The primary biographical sources on Adele Fielde remember her as almost two distinct women: Adele Fielde, the American Baptist Missionary and Adele Fielde, the secular Scientist, Political Activist, and Humanitarian (Stevens 1918
; Warren 2002
; Hoyt 1982
; Nie 2018
). In most accounts, her story is told chronologically, highlighting how she progresses from a repressive, patriarchal missionary environment to the secularly enlightened, liberative fields of science and social politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her missionary life is described as restrictive, clashing with her theology and curbing her intellect and interests. Knowing her acceptance and wider acclaim in the later part of her life makes the earlier missionary phase puzzling to her colleagues and challenging for her biographers to interpret. Why would such a woman of unorthodox beliefs and active intellect be a Baptist missionary? The dissonance results in her divided narrative in science and activist histories and an incomplete memory in mission history.
In this article, I argue that contrary to the prevailing deconversion narratives of her life, Adele Fielde maintained continuity with her unorthodox religious beliefs and active intellect and interests throughout her life, starting as a missionary and later contributing to her careers in science and activism. Though her title and affiliations changed once she separated from the American Baptist Missionary Union (ABMU), she remained committed to the same values fusing unorthodox Christian beliefs with scientific interpretation and activist causes. Interpreting Adele Fielde based on her motivations rather than roles offers a more robust understanding of why she engaged in missions and how the experience informed her later careers. She stands as a model of the intertwined religious and secular lives of women who are missionaries, scientists and activists. Rather than a solely sacrosanct experience, religion functions through lived experience that rarely maintains such tidy divisions between sacred and secular.
2. The Existing Narrative
The most extensive narratives of Adele Fielde’s life are written by those connected and interested in her post-mission life working in activism and science in America. Helen Norton Stevens’ Memorial Biography of Adele M. Fields, Humanitarian
was published two years after Fielde’s death by the Fielde Memorial Committee, an organization of Fielde’s “personal friends, chosen companions and admirers,” mostly in Seattle (7). They declared her greatest renown was her writing, and her fame would be attached to her scientific discoveries (250). Her second biography by Leonard Warren—Adele Marion Fielde: Feminist, Social Activist, Scientist
—is part of a series on Women in Science published almost a century later. In the preface, Warren noted how little has been written on Fielde and that he discovered her tangentially through researching the life of another nineteenth-century American scientist. Both sources survey Fielde’s entire life, but as their titles conclude, define her legacy by her roles in the later part of her life. Religious biographers interested in mission history, in comparison, seem to have forgotten Fielde. The ABMU condensed her 23 years of contribution to a couple pages largely defining her as “The Mother of Bible Training Schools” for women in China (Sanderson 1925
; Merriam 1900
). More recent narratives claim her story as an example of the contentious navigation of gender norms and male dominance in Protestant missions (Hoyt 1982
; Nie 2018
). Her memory in these narratives is much more limited in scope, leaving her fullest legacy as recorded in biographies to those outside of mission history.
In the first part of these prevailing narratives, Adele Fielde was a missionary. For 23 years, she served with the ABMU in Siam and South China until 1889, when she cut off all ties to the ABMU—including the title and duties of “returned missionary”—and moved back to the US. From the beginning of her missionary career, her experience was marked by conflict with the ABMU leadership and fellow missionaries leading to questions of her suitability as a Baptist missionary. Her un-ladylike diversions, notably dancing, playing cards, and befriending expats beyond Baptist missionary circles drew the most criticism from her colleagues in Siam. As a result, she was subjected to a formal inquiry by ABMU leadership in 1872, where she skillfully defended her lifestyle and secured vindication to return to a new posting in South China. The ABMU inquiry committee found her “a true woman though with convictions and tastes of her own differing in some respects from those cherished by others” (Hoyt 1982, p. 324
). Her perseverance, self-advocacy, and cultivation of supporters secured her a continued place as a missionary.
Her work training Chinese Bible women—local women evangelists—stands as the enduring positive result of her mission efforts. Despite the ABMU’s disagreements with Fielde about doctrine and appropriate female missionary lifestyle, they continued to claim her as their missionary because she was an engaging writer and relatedly, an effective fundraiser, and her Bible women fit the emerging, explicitly gendered missiology that connected women around the world (Robert 1997, pp. 130–37
). In missionary memory, this is the bulk of her existence, and her contribution and skills are tied to her work with Bible women (Merriam 1900, p. 164
). Her other projects, such as an extensive dictionary of the local Swatow dialect, training in obstetrics, and scientific research were acknowledged with annoyance or disinterest by most of her missionary colleagues who prioritized evangelism and Bible teaching. Rather than correct her eccentricities and mediate conflicts, the ABMU allowed her to function independently in Swatow without daily oversight from male leadership. Officially, her separation from the ABMU in 1889 was due to her failing health which had been deteriorating since her return from her furlough in 1872. Her later colleagues supposed that the more important reason for her separation, however, was a demonstration of her changing religious opinion and “conscientious scruples” that could no longer justify being affiliated with the rigid Baptist creed of the ABMU (Stevens 1918, p. 181
In most accounts, this act of divorce ushered her into the second half of her life as a scientist and political activist. Her later colleagues praised these next thirty years as the true fit for Adele. Conversely, this section of her life is omitted in missionary memory. In the prevailing narrative, this phase starts with her fully embracing her autonomy and indulging the interests that were stifled in her missionary life. She spent two years travelling through India and Europe sightseeing, studying, and writing. Among her diversions, she attended public lectures and galleries in France, took language and civics classes in Germany and Switzerland, and started using her writing for political causes reporting on Jewish persecution in Russia for the New York Times.
Once back in the US and settling into life in New York, Fielde was shocked by widespread political illiteracy, especially among women. Thus, in 1894 along with six women, she founded the League for Political Education of New York City. Their objective, Fielde reported to the New York World
, was “to arouse among women practical interest in public affairs, in civic institutions and in good government by means of a broad and systematic study of the same” (Stevens 1918, p. 240
). She became active in the suffrage movement in New York and then in Washington state, along with other activist causes such as prohibition, child welfare, and opposing government corruption and human trafficking.
In addition to her activist career, she maintained an engaged presence in the scientific community. Charles Darwin’s work on evolution, which her missionary colleagues found to be an alarming, anti-Christian distraction, fascinated her. At the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, she studied with the finest American biologists of the time, focusing on the study of ants (Warren 2002, p. 137
). As an established scientist, she was elected as a Fellow of the American Society for the Advancement of Science, an honor only bestowed on 73 women in its 70-year history. Until the end of her life, she pursued what she loved the most: researching, writing, and teaching, writing to a friend shortly before her death that she was just as happy in the last quarter century of her life as she was in the first quarter (Stevens 1918, p. 386
). Her life is remembered as a triumph to those who knew her primarily as a scientist and activist and her missionary phase is portrayed as an odd fit for such a remarkable woman.
Adele Fielde lived many lives. Side-by-side, her variety of careers is puzzling. She did not fit the rigid models of piously motivated missionary nor of secular scientist or activist, yet she chose to adopt and adapt those vocations. Her nonconformity invited diverse interpretations. To some, she was an inspiration and delight. Her later colleagues in the US esteemed her as a “truly exceptional woman,” “a great character, strong, wise, courageous, progressive,” an unusually “balanced human being” (Stevens 1918, pp. 9, 46, 48
). In many ways, it seemed her role as scientist and activist afforded her the greatest freedom to exercise her intellect and pursue interests surrounded by supportive colleagues. Yet, for 23 years as a missionary, she submitted herself to a context of conflict where she consistently clashed with sexism, rigid belief systems, and differing values. Most of her missionary colleagues viewed her as dangerous and her independence threatened their mission work “like a wheel out of gear,” as her ABMU missionary colleague Sylvester B. Partridge described (Warren 2002, p. 39
). She did have the choice, however, to avoid the struggle and simply move on to more accepting or prestigious careers much earlier than she did. Before she even officially started in her first posting in Siam, she had the opportunity to leave the missionary life. With each letter of objection to her unorthodox beliefs from colleagues or disparaging comment about her behavior from male superiors, she could have resigned. Clearly, missionary life offered Adele Fielde compelling opportunities beyond the normally assumed pious conviction. Her intertwined motives and adaptive outlook translated into a full life consistently marked by her unorthodox beliefs and interests.