The Hesitant Missionary: Ida Scudder’s Profound Impact on India

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Last week, we continued our series on the History of Missions by examining the ministry and life of Temple Gairdner and his heart for Muslims. This week, we once again find ourselves in India in order to examine the missionary work of Dr. Ida Scudder. Her story is one that fascinates and thoroughly impresses me. She is renowned for her impact on medicine and education, particularly among women, in India in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ida Scudder (1870-1960) was born in India into a missionary family. The Scudder family could boast an amazing statistic regarding their devotion to missions. As Tucker notes, “In four generations, forty-two members of the Scudder family became missionaries, contributing well over one thousand combined years of missionary service” (Tucker, 368). These numbers shocked me, especially the thousand years of combined service. To say that this family has had an impact on overseas missions would be quite an understatement. Ida’s role in the family’s legacy had somewhat of an auspicious beginning. Having grown up on the mission field, she actually did not want missions work for her career.

As Tucker observes, Ida ended up back in India shortly after her high school graduation to care for her mother who had fallen ill. As a result, Ida ended up in charge of a school for girls with sixty-eight girls (Tucker, 368). While she was there, she felt called to minister to young women, particularly young pregnant women. Tucker relates how there was a night with three men seeking help for difficult childbirths, but customs would not allow Ida’s father to help, so the women all died. It was at that point that Ida saw the need and felt her calling (Tucker 368-69). She went back to America to go to medical school, and attended Cornell in 1898 because they began allowing women students (Tucker, 369). She brought a check from a wealthy woman donor in order to start a hospital, but soon saw the need to educate women as well. She had to raise a great deal of money to support both avenues. “While home on furlough, she captivated her largely female audiences by her stories of the hopeless plight of the Indian women, and every meeting brought more money for the project” (Tucker, 370).

Things really took off for Scudder, as she served as a doctor, teacher, and operated an orphanage for homeless children (Tucker, 370). Unfortunately, despite her successes, she struggled with government bureaucracy, with a requirement in 1937 that all medical schools had to be affiliated with the state-run medical school (Tucker, 370). The difficult decision was made that her school, Vellore Medical College, should be the first co-ed medical school in India. Unfortunately, this led to a bit of a scandal, since many of her donors had given to the cause of female education and training (Tucker, 371). These issues aside, Ida Scudder was really quite successful, both as a doctor and as an organizer. She helped start a medical school which trained numerous women and provided them with education which they might not otherwise have been able to access.

Tucker relays a couple of interesting anecdotes regarding Ida Scudder that I wanted to highlight as well. The first speaks to her fame. Tucker notes that someone actually sent a letter simply addressed “Dr. Ida, India,” and it was taken directly to her (Tucker, 371). The second story is that Scudder defeated a teenager (in two sets, winning every game) in a tennis tournament when Scudder was 65 after the teenager complained of “having to play a granny” (Tucker, 371). I wonder what the teenager said after losing to Ida so resoundingly.

Overall, Ida Scudder had a monumental impact upon the country of India. Her family already had quite the legacy, but Ida stands out for her work as a medical doctor, teacher, and innovator of women’s education and women’s health. Her work from 1898 to 1946 in India left quite a mark on the nation. If her tennis game is any indication, I am sure she was someone you would not want to cross. Her medical school was the first college of nursing in India and today “serves over two million patients and trains thousands of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals each year” (https://www.vellorecmc.org/who-we-are/history/).

I think that one of the most intriguing parts of Ida Scudder’s story is her initial desire to not continue the family tradition. She wanted something else for her life, but God had bigger plans for her. Her work obviously impacted people’s daily lives in numerous ways. If one ponders how Ida might not have even become a missionary at all had her mother not fallen ill, it seems like the illness was quite the fortuitous, if not providential, circumstance. Women’s education and health in India owe a great deal to Ida’s willingness to serve God’s calling on her life.

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Serious Missionary: The Ultra-focused Ministry of Amy Carmichael

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This week we are starting a new series on the history of Christian missions. In studying such a history, one will see that there are many powerful individuals and ministries. The main source we will rely on is Ruth A. Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (please see the Recommended Books page on our blog). Today’s post focuses on Amy Carmichael.

Carmichael (1867-1951) was a missionary in India, where she ministered for over fifty-five years. Carmichael “founded Donhavur Fellowship and wrote some thirty-five books, a number of which were translated into more than a dozen languages. One of them, Gold Cord, has had sales of more than a half-million” (Tucker, 2004, 298-99). These facts alone make her a very intriguing person for our blog series. The fact that she had a 55-year ministry is nothing short of amazing, made more powerful when one considers that she never took a furlough (Tucker, 300). Also, the fact that she wrote 35 books with one of them selling 500,000 copies shows her impact came in several different forms.

Her ministry focused on serving children, including “child widows, temple prostitutes, or orphans” (Tucker, 300). Carmichael saw herself as the mother of these children in need. Her ministry flourished, as Tucker notes that “twelve years after she began her ministry she had 130 children under her care” (Tucker, 300). The numerous amount of children under her charge warranted others who likewise were willing to act as parents to them. As a result, Carmichael often urged that her fellow workers were supposed to remain unmarried. She started the Sisters of the Common Life for single women in order to have more women acting as mothers to the numerous children in the ministry (Tucker, 300).

The fact that she was in India for 55 years without a furlough caused Carmichael to likewise deny others’ requests for time off from the ministry (Tucker, 301). She was no doubt intensely focused on their work and thought that time away from the mission would lead to a weakened sense of calling and purpose. In fact, many of her critics accused her of running too tight of a ship and of being a dictator, mostly by those who tried to work with her (Tucker 302). One individual, Stephen Neill, ended up writing about his time working with Carmichael and noted that her authoritarian model was not always helpful, especially if someone came in with new ideas and goals (Tucker, 302-3), which he tried to do.

Overall, we are left with an image of a dedicated, organized woman who spent most of her life serving the children of India. She was gifted with incredible endurance, intelligence, and a deep desire to serve God’s calling in her life. Carmichael’s writing career was rather prolific, directly testifying to her intelligence and communication skills. However, one must also recognize that her dedication often came across to her coworkers as extreme, harsh, and too authoritarian. One has to wonder if she went too far in serving God.

This begs the question of whether or not one can “go too far” in following God. One need only interview people who have “flamed out” of pastoral ministry to find out that regular rest is often necessary in order to continue functioning in the ministries into which God has called a person. Pastors, missionaries, chaplains, nuns, monks, etc. need time to recuperate from their service. Amy Carmichael never took a furlough for over 55 years. Such a model would almost be unheard of on the mission field today. Often, missionaries travel back to their home country to raise support to continue serving in their respective mission fields; however, missionaries also take time to rest and reinvigorate  themselves in order to continue serving God to the best of their physical, mental, and spiritual abilities.

Amy Carmichael was a very devoted missionary who left a lasting impact on all with whom she came into contact. Much of it was positive, but some was also negative. I can’t help but wonder if the negative would have been lessened had she taken time off here and there to rest.

I close by asking those of you in ministry positions and other lay offices what your opinion is of such a model. Do you take regular furloughs/ vacations? Is such a model too “American,” worldly, etc? What level of exhaustion is okay in order to keep serving God’s calling in your life? Can one maintain Carmichael’s ultra-focused ministry model, or was she just particularly gifted by God in order to do so?

Midweek Blog: Abraham Lincoln and the Will of God

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This week’s blog post continues our discussion of American church history. Today’s post focuses one of the most famous (if not the most famous) people in American History: Abraham Lincoln. Many people know many details about Lincoln’s life and role as the sixteenth president of the United States, his role in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, his leadership during the Civil War, and his subsequent assassination. Today, I want to focus on his discussion of God’s will.

Lincoln, in a small document, addresses God’s will and the Civil War. He writes, “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party… I am almost ready to say that this is probably true; that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power on the minds of the now contestants, he could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest” (Lincoln, “Mediation on Divine Will,” 1862; Gaustad and Noll, 572).

There are a couple powerful statements in such a small sampling from Lincoln’s thoughts. First is the idea that God wills the Civil War to not only have happened but to continue in its duration. Lincoln wrote this during the War and noted that God could have simply ended it whenever God wanted to, but yet it continued to rage. Such an assertion might seem troubling, particularly to us today. The Civil War is often looked upon as a brutal, heart-wrenching conflict in American history. Families torn apart, incredible losses of life, and slavery being at the very forefront of the conflict all lead to an image of archaic barbarity that we sometimes cannot believe actually happened in the United States, especially only 150 years ago. Lincoln further complicates our view of the Civil War by noting that it’s “probably true that God wills this contest.” With the benefit of hindsight, how should we understand such a statement? Was Lincoln reflecting the thoughts of Christians everywhere? Does God will wars to happen? What does that do for our picture of God?

These are difficult questions, and somewhat impossible to answer. What we can use from Lincoln’s statement is that Lincoln defers to God’s will on the matter, showing a strong faith and trust in God’s purposes. Lincoln does not resort to blaming God for the Civil War, he merely notes that there must be a reason that it continues because it has not yet ended. The second element from Lincoln’s above statement that I want to point out is that in such a contest as the Civil War both sides claim to be on “God’s side.” One need only to read Domestic Slavery Considered as a Scriptural Institution by Francis Wayland and Richard Fuller to see that both pro and antislavery individuals thought that their position on slavery was biblically sanctioned. As Lincoln notes, “God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time,” so one side has to be wrong. The problem with such conflicts is not who is right and who is wrong, but the fact that both sides think that their position lines up with God’s purposes. In the Civil War and in other grand conflicts, such a dichotomy can lead to a besmirching of God’s name as well as a jumbling of the message of the Bible on certain matters.

In another document, Lincoln again ponders how to determine God’s will. He writes, “I am approached with the most opposite opinions and advice, and that by religious men who are equally certain that they represent the divine will. I am sure that either the one or the other class is mistaken in that belief… I hope it will not be irreverent for me to say that if it is probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me… if I can learn what it is, I will do it” (Lincoln, “Reply to a Committee from the Religious Denominations of Chicago,” 1862).

I really like Lincoln’s forthrightness here. He comes across almost as snarky: “If God wants me to know what God’s will is for my presidency, God would have told me directly.” Fair point, and I’m glad he adds that he hopes he is not being irreverent before he says it. I think Lincoln’s vision for his own presidency shows a great deal of humility and faithfulness, but at the same time shows why he was a great leader: he was willing to say: “I’m the president, remember?”

Finally, Lincoln issued a proclamation instituting a National Fast Day on March 30, 1863 (Gaustad and Noll, 572-73) to “humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness… let us rest humbly in the hope authorized by the divine teachings, that the united cry of the nation will be heard on high, and answered with blessings no less than the pardon of national sins, and the restoration of our now divided and suffering country to its former happy condition of unity and peace” (Gaustad and Noll, 573).

Powerful statements to come from the president. I wish people read more of Abraham Lincoln than just his “Gettysburg Address.” Seeking pardon for the national sins is a good thought. I know that such a statement would never come from any president in the twenty-first century due to the divided opinions on the place (or lack of place) that faith can have in government; however, I think one of the “national sins” today is simply thinking we are incapable of committing national sins. We look at the USA as a place that is immune to horrors and mistreatment of people, but unfortunately these happen here too. I think if Lincoln were alive and president today, he would still be shocked at how people in this country treat one another. I share his hope that God would grant “restoration” to the divided areas of our country, even today.