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‘Alternative facts’: how women were written out of early mission history The case of Susanna Klein

Recorded on 9 March 2021

Speaker: Fiona Leach (University of Sussex)

This talk is based on research into the lives of three women who served on the Church Missionary Society’s first overseas mission, established in West Africa in the first decade of the 19th century. It addresses the silence surrounding the presence of such women and seeks to explain why the myth of the early mission as an all male affair has remained largely intact despite considerable advances in feminist scholarship. It takes the life story of one particular missionary wife to illustrate the role played by historians’ uncritical use of archival material in perpetuating the male narrative, including through the disregard of evidence of early female agency. At the heart of Susanna Klein’s story is her dramatic decision in 1815 to turn whistleblower by exposing a range of missionary misdemeanours to her uncle, a founder member of the CMS, which prompted an inspection visit from London. The talk traces the mechanism whereby the Society, deeply unsettled by her role in the affair, airbrushed all mention of her from its public records, in the process revealing the ease with which men could preserve the fiction that they were acting alone. A number of sober lessons to be drawn from an unquestioning reliance on the work of others are offered in conclusion. 

IHR Seminar SeriesChristian Missions in Global History