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Harriet Townshend: Tabor Missionary

posted Aug 1, 2018, 6:51 AM by James Nennemann
By Harry Wilkins

Tabor was founded in 1852 as a Christian community built around a college that was open to everyone regardless of gender or race. The first graduating class of the Tabor Literary Institute, the forerunner to the college, included Harriet Eliza Townshend, daughter of one of the town’s pioneer families. Like her parents Isaac and Emiline, Harriet was deeply committed to her faith and was a sustaining member of the Congregational Church. She also believed strongly in education and, after leaving the literary institute in 1862, became a public school teacher. But over time she became restless, feeling the need to “enlarge her views of the Christian life.” In 1867 she volunteered her services to the Boston-based Women’s Board of Missions as a teacher in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Harriet left Tabor August 13, 1867, for the arduous journey to the Jaffna district of Ceylon, home to the Hindu Tamil people.  Ceylon was a world apart from Harriet’s Iowa. She found herself in a windy, lowland tropical land drenched by monsoon rains in the winter and baked by the sun in the summer. With its rice fields, coconut trees and native elephants, the region presented an exciting and wholly unfamiliar culture and geography. Harriet worked with a small group of Americans under the leadership of an ordained minister and was one of several teachers assigned to the boarding school which housed Tamil girls ages 6-14. Harriet’s charges learned the gospels along with reading, writing and arithmetic; older girls were exposed to philosophy, history and astronomy.

Harriet wrote letters to her family, friends, and former students in Iowa describing her work and her admiration for her young students. In one letter she wrote that her girls “can read pretty well—know the geography of Ceylon and India and add and subtract mentally. When they learn to write they may send you letters of their own.” Harriet also felt duty-bound to help Tabor College’s natural history museum: she sent the school a 500-pound box with 150 varieties of shells and “articles of curiosity from different parts of the island and some from India.” To her childhood friend Maria Gaston, Harriet wrote that she wanted “all the Tabor children who have ever been to school with me or in my Sabbath school class to have a shell from Ceylon.”

Harriet’s long exposure to difficult living conditions, a harsh climate, and tropical diseases took their toll and her health began to fail. She came home to Tabor in the spring of 1877 to recuperate but returned too soon to Ceylon, over the objections of her friends. She never fully regained her strength and became progressively weaker, passing on August 15, 1882. She was 40 years old. Harriet was buried in Ceylon and a monument was erected for her in Tabor Cemetery.

Harriet’s legacy can best be summed up in a letter she wrote to a friend: “I could not have pleasanter surroundings or a better home, kinder friends or more satisfying work. The school is doing beautifully and we are now a happy household.”

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