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Life of Isabella Thoburn: Devoted Unmarried Women in Missions

At that time many criticised sending unmarried women to the mission fields, but they refused to give in.

Amidst strict gender segregation of 19th century America, Isabella Thoburn, a courageous young woman yet gentle in spirit, became the first female unmarried missionary appointed by the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1869.

The Church and many missionary organizations of the time criticised sending unmarried women to the mission fields, but many American women refused to give in. Soon a number of missionary societies, specifically for women, began to spring up in America.

James Thoburn, a widower brother of Isabella, was serving in Lucknow, India as a missionary. He wrote to Isabella in 1866, requesting her to join him as a missionary too. He expressed his concern over the matter of Indian women, explaining how it was extremely difficult for male missionaries to preach the Gospel to them. This concern that James had was no different than that of any other male missionary working in India.

Isabella knew in her heart that this is what God has called her to do. As adamant as she was about serving in India, her church, the Methodist Episcopal Church - based on her gender and marital status - was unwilling to send her as a missionary.

In 1869, a few women of the Methodist Church in Boston gathered to organize Women’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS). Some of them were wives of bishops and missionaries who were willing to serve as officers for this society. However, men of the General Board were extremely unhappy with Methodist women autonomously running a women’s missionary society.

Dr. John Durbin, secretary of the General Board, tried his best to convince these women to give up on this project. The Board continued to resist having unmarried women, including Isabella Thoburn, become missionaries. But what the men of the Board didn’t realise was that they were dealing with women determined to serve the Lord.

When Isabella approached WFMS, they didn’t have enough funds to send her to India. As they were discussing the matter, one lady stood up and said, Shall we lose Miss Thoburn because we have not the needed money in our hands to send her? No! Rather let us walk the streets of Boston in calico dresses, if need be, and save the expense of more costly apparel!

After James’ letter in 1866, Isabella patiently waited for three years until God stirred the hearts of these Methodist women to establish the WFMS in 1869. Isabella was then appointed as the first unmarried missionary by this society and was sent to India in November of 1869. She reached India in January 1870 along with Clara Swain who was a physician sent with her as a medical missionary.

Isabella’s mission was to bring Indian womanhood in its right and worthy place so that women can take up the leadership roles themselves. In order to achieve this goal, she started a girls’ school in the Aminabad bazaar of Lucknow in 1870.

Here’s how some old missionaries described the sight of this school, “Yunas Singh’s boy, armed with a club, kept watch over the entrance to the school lest any rowdy might visit the displeasure of the public upon the seven timid girls who were gathered inside with the adventurous lady teacher who had coaxed them to come.

Soon, this one room school became a famous Girls’ Boarding and High School. In 1871, it was moved to a seven acres house of the Nawab of Awadh called ‘Lal Bagh’ (Ruby Garden) which she purchased. The growth of this school spiked from just seven girls to hundreds. In 1886, it became the Women’s College of Lucknow, and after the death of Isabella in 1901, it was named after her to honor the work she had done.

Isabella became sick with Asiatic Cholera several times over the years, which meant she had to travel back to America a couple of times. Amazingly, these would be the only times she took a ‘furlough’ in her 31 years of ministry on the field. After one such trip, she returned back to India in 1900. It was in the midst of the sixth cholera pandemic (from 1899 to 1923) which began in India where it killed more than 800,000 people, and then spread to the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe. Isabella died of the disease in 1901. She is buried in Lucknow Christian Cemetery alongside other missionaries and their children.

Isabella Thoburn laid the foundations for many more generations of missionaries to India. She lived a victorious life sharing the love and joy she found in Christ with the heathen women in India. She touched the lives of hundreds of women in Lucknow who had been a testament to her courageous yet gentle spirit. That’s the legacy she has left, not only for the Indian women of her time, but for the believing women of the world.

Here is an extract from a heartfelt letter written at her death by Lilavati Singh, Isabella’s pupil:

When the pain was very bad, she said to me, 'Sing.' I said, 'What ?' She said, 'Come Thou fount of every blessing’. I got someone in the room to sing that and others of her favorite hymns. In her pain and agony she kept speaking in Hindustani. It nearly broke my heart to hear her. She had lived for us, and she was dying for us; she was so one of us that in her last moments she forgot her own tongue and spoke in ours. There is no one like her, — our dear, devoted friend. She lingered on till 8 P.M., then left us.

May the Lord send many other Isabella Thoburns to the nations.


Oldham, W. F. (1902). Isabella Thoburn.

J. M., Thoburn. (1970, January 01). Life of Isabella Thoburn.

K. K., Seat. (2008). Providence Has Freed Our Hands.

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