First reaction to my Life of Isabel Crawford!

My publisher has sent out copies of my book to advance readers, and one has sent me a copy of what he wrote after reading it. I was honoured that such a noted American church historian agreed to be one of the readers, and I’m delighted with his blurb. “Blinkered” is a perfect description of how Isabel Crawford was at times. These times were painful for me to read about in her journals and painful to include in the biography, but of course I had to give a full and honest picture of this “compelling” woman.

In this fast-paced account of the career of Isabel Crawford, Whietley brings to life a largely forgotten but remarkably compelling Canadian-American Baptist missionary to the Kiowa Indians in the Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the 20th century. Crawford emerges as a courageous—though often feisty and sometimes blinkered—woman whose determination to proclaim the gospel marched with determination to fight for the preservation of Kiowa culture. Her story is at once inspiring, sobering, and altogether beautiful.

Grant Wacker, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor of Christian History, Duke Divinity School

Canadian Baptists Learn Women’s History

Marilyn Whiteley and Sharon Bowler at the meeting of the Canadian Baptist Historical Society
Marilyn Whiteley and Sharon Bowler at the meeting of the Canadian Baptist Historical Society

This morning Sharon Bowler and I made presentations at the annual meeting of the Canadian Baptist Historical Society. Sharon is editing a book to be titled Baptists and Women, to be published next year. I am delighted to be one of the authors contributing chapters. More than twenty years ago, when Elizabeth Gillan Muir and I were editing Changing Roles of Women within the Christian Church in Canada, we regretted a lack of scholarship on Canadian Baptist women, though we were able to include one excellent essay. I am pleased that the situation has changed and that Sharon has found authors to write about a wide spectrum of topics within that general area.

Sharon spoke this morning about tangential research. It allows for “meaningful straying” from one’s major research goal. How many of us, involved in historical research, have some side issues that beg for investigation? We are often well rewarded when we have – or make – the opportunity to follow up on the tangent.

All my writing about Isabel Crawford has been something of a tangent, since my main research has focused on Canadian Methodist women, and Crawford was a Baptist. My presentation this morning was a further small tangent. My chapter is titled “Crossing Boundaries: The Mission of Isabel Crawford.” I could have simply summarized the chapter or read part of it, but I wanted to do something fresh by expanding on one of its themes.

Crawford was born in Canada and spent her final years in the land of her birth. However, from 1891 until 1942 she studied, then worked, then retired, in the United States. In 1900 she became a United States citizen. And although she died in Canada, she had made arrangements for her body to be returned to her Oklahoma mission for burial. Her grave marker in the Kiowa cemetery at Saddle Mountain bears the statement, “I Dwell Among Mine Own People.” So today I took the opportunity to explore in her writings  her feelings about the “two flags” that she had come to love.

There are more papers to come and more tangents to explore, and for me that is what makes my life as a historian and writer so rewarding.

Isabel Crawford’s Christmas Trees, Part III : A Tree of Her Own

Ever since she was a girl, Isabel Crawford had worked to make Christmas a joyful time for others. Now, at age seventy-two, she was no longer making gifts to be given out at the Christmas tree celebration of a Sunday school or a mission, She had prepared and mailed twenty-seven gift packages to friends and relatives, but she did so with an anxious heart. Her beloved sister Emily had died suddenly a few months earlier, and Crawford knew that she would be painfully aware of her loss at Christmas. She was ashamed of her sorrow, and she was determined “to not think & try to be glad.” Late on the afternoon of Christmas Eve, she looked at the parcels she had received and wondered about them. Then she lay down for a nap.

When she awoke dusk had fallen, but to her surprise the room was aglow. Then she saw the reason: sitting on the table by her front window was a Christmas tree, its electric lights bringing unexpected cheer to her dark room. Her friend and landlady had slipped in and placed it there as she napped, and so Crawford, at seventy-two, had for the first time in her life a Christmas tree of her own.

On Christmas day, she placed under the tree a carved camel from Palestine and some shells from the Sea of Galilee, and she rejoiced. Isabel Crawford knew the joy of giving, but she also knew when the time had come to receive. The Christmas “that threatened sadness had passed without a tear or sigh. Not because I had determined it should be so but because friends on earth and The Friend in Heaven had cooperated in not letting me fight the battle alone.”

Isabel Crawford’s Christmas Trees, Part II: Among the Kiowa

In 1893, the American Baptist women’s missionary society assigned Isabel Crawford to go work among the Kiowa on their reservation in southwest Oklahoma. She carried with her girlhood memories of the annual Christmas tree at the mission her church had opened in a poor section of Woodstock, Ontario. Thus, as Christmas approached on the Oklahoma mission, Crawford made plans for a Christmas tree.

As a girl, Crawford had made gifts for the Sunday school Christmas tree out of odds and ends that she found at home. Here on the reservation, everything serviceable was put into use. There was but one source to be tapped: the missionary barrels. Congregations from churches around the country sent barrels of goods to the missions. The collections were well-intended, yet they often contained items like elaborate bonnets “which should have been burned at the stake before being allowed to enter the missionary field.” But Crawford was well experienced turning odds and ends into something useful, and she went to work. She hunted men’s shirts in the missionary barrel and also crocheted cuffs for the men; she found women’s clothing and she made sewing baskets for the women; and she prepared clothes and toys for the children.

When the great day arrived, the men, women, and children gathered around the tree, which was decorated with black and white skunk tails tied onto its branches. The Kiowa received the gifts with gratitude, but they often did not examine them until after the service had ended and they were seated around their own campfires. For Crawford, Christmas had always been a time of giving, and she taught that spirit to her Kiowa Christian converts. The highlight of the Christmas service for them was the opportunity to bring their gifts as a birthday present for the baby Jesus. They had little, but they brought their coins with gratitude. At first their offerings went to take the gospel to the Hopi on another reservation. As years went on, they began contributing toward the construction of their own church and toward the salary of their interpreter. Crawford had taught them well, and they, too, learned the joy of Christmas giving.

Isabel Crawford’s Christmas Trees, Part I: Childhood

Isabel Crawford was converted when she was ten years old, in 1876, and after her eleventh birthday she was accepted into membership in the Baptist church in Woodstock, Ontario. She was a lively child, and she was afraid that she wouldn’t be able to sit and behave during Sunday school. Her solution? She volunteered to teach a class in the mission her church had started in a poor part of the town. No class needed a leader, so she gathered up boys from the area, some about her own age, and formed a class of her own.

As Christmas approached, Isabel thought that the mission ought to have a Christmas tree. We read descriptions of Christmas trees glowing with candles in genteel Victorian parlors, but many people at the time had no gaily decorated tree at home. For them, a “Christmas tree” meant a community celebration at their church. There would be treats and perhaps presents for those who came to join in the festivities, and sometimes parents brought their own children’s gifts to be handed out at that time. There would be few presents in the homes near the mission, however, so Isabel set to work.

Isabel was accustomed to receiving homemade gifts, and as soon as she was old enough, she began making presents for her family members. On her first attempt, she had knit garters for her mother, embroidered bookmarks for her sisters, and hemmed a handkerchief for her brother. So she put her skills to work, using “scraps of nothing and handouts.” The tree and the gifts delighted the families who came to the celebration, and so the tradition grew. When she was fourteen, she made 120 gifts. She had sprained her ankle and could not walk to the mission, so boys from her Sunday school class came to her house and pulled the sled carrying Isabel and a half barrel into which she had carefully packed all the gifts. She had made enough presents for every man, woman, and child at the mission, and after they had been distributed and the festivities had ended, she returned home “supremely happy.” For Isabel Crawford, the joy of Christmas came in giving.

“… if I’m scalped twenty four hours after I land.”

When Isabel Crawford received her assignment as a missionary to the “blanket Indians” in Oklahoma, she first said, “I won’t go.” She had pictured herself in a more civilized missionary setting like China or India where she could be “nice and good.” Many missionaries there lived together in missionary compound, venturing out to do their work but returning to the society, the culture that they knew for their daily living.

Gradually Crawford became reconciled to her first missionary assignment: after all, she had promised that she would go anywhere. She agreed to go, “if I’m scalped twenty four hours after I land.” Like so many North Americans, Crawford held an image of Indians as brutal savages, living in tipis, wearing war bonnets, and ruthlessly collecting scalps. How did this image, true of only a segment of the Native population, come to be seen as true of Native Americans across the continent?

There are many answers, including the depiction of Indians in action-oriented and often sensational dime novels. Another of the sources is the Wild West show, and this is explored in a book by L.G. Moses, Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1884-1933. William Cody (Buffalo Bill) and other organizers of the shows used predominantly Plains Indians in their casts, and this helped Plains Indian culture become the norm despite the wide variety in Native American culture.

The Kiowa among whom Isabel Crawford worked for thirteen years were Plains Indians, and yes, they had lived in tipis although they were making the transition to frame houses while Crawford­­­ worked among them. But even for these Plains Indians, much of the stereotype did not hold. They were protective of Crawford, and she soon realized that she felt no danger from them. In fact, she felt so confident that, after two and a half years on a small mission station, she left to start another mission by herself in a different Kiowa community.

During the recent Thanksgiving season, we have again been exposed to the outdated and inaccurate images. Read Moses’s book or perhaps Thomas King’s award-winning The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to understand better this cultural misunderstanding.

On writing about difficult things

Finally things have settled down enough so that I am beginning to read Phyllis Airhart’s history of the United Church of Canada, “A Church with the Soul of a Nation.” I found the first part of it painful reading, even though Airhart handled it very well, because it is about the process of founding the United Church, with all that conflict and divisions that that entailed. That is part of the story.

Although it’s very different, I was reminded of when I was writing about some of bitter actions after she felt that she was forced to leave her beloved mission at Saddle Mountain, Oklahoma. I was somewhat horrified at a couple of things she did; they didn’t measure up to her usual behaviour. But they were part of the story, and of course I had to include them in order to give a complete and honest account.

Airhart couldn’t omit the conflict recorded in those chapters, but authors probably sometimes do give in to the temptation to leave out difficult matters. What do you think?