Their concerns with thesocial improvement of various groups of people whom they had determined were inneed of help is vividly recorded in these papers. Some letters describeproblems that twenty-first-century women will, unfortunately, find all toofamiliar: husbands jealous of their wives work, male-dominated churchhierarchies reluctant to give women a say in church business, and culturalnorms stipulating that women confine themselves to womens work. Yet evenwith these constraints, these records reveal a group of strong women whothrough their church work made a lasting difference on the lives of the peoplethey sought to help.

 

Kathleen L. Lodwick
Professor of History
Pennsylvania State University/Lehigh Valley

 

Administrative History

 

In response to the urging of Sheldon Jackson and variousprominent Presbyterian women, the 99th General Assembly (PCUSA) (1877)organized the Womans Executive Committee of Home Missions. The initial purposeof the Committee was to provide schools and teachers for the mission fields inthe western and southwestern US. The committee supported missionaries among theMormons in Utah and among the Native American and Spanish-speaking peoples ofthe southwest. Eventually, this work was extended to Alaska, Puerto Rico, Cubaand the Appalachians.

 

In addition to carrying out field work, the WomansCommittee published many pamphlets and leaflets, a missionary magazine entitledHome Mission Monthly, and an annual Prayer Calendar, which eventuallymerged with the foreign missionary yearbook to become the Yearbook of Prayer.In 1897, the committees name was changed to Womans Board of Home Missions.

 

In 1915 the WomansBoard incorporated; at this point it ceased to be a subsidiary of the Board ofHome Missions. In 1923 the Womans Board merged with seven other boards andagencies of the church to create one unified Board of National Missions, andits work was divided between two units of the new Board. Publications weretaken over by the Unit of Education and Publicity, and work with the schoolsand hospitals in Alaska and the United States became the responsibility of theUnit of Educational and Medical Work.

 

Katharine Bennett, president of the Womans Board at thetime of the merger, became the first vice-president of the BNM. She alsochaired the Womans Committee of the BNM, which was comprised of the BNMsfemale members and was created to give the women continued jurisdiction overwhat had been their work for over fifty years. The Womans Board continued tofunction as a holding corporation until the 1958 reunion of the PCUSA and theUPCNA.

 

EDITORIAL NOTE

 

Scope and Content Note

 

This collection includes minutes, reports, correspondence,financial records and publications of the Womans Executive Committee/WomansBoard of Home Missions, 1866-1924.

 

The collection is arranged as follows:

 

Series 1: Corporate Records, 1870-1946

Administrative Structure:
Formation
Incorporation
Reorganization
Correspondence
Presbyterian Boards and Agencies
Presbyterian Womens Organizations
Other Agencies

Mission Work of the WECHM/WBHM

 

Series 2: Minutes, 1878-1958

 

Series 3: Annual Meetings, 1880-1925

 

Series 4: Correspondence, 1866-1913

Missionary Correspondence
Chronological Correspondence
Outgoing
Incoming

 

Series 5; Publications, 1894-1923

 

Series 6: Financial Records, 1869-1942

 

Notes to Researchers

 

Record Groups 48, 51, and 105 were combined and reprocessedwith material from the library to form this collection (Record Group 305). Forconservation reasons, the volumes in RG 48 were disbound and the pages placedwithin acid-free folders.

 

As the official change from the Womans Board to the Boardof National Missions did not take effect until late in the year 1923, there area few items in this collection dated 1924 that relate to work which went onduring the previous year. Although the Womens Board continued to exist afterthe reorganization, the body that oversaw the day-to-day mission work was theWomans Committee of the BNM. Those records will be found in RG 305.1.Post-1923 records in this collection, such as the minutes in Series 2, are therecords of the Womans Board as a legal entity rather than a mission board.

 

A card file index to the 1888-1913 correspondence (organizedchronologically) is available in the library. Researchers are advised tocontact the Presbyterian Historical Society for access to this index.

 

Related collections from the Presbyterian Historical Societyinclude:

 

RG 239
Sheldon Jackson Collection

 

RG 301.8
BNM, Unit of Schools and Hospitals/Dept of Educational and Medical Work Records

 

RG 305.1
BNM, Womans Committee Records

 

RG 48
Collection processed: 1969
Milton Kenin, Records Researcher

Finding Aid prepared: 1983
Frederick J. Heuser, Jr., Archivist

 

RG 51
Collection processed: October 1969
Nancy Tuten, Assistant Records Researcher

Collection revised and finding aid created: Marcy 1977
Jane Ramsay, Assistant Records Researcher

 

RG 105
Collection processed and container list prepared: 1974
Jane Ramsay, Assistant Records Researcher