Assuming that prior to the Reformation, Jesuit priests did not bring missionary wives or families along, as they were not married, when did women become a normal sighting among missionary work around the world?

Note: I am principally thinking in terms of husband and wife teams leaving their home country to teach the bible abroad. The wife often doing sunday school or women bible studies or just sharing faith with work colleagues. The husband doing much the same as a missionary supported by the local church, possibly also acting as pastor of a newly built church. When was this a normal sighting around the globe.

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    William Carey was married! May 14, 2013 at 12:49
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    why wait until The Reformation? Aquila and his wife Priscilla accompanied Paul on some of his missionary work.
    – warren
    Jun 19, 2013 at 17:23
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    @Mike, I think this makes for a good research topic, and I did not find much academic literature on the topic. I wonder if the idea of 'a woman's workplace is in the home' effects her decision to participate in a long term work outside the home. Or, if they are able to be in a position over men to teach. It seems to me that a result of shifitng cultural norms for women has enabled them to consider long term missions as a career or vocation. Interesting question indeed.
    – frank.s
    Aug 1, 2013 at 18:26
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    @Mike You do realize that not all women religious are cloistered, right? Sep 12, 2013 at 2:21
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    @CharlesAlsobrook And to address the point of "never seeing the world again", well, those sisters are arguably more important than the ones who do direct mission work. At least, that's what Dominic thought (the cloistered OP's are an older order than the male OP's), and it is probably what JPII thought (he made Therese the patroness of the missions) Sep 13, 2013 at 6:33

2 Answers 2


Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)

The normal, "extroverted" role of women in missionary work has existed on a grand scale ever since the Apostolic age. Various religious congregations and orders of both men and women have been established throughout the centuries with the specific purpose of obeying Jesus’ Great Commission. Some of these female congregations, such as those founded by SS. Augustine and Benedict (Augustinians/Benedictines) date back to the 4th and 5th centuries.

Never the less, in order to address the question specifically, I'll briefly focus on the participation and pro-activity of women missionaries on a world-wide scale during and after the Reformation period.

During the Age of Discovery, immediately following the advent of the Reformation, Catholic missionaries – both men and women – set out to evangelize the newly discovered Americas. The Ursuline Sisters were the first Catholic nuns to land in the new world. In 1639, Mother Marie of the Incarnation, two other Ursuline nuns, and a Jesuit priest left France for a mission to Canada. When they arrived in the summer of 1639, they studied the language of the native peoples and then began to educate the native children.(1) They taught reading and writing as well as needlework, embroidery, drawing and other domestic arts.(2) The Ursuline Convent established by Marie has been in continuous use by the Ursuline Sisters since its construction.

By the end of 1640, there were many Ursulines in Canada who taught the catechism to indigenous children. There is also an Ursuline convent in Quebec City that is the oldest educational institution for women in North America.(3) Their work helped to preserve a religious spirit among the French population and to Christianize native peoples and Métis.

In 1727, 12 Ursulines from France landed in what is now New Orleans. These Ursulines were the first Roman Catholic nuns in what is now the United States. They instituted a convent and school, both of which continue today.(4) Ursuline Academy (New Orleans) is the oldest continually operating Catholic school in the United States and the oldest girl’s school in the United States.

The Ursuline tradition holds many U. S. firsts in its dedication to the growth of individuals, including the first female pharmacist, first woman to contribute a book of literary merit, first convent, first free school and first retreat center for ladies, and the first free education for female slaves (which continued until abolition). The Ursulines also established the first social welfare center in the Mississippi Valley.

Other notable religious orders that were/are specifically commissioned by Rome to do missionary work during the post-Reformation period:

The Sisters of Mercy was founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland in 1831, and her nuns went on to establish hospitals and schools across the world.(5)

The Little Sisters of the Poor was founded in the mid-19th century by Saint Jeanne Jugan near Rennes, France, to care for the many impoverished elderly who lined the streets of French towns and cities.(6)

In Britain's Australian colonies, Australia's first canonized Saint, Mary MacKillop, co-founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart as educative religious institute for the poor in 1866, and by the time of her death her religious institute had established 117 schools and had opened orphanages and refuges for the needy.

The list goes on and on, including contemporaries such as the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

For much of the early twentieth century, Catholic women continued to join religious institutes in large numbers, where their influence and control was particularly strong in the running of primary education for children, high schooling for girls, and in nursing, hospitals, orphanages and aged care facilities.

Within Protestantism, the participation of women in post-Reformation missionary work sharply contrasts that of Catholicism, in that it was practically non-existent up until the turn of the 20th century. This was mainly because the majority of Protestant churches upheld the traditional position which restricted ruling and preaching roles within the Church exclusively to men until the 20th century.

The Protestant Reformation, by shutting down female convents within the movement, effectively closed off the option of a full-time religious role for Protestant women.(7) Martin Luther himself taught that "the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and concern the state…."(8) John Calvin agreed that "the woman's place is in the home."(9)

In his A Very Short History of the World, the historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that, in removing the institution of the convent, the Reformation at first indirectly reduced the power of women, for convents had been places where women could achieve power and influence, as in Zurich where the Benedictine abbesses had helped administer the town.

John Knox (1510–1572) also denied women the right to publicly evangelize, as he asserted in his famous First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Baptist theologian Dr. John Gill (1690–1771) comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, stating:

In Gen 3:16, "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee". By this the apostle would signify, that the reason why women are not to speak in the church, or to preach and teach publicly, or be concerned in the ministerial function, is, because this is an act of power, and authority; of rule and government, and so contrary to that subjection which God in his law requires of women unto men. The extraordinary instances of Deborah, Huldah, and Anna, must not be drawn into a rule or example in such cases.(10)

Methodist founder John Wesley (1703–1791) and Methodist theologian Adam Clarke (1762–1832) both upheld male headship, but allowed that spiritual Christian women could publicly speak in church meetings if they "are under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit"(11)

Puritan theologian Matthew Poole (1624–1679) concurred with Wesley, adding:

But setting aside that extraordinary case of a special afflatus, [strong Divine influence] it was, doubtless, unlawful for a woman to speak in the church.

It wasn't until the founding of the Women’s Missionary Union in 1888 that Protestant women began to effectively facilitate missionary work abroad.

According to historian Patricia Hill, the interdenominational women's foreign mission movement was the largest of the great women's movements of the nineteenth century, eclipsing the more famous temperance movement and women's rights movement.

Local [women's mission] auxiliaries, like temperance groups and women's clubs, offered conservative women a forum for developing skills in public speaking, fund- raising and organizational management that could be easily transferred from these semiprivate spheres to the public arena. And when the women of small-town America embarked upon the systematic study of foreign mission fields, their cultural horizons were considerably broadened. Women who served overseas as missionaries or who headed denominational societies at the national level carved out careers for themselves in mission service. Thus, paradoxically, this eminently respectable, religiously conservative movement fostered a wider sphere of responsibility for ordinary churchwomen and opened up new professional opportunities for several thousand American women.

Foreign missions gripped the imaginations and enlisted the support of hundreds of thousands of middle-class churchwomen in the late nineteenth century. By 1915 there were more than three million women on the membership rolls of some forty denominational female missionary societies. The interdenominational women's foreign mission movement . . . was substantially larger than any of the other mass woman's movements of the nineteenth century.(13)

Women have played an indispensable role throughout salvation history. From the Virgin Birth of Christ, down to the present day, women have played a tremendously integral part in the mission of Christ’s Church. Missionary work is alive and well in today's Church, as both men and women are working together to preach the Gospel to all nations.

  1. http://www.teachinghistory.org/history-content/ask-a-historian/23848
  2. http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio.php?id_nbr=325
  3. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/The_Ursulines
  4. http://www.pbase.com/septembermorn/ursuline_academy_and_convent_after_hurricane_katrina
  5. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Sisters_of_Mercy
  6. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12248a.htm
  7. http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3241
  8. Luther’s Lectures on Genesis 3:11
  9. http://www.covenanter.org/JCalvin/titussermons/srmtts11.htm
  10. http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/gills-exposition-of-the-bible/1-corinthians-14-34.html
  11. John Wesley's notes on the Bible, 1 Cor. 14:34,35
  12. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~ma02/harris/sbc/wmu.html

Rom 16:1 I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea: Rom 16:2 That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.

Rom 16:7 Salute Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen, and my fellowprisoners, who are of note among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.

Rom 16:12 Salute Tryphena and Tryphosa, who labour in the Lord. Salute the beloved Persis, which laboured much in the Lord. Rom 16:13 Salute Rufus chosen in the Lord, and his mother and mine. Rom 16:14 Salute Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermas, Patrobas, Hermes, and the brethren which are with them. Rom 16:15 Salute Philologus, and Julia, Nereus, and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints which are with them.

Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.

When the Gentile Church was formed the prohibition between the sexes was removed. Most gentiles were and are not as {whatever the correct word is which describes Jewish culture gender relations}. If a prohibition for women to minister was created by what became the catholic or orthodox church I don't know but it certainly was artificial. Phebe was recorded as teaching Paul and also taught the church at Rome. She would we one of the first missionaries. Others are listed later in Romans 16 Junia is specifically called an apostles which is basically what we think of as missionaries. Tryphena and Tryphosa probably sister traveling ministers.

  • I agree with you but my question is after the reformation. You are only 1200 years off ;).
    – Mike
    Jun 20, 2013 at 0:48
  • @Mike i guess my answer is it was always normal at the beginning of christianity to the reformation, during the reformation and after the reformation. As someone in the other comments pointed out luther's wife had been a nun.
    – user4060
    Jun 20, 2013 at 0:52

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