Martha Smith


Martha Smith
Surname as Student: Smith
Education: School Unknown
Graduation Year: Unknown
Designated: 1912
Denomination: Presbyterian Church of Canada

  • 1911 - 1916: Deaconess, Women's Missionary Society (Presbyterian) Mission to the Jews, Winnipeg
  • 1916 - 1925: Deaconess, Evangel Hall, Presbyterian Mission, Toronto

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How Martha Smith received her education to become a Presbyterian Deaconess is unknown, she appears on the scene when she is appointed to the Jewish Mission, also known as the Presbyterian Mission to the Jews, in Winnipeg in 1911. The Mission was originally located at 215 Jarvis Avenue and later moved to 549 Burrows Avenue.

Martha Smith describes her work there:

On our arrival we found boisterous opposition.  The people would not come to us, and we were not welcome when going to them.  Many closed the door in my face; others ordered me out of their homes, and spat on the literature I carried with me.  A very few received me, and through these, gradually confidence was gained.  The recent distress has opened many doors, because we have been able to give relief to many families and their gratitude is truly touching.

From the 1914 Report of the Committee on the Presbyterian Missionary and Deaconess Training Home to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.

The next year (1915), in the report to the Assembly she is quoted again:

Few Gentile Christians understand that Jewish work is different from all other in this, that the Jews are pre-eminently a roving people, therefore when convicted of sin and accepting Christ as their Saviour, they hurry to a strange city, often without speaking to any of their change of attitude.  A mother’s sewing class commenced last fall has been well attended; the missionary sometimes gives a talk, at others I tell a Bible story and again an educated Jewess reads a story in Yiddish and I explain it in light of the New Testament, reading it or repeating over and over in Yiddish one verse, urging them to think of it all week.  In our visiting we meet many who will not come to the mission, but who warmly welcome us in their homes.  Of these one mother and three girls have attended church with me and another delights to have the Bible explained to her, although, not yet a believer.  Almost daily we hear from grateful lips, ‘thank you for coming’ and many complain if more than three weeks elapse between our visits. ‘Sympathy is a key which, when rightly used, opens every door.’

The Presbyterians of the day, in keeping with other protestant groups, Anglican, Methodist, and Baptist being the larger ones, shared a vision for a moral and civilized nation guided by Christian influences and standards.  The Canada that they saw was to be built on the assumption of the Presbyterian reform movement of the superiority of Anglo-Saxon Protestant morality and culture.  Foreigners (which did not include Protestants from Britain, but did include Roman Catholics, especially from Ireland) were feared. The goal was to make them conform to what was seen as an Anglo standard of morality.  Even missions to Eastern European Christians had explicit goals to “Christianize” people, despite the fact that they were already Christians.  Eastern and Orthodox Christianity did not appear to register as true Christianity.  So it is not surprising that there were explicit missions to convert the Jews, a group of foreigners definitely to be feared, even despised.  Anti-semitism was expressed openly.  As Martha Smith describes her encounters it is apparent that Winnipeg’s Jewish community was not interested in the efforts to save them.  She seems in her account though to be oblivious to the legitimacy of their opposition to being colonialized into protestant Christianity.

In 1916, her last year at the Mission, this quote is in the report to the General Assembly

In visitation there is first conversation to get acquainted, or the offering of a tract or gospel; at others I cut out garments and show the mothers how to put them together, very often I listen to a story of poverty and distress, and always there is the giving out of sympathy.  The best time of all is when they are willing to listen to the Bible. Sometimes bitter opposition is met with, but every opportunity is taken to read and explain the Bible, and it is most encouraging to find many women willing and eager to hear. Recently a warm friend said, ‘Never get discouraged in this work; I knew a Jew who recently joined a Christian church who was thinking of this step for nineteen years before his decision.’  A Jew who occasionally comes to the mission said, ‘Four years ago you offered me a Bible and I refused it and told you plainly I would not read such a book, but two years ago I accepted one, and have read it almost every day since.’ A woman said lately that she and her husband read the New Testament every night, and I frequently find Bibles from the mission in kitchens, and the mothers say they have been reading a little every day; a number of men and women are seriously thinking of the claim of the gospel, while two at least are believers and are studying the New Testament sacraments.

The Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario of the United Church has minutes and papers from the Presbyterian Mission to the Jews.  They could reveal more about the efforts of conversion and about Martha herself.  Reading this disturbs our contemporary sense of appropriateness, but the missionary movement of the 19th and 20th century was built on an evangelical fervour for the natural place of Christianity as the religion for all the world, surpassing all other religions.  In this example, the shame of that ambition is starkly apparent.  Do the stories of bringing the gospel to Aboriginal people engender the same responses in 21st century Canadian Christians?

After her work in Winnipeg, Martha moved to Toronto to work at Evangel Hall, a community outreach ministry.  In 1926 she is not on the list of women joining the United Church.  She may have married and been disjoined, withdrawn from the Order that year, or could have continued as a Presbyterian.  More research into the records of Evangel Hall could help to track her after 1925.

This biography was written by Caryn Douglas, October 2012.