An article in an early Adventist publication addressing the importance of zenana missions in India quoted a native Christian who had postulated, “If you want to win India, win the women of India, and all India will be Christian.”1
Zenanas were the most private rooms in a home where girls upon marriage (normally the age of 12) were secluded, never to be seen again by any male except for family. In that cloistered world the mother wielded considerable influence over her children and to some extent even over her husband. To reach these otherwise inaccessible women and girls, Christian missionaries established zenana schools and hospitals and recruited women Bible workers to reach into the zenanas.
In 1890 Stephen Haskell, with Percy Magan as assistant, embarked on a reconnaissance trip around the world that included several countries in Asia. They hoped to discover the most effective ways in which the Advent message might be spread.
After the two travelers encountered a woman in Calcutta engaged in zenana school work, they suggested to the mission board back home that Adventist women could be trained for zenana work in her school.2 When Haskell returned, he described in more detail the operation of these schools. Native teachers under the supervision of European women taught girls below the age of 12. Haskell saw this as an open door.3 He addressed the delegates to the General Conference Session in 1891, advocating witness to women in these zenanas. This, he thought, would be a good way to begin the work in India.4
In California, Georgia Burrus heard Haskell speak and responded to his appeal regarding the needs of these shut-in women.5 Following Haskell’s advice, she took up nursing at the St. Helena hospital and joined a class at Battle Creek Academy that prepared workers for foreign mission service.6 Georgia spent her first year in Calcutta studying the Bengali language. When D. A. Robinson and family arrived with Martha May Taylor at the end of that year, she was ready. As Georgia prepared to begin her full-time work, she sent an article to the Youth’s Instructor affirming her mission to go into homes to teach these women, and also to teach their children in mission schools.7
Fortuitously, help arrived in the person of Kheroda, a widow who had been converted by a female European missionary who’d been allowed into their zenana by her mother-in-law to teach the women how to sew. The missionary also managed to sow the seed of the gospel in Kheroda’s heart. Eventually the young widow fled her zenana and joined the missionaries. She had just completed a teacher’s training course when she approached the Adventists, seeking employment.8 Soon she became the first convert to Adventism in India.
Georgia, Martha, and Kheroda started the school, and Georgia, with her limited knowledge of Bengali, began visiting zenanas in the neighborhood. In the zenana of the Biswas home, 11-year-old Nanibala showed remarkable interest in the story of Jesus.9 When she refused to worship the family idols, her father banned Georgia from visiting the girl. With the help of a sympathetic aunt, however, Nanibala scaled the walls of the zenana while the family was asleep and fled to the mission bungalow.10
Georgia married and moved on, but others arrived to continue the ministry. Della Burroway in Calcutta converted Mrs. De Rosario, who’d formerly done zenana work for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) mission.11 Sister Minnie Singh labored among the zenanas in Dehra Dun.12 In Najibabad Mrs. Singh assisted Sister O’Connor,13 as did Miss Shryock14 and Miss Kurtz.15 Sister Camphor taught five hours daily in several zenanas in Lucknow.16 Miss Scholz combined zenana and Bible work in Ranchi.17
Zenana work involved numerous challenges. Setting foot inside the front door was the first. One had to offer skills that were needed or desired. Zenana workers taught health, reading, writing, and dictation, but they missed no opportunity to share the love of Jesus and the message of salvation. Women who accepted Jesus as their Savior could not give the slightest hint to any other member of the family. She might be taken out of reach of the missionary or persecuted and threatened. A converted woman had to be content living with her secret. She could not hope for an opportunity to be baptized. No pastor could be permitted even to see, let alone touch, a woman of a zenana. No worker faced these challenges more often than Miss Vera Chilton.18
Vera, a worker for the CMS mission, had joined the Adventists in 1910, thereafter devoting the next four decades to zenana ministry in Lucknow, serving even after retirement.
In 1921 Vera wrote several stories for the Missions Quarterly.19 In 1924 the Review and Herald Publishing Association published her book, The Sigh of the Orient—stories of women in the zenanas and their plight. Most women believed in Jesus, but dared not take the final step.20 Some had asked about baptism but could not have it openly.21
One woman who accepted Christ had observed the Sabbath quietly for about four years. Her changed life convinced her husband to also accept Christ, which made it possible for her to be baptized. Still, to avoid trouble from the community, arrangements were made for her to be baptized in her home. M. M. Mattison, mission president for the region, received special permission from the husband to enter the home—but just to offer the benediction, and with the condition that he not see the woman.22 Who baptized her is a good question. Meanwhile, a group gathered by the river, where her husband was baptized openly. Some years later, however, A. H. Williams, president of the Northwest Union, reported that the husband had passed away and the widow was taken away by relatives.23
Another woman, Muni Begam, took but a few months to influence her husband, who soon asked for baptism for himself. In this case he permitted Pastor Mattison to baptize his wife, too. Vera Chilton’s veranda was screened to conceal a baptistry constructed from a large wooden box lined with a borrowed tarpaulin. Pastor Mattison joined the group of assembled women just long enough to baptize the woman. Her husband was baptized at the usual site in the Gomti River.24
One Muslim woman who accepted Jesus was spirited away beyond Vera’s reach. But her changed life touched her husband, who brought her back and soon asked for baptism for both of them.25
Vera pushed the brethren for a “refuge home” for women who might have to leave their husbands to practice their faith. The delay in arranging for such a refuge caused several women to pass the opportunity to confess Christ openly.26
Sometime later union president A. H. Williams gave hints of a zenana refuge. He wrote, “We purposely refrain from being explicit in our references to it, but this we can state for your encouragement that there are today six (seven temporarily) who are receiving spiritual help and instruction in this way,” while many others were striving to live Christlike lives in the seclusion of zenanas.27
Vera Chilton touched the lives of countless women, and scores accepted Jesus as their Savior. Many lost interest in this ministry, though, because it did not produce “cold statistics.”28 William Spicer agreed that the results of zenana work did not appear in our statistical records to a great extent, but he added that “the Lord must keep that record.”29
Returning to India in 1945 after 25 years of absence, J. E. Fulton, the first president of the Southern Asia Division, recalled the long and patient years of service given by Vera Chilton and other women who engaged in zenana work.30 B. A. Howard, president of the Uttar Pradesh Mission in newly independent India, reiterated the continued need for women Bible workers to carry on zenana work.31
India, however, changed quickly. Today girls of all religious and social backgrounds are going to schools and colleges and are finding jobs in an ever-expanding variety of careers. The zenana way of life is no longer the norm. Many women, though, can still be reached much more readily by another woman. In this context, ministry by women for women is still very relevant.
1 “The Women of India,” Sabbath School and Young People’s Department, Field Lesson No. IX, Echoes From the Field, Aug. 1, 1906, p. 3.
2 “Letters From Rutan and Calcutta,” Foreign Mission Board minutes, July 20, 1890.
3 S. N. Haskell, “India. No. 9—Zenana Schools,” Signs of the Times 380 (Apr. 17, 1893): 12.
4 S. N. Haskell, “Foreign Missions” (March 17 speech), General Conference Daily Bulletin (Review and Herald Extra), Mar. 22, 1891, p. 198.
5 Mrs. Georgia Burgess, “Why I Went to India,” Bible Training School, June 1916, p. 5.
6 See Gordon Christo, “Burgess, Georgia Burrus,” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id= AHXD&highlight=Georgia.
7 Georgia A. Burrus, “Women of India,” Youth’s Instructor, Dec. 26, 1895, p. 1.
8 Gordon Christo, “Bose, Kheroda,” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/search-results?term= Kheroda.
9 Mrs. L. J. Burgess, “The Blessed Pioneer,” Eastern Tidings, May 8, 1941, p. 3.
10 Gordon E. Christo, “Biswas, Nanibala,” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/search-results?term=Nanibala.
11 Della Burroway, “Service for the Master,” Eastern Tidings, September 1905,p.3; see also Della Burroway, “Karmatar,” Eastern Tidings, April 1906, p. 7.
12 “Hindustani Items,” Eastern Tidings, January 1910, p. 4.
13 “Najibabad,” Eastern Tidings, May 1910, p. 3; “Notes,” Eastern Tidings, February 1914, p. 5.
14 S. A. Wellman, “Our North India Stations,” Eastern Tidings, May 1913, p. 9.
15 S. A. Wellman, “North India Mission,” Eastern Tidings, January 1915, p. 16.
16 “Notes,” Eastern Tidings, April 1913, p. 9.
17 G. G. Lowry, “Ranchi Maternity Home,” Eastern Tidings, Jan. 1, 1928, p. 6.
18 “The Shadow of Death and Gospel Light—No 1,” Missions Quarterly, First Quarter 1921, p. 16; see also Michael W. Campbell and Koberson Langhu, “Chilton, Charlotte ‘Vera’ (1873-1965),” Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=BIIW& highlight=Vera|Chilton.
19 Vera Chilton, “The Shadow of Death and Gospel Light—Nos. 1-3,” Missions Quarterly, First Quarter 1921, pp. 16-26.
20 “Notes,” Eastern Tidings, April 1913, p. 9.
21 Mrs. J. L. Shaw, “Busy Days in India and Burma,” Eastern Tidings, February 1913, p. 4.
22 “Zenana Work—Lucknow,” India Union Tidings, May 1, 1919, p. 2.
23 A. H. Williams, “Northwest India Union Mission Report,” Eastern Tidings, Jan. 1, 1930, p. 17.
24 Walter S. Mead, “A Baptism in ‘Purdah,’” Youth’s Instructor, Dec. 5, 1922, p. 6.
25 M. E. Kern, “Behind the Purdah,” Youth’s Instructor, Aug. 11, 1931, pp. 4, 12.
26 S. A. Wellman, “North India Mission,” India Union Tidings, Jan. 1, 1917, p. 16.
27 A. H. Williams, “Northwest India Union Mission Report,” Eastern Tidings, Jan. 1, 1930, p. 17.
28 Vera Chilton, “Reaching the Women of India,” Ministry, Sept. 1, 1939, pp. 8, 9.
29 W. A. Spicer, “Some Facts About Early Work in India,” Eastern Tidings, May 8, 1941, p. 4.
30 J. E. Fulton, “After Twenty-five Years,” Eastern Tidings, Sept. 1, 1945, p. 7.
31 B. A. Howard, “North United Provinces,” Eastern Tidings, Nov. 15, 1947, p. 6.
Gordon E. Christo, Ph.D. in Old Testament and Adventist studies, is retired and working on contract as assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists and assistant editor of the Seventh-day Adventist International Biblical-Theological Dictionary. He is currently setting up a heritage center for the Southern Asia Division.