This article was written for the Brethren Historical Review and appeared in Vol.10 in 2014. It is made available here with permission of the Editor.
Olive Rogers was the daughter of Ebenezer William Rogers and Edith Cuthbert; her Father was a noted Brethren preacher and Bible teacher. The family were members of Ross Road Hall in Wallington Surrey and Olive committed her life to the Lord as a small child. Looking back she really appreciated the grounding in the Bible she received there; although she also remembered rigid attitudes and a failure to accept spiritual gifts in women. Her Father was gifted, and widely appreciated, as a speaker. But Olive also admired and learnt from her Mother’s spiritual understanding and felt that her gifts were wasted because she was given no outlet outside the home.
Olive was the second of nine children and, as the oldest daughter, took a lot of responsibility at home. Her Father was not able to spend much time with his family since he worked full time, spoke at many different assemblies and, as a self-taught Bible teacher, spent time studying. Olive followed him in this, to the end of her life she loved to spend hours studying Scripture seeking truths about her Lord. With his traditional views on the role of women EW, as he was known, was unable to recognise the nature of his daughter’s gifts. He opposed her decision to go to India, possibly from a concern about her going so far away which he found difficult to express more directly. Later he wanted her to return to England to care for him. It says much for Olive’s strength of character that on both occasions she held firm to her calling from the Lord. After he retired, EW visited her in India three times, once with her Mother, and these were happy times. EW accepted her work with women and children but his inability to accept her using her God-given gifts more widely was a lifelong sadness for Olive.
Olive left home in 1941 to train as a teacher. After training she was placed at a school in Surrey; she had not wanted to return home but later saw why God had placed her there. Her Mother had been under great strain during the war; they lived near enough to London to see the bombing of the city from their house. Olive persuaded her Father to let her go away to rest while she and her sister Mary ran the house and cared for their siblings. After her Mother’s recovery Olive moved to Bristol, the school where she worked was in a large Council estate. The Principal was impressed with her abilities and entrusted her with a class of out of control children. Olive was able to manage them but resigned after two years as she felt the Spirit of God was calling her to India.
Olive had felt called to India but she knew she had no gift for languages and doubted her ability, especially after seeing Telugu script. One night she felt that the Lord spoke to her and gave her the text “I will give you the tongue of one who is taught so that you may sustain the weary with a word”. This decided Olive. She was put in touch with Mr and Mrs Tilsley, who encouraged her and spoke with the elders of her Assemblies. The Tilsleys continued to support and encourage her during her years in India.
Olive went to South India with the Godavari Delta Mission in 1949 and was to stay there for the next 35 years with only relatively short breaks in the UK. She was commended to work in India by Etloe Road Hall, Bristol, and Ross Road Hall, Wallington. When she arrived in India she was based at the Mission school and hostel at Chettipetta. She and a colleague, Joy Harding, spent 10 -12 hours each day studying Telugu. After several years they passed the Government exams but also had to learn a local dialect before they could communicate with the local community. God’s promise to Olive was fulfilled and in time she became fluent, able to both speak and think in Telugu. Olive became manager of the school and was involved in difficult negotiations with the Government which eventually took over the school. She ran a two week training for Bible women, this is the first indication of what was to be the future focus of her work. A few years later, running a camp for girls, she was as concerned to train her Indian co-workers as to work with the children; coaching one so she could give the Bible talks in her place.
Olive was also concerned for tribal people living in the forest and visited them regularly, staying in a bamboo hut and working with women and the church. She came to love these tribal people. She helped Gospel Recordings record a Gospel message a local tongue. She never forgot the experience of setting the tape playing and then hiding to watch the tribals creep out to hear ‘the voices from nobody’. At that time there was only one Christian in this remote area, now there are thousands.
Olive had realised in the 1950s that the most effective use of her time was in training national Christians for evangelism. Most expatriate Missions now see this as their main task; but at that time many missionaries focussed on making converts, not on equipping others. Olive never shared the paternalistic, often patronising, attitude of many missionaries. For the rest of her years in India she devoted herself to teaching, mentoring and equipping national Christians for service. A fellow missionary remembers that Olive’s first thought was always ‘which Indian colleague could do this work?’ (1)
From 1951 Olive also took on family responsibilities ‘adopting’ girls who need help. For some girls she arranged for their care where she was, for others she helped the family financially. She accepted full responsibility for their education and arranged their marriages; a complicated process involving negotiations with the groom’s family often in the presence of a village elder. She tried to give each girl the opportunities that she needed and her love, care and discipline helped all the girls to thrive. They were at times an anxiety but were also a great pleasure and her prayerful interest in them and their families continued throughout her life. She was enormously pleased that they knew the Lord and that many of them followed her into full time Christian work. She had assumed her family was complete with seven daughters but then Lois and finally Jyothi joined the family. She was Jyothi’s legal guardian with sole responsibility for her care. Lois and Jyothi were especially close to Olive; both visited and cared for her as she got older.
Olive moved to Narasapur to run a hostel but felt called to train village women in the Bible. She set up courses, working with Joy Tilsley; these were very well attended. In 1964 she set up a Bible College for girls who had been unable to access higher education. The course involved Bible study and evangelism, both in theory and practice; her students ran a large Sunday school for 200 children. Olive wrote two books a ‘History and Geography of the Bible’ and ‘People of the Covenant’ (‘Israel – God’s People’ in the English version) for her students. The latter is under 300 pages but is a comprehensive survey, from Genesis to the time of Herod the Great, covering Israel’s history and how it prepared the way for Christ’s coming. Both books are still in use in Bible schools in India. Many of Olive’s students went back to their villages and were effective in teaching women and children about the Lord, some looked back to their time at the school as the happiest in their life. Others were inspired to continue their education and became teachers, college lecturers, nurses and doctors.
In Narasapur Olive attended Bethany Chapel where the leading Elder tolerated but did not welcome women missionaries. As Olive’s students had to attend she felt she should but with no freedom to worship she found it frustrating and only attended from duty; though she was always polite. She attended the assembly at the Leprosy hospital for spiritual sustenance and also started a monthly Bible study group, this grew into a large gathering with some walking miles from outlying villages, in the dark, to hear Bible ministry by women for women.
Olive’s greatest strengths were in personal work with individuals and small groups but she also taught and preached. She was invited to speak at women’s conferences throughout the GDM area and she preached in small rural assemblies where the men would accept her. Her prayerful preparation to teach was a great inspiration to her co-workers. Her daughter Lois, also in full time ministry, says “Amma prepares for the meetings and clings to her Bible and writing pad as if she was reading the Bible for the first time”. Olive studied for a Bachelor in Divinity at Serampore University, through a Hyderabad Bible College, as an extra-mural student. She studied alone, while also busy with a multitude of other tasks, but she passed with distinction. Olive came to India with a good grounding in the Bible, while there she developed into an inspiring teacher with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Bible. Olive always used her knowledge of Indian culture, which was far nearer to that of the ancient world than western culture is, to illuminate scripture. Her understanding of the importance in Middle Eastern cultures of the extended family, rather than the individual, and her direct experience of seeing converts suffer real persecution helped her to understand the context of the Bible and to convey a vivid picture of Bible times. Her knowledge of Scripture in two unrelated languages sometimes illuminated the meaning of texts. She was creative in making the Bible come alive for everyone, from village women to highly educated graduates.
For many years Olive had felt strongly about the way that women were kept silent in churches. This may have dated back to seeing her Mother’s gifts unused as well as to her own experiences. She was ahead of her time in advocating a freedom for women to take part in worship and teaching; an attitude that is now widely accepted but was rare in Brethren circles then. In India she undertook, and saw others undertake, tasks that would not be allowed in Western churches. She spent many years training women and seeing the results of their work in souls saved and Christians discipled. She studied the relevant Scriptures and came to her own conclusions believing that Paul’s words had been misinterpreted by a culture and mind-set which saw women as inferior. In 1974 she wrote an article for the Christian Brethren Research Fellowship on the role of women in the Church. The article begins by describing a visit to a Sikh Temple, of being ushered in through the back door to an upper gallery where women sat gossiping while the men below read the sacred book which only concerned them, since they alone had souls to save; and a description of a Christian conference in India where the men sat seriously listening to the Word while the women were distracted by the presence of their children some not even trying to listen. Olive related her experiences of India to first century society, the context of the New Testament, and this gave depth to her exposition of Paul’s teaching on women in the article. A revised version was reprinted by CBRF in 1982. (2)
In the 1970s Olive continued the Bible school and also ran Bible studies for students, nurses and leprosy patients. She also picked up other tasks: she started to work with the Union of Evangelical Students of India; when Dr Haqq, an associate of Billy Graham, held a campaign, preaching to thousands of people each day, Olive was in charge of the follow up for women, covering a ‘parish’ of 2472 square miles; she was involved in administering funds donated for cyclone relief and was a founder member of the Narasapur Evangelical Union. She identified staff and found funds for a radio work in Telugu and was invited to produce a programme for women. She was a prime mover in setting up a printing press in Narasapur, to address the lack of Christian books in Telugu. This involved in buying land, erecting a building and setting up a press and later in buying a building for a bindery and supporting Wilson who ran the Press. Her involvement with the press included writing and translating including preparing Scripture Union notes in Telugu for adults and children and writing a children’s Pilgrim’s Progress in Telugu.
In 1977 she moved to Hyderabad/Secunderbad to provide a home there for her youngest daughter, Jyothi, and to continue her work with UESI. They were more liberal in their attitude to women’s ministry and she found this work enormously rewarding. She said that without UESI she would have been impoverished both spiritually, socially and intellectually. She worked with current students, leading many to the Lord and discipling them and mentored graduates and counselled them on personal issues. She took a primary role in organising a UESI conference attended by 1200 delegates and a smaller conference presenting a missionary challenge to Indian graduates. While doing this work she continued to supervise the press in Narasapur, translate books and produce a radio programme.
During Olive’s time in India many of the Assemblies were fighting about power or money and this deterred her from joining established assemblies in Hyderabad. Church politics did not interest Olive and she kept out of them. She joined the Secunderbad Bible Fellowship which was started in 1977. She was part of the leadership team there in the 1980s and contributed to strengthening the fellowship.
Olive retained her concern for the villagers, who she had worked with so long. This comes through in a report in Echoes in 1978. “There is now a larger number of Christians in urban communities than in the villages. This is the first time in the history of India. That means that there are so many of our young people displaced from their villages, who have come here for work and need guidance and advice and help in so many different ways. Sometimes I have no peace at all through the day but it is so good to help them in their needs and problems. So many of them have lost their roots. There are no assemblies here for them to attend. There are three in different parts of the city but the city is the fifth largest in India and transport is extremely difficult as well as most expensive. There are however a large number of really good indigenous groups all over the place and I have been able to help and advise these young people, many of them are young couples with children and it is most encouraging to see them growing in the faith. Often those who showed little interest when they were in our hostels or back in their villages have now really identified themselves with believers here.” (3)
This passage illustrates the way that Olive used her home. Wherever she lived her excellent taste created a comfortable, colourful, but somehow essentially English home, where she could welcome family, fellow missionaries, students and villagers. Her home was a haven for her but also for many in need of rest, encouragement or counsel. She was supported by loyal staff in this hospitality ministry; her cook, John, would serve tea and food at odd hours and would pray in the kitchen while she shared the Gospel in the sitting room.
In 1979 the Indian Government refused visas to all American Missionaries. Olive commented on this to Echoes: “This is the beginning of phasing missionaries out. It will not come to the British for a long time yet but the Indian Church can and will continue its work which has been started by missionaries. Only in the field of leprosy will no one take up the work.” (4) In 1981 she returned to Bristol on furlough and started to prepare to retire while she was young enough to build a life in England. Her confidence in the Indian Church was genuine and she felt she could hand the torch on to her spiritual sons and daughters. She returned to India for a time, continuing with student work, radio work and the Press. She reported to Echoes that she was thrilled to see what the Lord was doing but they couldn’t keep up with the demand for Christian literature. She was pleased when the Press was commissioned to print the new Telugu Bible. She wrote a paper for CBRF on “Non-professional and short term missionaries” (5). This was a heartfelt call for Brethren Assemblies to value and support those who went to work overseas in less traditional ways. She pointed out that their role was scriptural and they could be as dedicated and effective as full time missionaries, like herself.
Olive retired to Bristol in September 1983 but her link with India continued for the rest of her life. She encouraged people in England to pray for India and continued as a Trustee of Living Waters Radio until 2012. She visited India to see family and friends and to encourage her spiritual sons and daughters in their work; she continued her involvement with student work and the radio station and Press during her visits. Her final visit was in 2005, she spent time with her daughters’ families and with friends and told them this would be her last visit and she would see them next in heaven. She visited the Press and preached at UESI camps and conferences. She helped Krishnaiah and Lois in planning a syllabus for Partnership India. This work, training pastors and leaders, which was a continuation of the work to which she had devoted her life, meant a lot to Olive. The links she forged between Krishnaiah, Lois and Alma continue. When she was no longer able to travel, Olive kept in touch by phone and e-mail and through visits from her Indian family and friends.
Olive suffered a great culture shock when she moved to the UK. She had left an impoverished country, still recovering from a world war, where food was rationed and life was hard; she arrived back in the materialistic, multicultural, often hedonistic England of the 1980s. As a single woman she had been able to do things in India that she would never have been allowed to do in the UK. She had had domestic help for 35 years and now had to re-learn household skills if she was to continue to open her home to those in need of counsel or hospitality. Olive returned to worship at Etloe Road Evangelical Church, which had supported her faithfully through all her years in India. She was close to Alan Nute and his family, and had often stayed with them when in England. However, attending an Assembly where she could not speak in meetings and had no opportunities to serve or teach was very stressful. By 1987 she felt that she was unable to continue and took the difficult decision to leave and join Alma Road (Clifton Bethesda) where she was permitted to take part in meetings and use her gifts as a Bible teacher. It was a difficult decision but she was happy there and remained an important, and much loved, part of Alma until her death.
In England Olive looked for new spheres of service and, as in India, became involved with many things. She became a member of the Board of People International and the Partnership World Mission Study/Action Group. However, as always her main focus was on personal work with individuals and small groups. She attended an international wives group, worked with the Bristol International Student Centre (an initiative funded and largely manned by local churches) and supported many individuals she met at Alma or elsewhere. She helped both in practical ways and by providing emotional and spiritual support and teaching. One of those she befriended, Louisa Chui from Hong Kong, became her tenth ‘adopted’ daughter and lived with her while completing her studies. Louisa kept in close touch with Olive until her death.
In 1989 CBRF published an article by Olive on “Church Planting”, it is a well thought out and intelligent examination of the implications and complexities of cross cultural mission. This article starts with a blunt statement, “church planting is not within the ability of the missionary. It is the work of the Holy Spirit”. (6) Her description of the complexities of cross cultural mission reflects Olive’s bible knowledge, (whatever the subject Olive always looked to see what the Bible said about it) her understanding of India culture and a wide reading of Christian authors. It demonstrates her roots and commitment to the Brethren and her willingness to examine their traditions in the light of scripture and her experience. “The Brethren interpret biblical ecclesiology in terms of autonomous but interdependent churches with multiple leadership. This structure is adaptable to all cultures, and political and religious climates, but we have to beware of what Stanley Jones calls ‘the imprisonment of previous patterns of either local or Western origin.” (7) She sees the need for Church leaders to have a Christ-like dedication to others and a willingness to suffer for them but also sees evangelism as the work not just of full time workers but the whole church. She ends in a typically generous way “Each individual needs to work out what is best and what he understands to be the way of the Lord for him in each situation. And as he seeks for tolerance and patience to bear with the failings of those who are newly the Lord’s, let him remember that he too is a failing child of God, as they are.” (8)
The role of women in the church continued to be important to Olive. In the early 1990s she attended a Partnership conference, where the committee asked her to ‘do something’ about this issue. She got together with a group of like-minded women and decided the most effective step would be to write a series of Bible Studies; since it is traditional interpretations of Bible texts that have been used to justify keeping women silent. It was a privilege to be involved with Olive in writing these studies, which cover the relevant passages from creation to the Epistles. They were published by Partnership in 1996 under the title “Does God expect less of Women?” and have been used in many places and countries, wherever the role of women is still an issue. (9)
Olive also continued her work as a Bible teacher. She ran innumerable Bible studies over the years for individuals and groups. She was an inspired teacher; I was privileged to attend a group she ran for mature Christians. Although she taught directly when needed often she would just give each person a topic, related to the subject to be covered, and get them to research it and write up their findings to share with the rest of the group. This was so profitable and enjoyable that after working through the Old and New Testaments, over a period of years, the group couldn’t bear to stop and spent a further year with Olive as guide, looking at the teaching of the Apostles and the early church fathers. Some feminists dislike Paul, blaming him for the church’s attitudes to women. Olive loved to study his life and letters. She also empathised with him; her experience of converts being rejected, led her to believe he may have lost his family, his in-laws intervening to take away their daughter and grandchildren, as she had seen happen to other converts to Christianity.
Olive enjoyed life, she made many friends and enjoyed spending time with her siblings and their families. She enjoyed visits from her daughters, sons in law and grandchildren. She had good taste, always dressed well and sewed beautifully. Wherever she lived she created a lovely home, where she could entertain friends and family. She read widely, both Christian and secular books, and enjoyed outings to concerts and theatres as well as Christian meetings and conferences. She was much loved and valued by many friends. Olive got on well with young people, who were attracted by her wisdom, but also by the feisty, mischievous side, which was always part of her character.
Olive was a woman who valued prayer; it had got her through many difficult times in her life. When she counselled people she would always offer to pray with them. She prayed regularly and earnestly for her friends and family in the UK, India and across the world; she met weekly with a friend to pray for Alma. A visit to Olive usually ended with a time of prayer.
Olive remained active and busy well into her eighties but eventually ill health forced her to slow down. In her final years, Olive was hampered by deafness and poor short term memory but retained her sharp intellect. She continued to co-lead a home group for elderly people. Her teaching was still inspirational; no one who was present will forget how, two years before her death, she illuminated the Christmas story by showing Mary and Joseph not as individuals making their own decisions, as we see them with western eyes, but as members of an extended family all equally involved in the consequences of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. She led a study on Malachi just two weeks before her death.
Olive retained her interest and love for people to the end. She was always interested in her friends of all ages, her siblings, their children and grandchildren, her daughters and their families and her many students, friends and colleagues in India. But although she loved many people, her most enduring relationship was with her Lord and she strove to love and serve Him to the very end. She was never complacent and always wanted to learn more of Him; continually returning to Bible study and prayer. She was active to the end, the day before her death she attended morning service and a Christmas lunch at Alma, enjoying being with a group of young friends. She died suddenly in her sleep that night, aged 91, leaving many feeling the loss of an exceptional woman.
1. Personal communication to the writer August 2014
2. In David J. Ellis and W. Ward Gasque (eds.), In God's Community: The Church and its Ministry (London: Pickering and Inglis, 1978); rev. rpt. Olive Rogers, ‘The Role of Women in the Church’, Christian Brethren Review, 33 (1982): 57–68.
3. Echoes of Service (November, 1978), pp 336.
4. Echoes of Service (December, 1979)
5. Olive Rogers, ‘Non-professional Missionaries and Short-term Service’, Christian Brethren Review, 36 (Sept. 1985): 49-58.
6. Olive Rodgers, ‘Church Planting’, Christian Brethren Review Journal, 40 (1989), 47–56, spec., 47.
7. Ibid., 49.
8. Ibid., 53.
9. ‘Does God Expect less of women?’ By Olive Rogers and Sally Hogg, published for Partnership by Paternoster Press, 1996
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