Why Adventists Have Ignored Female Genital Mutilation
by Winona Winkler Wendth, 09/10/2017
On October 24, 1906, Hulda Stumpf, a forty-year-old stenography teacher at the Indiana Business College wrote to an administrator of the African Inland Mission and asked for an appointment to British East Africa, now Kenya. The African Inland Mission, a non-denominational Christian organization, had been sending missionaries to Africa for nearly a decade. In her letter, Ms. Stumpf reviewed her work experience and writes, “I am not rugged-looking, but my general health is fairly good . . . My wish now is to serve Him more effectively in the mission field.” She sailed from New York the next year and in December arrived at her station at Kijabe in central Kenya. Not quite a year before, the Seventh-day Adventist church had formed the Kenyan Colony Mission under the authority of the Northern European Division.
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Stumpf’s case was sensationalized by the missionaries in East Africa, as well as in Britain. The New York Times reported only that the American woman “had been attacked and then smothered to death.” Original reports had been that she had undergone the brutal tribal practice of what the Kenyans referred to as “cutting,” but an immediate post-mortem challenges the specificity of that determination, although her body did show some kind of brutality inflicted before she died.
The assumption about the missionary’s body having undergone an attempt at “circumcision,” came from the unhappy political circumstances in Kenya that grew out of Christian challenges to tribal practices. Ms. Stumpf, along with other missionaries, took a strong stand against female genital mutilation (FGM) and tried her best to eliminate the practice among their converts. In the rise of national movements in Africa at that time, the Kikiyu tribe had taken a leadership role in Kenya, and had turned FGM into a rallying cry for anti-imperial cultural independence. What was at stake for them was something foundational to their social system and which, tampered with, they believed, would undo the basis of every relationship in the community: the role of women among men.
This event soon became a hotly contested interpretative space, and generated heated conversation about the way churches should think about mission work, about the political and spiritual nature of the body, about nationalizing “foreign” mission work, about the role of feminism in both the political and religious spheres, about the notion of agency and choice, and, of course, about cultural hegemony, whether in overt imperial discourse or implicit assumptions about the value of “the other,” which, for some include women, generally, not only people of color or those peoples otherwise colonized.
Although these issues arise in classrooms and international policy meetings, they seldom arise in any public setting in our own church.
Part of the challenge and particular to the situation in 1930 was the slippery and vague use of language. The Western community was outraged. For many mission observers this was the tipping point between, “Yes, we know this happens,” to “We must not allow this to happen” on a broader basis. When missionaries and government workers appealed to Parliament to outlaw this practice among British colonies, the discomfort the appellants had describing the practice, let alone addressing the general nature of female sexuality, was stifling; the best language they could come up with was “circumcision,” a term that trivializes what was being done to these women and girls.
When Hulda Strumpf was murdered, she had been in mission service for over twenty years, witnessing FGM as all mission workers had. The African Inland Mission supported over 225 missionaries and many other denominations represented the Protestant Christian message to Kenya, as well. At the time, the Seventh-day Adventist church had eight full-time mission workers on the books, listed 11 churches, and tallied under 2,000 attendees, although schools and a hospital served many thousands and the church’s work was energetic and growing rapidly. Adventist workers were witness to these abuses of women. John W. Arthur, a physician working under the Church of Scotland, who opened their mission’s first hospital, took a strong position against the practice, and was able to influence some Kikiyu leadership, but not enough to end the practice among the general tribal populace.
Although the evangelistic tendency among Adventists was to compete with other denominations to win the “heathens,” it is the nature of mission work that workers have regular exchange with other Western families, whether government workers or missionaries of other denominations. News of Ms. Strumpf’s murder and the probable cause must have spread through the Western communities in East Africa quickly, and unlike some of the uncomfortable practices missionaries contended with, like polygamy, bare-breastedness, and demon possession and amulets, this one became a signifying issue that everyone was obliged to talk about—at least, locally.
But like many other tribally-rooted practices, female genital mutilation found no condemnation in the Seventh-day Adventist church at the time. Mentions of what in 1925 S.G. Maxwell called a community “deeply steeped in heathendom,” having “the unenviable reputation of being the sole remaining tribe in the territory that still praises infanticide” and later in 1930 (referring to another tribal community) observing that “The majority are quite content to spend their time trading cattle and marrying wives” are not untypical. Even allowing for a British archness in tone, reading these reports leaves one with a sense of resignation about what heathens are likely to do or not do.
In the meanwhile, though, the denomination evangelized with health and clean living, literacy, and Sabbath observance, which have enjoyed a privileged place among mission endeavors since their beginnings.
The practice was prohibited by several Christian churches, some with the promise of excommunication, others with less punitive but no less consequential measures. Ms. Strumpf’s murder and its probable causes certainly must have been discussed in the mission department in Takoma Park. But there was no mention of it in any of the publicly distributed periodicals, and if it was talked about during meetings, it seems not to have warranted a record in minutes.
Soon, given the nature of disagreement among denominations—Methodists and Presbyterians adamantly opposed, Adventists and Roman Catholics silent—FGM became a religious as well as a cultural issue. The churches opposed to the practice excommunicated those who maintained the ritual and lost a large percentage of members. Apparently, the Adventists didn’t, so didn’t. Their converts may have been mutilated and mutilating, they may have practiced merciless treatment of women, generally, but they were Sabbath keepers. Given the nature of disagreement among denominations—Methodists and Presbyterians opposed, Adventists and Roman Catholics silent—FGM became a religious as well as a cultural issue. The churches opposed to the practice excommunicated those who maintained the ritual, and lost a large percentage of members. Apparently, the Adventists didn’t, so didn’t. Their converts may have been mutilated and mutilating, they may have practiced merciless treatment of women, but they were Sabbath keepers.
Given the nature of disagreement among denominations—Methodists and Presbyterians opposed, Adventists and Roman Catholics silent—FGM became a religious as well as a cultural issue. The churches opposed to the practice excommunicated those who maintained the ritual, and lost a large percentage of members. Apparently, the Adventists didn’t, so didn’t. Their converts may have been mutilated and mutilating, they may have practiced merciless treatment of women, but they were Sabbath keepers.
The 1930 murder was a sentinel event that began to lay a framework for thinking through both how to address this horrific practice, as well as how to work with those tribal notions that still exist in some parts of Africa. On one hand, certain fundamental practices regarding the nature and role of women have been—and are—politicized by local populations with an eye toward anti-imperialism; on the other hand, Western notions of “right and wrong,” are in constant contest for political superiority—or “rightness”—against those practices, and the democratized world hasn’t always had adequate bases for that “rightness.” For Adventists, Biblical readings have not given any more hard reasoning against FGM than it does against women’s ordination, for example, or against child abuse.
We have attempted to locate the practice in religion, a relatively easy target, but the statistical overlap between Islam and FGM is co-incidental. The American Protestant practice of prepuce excision was hardly a religious ritual and did not last through women’s suffrage, a wave of immigrants with other notions of sexuality, and the work of Margaret Sanger. Some have assumed that one must not interfere in the non-religious practices of a local society, a belief still held by some in this church. Whether an aliterate tribal system counts as religion or not is debatable, and in any case, its practitioners have no way of explaining the need for their practices, save for the belief that they are required for a well-running society and that departures are destructively abnormal. For many, a polytheism that provides models for ideal men and women underlies this, and they believe that ignoring these ideals might bring grave consequences. Arguing against this belief absent concrete indication that living otherwise is more fruitful for the entire community seems hopeless. The energetically politicized issues surrounding ordaining women to the gospel ministry right now, which would provide women with equal authority to men, has its roots in Africa in this very cultural ground.
With this in mind, the Adventist mission community in Africa seems to have been resigned to a tacit acceptance of FGM and other practices in the face of a potential loss of membership, or worse, some kind of political backlash. The Adventist community has known about FGM for 90 years, was pulled into an international discussion (however muted in our own offices) two decades after, but has been unwilling to bring the issue into our own public. Meanwhile, other denominations renounced, condemned, and attempted to take ecclesiastical measures to ban it.
Seventy years after the murder of Hulda Strumpf, the Seventh-day Adventist church published a public statement about female genital mutilation. It’s a thorough, no-holds barred description of this practice is all its forms. (You can read the full statement here.)
“The Church calls on its health care professionals, educational and medical institutions, and all members along with people of good will to cooperate in efforts to eliminate the practice of female genital mutilation,” the statement reads. The document also rightly calls for compassion and support for those who have undergone this treatment, but suggests no consequences to male leaders who keep women subservient, unequal, desexualized, and under the auspices of tribal tradition—whether in Africa or elsewhere. It provides no clear direction for pastors, church workers, or leadership beyond the need to recognize the severity of the problem.
Recently, when Women’s Ministries called for the General Conference to formally accept and adopt this accurate but anodyne statement, the president—a man whose mission service was to the peoples of Africa—went only so far as to formally receive their statement.
In 1930, East African church membership counted as a small percentage of American and European Adventists, but missionaries were grossly outnumbered by the local populations, a situation that required bravery in the face of demeaning or dangerous practices. Today, global regions in the church are nationalized, and over half a million names are on the East African books, comprising over 17% of the denomination’s total membership.
The potential for political hostility remains, and conversations about cultural relativity continue, regarding this issue and others that affect the nature and role of women in our denomination. The reluctance to ban Female Genital Mutilation is rooted in the same ground that keeps our leaders from endorsing women’s ordination: they don’t want to rock the boat in our most populous mission field.
At what point do we demand our members to be as Christian on this issue as many other Christians, even Catholics? What would happen to the denomination globally if we finally repudiated and condemned female genital mutilation? Are we fearful that we will lose membership or that someone will murder one of us in the night? Why must we explain why mutilating women is unacceptable, to begin with?
Winona Winkler Wendth is an alumna of Atlantic Union College, and a writer and editor who lives in Massachusetts. She also teaches humanities classes at Quinsigamond Community College and is a founder and director of the Seven Bridge Writers’ Collaborative. Having served as a missionary in Japan, she has studied and researched Adventist mission work in the context of the Western imperial discourse. She and her spouse Norman Wendth have lived and worked at five Adventist college campuses, survived raising two daughters, and are responsible for two dependent cats.