Jane Green from Edinburgh recently completed her MTh at Edinburgh University with a dissertation (Scottish Presbyterian women and St. Colm’s College – Training for Missionary Service in India between 1895 and 1920, August 2015) about St Colm’s College in Edinburgh and some of the women who were trained there for missionary work at the turn of the 20th century. Originally the Free Church of Scotland Missionary Training Institute (opened 1894), it was renamed the Women’s Missionary College in 1908 and then finally St Colm’s College in 1934. Paying particular attention to the first Principal, Annie Small and the values and practices she wanted to instil in the young women who attended the College, Jane Green paints a fascinating picture of women’s missionary work emanating from this Scottish centre.
Small, the daughter and sister of missionaries, took on the job as Superintendant on her return from India after more than a decade of missionary work. Profiting from her own experience she attempted to develop a curriculum that would sustain single women in the missionary field. There are many points of interest in the dissertation – such as the requirement that applicants to the College should be able to sing, so significantly this activity was valued by Small.
Two issues stood out for me: first of all it is clear that Small’s work recognised a potential for single women to feel alone and unsupported – even in mission stations where there were other women. In preparing her students, she emphasised the significance of building a communal life of prayer and reflection but also of a certain quiet and regular sociability. Male missionaries had learned early on, the value of having their own wifely support system. Small built on this insight.
Secondly and perhaps most significantly, the dissertation makes the point that at a time when the roles of women were beginning to change in Britain but not in any uniform way or at any predictable speed, the missionary context proved in many ways to be one of the most ‘liberating’ for determined and committed young women. What it implies is that the very isolation to which Small’s training was addressed, may also have released women from more overbearing influences that would have been exercised over them had they stayed in their Scottish parishes. At the same time, it is interesting to note the sense in which highly intelligent, accomplished and committed women such as Small and her students, maintained a scrupulously ‘low profile,’ separating themselves very largely from their more rebellious sister Suffragettes or Suffragists and on the surface of things at least, maintaining the gender status quo.
My questions then would be – did they do this consciously or not? Did they recognise that becoming a missionary offered them an unrivalled opportunity to fulfil their Christian vocations in new ways, provided they did not draw attention to their gender or to the many forms of discrimination to which they would typically have been subject in the home-land context? Or did they simply find themselves called upon in the exigencies of the mission field to ‘just get on with it’?
In any event these are the questions we hope the SWOAM project may begin to examine and we hope very much that you will want to contribute your thoughts and ideas.