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Robinson, Jane Bancroft (1847–1932)

Robinson, Jane Bancroft (1847–1932)

American Methodist deaconess leader. Name variations: Jane Marie Bancroft; Jane Marie Bancroft Robinson. Born Jane Marie Bancroft in West Stock-bridge, Massachusetts, on December 24, 1847; died in Pasadena, California, on May 29, 1932; daughter of George C. Bancroft (a Methodist minister) and Caroline J. Orton; graduated from Emma Willard's seminary, 1871; graduated from New York State Normal School in Albany, 1872; Syracuse University, Ph.B., 1877, Ph.M., 1880, Ph.D., 1884; attended the University of Zurich, 1886–87; married George Orville Robinson (a lawyer), in 1891 (died 1915); children: four stepchildren.

Born on December 24, 1847, in West Stock-bridge, Massachusetts, Jane Bancroft Robinson was the only surviving child of George C. Bancroft, a Methodist minister, and his second wife Caroline J. Orton . Jane had two half-siblings from her father's first marriage, one of whom, Henrietta Ash Bancroft , became closely associated with the deaconess work to which Jane later devoted her life. George Bancroft's service to small parishes in New York and New England never lasted more than two years at a time, so the family moved frequently throughout Jane's childhood. Her mother was an intelligent and well-read woman, despite having little formal education, and she inspired Jane in her own studies.

Robinson began her impressive academic career at Emma Willard 's seminary in Troy, New York. She graduated in 1871, then graduated from the New York State Normal School in Albany the following year. She earned the first of her three degrees from Syracuse University, a Ph.B., in 1877, adding to that a Ph.M. in 1880 and a Ph.D. in 1884. (She would be elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 1907, and receive two honorary doctorates, from Syracuse University in 1919 and from the University of Southern California in 1929.) Robinson's doctoral thesis, A Study of the Parliament of Paris and Other Parliaments of France, was published in 1884. While working towards her Syracuse degrees, she became dean of the Woman's College and professor of French language and literature at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. During the course of her eight-year association with the college, she founded the Western Association of Collegiate Alumnae, an early model of the American Association of University Women.

In the mid-1880s, Robinson was the first recipient of the history fellowship of newly formed Bryn Mawr College, which opened up further avenues of study to her. In the course of two years' traveling in Europe with her parents, she attended the University of Zurich and audited a history conférence at the University of Paris. While there, she became the first woman to be admitted to the École Pratique des Hautes Études.

The most important aspect of Robinson's time in Europe had nothing to do with academics, however. A study she conducted of European Protestant laywomen organized in social service—otherwise known as deaconesses—sparked a desire in her to see a similar movement among American Methodist women. Both American Lutherans and Episcopalians had small beginnings in this area, but the Methodist General Conference did not formally recognize the need to organize deaconesses until 1888. (Lucy Meyer had nonetheless opened the first American deaconess home in Chicago in 1887.) Robinson released her findings upon her return to the United States in the report Deaconesses in Europe and Their Lessons for America (1889), and took control of the newly formed Deaconess Bureau. Formed as an offshoot of the Methodist Woman's Home Missionary Society, the bureau organized laywomen into groups of charity workers supported by the church. They were provided with room and board in lieu of salary, and were intended, in their mission statement, to "minister to the poor, visit the sick, pray with the dying, care for the orphan, … [and] devote themselves in a general way to such forms of Christian labor as may be suited to their abilities." Robinson spent the next 20 years with this as her main focal point. She declined a professorship of history at Ohio Wesleyan University in order to travel, lecture, and write in support of deaconess work. By the end of the century, she had charge of 32 deaconess homes, schools and hospitals.

The rapid growth of the movement and the scores of independent deaconess homes made it difficult to maintain order and control. Robinson fought to bring deaconess work under the centralized control of the Woman's Home Missionary Society in the hope that it would facilitate the placement of deaconesses. A General Deaconess Board was established in 1908, but its largely advisory role failed to fulfill her hopes for greater order. (Deaconess work finally fell under the supervision of a single bureau seven years after Robinson's death.)

In 1891, she married George Orville Robinson, a Detroit lawyer and widower, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a mother to his four children from his first marriage. George was an active Methodist layman and founder of the Michigan Christian Advocate who aided his wife's work by giving generously to the construction of deaconess institutions. A longtime vice-president of the Woman's Home Missionary Society, Robinson became president in 1908, serving in that position until 1913. Three years after George's death in 1915, she began living with her half-sister Henrietta in a sizeable home on 11 acres in Pasadena, California. In 1897, Henrietta had resigned her position as professor of English at Albion College to take on the role of field secretary of the Deaconess Bureau, later becoming general superintendent of deaconess work.

Jane Robinson's dedication included her own generous contributions of more than $10,000 to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California, and the donation of her home and land for the construction of retirement homes for deaconesses and ministers. Robinson suffered a stroke in March 1932 while traveling and was hospitalized in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She died two months later, on May 29, 1932, in Pasadena.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Brenda Kubiac , freelance writer, Chesterfield, Michigan

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