India in the nineteenth century was no place for a lady—at least not for an impressionable young lady born and bred in the comfort and ease of Victorian England. It was a rough-and-tumble world of stark brutality and crass occultism, a chaotic and untamed spiritual Negev. The bestial cult of Kali enslaved millions in wretched fear and perversity. The cruel and impersonal rigors of Brahmanism wracked millions more with the fickle whims of fashion and fancy. Still more were gripped in the bizarre downward spiral of fatalistic self-abasement, inhuman social stratification, and raw moral corruption of Vedacism. And besides these, a kaleidoscope of cosmic visions—Muslim, Sikh, and Buddhist—kept the great Asian subcontinent under the￼pall of pagan tyranny and unrest.
Anna Bowden (1852–1873) was a consummate Victorian debutante. But she left her family’s comfortable Notting Hill social orbit to enroll in Henrietta Soltau’s mission training school in London. Then, late in 1871, Robert Campbell-Green, an evangelist working in southern India, visited the school to deliver a short series of devotional talks on the many new missionary inroads he had witnessed. He related the brutal realities of the dominant Hindu culture in India, but Anna felt an irresistible call to take the good news of the Gospel and the succor of Christ to that desperate land. Though only midway through her training, she immediately— almost impulsively—committed herself to the fledgling work there. A month later, she set sail for Conjeeveram.
Her travel journal conveys the overriding vision that she carried into the work: “I know not the challenges that face me among peoples who live but for death. I do know though, the grace of the Savior that has called me to die but for life.”
When she arrived, she discovered that Campbell-Green’s mission compound had been abandoned. Anna refurbished the mission’s decrepit facilities and reopened its tiny clinic and school. And although most of the local residents generally maintained a cool distance, Anna drew innumerable children and outcaste “untouchables.” After three months, her efforts began to reap a bountiful harvest.
It was not long, however, before Anna’s jubilant optimism ran headlong into trouble. A new Hindu reform movement had begun to spread in southern India—the Arya Samaj. Dedicated to the purification of Hinduism and a return to the traditional values of ancient paganism, the movement sought a ban on “proselytism” and reinstituted such practices as immolation and sarti, the ritual sacrifice of widows on the funeral biers of their husbands, as well as deyana and kananda, cultic forms of female infanticide.
As Christians like Anna began to venture to the “uttermost parts of the earth,” they were forced to confront the awful fruits of untamed heathenism. They circled the globe only to find the specters of endemic poverty, recurring famine, unfettered disease, and widespread slavery. Cannibalism, ritual abuse, patricide, human sacrifice, sexual perversity, petty tyranny, live burials, clan warfare, and genocidal tribal vendettas were ugly realities.
Anna simply could not stand idly by in the face of such horrors. Almost immediately, she helped to set up a rescue network, providing a ready escape for damned women and girls.
Early in 1873, Swami Dayanand Sarasvati, the leader of Arya Samaj, appealed to Queen Victoria’s viceroy to have Anna stopped. In an attempt to keep the peace, the British administrator ordered Anna to refrain from any activities that were not “directly related to the operation of the missionary outpost.” Anna replied that rescuing human life was indeed “directly related” to her mission work and that it was, in fact, “directly related to any form of Christian endeavor, humanitarian or evangelistic.” She argued mat the very image of God in man, His communicable attributes, the tangible manifestation of His character in the midst of this poor fallen world, demanded that “Christian ideas be paired with Christian actions” and that “Christian doctrine be paired with Christian culture.”
Impatient and dissatisfied with the viceroy’s meek handling of Anna, Sarasvati dispatched an angry mob to the mission compound. They burned several of the buildings, raped a number of the young girls who had come to live there, and tortured and killed Anna.
Anna’s commitment stimulated and mobilized the church to call on the government to fundamentally alter the essence of the policy of “non-interference,” not just in India, but wherever the Gospel went out around the globe, and to enforce a universal legal code rooted in the Christian vision of justice—which was in turn rooted in the very character and attributes of God.
Anna Bowden was a lady—an “elect lady” (2 John 1). India in the nineteenth century was just the place for her.