“Remembering the Woman’s Missionary Jubilee, 1910” by Dr. Kendal Mobley

The Golden Jubilee Tour of 1910: The Other Missionary Milestone

by Kendal P. Mobley

This year, world Christianity will celebrate the centenary of the 1910 World Missionary Conference in Edinburgh, the capstone event of nineteenth-century Protestant missions. For Protestant women in America, however, this year represents another significant landmark, the centenary of the Golden Jubilee tour of the American women’s ecumenical missionary movement. The Golden Jubilee tour remains the largest and longest missionary celebration in the history of the United States, yet it is almost forgotten. It is 2010’s other missionary milestone.

Beginning with the Woman’s Union Missionary Society, Protestant women organized more than forty autonomous missionary societies in North America, from 1860 to 1900, to focus on “Woman’s Work for Woman.” While women had served as missionaries from the beginning of the Protestant missionary movement, early on the denominational boards only appointed women who were spouses of male missionaries. The women’s missionary societies prayed faithfully, studied diligently, worked tirelessly, saved frugally, and gave sacrificially, so that they could send women, married or single, to minister to the particular needs of women and children—needs which male missionaries could not or did not address. Appointed in cooperation with the denominational boards, these women engaged in direct evangelism, educational and medical missions.

Of the movement’s beginnings, Helen Barrett Montgomery wrote: “The women asked for two cents a week, — asked it from door to door; devised mite boxes, formed small local circles, held frequent meetings, looked after children, old women, poor people, hand-picked their own fruit, and astonished the world with their success.” From such beginnings, the women’s missionary societies grew into powerful and effective institutions. According to Montgomery, 815,596 contributing members gave $3,328,840 to the women’s missionary movement in 1909 alone. The women’s missionary societies became a major force in American Protestant missions, and, according to William R. Hutchison, fifty-five missionaries of a typical 100 appointed by the denominational boards in 1910 were women.
The Golden Jubilee tour was the brainchild of Lucy Waterbury Peabody, chairperson of the Central Committee on the United Study of Foreign Missions, which published a series of study texts, used by Protestant women across denominational lines, from 1900 to 1938. The study text for 1910 was Helen Barrett Montgomery’s Western Women in Eastern Lands. Not only did the book commemorate ten years of united mission study, it celebrated the previous half-century of the movement. While reading the manuscript of Western Women in Eastern Lands, Peabody was inspired with the idea for a coast-to-coast celebration. She believed the movement could claim much “actual achievement” in the emancipation of women around the world through education, health care, and the mitigation of oppressive cultural and religious practices. In the process, American women had devoted from their meager resources $41,000,000 to the movement, in addition to much prayer and hard work. Peabody suggested that Montgomery close the book with an appeal for a national celebration of the movement. A “Year of Jubilee” would culminate with a grand event in New York City. Montgomery wrote a new concluding paragraph, inviting the women of the movement to mark the anniversary with “a great thank offering” of money, so that hospitals, schools, and orphanages could be built. Quoting the famous sentiment of the Haystack Prayer Meeting, she ended her appeal: “‘We can do it, if we will;’ ‘We can do it, and we will.’”

Western Women in Eastern Lands sold 50,000 copies in six weeks, and total sales reached 100, 000. Readers embraced the idea of a celebration. The movement’s leadership, with Peabody at the head, created Eastern and Western organizing committees, and the Golden Jubilee tour was born. Peabody recruited a group of speakers with Montgomery as the headliner that included Dr. Mary Riggs Noble, a Presbyterian physician who served as a missionary in India, Kate Boggs Schaffer, a Lutheran missionary to India, and Jennie V. Hughes, a Methodist missionary to China. There were several other speakers as well, and the lineup changed over time due to the length of the tour, but Montgomery was a constant presence.

The Jubilee tour traversed the continent, starting in Oakland, California on 12 October 1910. The tour visited thirty-three major cities across the country, and there were satellite celebrations in many smaller cities as well, which brought the total number of cities involved to seventy. Attendance at the meetings grew, along with the enthusiasm of the women, as the tour progressed. The organizers of the tour had set a fundraising goal of one million dollars, and in each city they gave the women an opportunity to contribute. The system they devised typified the spirit of the entire movement. Though the women gathered in what Montgomery called a “United Protestantism” to hear the inspirational speakers and enjoy the other activities of the Jubilee, they also met in their denominational groups to hear about the work and needs of their own women’s missionary organizations. In these meetings, they pledged or contributed to the love offering, and the money they collected made its way into the treasuries of the various women’s boards. They cooperated, not only as Christians but as women, and they addressed issues affecting women around the world; yet they did not sacrifice their denominational loyalties or identities.

The Jubilee schedule was unrelenting. For forty days after the initial celebration in Oakland, Montgomery and the other speakers persevered through a series of two-day celebrations in thirteen different cities, sometimes speaking nine times in a single day. Often it was necessary to shuttle the speakers from place to place by automobile—still a rare luxury in those days—to make their appointments. Dr. Noble summed up the furious pace in a limerick:

The Jubilee troupe superfine
Was asked, “Do you speak and what time?”
They replied, Ten, eleven,
Three, four, five and seven,
Six, eight and quarter to nine.

After a break for the Christmas holiday, the tour resumed its frantic pace, with additional speakers to meet the demand of the larger crowds in the more populous Eastern cities, where the local committees had had more time to prepare and publicize the events. In Pittsburgh, the Jubilee luncheons attracted 4,800 in one day, while in Buffalo, the organizers had to remove the tables from the convention hall in order to accommodate the overflow crowd of 2,400 who bought luncheon tickets. Presumably, the women rested their lunch plates on their laps. Of course the tour could not bypass Washington, D.C. and New York City, the political and commercial capitals of the nation. In Washington, President Taft gave a reception at the White House for the Jubilee speakers, and Montgomery presented a leather-bound, autographed copy of Western Women in Eastern Lands to Mrs. Taft. Nannie Helen Burroughs, a leader of the black Baptist women’s missionary movement and president of the National Training School for Women and Girls, presided over a meeting of two thousand African American women at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church—an indication that race-based segregation, while usually unspoken, probably characterized the entire tour.

When the Golden Jubilee tour rolled into New York City for its grand climax in 1911, the New York Times took notice. “Big Missions Jubilee Opens Here To-Day;” “Pageant of Missions Opens Big Jubilee;” “6,000 Women at Luncheon;” “Missionary Jubliee Ends. More Than $869,350 Raised in Two Weeks Is Announced at Carnegie Hall.” Some of the most notable women in the city, including Mrs. Russell Sage, Grace Dodge, Helen Gould, and Mrs. J.P. Morgan, attended the Jubilee events. The immense celebrations required the facilities of the Metropolitan Opera House, the Astor, Waldorf-Astoria and Plaza Hotels, and Carnegie Hall, in addition to several local churches. At the Met, the women produced a “pageant of missions,” in which more than 1,000 actors, assisted by a chorus from the Musical Art Society and a sixty-six-piece orchestra from the Philharmonic Society and the New York Symphony, illustrated the progress of missions in tableaux. The house was sold out. The hotels hosted the luncheons for more than 6,000 women, and Carnegie Hall was the sight of an author’s meeting and a closing mass rally. Montgomery gave the final triumphant address of the Jubilee at to an overflow crowd at Carnegie Hall. The New York City celebration raised over $130,000.

Why did American women respond so enthusiastically to the Woman’s Missionary Jubilee of 1910-11? What brought thousands to the pageants, rallies, teas, and luncheons? What motivated them to raise more than one million dollars for missionary causes? Why did they work, pray, and give with such energy and passion?

In the fifth chapter of Western Women in Eastern Lands, entitled “The New Woman of the Orient,” Montgomery offered an interpretation of the first half-century of American women’s missionary effort. She saw the movement as the leading edge of a “worldwide woman’s movement,” and she claimed to find “evidences that age-long habits of subserviency are loosening, that women are shaking off the lion’s paw of cruel custom and are daring to stand on their feet, ‘an exceeding great army.’” She believed that the gospel was “the most tremendous engine of democracy ever forged . . . destined to break into pieces all castes, privileges, and oppressions.” According to Montgomery, Christ was “drawing the whole world unto his perfect charity, justice, friendliness, democracy, to that redeemed humanity in which there shall be no male or female, bond nor free, but only free men and free women, whose lives, like His, are given them not to be ministered to, but to minister.”

Montgomery did not write about heaven or a spiritual world to come, although she believed in them. She focused instead on the power of Christianity to transform the material, social, and political conditions of life for women in the world in which they lived. Montgomery argued that the women’s missionary movement was part of a larger democratic impulse, which was not only legitimated by the gospel, but was in fact the core meaning of the gospel for women. Decades of experience in the movement had convinced Montgomery and her audience that Christianity meant “fuller freedom and juster opportunities” for women. That is why her message thrilled thousands of American women, and they flocked to the Jubilee celebrations. With every Bible lesson they taught on the mission field, every magazine they published, every mothers’ congress they organized, every kindergarten or hospital they funded, they believed they were breaking chains of oppression and changing the world.

Within a few decades, the strength and certainty of purpose that had characterized the American women’s ecumenical missionary movement had vanished, along with most of movement’s infrastructure. As greater educational and professional opportunities opened up for women in the United States, fewer women saw missionary service as the best path to achievement and self-realization. The growth and maturity of indigenous church leadership on the mission field led to a missiological emphasis on partnership, which suggested a diminished need for “Western women in Eastern lands.” These and other developments called into question the need for gender-based separatism in missionary work. Most of the women’s missionary societies were forced to merge, for the sake of “organizational efficiency,” with denominational boards dominated by men. The success of the women’s missionary movement in organizing, educating and empowering women, at home and abroad, contained the seeds of its own destruction. Nevertheless, the movement organized, educated, and empowered more women more effectively than any other movement in American history. That is reason enough to remember and celebrate the centenary of the Golden Jubilee tour.

Kendal P. Mobley is the pastor of Enon Baptist Church in Salisbury, NC and the author of Helen Barrett Montgomery: The Global Mission of Domestic Feminism (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2009).