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[Minnie Cumming Watson (center) with the Crawfords, fellow missionaries in Kenya, c. 1910 The National Library of Scotland [CCA-BY-NC SA 2.5]]

THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH of East Africa has millions of members and a network of schools. Behind that huge, modern organization, was a Scottish widow.

Minnie Cumming, a schoolteacher from Dundee, Scotland, came to Kikiyu, Kenya (near Nairobi) in 1899, where she married her fiancé, missionary Thomas Watson, in December. Their mission was funded by the directors of the Imperial East Africa Company who wanted to educate and Christianize the people under their authority. 

Conditions in 1899 were terrible. A locust plague resulted in famine so that thousands lay dying in the fields. Smallpox then broke out, killing even more. The missionaries labored morning and night to provide famine relief and tend smallpox victims in hospital tents. Before the crisis had passed, Thomas died of pneumonia in 1900, leaving his thirty-two-year-old widow to run the entire effort. Minnie Cumming Watson did so single-handedly with energy and intelligence until the Church of Scotland assumed responsibility for the work a year later. Afterward she administered the Church of Scotland’s refugee school and supervised stone quarrying to build a mission school and church.

In thirty-two years of mission work, she established a network of schools (and established the principles that guided Kenyan education long after her retirement), adopted and educated two children, and campaigned against the cruel practice of female circumcision. With Arthur Ruffelle Barlow, she started a boarding school for boys in 1907. Two years later they founded a boarding school for girls which taught mostly homemaking skills. Opposition to female education was fierce and the Kenyan people had to be shown its value. Meetings to encourage girls’ education were met by hostility and opponents tried to break them up by tactics such as flinging bags of ants on the attendees. 

Even worse was the fierce insistence on retaining female circumcision. The church and its schools lost about ninety percent of their attendance in 1929 when they condemned the operation for Christians. However, over time, the practice declined, especially among Presbyterians.

In 1929 Christians in Kikuyu asked Watson to lay the cornerstone of the Church of the Torch. Two years later she retired to Dundee, where she died on this day, 13 February, 1949. Her ashes were returned to Kenya where they were buried beside her husband.

Her pupils long remembered her as “Granny Watson.” They described her as loving, humble, and patient, but very strict. Another nickname she had earned was “Mother of the Faith,” but she could also be called the grandmother of the nation itself, for she had a role in the educational formation of Jomo Kenyatta, who became the founder and president of the modern Kenyan nation.

Dan Graves

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For more stories of Christian women, read Great Women in Christian History

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