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Honoring Dana L. Robert, Scholar and Teacher of World Christianity

By Joel Carpenter

Joel was the provost of Calvin from 1996 to 2006 and then was the founding director of the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity until retiring in 2019. He has enjoyed being a member of the history department all along. Joel has a longstanding interest in American religious and cultural history and now studies Christianity in Africa and Asia. His latest project is a study of the life and thought of Kwame Bediako, one of Africa’s leading Christian thinkers


Editorial Introduction: This week we will be publishing a plenary given by Dr. Joel Carpenter in Accra, Ghana at the 5th International Interdisciplinary Conference on World Christianity. This conference theme was “Revisiting Women and Gender in World Christianity” and sought to honor the past and present contributions of women in the field. The Conference had plenary sessions honoring the work of Dr. Dana Robert and Dr. Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Here, we share the transcript from the session to honor the vast contribution of Dr. Dana Robert – Stephen Di Trolio, Managing Editor of The Occasional.

We have the task here of honoring Dana Robert as a scholar and teacher of world Christianity, and of recognizing, in particular, her contributions to understanding the role of women in the modern missions movement and the rise of world Christianity. Over an academic career spanning some forty years she has published more than a dozen books and more than 120 articles, while either directing or reviewing 85 doctoral dissertations at Boston University. I do not think any of us would argue with the late Andrew Walls for calling Prof. Robert “America’s premier mission historian.”[1]

Dr. Robert was asked to give the inaugural Gerald Anderson Lecture.

Prof. Robert’s work has been honored and celebrated, by both the specialists in the American Society of Missiologists and more generally by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, but given the nature of this conference, it is important to know how she has pioneered and developed the gendered features of our field of inquiry. Looking back on her masterwork, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1996), we realize that most of what we see today as the main features of the modern missions movement is in fact gendered. These are the ideas and practices that women in missions pioneered and emphasized in their work.


OMSC’s Research Enablement Program for the Advancement of Scholarship in
Studies of Christian Mission and World Christianity (REP) committee, meeting
at OMSC in 1995. Left to right, top: Geoffrey Little (OMSC staff), David Kerr, Paul
Hiebert, Robert Frykenberg, and Daniel Bays. Bottom: Dana Robert, John Pobee,
Gerald H. Anderson (OMSC director), José Míguez-Bonino, and Mary Motte. For more on photo.

Here is the irony behind that realization: women missionaries were usually given roles that were secondary to those of ordained men. The men were the stated preachers, the founders and leaders of congregations, and the systematizers and gatekeepers of denominational distinctives and traditions. Women missionaries, by contrast, dealt with the missions’ so-called practical work: in education, healthcare, and family living. Yet Prof. Robert concludes that women missionaries’ thought and practice produced a half-dozen important emphases and lines of work:

  1. “Personal” work: giving witness to others through friendship and neighborly relations. [2]
  2. Concerns for women and children: enrolling girls in school and teaching women to read; opposing harmful social practices such as female infanticide; teaching hygiene, nutrition, and household management; and teaching and modeling the Christian home with equal respect in marriage and mutual devotion to the nurture of children.
  3. Holism: Women emphasized no separation between spiritual and physical needs. In Christ’s name, they opened shelters for women, orphanages, clinics, and schools for the poor. They were connecting with people’s hearts.
  4. Education: women missionaries saw education as the key to the emancipation of women. Their invitation to teach became the great wedge point for the rise of single women missionaries. By the twentieth century, women were the missionary majority.
  5. Healing: healthcare was the most popular form of social service, and Prof. Robert shows that it was pioneered and dominated by women. Missionary health workers led campaigns against injurious social customs and demonstrated the worth of even the most marginal of people, such as lepers. Again, the approach was holistic, healing body and spirit.
  6. Ecumenism: Prof. Robert shows that women, who were not denominational or agency gatekeepers, were freer to develop cross-denominational partnerships—for colleges, hospitals, and mission service agencies. Their emphasis on worldwide Christian fellowship, friendship, and partnership provided the foundations for the ecumenical movement.

With this one book, Dana Robert showed powerfully that not only were missionary women able to construct mission theories, but that if you do not understand their role in creating and developing these lines of mission work and emphasis, you do not understand the main themes of modern missions history, theory, and practice. This book on women in missions is not some auxiliary account of missions history, then. It is a fundamental and generative account. The modern missions movement is very much gendered in theory and practice. Women missionaries did not set out to build up a body of missiology, but in their actions and reflection, that is what they did. And over time, their central themes have come to dominate the formal field of missiology.  This work is a classic, my friends, and if you have not spent time with it, you really must. Because of it, and the very large body of work that Prof. Robert has produced since she wrote it, much of it directly drafting off this book’s themes, we are very much in her debt.

[1] Walls, review of Dana Robert, Occupy until I Come: A.T. Pierson and the Evangelization of the World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), in the Journal of Presbyterian History 81:2 (Fall/Winter 2005), 179.

[2] What follows is for the most part a summary of Prof. Robert’s final chapter of American Women in Mission, “The Shape of American Women’s Mission Thought: A Concluding Note,” 409-418.

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