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Was it worthwhile?: An historical analysis of five women missionaries and their encounters with the Nyungar people of south-west Australia

Longworth, Alison (2005) Was it worthwhile?: An historical analysis of five women missionaries and their encounters with the Nyungar people of south-west Australia. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Was it worthwhile? The thesis asks this question of the life and work of female faith missionaries who served in Western Australia with the Australian Aborigines' Mission and/or the United Aborigines' Mission, during the twentieth century.

In 1902, the New South Wales Aborigines' Mission adopted faith mission principles based on those of the China Inland Mission founded in 1865. The mission expanded into Western Australia in 1908 and changed its name to the Australian Aborigines' Mission. From 1929, it was known as the United Aborigines' Mission. The research began with a historiography of the China Inland Mission and the United Aborigines' Mission and its antecedents. The analysis of the principles of these two missions identified that some characteristics of a faith mission were present in the New South Wales Aborigines' Mission from the beginning and others were never adopted. It established that from 1902, the New South Wales Aborigines' Mission upheld the faith principles of trusting God to provide physical needs, not soliciting for funds and not entering into debt. Because most faith missionaries were female, the historiography proceeded to examine texts on women missionaries, including recent work by Australian writers. This recognised that issues of gender, race and class were present within both mission cultures.

Five case studies were chosen to cover a period from 1912 when Bertha Telfer arrived in Western Australia until the retirement of Mary Jones in 1971. Using written and oral source material from Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, the research studied the work of five female faith missionaries in south-west Australia: Bertha Telfer/Alcorn, Ethel Hamer/Fryer, Hope Malcolm/Wright, Mary Jones and Melvina Langley/Rowley, with a focus on issues of Evangelicalism, race, gender and class. Preliminary investigation of the women recognized that while only one had professional training and two received missionary training, membership of the interdenominational Christian Endeavour youth movement was a formative influence on all these female missionaries. An investigation into the principles of that organisation, founded in North America in 1881, established it was influenced by the 1858-59 Revival within Evangelicalism in England and North America and it placed a strong emphasis on personal conversion and a commitment to mission. Christian Endeavour spread to Australia by 1883 and was found to have provided limited leadership opportunities to women.

The research tracked the experience of the female faith missionaries over six decades of living by faith among the Nyungar people and discovered a lack of identification with Indigenous culture that had its roots in a widely held belief in the superiority of western culture. Associated with this was the Evangelical belief in personal conversion that did not address cross-cultural issues. The UAM identification with the rise of fundamentalism from the 1920s coincided with diminished leadership opportunities for women at a time when women were gaining more choices in the wider Australian community.

The thesis concludes that the role of faith missionary was costly to women in terms of their health and wellbeing. In the context of oppressive government policies towards Indigenous Australians, the poverty and marginalisation experienced by the women, when combined with compassion, created solidarity with Nyungar people. In some cases, this reduced the barriers of race and gender and resulted in the conversion of some Nyungar people, contributing to the formation of an Indigenous and Evangelical church. These findings are significant because they point to new understanding of mission, conversion and Aboriginal-missionary relations and cultures and of the role played by female faith missionaries in the shared mission history of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Western Australians.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Social Sciences and Humanities
Supervisor(s): Strong, Rowan
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