History of Interserve USA

Interserve USA has a double heritage — that of a British organization founded in 1852 in London, and an American one founded in 1860 in New York City. Both organizations worked in Asia and their works ran parallel with similar goals until 1976 when they merged.

How Did It All Begin?

The lives of nineteenth century Indian women were hard, even if they were from high-caste Hindu or wealthy Muslim families. Young girls were married off in childhood and became the property of their husbands. They were confined to the women’s quarters of the husband’s family, called zenanas. In those days even wealthy women were not educated. And they were deprived of adequate medical care since all the physicians were men. The most egregious example of the oppression of women was the Hindu custom of suttee (widow burning). A Hindu woman was held somehow responsible for her husband’s death and by immolating herself on his funeral pyre she could hope to cleanse herself of this sin.

In 1851, a high caste Hindu woman in Calcutta named Mohesuri was publicly baptized. She and her cousins had found a Bible, had read it, and Mohesuri had come to believe in Jesus Christ as her Savior. Mrs. Mackenzie, the wife of an English merchant working in India, heard about this conversion and wrote to a friend in England, Lady Mary Jane Kinnaird, who was married to a member of Parliament. Mrs. Mackenzie described to Lady Kinnaird the miserable plight of women in India. Lady Kinnaird was moved by Mrs. Mackenzie’s compassion for women in India.  As a result, on March 1, 1852 Lady Kinnaird founded the London Board for the Calcutta Normal School and insisted that the organization be interdenominational. She wrote, “If we can give the women of India the power to read, and the Book to read, God will bless His Word.”

Meanwhile Across the Ocean

While this was happening in England, in New York City Sarah Doremus heard a missionary from China speak about the need for women to reach women in the East. She was the wife of a prominent businessman. In spite of the resistance of many male mission leaders in America, Sarah Doremus founded the Woman’s Union Missionary Society (WUMS) in 1861. This was the first foreign mission society in America to have soley women Board members and only women missionaries. The organization was also interdenominational. This was unheard of at that time. In 1862, their first missionary, Miss Harriet Britain set off for India.

Expansion

In 1880 the London Board for the Calcutta Normal School added medical work to its ministry and changed its name to the Zenana Bible and Medical Mission (ZBMM). In those days women doctors were a rarity. However, both the UK and US had few problems finding dedicated Christian women physicians to send. Many of these women entered the field of medicine in order to be missionaries. In 1883, the WUMS began medical work in China and cooperated with other churches and mission groups.

A New Century, New Challenges

In 1936, the ZBMM was having severe financial difficulties and another world war seemed imminent. The Board voted on whether or not to be absorbed by their Anglican counterpart, the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society. By one vote the board decided to remain independent and interdenominational.

The 1950s brought many changes to these two missions. In 1951, work in China ended for WUMS, but the door to Nepal opened. WUMS became a member of the United Mission of Nepal. ZBMM was already a member. In 1952, one hundred years after its founding, ZBMM approached Jack Dain and Alan Norrish to lead the mission forward. This was the first time men were given an opportunity to join the organization. Under their leadership the mission grew. Auxiliary committees were formed in a number of countries. These committees soon became full sending National Councils. The direction of the mission now came from all the Councils – each Council with one vote. The ZBMM had moved from being a British organization to being an international one. The ZBMM also began nationalizing many of their institutions and property.

In 1957, the organization became the Bible & Medical Missionary Fellowship (BMMF).

In 1964 the U.S. Council of BMMF was formed under the guidance of the BMMF Canadian Council. The Canadian Council continued to guide the administrative policies of the U.S. Council until 1974 when Dr. Jay W. MacMoran was appointed as Acting Director. The founding Charter Board members of the U.S. Council included Dr. C. Everett Koop, the former Surgeon General.

A Time of Expansion

In 1970, WUMS changed its name to the United Fellowship for Christian Service (UFCS) and men joined their Council. After this serious discussions began about merging with BMMF. In 1974, Alan Norrish came to the U.S. to initiate the merger process. By 1976 the merger was complete and BMMF International opened its office in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. That same year the U.S. Council became fully independent of the Canadian Council and Rev. T. Laurence Wynne became the U.S. Director. In 1986, Dr. Ralph Eckardt took over as the U.S. Director. Soon after BMMF International changed its name to the International Service Fellowship, now commonly known as Interserve. In January 2004, Rev. Douglas Van Bronkhorst became IS USA’s Executive Director, and more recently, in January 2013, Dr. Patrick Krayer assumed this role.

Looking to the Future

Interserve has 161 years of servanthood and service. Our mission has always been to glorify God by serving his Church and represent Jesus Christ through wholistic ministry where He is least known. Times have changed. The world is not like it was in 1852. These changes present new challenges. New challenges bring new opportunities. We are as we always have been- servants for the hard places.