Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the writings of a “Spiritual Mother”

“She should have been a bishop!” Barbara Nkala pounded the table emphatically.1 An historian and long standing member of the Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe, Nkala’s voice echoes that of many in that community, who continue to hold up the memory of pioneer missionary H. Frances Davidson.2 Davidson is remembered for having travelled from the Kansas prairie to the Matopo Hills in 1898 to help establish a mission there; well over a century later, members of the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ church still regard her as their “spiritual mother.”3

My current research is taking further my previous observations on the spiritual awakening that inspired Davidson’s conversion from college teacher to missionary.4 Following in the wake of other Protestants who have retained a reverence for Mary, for Davidson, an encounter with what she called “that great work Murillo’s Immaculate Conception” proved to be a moment of transformation and awakening.5 Coming face to face with that masterpiece on a class trip to the Chicago Fine Arts Museum immediately followed what she recorded in her journal as a moving and productive session of writing on the Faery Queen for a literature class she was taking at University of Chicago.6 These encounters in March 1895 coincided with Davidson’s thirty-fifth birthday, and seem to have kindled a passion which had previously lain dormant.7 As she recorded in her journal that evening, “Beauty, in its supreme development, invariable (sic) excites the sensitive soul to tears. There seemed to be in me a longing and restlessness, a desire for something higher and beyond.”8

As these recollections suggest, Davidson’s journals appear to have provided her with a confidante, a safe place where she could express joy and process inner turmoil. In her missionary career, for instance, she wrote of her struggles as she denied the urge to step out in leadership in ways that she, as the social mores of the time, deemed inappropriate for a woman. Scholars have investigated the pioneer leadership emphasizing her vision, and unique strength as an “unwomanly woman.”9 Through her writings, we can decipher ways that she dealt with the conflict of the external and internal pressures pressing her to take on spiritual leadership normally reserved for men.

In my quest to explore the writings of H. Frances Davidson, I anticipate becoming better acquainted with this “spiritual mother” of Brethren in Christ women. Expressing her spiritual struggles in language familiar to the piety of her evangelical tradition, her desire to surrender self, and to know God’s will echo the Sophia mysticism of Jacob Boehme and medieval mystics.10 What do the mystical moments, which she articulated in ways reminiscent of the deeper conversion and transformation of gelassenheit or surrender to God’s will familiar in Anabaptist piety as well as colonial pietism, reveal about the faith, and the strong leadership of this spiritual mother who remains to this day an iconic figure for her denomination the Brethren in Christ in Zimbabwe, Zambia, the United States and Canada?


  1. Conversation with Barbara Nkala, 23 June 2017, at “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries,” a conference held at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia. She has authored and co-authored several books on the denomination’s history including Celebrating the Vision: A Century of Sowing and Reaping (Bulawayo: Brethren in Christ Church, 1998); see also Nkala and Doris Dube, Growing and Branching Out: Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa (Harare, Zimbabwe: Radiant Press, 2014) and Bekithemba Dube, Doris Dube and Barbra Nkala. “Brethren in Christ Churches in Southern Africa,” edited by John A. Lapp and C. Arnold Snyder, 97-191, in Anabaptist Songs in African Hearts: a Global Mennonite History, vol. I, Africa, (Intercourse, PA: Good Books and Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2003). Nkala is a member of the Zimbabwean Brethren in Christ Church.
  2. The photo is of Davidson and Adda Engel, that appears as the frontispiece in H. Frances Davidson, South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915).
  3. Dube, Dube and Nkala, Anabaptist Songs, 150-55; Wendy Urban Mead, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015), 38, 42, 49-50, 60, 76.
  4. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Missions,” Brethren in Christ History & Life Vol. XI no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52; “History as Relationship,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/2018/10/16/history-as-relationship/
  5. Immaculate Conception of El Escorial (Bartolome Estaban Murillo, 1650), Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Immaculate_Conception_of_El_Escorial Accessed 16 December 2019.
  6. Queen Elizabeth I: The Rainbow Portrait c. 1600–02 attrib. Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Portraiture of Elizabeth I of England, Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portraiture_of_Elizabeth_I_of_England Accessed December 16, 2019; “for a contemporary convert to The Faery Queen, see Brenton Dickieson, “On Reading the Faerie Queene for the First Time,” A Pilgrim in Narnia, June 3, 2015, https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2015/06/03/fq/.
  7. Earl D. Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 56-57.
  8. Hannah Frances Davidson, Diaries, 13 March 1895; her journals have been edited by E. Morris Sider and published in Brethren in Christ History and Life. See “The Journal of Frances Davidson.” “Part 1: The Early Years (1861-1895)” 8, no. 2 (August 1985): 103-23; “Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898)” 8, no. 3 (December 1985): 181-204; “Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904)” 9, no. 1 (April 1986): 23-64; “Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908)” 9, no. 2 (August 1986):125-49; “Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931)” 9, no. 3 (December 1986): 284-309.
  9. See, for instance, E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” in Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214; Wendy Urban-Mead, “Religion, Women and Gender in the Brethren in Christ Church, Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, 1898-1978,” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2004); and “An Unwomanly Woman and Her Sons in Christ: Faith, Empire, and Gender in Colonial Rhodesia, 1899/1906,” in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812–1960, ed.Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie Shemo (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 94-116.
  10. Ruether, Goddesses, 230-31. Beulah Hostettler links Jacob Boehme with Martin Boehme who influenced colonial Pietism. American Mennonites and Protestant Movements: A Community Paradigm (Wipf & Stock, 2002). https://books.google.ca/books?id=3MJKAwAAQBAJ&pg=PA34&lpg=PA34&dq=were+Jacob+Boehme+and+Martin+Boehme+related?&source=bl&ots=sku2sdDZwP&sig=ACfU3U0Nu13toTVrewpzsr701-prjqV1QA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjAg6uep7vmAhUB01kKHctMCmUQ6AEwCHoECAgQAQ#v=onepage&q=were%20Jacob%20Boehme%20and%20Martin%20Boehme%20related%3F&f=false Accessed December 16, 2019.

History as Relationship

“We need all the women’s stories we can get.”1 Sofia Samatar’s challenge in her plenary talk at the Crossing the Line conference echoes the words of Gerda Lerner, the American Jewish historian credited as the founder of women’s studies. In Lerner’s words, even though “women have been denied the power to define, to share in creating the mental constructs that explain and order the world, history shows that women have always, as have men, been agents and actors in history.”2 The challenge in doing women’s history is not just accessing the stories; it is also in navigating the relationship between historian and actor. I have found Palmer Parker’s concept of “knowing” to be helpful in thinking about my relationship with those I study: “Knowing of any sort is relational, animated by a desire to come into deeper community with what we know.”3

My interest in the history of Brethren in Christ women emerged as I was completing my undergraduate degree forty years ago. Although my historical journey would take me to a variety of avenues of exploration in church history, mostly Canadian, much of it exploring women’s actions and agency, Crossing the Line brought me back to my Brethren in Christ roots. The panel Devin Manzullo-Thomas organized gave me the opportunity to fulfill my youthful desire to come into deeper relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson, whose diaries and unusual accomplishments for a nineteenth-century woman had long inspired me.

Over the years I have read and re-read Frances Davidson’s missionary travelogue, her journals, and Morris Sider’s biography.4 Crossing the Line opened the way for a deeper knowing, as I explored Frances’s longing for higher education, and the dramatic call that led her to leave college teaching for pioneer missionary work. Sitting with her early diaries deepened my knowing from the distant image of a brilliant, bold, courageous woman, to one who was passionately spiritual, with a deep mysticism that opened her heart to transformation; my relationship with my ancestor Frances Davidson grew as I pondered her journals where she expressed her experience of God’s call.5

I am grateful to her great-nephew Earl Brechbill for saving Frances’s journals penned in little brown notebooks from extinction by protective family members.6 I am grateful to Morris Sider for taking the risk of publishing them in Brethren in Christ History & Life. Knowledge about this woman had long validated my own deep desire to study. Crossing the Line provided an opportunity to go further into relationship, to follow my own inner push to write about her, something deeper than history.  Her story is part of my story.  We need women’s stories, but it can take years of gestation as we come into relationship with the past. “Why does a historian study the dead past?” Parker Palmer asks: “To reveal how much of it lives in us today.”7 The push to come into closer relationship with this aspect of my history after years of contemplation, feels like a personal gift from Crossing the Line.


  1. “In Search of Women’s History: Crossing Space, Crossing Communities, Crossing Time,” https://anabaptisthistorians.org/tag/crossing-the-line/page/1/ 
  2. Gerda Lerner, Why History Matters: Life and Thought (NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 207. 
  3. Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 54. 
  4.  South and South Central Africa: A Record of Fifteen Years’ Missionary Labors among Primitive Peoples (Elgin, ILL: Brethren Publishing House, 1915); “The Journals of Frances Davidson,” Part 1: The Early Years (1861 – 1895), Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1985): 103-23; Part II: The Call to Africa (1895-1898) Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1985), 181-204; Part III: The First Years in Africa (1898-1904) Brethren in Christ History and Life (April 1986), 23-64; Part IV: The Founding and Early Years of Macha Mission (1904-1908) Brethren in Christ History and Life (August 1986), 125-49; Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life (December 1986), 284-309; see also Hannah Frances Davidson Diaries Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah College, Grantham, PA. http://messiaharchives.pastperfectonline.com/archive/D7FCD1A1-ABA4-4088-94C8-059638202176 ; E. Morris Sider, “Hannah Frances Davidson,” Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Press, 1978), 159-214. 
  5. “Conflict, Confession, and Conversion: H. Frances Davidson’s Call to Brethren in Christ Mission,” Brethren in Christ History & Life XL, no. 3 (December 2017), 335-52. 
  6. Interview with Earl and Ellen Brechbill by the author and Phyllis Marr Harrison, 18 July 2000, Mechanicsburg, PA. 
  7.  Courage to Teach, 54.