“I have counted the cost of missionary service, and my love for Christ makes me willing to bear the many peculiar trials through which I am confident I must pass.”
– Nora A Gordon at her Valedictory event before missionary service, 1889.

By 1889, the ‘Scramble for Africa’ was well underway. Industrialised Europe squabbled over her vast natural resources; exploration became acquisition which became exploitation. Darwin and Marx were offering tantalising but ultimately unsatisfying theories for humanity’s social development; but it was the global, spiritual famine which motivated a powerful missionary movement, and Nora Antonia Gordon wanted to be part of it.

Born in 1866 to former slaves, Nora was the first graduate from Spelman Seminary, Atlanta, to be sent as a missionary to Africa. She was 22 years old when she arrived at a former English Baptist Mission in the Belgian Congo, where she taught in both the girl’s school and Sunday school classes.

Nora was convinced that women’s education was the path to national change.

‘Woman has more influence than man, and she wields it for good or bad… if all women could be educated and Christianized [sic], they would, ere long, bring back to this our beautiful earth, the beatitudes of Eden.’1

Perhaps rather idealistic, but she laboured to train women for the specific role she believed God had prepared.

‘Let no woman strive to be like a man; for a good original is far better than a bad imitation… all history verifies the fact, that woman is the pivot upon which the world turns.’2

While twenty-first century palates will dislike the terms: ‘Christianise’, ‘civilise’, ‘heathen’ and ‘natives’, we must avoid anachronistic judgements. Retrospective criticism of nineteenth century missionaries can easily attribute condescending attitudes to them. The truth is probably kinder. Many, including Nora, made huge personal, financial and relational sacrifices, undertaking gruelling journeys to far flung places, motivated by passion for God’s truth and the conviction that only Jesus could free men and women to truly live. Many paid with their lives.

Nora’s main challenge was to know where she fitted. Her skin was the same colour as the locals’, but her culture was more like that of those in charge of both the mission and government. Conversely, the Congolese saw her as someone much like themselves yet with authority, influence and responsibility far beyond their reach; Nora was not a victim of oppression, subjugation, whipping, kidnap or slavery as they frequently were. In her, race, femininity and social mobility were stood abruptly on their heads in a country where women did the heavy work, children were regularly sold into slavery by desperate parents and female circumcision was customary. Nora was also distressed by their routine drunkenness; noting fresh graves decorated with gin bottles was a source of particular grief to her.

Often frustrated and baffled by ‘the unfathomable actions of the natives’3, Nora still found them to be ‘intelligent and determined students but not unquestioning ones’4; they often challenged her views. Missionaries were not always welcomed warmly by either government or local chiefs as they tended, inevitably, to disrupt the status quo with their teaching.

African societies revolve around the life of the community rather than the individual. To convey Christian ideas of personal, individual sin was uphill work. Here, everyone must be in synch with their tribe; letting down the community was the act that brought shame.

Nora knew that her task was further jeopardised by corrupt colonial rule but speaking out was unwise. Missionaries needed the protection of the State; a thorny dilemma. Certainly, there were multiple opportunities to test the resolve and adaptability she’d cited back at Spelman before the realities of Africa surrounded her; ‘‘peculiar trials’ indeed.

‘A true woman’ she said, ‘is as determined in her purpose as any man. She may not withstand opposition as the proud oak withstands the blast, but she meets opposition as the willow meets the storm, bending before it for a time, but only to spring up again with more determination than ever to carry out her noble purposes.’5

After a year, Nora was transferred to Lukunga: a mission station of five houses where cassava, beans and potatoes were grown, although monkeys frequently stole them before harvest. The realities of lice, snakes, predators, malaria and abduction were ever-present, but Nora couldn’t wait to connect by talking, preaching, singing and praying in the new dialect. She was put in charge of both afternoon school and the printing office, where she prepared the type for printing the first maths textbook in the local language.

In 1893 Nora returned to Atlanta, completed a missionary training class at Spelman and married Rev Simeon Cunningham, a Jamaican who had trained at Spurgeon’s in London. Together they returned to Stanley Pool, east of Kinshasa (then Leopoldville) in 1895. A letter home reports that many people had fled across the Congo River, into the French controlled area, after their huts were burnt down by the State. Since Protestant missionaries were banned from working there, life became increasingly frustrating.

Although two children were born in the next five years, tragically both died, bringing untold sorrow to their parents.

Mary Fearing, another contemporary black missionary and former slave, noted: ‘If a person is not fully consecrated to the Lord heart, soul and body, Africa is not for them.’6 I think Nora would have agreed.

Poor health finally drove her back to the USA in 1900, where she died at the age of 34. Speaking at her funeral, a classmate recalled how her friend “loved to work for others, especially the poor and needy.” Echoing Nora’s words, she continued, “Her life was not all sunshine – no missionary’s is. In the storm she was like the oak, in sorrow she was brave and tender.”7

Nora’s success as a woman, as a missionary and a Jesus-follower was not dependent on her skin colour, her diligence or the number of converts she left behind – indeed, by 1895 many of the converts made by missionaries around Palaballa had reportedly slipped back into old lifestyles. I believe her willingness, passion and obedience were the keys to her pioneering life and to her undoubted success in the eyes of God.

Nora was a hope-carrier who seized the opportunity to take that hope to communities who were hungry and thirsty for truth. Can we be those women too?

Reflective Leadership Questions

(Can be done individually or in groups)

  1. How can you be an oak or a willow in the face of turbulence and trial?
  2. What has God asked you to sacrifice for Him?
  3. You don’t need to travel to Africa to bring good news to your community. Consider how you might do this in your sphere of influence.


  1. Class of 1888 ‘Influence of Woman on National Character’ Superman Messenger 5.1 Nov 88: Nora A Gordon
  2. Ibid
  3. https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/ &httpsredir=1&article=3096&context=theses Accessed 28.02.21
  4. Ibid
  5. Class of 1888 ‘Influence of Woman on National Character’ Superman Messenger 5.1 Nov 88: Nora A Gordon
  6. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/210598994.pdf Page 212. Accessed 17.02.21
  7. https://www.spelman.edu/about-us/news-and-events/our-stories/stories/2020/04/11/nora-gordan- and-flora-zeto. Accesses 15.02.21