I’d like for you to meet one of my favorite people, Dr. Katharine C. Bushnell. Obviously I never met her in the flesh since my friend Kate was born in 1855, a bit before my time. She was a physician, missionary, crusader, reformer, author and speaker as well as a brilliant and original scholar who spoke seven languages and was grounded in Greek and Hebrew. Work I did on a timeline paralleling her life with historical events affecting women leads me to believe that she, like Esther, was sent by God at that particular time in history.
Her birth came around the same time as women in the U. S. were gaining the right to own and manage their own property. She made her lifelong commitment to Christ in 1872, the year Susan B. Anthony was arrested for trying to vote. The next year the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was formed and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that citizenship does not give women the right to vote.
The WCTU went beyond opposing liquor. It was “the first mass organization among women devoted to social reform with a program that “linked the religious and the secular through concerted and far-reaching reform strategies based on applied Christianity.” It was in the social reform area (then called “social purity”) that Bushnell spent years of work for the WCTU.
Bushnell entered Northwestern in 1873 and by 1879 at age 24 had completed college and med school and was headed to China as a medical missionary. She was in China for three very difficult years.
Katharine considered going to China “the mistake of my life, except that ‘all things work together for good to them that love God.’” So true! It was while she was in China that she discovered that the Chinese Bible was mistranslated to keep from offending a male cultural prejudice against the ministry of women. She wondered whether the same bias might prejudice English translations. When she checked out her Greek New Testament, guess what she found?
This incident began her lifelong quest to find the scriptural status of women. It was in my own quest to conform my life to what God said about women that I discovered and fell in love with Kate Bushnell. She believed, as I do, that the Bible in the original languages is the inspired truth, the very Word of God. She immediately began her study of the Bible and languages and, as God directed her path through life, became more and more convinced that mistranslations along with traditional interpretations were largely responsible for the social and spiritual subjugation of women. While this may be hard to understand in today’s world, I believe a close historical look will reveal this truth at the root.
Poor health and a back injury forced Bushnell to leave China in 1882 with Dr. Frances Gilchrest who was terminally ill with tuberculosis. While caring for Gilchrest at her home in Denver, Bushnell managed to establish a medical practice and become active with the WCTU. When Gilchrest died, Frances Willard, president of the WCTU, convinced Bushnell to come to Chicago and work with the social purity department of the WCTU. “Social purity” meant that Bushnell worked with reforming some facet of prostitution or abuse. Since Willard and the WCTU were primarily concerned with abolishing demon drink, social purity was not the major concern of the WCTU and this work is not well known.
She trained hundreds of volunteers who set up “reading rooms” where women were invited to come for ministry. This evolved into a place to be during the day with ministry and a light meal. From there the need was seen for a shelter so that women were not back on the streets at night. Once the ministry in Chicago was operating, Bushnell toured the country speaking, teaching and training. Her free and travel time was spent studying the Bible and the original languages. She credited being from a family of nine children for her ability to concentrate while traveling. It needs to be mentioned here that there was no salary involved with this work. Bushnell lived on donations and the hospitality of those she lectured.
Katharine spent the summer of 1888 compiling a detailed report of forced prostitution in the Wisconsin lumber camps. The state of Wisconsin wound up passing what was known as “Kate’s Law” to stop this practice but it continued. However, the gory details of the camps were of more interest than social purity so her original lecture series came to an end.
In 1889 Josephine Butler, head of the World Wide WCTU invited her to England to tour and speak but soon Bushnell was in India investigating the brothels that served British troops. In 1893 she was in China doing a report on the effects of the opium trade and more brothels. These fascinating trips are documented in the referenced books. Bushnell tried once more to end providing prostitutes for troops heading for WWI which is documented in a short auto-biography that is available online. Legislation never proved to be an answer to any of these horrors.
In 1898 Bushnell resigned from the WCTU when they refused to condemn legalized prostitution and began to focus entirely on teaching and writing. For this I am eternally grateful. I was introduced to her in the in the mid-1990s as I began to seek God’s opinion of women in earnest. Her book God’s Word to Women 100 Bible Studies of Woman’s Place in God’s Economy is a masterpiece done at a time when the current reference materials were not available. Today her book is finding an audience among women and men worldwide who hold conservative views on the inerrancy of the Bible and want to know what God really has to say about women.
For me, God’s Word to Women was an answer to my heart’s cry for truth and freed me for the work of the last 20 years. I was part of the God’s Word to Women website ministry when we republished it in 2004 and I am writing for this blog now, because she led me toward truth. Kate Bushnell is my friend through the pages of a book but one day face to face! Thank you Lord, for forerunners.
 Kate is my friend through the impact her life and work have had on my own.
 The complete timeline can be seen here.
 Dana Hardwick, Oh ThouWoman That Bringest Good Tidings (Kearney, Morris Publishing 1995 ) p 16.
 Wrote The Queen’s Daughters in India which is available at http://godswordtowomen.org/queensdaughters.pdf
 Co-wrote Heathen Slaves and Christian Rulers with Elizabeth Andrew about what they found. It is available at http://godswordtowomen.org/Heathen_Slaves_and_Christian_Rulers.pdf
Excellent article, and how you linked her to a timeline in history like that. I just got a free abridged version of God’s Word to Women that is available on Amazon, and am reading it now. So mind-blowing and liberating, and yet, with a high respect for what God wanted to originally convey to us in the Scriptures. Thank you for this article! I’m excited to be getting to know this Kate Bushnell. 🙂
The book does take some “working through,” but it is worth the effort. I love the way she expresses her thoughts on biased translation–she has a dry wit and fantastic sense of humor in the midst of a bit of righteous anger. Do love that woman.
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Great article! I am working through her book now. I pray more women will be lead to read her book and realize their full freedom in Christ for ministry through Him. Continue to grow in grace, SC
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