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Katharine Bushnell (born Sophia Caroline Bushnell in Peru, Indiana) (February 5, 1856 - January 26, 1946) was a medical doctor, Christian writer, medical missionary to China, Bible scholar, and social activist. Of particular interest to her was the status of women in the Bible, believing it had been mistranslated and misinterpreted. She was a forerunner of feminist theology. Her lifelong quest was for biblical affirmation of the integrity and equality of women. Across America and beyond, she served on several continents as she worked to reform conditions of human degradation. She went to China as a medical missionary. She was recognized as a forceful and even charismatic speaker.
Her book, God's Word to Women, has become a classic. It emerged from Bushnell's lifetime of working for social reform on behalf of women. As a scholar of Hebrew and Greek, she studied the biblical passages in their original languages and in their historical context. Discovering insights sometimes obscured by Bible translators, she observed correlations between the status of women and misunderstandings of Scripture. After years of diligent study, Bushnell was convinced that the Bible teaches the equality of the sexes—that inequality came with the Fall and humanity turning away from God. She provides evidence that the original equality between women and men was restored through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and claimed that epistles from the apostle Paul, rightly understood and interpreted, was not against women leading and preaching. From Genesis to Revelation, Bushnell provided in her book a thorough exposition of every Bible passage that touches on women. "Scholars have leaned on her groundbreaking work since its first publication in 1921, deeming it one of the best, whole-Bible approaches to the question of women's role in the church and home". With great reverence for the Holy Bible, her closely reasoned exposition of Scripture does much to establish women in their rightful place in church and society.
Katharine Bushnell was born February 5, 1856, in Peru, Illinois. She attended Northwestern University for pre-medical studies and medical school at Chicago Women's Medical College where she specialized in nerve disorders. She established a pediatrics hospital in Shanghai while a missionary sponsored by the Woman's Mission Board of the Methodist Episcopal Church. There she was influenced by translations of the Bible into Chinese which she thought were dishonestly done to subjugate women. She began comparing the English translation to the original Greek New Testament and found similar patterns of what she considered intentionally-biased mistranslations. That motivated her to study Hebrew on her long sea travels.
A culmination of her life's work is her book, God's Word to Women, originally published in 1921.
In 1885 she joined the Woman's Christian Temperance Union as the National Evangelist of the Department of Social Purity. She helped found the Anchorage Mission in Chicago which sheltered homeless women. She appeared before the Wisconsin Legislature to expose white slavery in a lumber camp, although the state of Wisconsin denied its existence. She was first defamed for allegedly creating "cruel lies" which later were proved to be factual. In 1887, Wisconsin passed Senate Bill 46 to address white slavery.
Bushnell then traveled with Elizabeth Andrew to India where the government of India had denied allegations that its soldiers were frequenting Indian prostitutes. The government was proved wrong by Bushnell and Andrew’s wealth of evidence, as well as corroborating results from an independent investigation. The women's efforts led to a reprimand for Lord Roberts, the Commander-in-Chief, India. They coauthored two books about their experiences, The Queen’s Daughters in India, and Heathen Slaves and Christian Rulers. The British government subsequently commissioned her to look into the opium trade between India and China.
She died on January 26, 1946, only a few days before her 90th birthday.
Throughout the nineteenth century, women struggled with "oppressive interpretations of the Bible that deprived them of their power and dignity." Bushnell has been called the most prominent voice declaring the Bible as liberating of women.
Her classic book, God's Word to Women, was first published in book form in 1921. At the time she was 65 years old. God's Word to Women began as a correspondence course in 1908. In 1916, the loose single sheets were bound into two paper-covered volumes, which evolved into the cloth-bound 1921 edition. The book created a stir here and abroad. It did not have mass appeal when first published because of its scholarly content and the few scholars interested in the topic. It relies on translation of ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek and ancient Hebrew culture. However, the book is now valued highly by Christian egalitarian scholars. It is now in public domain and is available online both electronically and in print.
It has been termed a groundbreaking study of what the Bible really says about women. The book is a culmination of her life's work. It was compiled from a correspondence course of the same name. In it, she works through every biblical portion interpreted to mean that women are inferior to men. This included the topics of women not being allowed to preach, required subordination to their husbands, polygamy, and head coverings. She wrote that male-biased mistranslations of the Bible, instead of "hastening the coming of the day of God, are hindering the preparation for that coming."
Supposing women only had translated the Bible, from age to age, is there a likelihood that men would have rested content with the outcome? Therefore, our brothers have no good reason to complain if, while conceding that men have done the best they could alone, we assert that they did not do the best that could have been done. The work would have been of a much higher order had they first helped women to learn the sacred languages (instead of putting obstacles in their way), and then, have given them a place by their side on translations committees.
— Katharine Bushnell, God's Word to Women
The scriptural status of women continued to be of intense concern to her. Bushnell believed that mistranslations were responsible for the social and spiritual subjugation of women. As may be seen in the above quotation, she was very "plain-spoken" in her writing. Further, she wrote, God does not approve "that law which places Jehovah in a position secondary to her husband in a wife's life.” In another passage from her book, she courageously wrote:
If women must suffer domestic, legislative and ecclesiastical disabilities because Eve sinned, then must the Church harbor the appalling doctrine that Christ did not atone for all sin, because so long as the Church maintains these disabilities, the inevitable conclusion in the average mind will be the same as Tertullian’s—God's verdict on the (female) sex still holds good and the sex's guilt must still hold also.
— Katharine Bushnell, God's Word to Women