Years ago, I discovered the family journal that has come down through my father's side of the family. It traces my ancestors through three generations of missionaries to India in the 19th century and on back to some Puritans who founded towns in Massachusetts. It's a fascinating journal and one that impressed upon me the spiritual heritage that I have received.
One of the main characters, if you will, of this journal is Augusta Dean. She's my triple great-grandmother. I wrote a bit about her story in the concluding chapter of Radical Womanhood. But just a few weeks ago, I discovered we have a photograph of her. This was a priceless discovery to me, which I'm sharing with you. Here's my tribute to her from my book:
My ancestors were among them. At age 22, Amos Abbott and Anstice Wilson were married in Wilton, New Hampshire. He was a graduate of Andover Theological Seminary with an assignment to teach at a mission school in Amednugger, India. Eleven days after their wedding, they sailed for India. Their journey from Boston to Bombay required about four months of ocean travel through rough waters. A civil war was in progress when the Abbotts reached India, but they persevered.
For the next twenty years, the Abbotts ministered in India and raised six children. Anstice Abbott started a school for her children and the children of other missionaries, too. Eventually the family returned to America in order to provide their children with a good education and allow Amos to get a medical degree. While they were back home in the United States, Augusta met one of the students her father was tutoring in the Marathi Indian dialect—Samuel Dean. After a brief courtship, Samuel asked Augusta to join him in India to continue the family’s work. Just like her mother, Augusta was married and put out to sea in a matter of days. In those days, families said a final goodbye to each other, not knowing when or if they would see each other again. So her parents wished Augusta goodbye and sent their daughter back to India.
Samuel proved to be an effective preacher and church-planter. In addition to conducting regular preaching services and organizing new churches near his own home, Samuel often journeyed into the remote sections of India where people had never heard the name of Christ—and Augusta often went with him. Sometimes they camped for days, with snakes and bubonic plague an ever-present danger. Eventually this hard work wore down Samuel, and the family returned to America in 1867 so Samuel could recover his health. He went on to be a church-planter in Nebraska for the next dozen or so years before he died.
So in 1889, Augusta found herself a widow in a changing world. Many controversies were shaking the nation and the church, but Augusta decided to go back to India. She wanted to work with her sister, Annie, who ran a home for young widows. Because the girls would marry very young in India, many of the widows were practically children. Since the widows were considered disgraceful in India culture, these young girls were shunned by society and their own families. The home that Annie ran protected these widows, gave them a basic education, and schooled them in a marketable craft. The older widows who attained sufficient proficiency in reading were known as the “Bible Women”—a point of controversy in the Hindu culture.
The Dean and Abbott influence was felt in this section of India. When Augusta returned a second time to India, she was greeted shortly thereafter by an Indian man who had searched for her, hearing that the widow of the great preacher, Samuel Dean, was nearby. He wanted to tell her how fruitful Samuel’s preaching was that day, for now there were several churches in the region that sprung from his preaching. And he wanted to pay his respects to the widow of the great Samuel Dean.
August spent nearly five years working with the “Bible Women” there, before she returned home. In an age when transoceanic travel was hard work, she made the trip to India twice to face down Hindu intimidation and teach important life skills to abandoned widows.
Augusta was a very fruitful woman, spiritually. All of her children became Christians, and she left a rich spiritual heritage to them. She was a fearless helpmate to her husband, working with him to found churches in two nations. She ran her own home, educated many children (including her own), and still served women from another culture who were wrongfully discarded within their own society. Augusta’s letters indicate a bright, headstrong, and outspoken woman. She could have pushed through many things for herself, but she deferred to her husband’s gifting and helped him be as successful as possible.
I often wonder about her, my ancestor and sister in the Lord. She could have been influenced by first-wave feminism, but she chose another path. She saw inequity and injustice in India, and chose to meet that need through the gospel. She could have enjoyed her retirement in relative ease in the U.S., but she chose to give away her life to those who desperately needed it. And when she returned to India, she received the good news of the fruit of her co-labors with her husband. Together, they accomplished much—and by all accounts, stayed true to the glorious gospel.
It’s my joy to honor her memory. Augusta was truly a radical woman, whose feminine expression of faith stood the test of time in a feminist world.