The Life of Isabel Crawford, by Marilyn Whiteley


“Would you be interested in writing some brief biographical sketches about Canadian women?” Susan and I were catching up on our news at a meeting of the American Society of Church History. “I’m going to edit a dictionary of women and religion in North America, and I need some people to write about Canadians.” Was I interested? Certainly! I’d been studying and writing about Canadian church women for more than ten years, and here was a new opportunity. A few months later I got an e-mail from Susan and Ellie, who was working with her on the project. While Susan was from the United States, Ellie was a Canadian, and they’d drawn up a list. Nellie McClung? Of course. Others either I recognized or saw that it would be easy to learn about them. But who was this Isabel Alice Hartley Crawford? An e-mail to Susan and Ellie produced a brief answer: Crawford was listed in a Baptist dictionary. Sure enough, there she was. The entry was brief: she was born in Cheltenham, Ontario, in 1865 and died in Grimsby in 1961, but had a career as a missionary and as a popular speaker on missions in the United States. The entry also reported that a book by Crawford had been reprinted in 1998 with an introduction by a current scholar. With that book, I had more than enough information for the brief bio, plus another fact: Crawford had kept journals, and they were in the American Baptist Archives in Rochester, New York. I was intrigued by this woman. She had lost most of her hearing when she was eighteen, yet she had a long and active career. While she dealt with tremendous hardships, she retained a lively sense of humor. She was an independent, spirited, feisty woman who didn’t shrink from conflict and who became a champion of Indian rights. And nobody had written a biography of her. After finishing the bios, I returned to the large project on which I’d been working, but I tucked Isabel Crawford away in my memory for later. Several years passed, but finally “later” came, and I went to work, dreaming of writing a biography. I would drive to Rochester, staying for several days, taking notes on my laptop computer. But then, to my dismay, those archives closed in order to move to Atlanta. Yet disappointments can turn out to be gifts. I used the time doing background reading related to Isabel’s life story (for I had begun to think of her by her first name). Thus I came to see her life in a much richer context than if I’d had my way and persisted in single-minded research. When the archives finally opened in their new location, my husband and I began making trips to Atlanta for two weeks at a time. Gradually as I worked, I came to recognize connections with Isabel’s story. She worked for the American (Northern) Baptist denomination in southwestern Oklahoma, and my parents had met while teaching at Bacone College, an American Baptist school for Native Americans in eastern Oklahoma. Isabel had visited the college both before and after my parents taught there, and she became a friend of Princess Ataloa. Ataloa was a member of the English department at Bacone of which my mother was the chair. And growing up, I absorbed my parents’ interest in and respect for Native Americans. Isabel worked on the Kiowa reservation during the difficult period when the reserve was opened up for homesteading. My mother’s father was among those much-feared settlers who came in and settled on what had been Kiowa land. My grandfather was one of the “bad guys”! And I discovered another connection. Isabel had learned Plains Indian sign language, very useful because of her deafness. At a missionary society convention, she was asked to present something in sign language. She signed the Twenty-third Psalm, and later she put back into English the way she had signed the familiar passage. The woman’s mission society published and distributed her version. When my mother realized that she had not much longer to live, she told me that there was an Indian version of the Twenty-third Psalm, and she wished to have it read at her funeral. I found it, and it was included in the service. My father then said that he wanted it at his funeral, too, and a year and a half later that was done. Now, after about twenty-five years, I discovered that Isabel Crawford was the author of something that had meant so much to my parents. Clearly it seemed that writing Isabel’s biography was a task that had been waiting for me. Isabel had a grand-niece, Doris, living in North Carolina, and on one of our Atlanta trips we visited her. Doris was in her nineties and an active genealogist, and I learned much during the day we spent with her. As a young woman, she had attended the deaconess training school of the United Church of Canada. I had been on the advisory committee for a history of that school, and as thanks for my help, I received a copy of the book. I mailed it to Doris, and her letter of thanks contained surprising news. Doris knew that I lived in Ontario, but until she saw the return address on the parcel, she didn’t know where. Doris had a cousin, Barbara, living in Guelph. Excitedly I phoned Barbara. She invited me over, and she said, “By the way, I have some journals that belonged to Aunt Belle.” More journals? I had read Isabel’s account of conveying her journals to the Chicago missionary training school from which she had graduated. I didn’t know that she had continued to keep journals for several more years. They had passed on to Isabel’s niece and then to Barbara’s mother. Barbara generously loaned them to me, and I was privileged to see pieces of Isabel’s writing that perhaps nobody else had ever read. I added new material to the manuscript that I had thought was nearly finished, and then I looked for a publisher. I was discouraged until I talked with a historian-friend who knew about Isabel and had encouraged my project. He said, “Why don’t you submit it to my publisher? Tell them I’ll write a foreword for your book.” I filled out the publisher’s forms, sent them sample chapters, and prepared for a long wait. Two weeks later I received an e-mail accepting my book, and a year later I had a copy in my hands! There was still one loose end. Barbara had wondered what to do with the journals. Her children weren’t interested, but at first Barbara wasn’t ready to let go of them. Now, when I presented her a copy of her great-aunt’s biography, she decided to do what I had gently urged: she would let them join Aunt Belle’s earlier journals in the American Baptist archives. Yet she hesitated to send them through the mail. In one final instance of serendipity, the next meeting of the American Society of Church History−where it all began−was to be held in Atlanta. And so in January of 2016, my husband and I drove to Atlanta, and a few hours before the start of the meeting, we presented the remaining journals of Isabel Crawford to the delighted archivist of the American Baptist church. It was the conclusion of a remarkable, grace-filled journey.

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