In celebration of Women’s History Month, Buswell Library Archives & Special Collections commemorates the many contributions from women whose unique voices and experiences are documented throughout our rich collections. This March, we highlight the life and missionary service of Hulda Stumpf, a missionary to Kenya from 1907-1930.
A native of Pennsylvania, Stumpf left the comforts of her middle-class, Midwestern life for the unknown challenges of missionary service as a single woman in British East Africa in 1907. During her two decades of service at the Kijabe Mission Station in Kenya, Stumpf became an outspoken advocate for the education and advancement of women and girls from the surrounding indigenous ethnic people groups. Her willingness to challenge the long-cherished cultural mores and religious rites resulted in her tragic murder at the age of 62.
Today, Stumpf’s personnel file and correspondence, recording over 20 years of missionary service—both the mundane and the momentous—are held in the Records of the U.S. Home Council of the Africa Inland Mission, along with materials on the investigation into her death.
Very little is known about Hulda Stumpf before she sailed for East Africa in 1907 where she would spend nearly three decades in what is Kenya today. A few scanty details describing Stumpf’s early life, education, and Christian development can be found in her application to the Home Council of Africa Inland Mission dated November 7, 1906. [CN 81, Folder 24-22]. In crisp, sloping penmanship, Stumpf records that she was born Hulda Jane Stumpf to John and Emily Stumpf in 1867 and raised in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. The first forty years of Hulda’s life were quiet and unremarkable—she completed at course in business school, where she trained as a stenographer, and later spent two years at the New York School of Music. As an unmarried woman, Stumpf supported herself first by working as a clerk and later by teaching stenography at Indiana Business School in her hometown.
A single line in her AIM application documents the turning point in Stumpf’s life. Although she had been a church member for many years, Stumpf lists the date of her conversion as July 10, 1906, mere months before she applied to serve on the foreign mission field. Since her conversion, Stumpf records that she has participated in “S.S. [Sunday School] and general mission work.” Moreover, she is “giving my spare time to work among the poor of town. [I] have always been active in church work.” Apparently, the opportunities for Christian service in small town Pennsylvania proved limited for a woman of Stumpf’s energies, and on October 24, 1906, she wrote to Africa Inland Mission requesting information about foreign missionary service. [CN 81, Folder 24-22]. In a brisk tone, she informed the Mission representative, “I desire to be a missionary, and go with Miss Myers when she goes to East Africa next year.” In a couple brief sentences, Stumpf sums up her life to date: “I am forty years of age and although not very rugged looking, my general health is fairly good. I have been a stenographer for about ten years…. But my wish now is to serve Him more effectively on the mission field.”
AIM’s Executive Secretary, J. Davis Adams, responded to Stumpf’s inquiry three days later, revealing that the Mission did not deem it prudent to send women to Africa at the advanced age of forty. Stumpf’s “special qualifications,” however, might merit an exception, Adams admitted, and forwarded his eager correspondent a copy of the Africa Inland Mission constitution and the Home Council regulations, along with the application and medical forms. On behalf of the Mission, Adams concluded, “A good stenographer, Spirit-filled, can always be used.” Stumpf lost no time completing the application to express her “earnest desire, believing the time to be short when He shall appear, and the need in foreign field success to be great.” After months of preparation, Stumpf sailed for British East Africa out of New York City harbor in November 1907. Traveling through Gibraltar and Naples, she arrived a month later at the mission station in Kijabe, Kenya, where she would spend the rest of her life and is buried today.
In Kijabe, Stumpf put her considerable administrative skills to work, supporting the daily activities involved in running the mission station and penning articles for the AIM’s periodical, Inland Africa. Stumpf’s correspondence from these years document the mundane activities of mission work—the financial strains and practical challenges of daily life in a remote village—as well as the station’s educational and evangelistic efforts among the Kikuyu, one of the indigenous Kenyan people groups. As a single woman missionary, Stumpf was especially involved in the Kijabe Girls’ Home, teaching basic literacy, practical domestic skills, and Bible stories to Kikuyu girls.
Stumpf’s letters display a particular interest in evangelizing Kikuyu women and girls and documenting the social and spiritual challenges these converts faced. In a 1914 letter to supporters, Stumpf describes the spread of Christianity among Kikuyu women: “A number of the women in the near by [sic] villages at Kijabe have expressed a desire to become Christians and many of them met with much oppositions from their husbands…. The women’s work is encouraging and intensely interesting. To be sure, it takes longer to get a response from them than from the men, but one can nearly always depend on the sincerity of the expression.”
The Mission’s evangelism work frequently placed them at odds with the neighboring indigenous tribes. Conversions to Christianity disrupted the social and spiritual fabric of traditional Kikuyu culture, challenging rigid family hierarchies and cherished religious rites. In a fascinating two-page letter to an American friend, Stumpf outlines the near-unbearable pressure on African converts to renounce their newfound faith. Even more concerning for Stumpf were the burdens obstacles faced by women converts. She writes:
“The women of the tribes are in great bondage to their fathers, brothers, or next of kin in the case of a father or brother’s death. They are just so many chattels, worth so many goats or sheep or knives or spears or whatever the legal tender happens to be. So when a girl or woman attempts to listen to God’s word and give head to the call of the Spirit, she is tortured often to the point of death. And if a girl is insistent on coming to the mission to learn and study more about the things eternal, she must run away from her home in almost every case.”Letter from Hulda Stumpf to Elizabeth Reid, October 24, 1924. CN 81, Folder 24-23.
As Stumpf’s years in Kijabe passed, more and more references to a particular issue appear in her correspondence and reports—female genital mutilation (FGM). Referred to in those days as “female circumcision,” FGM was a Kikuyu practice and rite of passage for tribal girls. Africa Inland Mission, like other missionary agencies working in East Africa in the early twentieth century, struggled to convince Christian converts to abandon this traditional rite that left young girls permanently and painfully disabled, making childbirth dangerous and even fatal for Kikuyu women.
In a 1926 letter to the Home Secretary, Henry Campbell, Hulda Stumpf voiced her grief over the excommunication of a converted Kikuyu man, Joshua Macai, because he had allowed his daughter to be circumcised. “This circumcision ceremony permitted by the fathers of their daughter seems to be the natural bridge on which the missionary and the native are not able to cross together,” she wrote. “It seems impossible for some of our native Christians to see the harm in allowing this ceremony to be held.” [CN 81, Folder 24-24]. In her book, Beyond the Kikuyu Curtain, AIM medical missionary and a contemporary of Hulda Stumpf’s, Dr. Virginia Blakeslee [see her personnel file in CN 81-41-11] described how Kikuyu girls abandoned their homes for mission stations to avoid unwanted marriages and circumcision rites. As a medical professional, Blakeslee reported, “[T]he physical disabilities that followed the circumcision of Kikuyu girls became so apparent that a stand had to be taken against this custom.”
Ultimately, Stumpf’s dogged opposition to the practice of FGM proved as dangerous to herself as the Kikuyu women she championed. In her book, Blakeslee, who oversaw the Girls’ Home at Kijabe, describes the growing tensions between the Kijabe mission and Kikuyu tribal leaders over the autumn months of 1929. On the morning of January 3, a mission staff worker found Stumpf’s lifeless body in her house, where she lived alone some 130 yards from the Kijabe mission main building. The resulting investigation revealed that a window had been broken during the night, and an intruder had asphyxiated and sexually assaulted the 62-year-old missionary. Originally reported as rape, the medical examination concluded that Stumpf had been the victim of an attempted circumcision. The outcry was instant and far-reaching. Stumpf’s murder was reported in publications like the New York Times and Time magazine, and an investigation was launched by the colonial government in Kenya.
Hulda Stumpf was buried in in Kenya two days after her murder, but the controversy surrounding her death did not subside for months. Although one suspect, a native man named M’Kamba, was eventually arrested and brought to trial, he was not convicted on account of flimsy circumstantial evidence. No other suspects were ever identified.
Stumpf’s death was officially reported in the February issue of Inland Africa, but the publication omitted any details about the brutality of her murder or the possibility of genital mutilation. Instead, the article focused on her “long life of arduous service in the Congo and in Kenya” and “her sterling worth as a missionary.” In Beyond the Kikuyu Curtain, Blakeslee highlights Stumpf’s strong opposition to the practice of female genital mutilation as the probable motive behind her murder but is likewise silent about the sexual assault against her friend and colleague.
More details about Hulda Stumpf’s life and missionary service in Kijabe, Kenya can be found in her correspondence files in the records of the U.S. Home Council of Africa Inland Mission. The collection also contains the records of the Kijabe Mission Station where Stumpf served from 1907-1930, and the personnel and correspondence files of her friend and missionary colleagues.