Marilla Baker Ingalls

The queen of women missionaries

by Thomas Ray

Marilla Baker was born in 1828 in Greenville, NY. Her parents were devout Christians and actively involved in the local Baptist church. Marilla was converted at an early age and was profoundly influenced by the reports of Baptist missionaries, especially those in Burma.

While still in her teens, Marilla committed her life to for­eign mission service. However, in the 1800s women were never sent to the field as single mis­sionaries, and her chances of becoming a foreign mission­ary were almost nonexistent. But in 1850 Lovell Ingalls, who had spent 17 years in Burma, returned to America due to the death of his wife, and in an attempt to improve his declining health.

Marilla and Lovell were introduced at a missionary convention meeting in Wis­consin. Marilla was described as being vivacious, energet­ic, and gregarious. Most of her contemporaries thought these characteristics would prove to be a hindrance on the mission field. However, just the opposite proved to be true. Lovell Ingalls saw in Marilla qualities that he believed would make her an invaluable co-laborer. They were married in December 1850. Seven months later, in July 1851, they sailed for Burma.

Marilla, upon their arriving, immediately took charge of the girls’ school Lovell had previously founded. The Ingalls’ ministry flourished, but sadly the strain of over 20 years of missionary labors took its toil on Lovell Ingalls’ health. His labors ended March 5, 1856.

Everyone expected Marilla would return home, but she had no intention of abandoning the Burmese or her call. In fact, this remarkable woman would spend an additional 46 years in Burma, for a total of over 50 years in missionary ser­vice. The primary focus of her ministry was teaching, in which she excelled, and tract distribution. She often made tours into unevangelized regions accompanied by several nationals. But perhaps her greatest success came from her ability to share the gospel one on one. It is estimated that she personally led over 100 Buddhist priests to faith in Christ.

Mrs. Ingalls was known to use every opportunity to share the gospel. On one occasion she received a Bible auto­graphed by Queen Victoria. She contacted the queen of Bur­ma and offered her this Bible as a gift. The queen accepted and invited her to visit the palace. Mrs. Ingalls did not just simply present the Bible; she utilized this opportunity to explain the gospel to the queen and her attendants.

Although Mrs. Ingalls was gifted in developing friendships with the Bur­mese people, her success also created enemies — enemies who were determined to destroy her and her ministry. Twice, arsonists set fire to her compound. One of the fires completely destroyed every building, including all of her personal belongings along with several valuable and irreplaceable manuscripts. The second fire destroyed all the buildings, but thankfully the chapel was miraculous spared. These attacks did not dis­courage Mrs. Ingalls or the believers. After each tragic and destructive fire, they rebuilt each building that had been destroyed.

On another occasion, she found her enemies had nailed a reward poster on her door, offering 10,000 rupees for her head. These threats and attacks did not curtail her ministry. She believed she was immortal until she had finished the task God had assigned her. One of her contemporaries described Mrs. Ingalls as the most remarkable and original missionary of the century. She finished her course in 1902 at the age of 74. Her death was lamented by a multitude who looked upon her as their spiritual mother.