Our History | Tō Matau Hitoria

“If we can give them the book to read, and the means to read it, God will bless His Word.”

A Simple Idea

In 1819 two young Eurasian women witnessed the suttee—the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre—in Calcutta, India.

They were deeply disturbed by this and persuaded some missionaries to help them set up a school for educating women, believing that through Christian education Indian women might become the agents of their emancipation. In 1821 a Miss Cooke arrived in Calcutta to help with the vision. Schools were set up to teach women to read and write, and then to teach others to do the same. They had only a few students; the high-caste zenanas – that part of a house where the women are kept with the husband’s female relatives, secluded from the outside world and form the eyes of other men – remained closed to them.

Then in the 1840s three high-caste Hindus, one the son of a Calcutta prince, the others his wife and their cousin, were born again of the Spirit through the chance reading of a Bible in the Palace library. Unaided by others they had found God’s truth. One of the girls, a widow of 18, was banished by her family, but upon returning to Calcutta in 1851 she shocked public opinion when she was publicly baptised.

This stirred the hearts of other Christians. Less than 400 of the 40 million Hindu women in India could read at the beginning of the 19th Century. If these two literate high-caste girls could find God’s truth just by reading the Bible, what could be achieved if other women could learn to read? What could happen if the women of India’s zenanas were opened to the Gospel? “If we can give them the book to read, and the means to read it, God will bless His Word.”

What could happen if the women of India’s zenanas were opened to the Gospel?

On March 1st, 1852, Mrs McKenzie, wife of a Calcutta merchant, with the help of Mary Jane Kinnaird in London, future founder of the YWCA, opened “The Calcutta Normal School”, a training school for women teachers to train them to teach the zenana women, and so the Zenana Bible Mission was born.

Mary Kinnaird formed a Committee in London and two British women were sent out to run the school. Mary Kinnaird believed in Christians of all denominations working together, which was against the thinking of the time, and so the Mission had an interdenominational basis from the start. It was a Mission sending women to work with women – culturally, on the Indian subcontinent only women can work among women and only men among men.

The London Committee began sending women out not only for the schools but to begin evangelistic work amongst the zenana women. Over time many Indian women who became Christians were trained to work as Bible women – evangelists who, with much courage, preached and lived the gospel in many communities.

Challenging the status quo:

In 1871 a Scottish missionary, a man, challenged the Zenana Mission Committee by suggesting that they begin a female medical mission work in India in order to gain acceptance into the zenanas and as a much needed work –

this was an era when women doctors were hardly accepted and in fact there was only two female doctors in Britain. However, two women were trained privately and sent. One died on the journey there, and the other, soon after arrival.

The first New Zealand woman – Miss Thorne – arrived in India in 1875. Over time the New Zealand home base would take a particular prayer, financial and resourcing interest in work that developed in the Punjab.

In 1876 a qualified nurse was sent out from Britain, the only female medical missionary in the whole of India. Her name was Miss Bielby. She set up a nursing clinic, which also worked to train Indian nurses. One day, when a Maharini (wife of a Maharajah) was in the clinic she told Miss Bielby it was not enough to have nurses. Could she, when next in Britain, ask Queen Victoria for women to be trained as doctors. Miss Bielby was doubtful, but friends in Britain gained her an audience and Queen Victoria said ‘yes’.

By 1887 of 50 British women qualified in medicine, 6 were serving in India. Soon Indian women doctors joined them.

In 1880, the word ‘Medical’ was included in the name of the Mission, to make it known as ‘The Zenana Bible and Medical Mission’, ZBMM – affectionately known sometimes as Zenanas, Bananas and Monkeys Mission.

By 1887 of 50 British women qualified in medicine, 6 were serving in India. Soon Indian women doctors joined them.

The work expanded, and hospitals were opened. Leprosy work began, and homes opened for the care of orphaned children. A school for the children of these orphanages began, the forerunner of what is now the Kinnaird College for Women, a highly regarded University for women in Lahore, Pakistan.

Holding fast to the commitment to be interdenominational ZBMM inspired the creation of the non-denominational Church of South India – as recorded in their minutes as they were forming.

In 1939 the ZBMM had 55 missionaries and 300 national workers in 18 centres.

Responding to a changing world:

In 1952, after 100 years as a Mission of women to women, the first three couples were accepted, one of those being New Zealanders Bruce and Kathleen Nicholls.

In 1957, the name was changed to ‘Bible and Medical Missionary Fellowship’, also affectionately known by many single women workers as ‘Bring More Men Fast’ and in 1979 changed slightly to just the initials, BMMF International.

Across the 1970s, under the leadership of NZer Ray Windsor as International Director, BMMF moved its head office from London to New Dehli and worked on handing all schools and hospitals and other local initiatives over to national leadership. As a result, a key approach is that partners are seconded to initiatives or work in collaboration with others in initiating.

It was later decided to delete the words ‘Bible’ and ‘Missionary’ from the title, so as not to prejudice the work in countries where access for Christian missionaries is difficult and Christians are not allowed to openly evangelise. It is now known as International Service Fellowship, or ‘Interserve’.

Interserve today is an international, interdenominational, faith fellowship, supporting over 800 full-time partners across Asia and the Arab World, as well as work amongst their diaspora in countries such as Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Partners come from many countries and cultures within them – from South America, East Asia and Central Asia, from Egypt to England, the USA to South Korea, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Germany, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Tonga, New Zealand (including Māori), and more. They serve in different ways – in informal and formal ways in many different professions, trades, and ministries, where invited, to bring not only spiritual transformation, but also physical, mental, emotional and social healing – and all for the glory of God.

Our journey with tangata whenua:

For the last decade we as Interserve NZ have gone on a journey with tangata whenua – with Māori brothers and sisters.

One of the gifts they have given us is that they have held a mirror up to us and through the lens of their cultural perspective reminded us to be grateful for the people – their commitments and values – that have made us who we are.

In May 2019 we celebrated 200 years since the inception of Interserve in 1819, and we were gifted a Māori name – Te Riu Whakaoreore. Te Riu Whakaoreore recalls an ocean-going waka or canoe. Te Riu is the hull of the waka. Whakaoreore speaks of spiritual movement, of awakening, of mobilising. When a waka was to go on a long journey two pou or posts would be driven into the sand on either side of the canoe. They were posts to navigate leaving and returning by. Wherever the waka landed those pou, those posts would, metaphorically, mark landfall. Kaumatua Fred Astle who prayerfully gave us our name, marked our pou, our posts out as He Pou Whakaoreore Wairua – the Christ beyond and within, calling us on; and He Pou Wahine Rangatira – our chiefly women, ancestors in faith, who remind us to be obedient. Our name, Te Riu Whakaoreore, reminds us as we are being awakened to the spirit of God and seek to encourage such awakening in others, to draw inspiration and strength from Christ and from the example of those who have gone before us.