By Susie Hawkins
“To ignore the contribution of Southern Baptist women would be to read history with one eye shut.”—Dr. Leon McBeth, Baptist History and Heritage, January 1977
As we continue this series on influential Southern Baptist Women, we will see that some were missionaries, some agents of spiritual awakening, some workers within the local church, others confronted cultural issues of their day.
The context of their times greatly influenced the direction their service took.
During the latter part of the 19th century, along with Lottie Moon, another dynamic mission minded woman appeared on the scene: Annie Armstrong of Maryland. While Moon was a missionary, Annie was a visionary and an extraordinary leader.
In order to get a true sense of Armstrong’s contributions, it’s important to understand the backstory of Baptist history in her era. In the late 1700s, William Carey sailed for India, launching the “modern missionary movement.” Well known missionaries like Adonirum Judson, Hudson Taylor, and David Livingston followed his example and inspired hundreds of Christians over the next century to take the gospel to the far corners of the globe.
In accordance with this movement, women of all Christian denominations began to form mission organizations, dedicated to praying for their missionaries and raising support. Baptist women were keenly aware of this movement and began to explore ways they could do the same.
In 1868, a group of women who were attending the SBC in Baltimore with their husbands gathered in the home of Ann Graves. Her son, Rosewell, was a missionary in China and had written numerous letters to her, describing the critical need for female missionaries to help reach Chinese women. They were already familiar with Moon’s dramatic letters published in the Foreign Mission Journal that described the spiritual poverty of the Chinese, pleading for funds and personnel.
The women determined to join together every year and to began organizing mission support groups in their local churches. It wasn’t long until the convention recognized that the women were quite serious and fully intended to create a national organization in order to meet this need. Their plan was to provide resources and education for churches, mobilize women to become active in mission causes, and raise funds.
In their view, there was a pressing need for Baptist churches to be unified and coordinated in their mission efforts. However, according to Dr. Leon McBeth, author of Women in Baptist Life, (Broadman, 1979) some men were fearful that this new women’s organization would lean toward the national suffragette movement that was gaining political momentum.
However, as the convention had declined to seat women messengers in 1885, these women were seeking ways to serve while cooperating with the convention. The missions cause proved to be exactly where God was leading them.
Enter Annie Armstrong.
Armstrong had long been active in mission work and frequently exchanged letters with Moon, who had mentored her in the missionary experience. Both women were dynamic personalities in their own right, and agreed that a national organization would considerably strengthen missions efforts.
This movement culminated in the women’s meeting at the 1887 convention. Armstrong introduced a resolution stating that a committee would be appointed to pursue forming a national organization. Its purpose was to help the mission board, convention, and churches become “more efficient in collecting money and disseminating, information on mission subjects.”
While a number of influential women supported this project energetically, Armstrong was the one who drove it. Her motto from that point on was “Go forward!” from Exodus 14:15. The following year the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) of the SBC was officially formed, with Armstrong serving as corresponding secretary.
The WMU flourished as it gained exposure, giving women the opportunity to become personally involved in mission work from the national level to the local church.
As it turns out, Armstrong was just getting started. Armed with what she had gleaned from Moon, she began promoting a convention-wide Christmas offering for missions. With the support of Dr. H.A. Tupper head of what was then known as the Foreign Mission Board (now called the International Mission Board), the original goal was to specifically find a replacement for Moon so she could take a furlough, having served 15 years on the field.
The Foreign Mission Board provided $100 for postage and literature—a large expenditure in that day—to publicize the offering. The goal that first year was $2,000, but $3,300 was raised, confirming Southern Baptists’ genuine interest in and concern for missions. That was enough to send three women to China instead of just one.
Because of the encouraging response, the Christmas offering would be promoted every year. Armstrong suggested it be called the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions,” and so it was. While many churches have since changed the name of this offering, it was born out of Moon’s and Armstrong’s passion to see the name of Jesus proclaimed across the globe. Their evangelistic fervor is still felt today in our convention.
Armstrong then turned her attention toward the Home Mission Board (what is known as the North American Mission Board today). They were looking for support and the promotion of their efforts, as well. Armstrong picked up on their need, and over the next decade wrote an astounding 18,000 letters advocating for both mission boards.
In the following years she traveled extensively at her own expense, visiting national and international missionaries, telling their stories at every opportunity. Through her zeal and organizational skills, Armstrong continued to shape the nature of Southern Baptist missions support.
She proved to be an exceptional leader, building consensus between denominational leaders, newspaper editors and churches. Her innovative ideas on how to raise funds were successful and well received. In 1895 another offering was officially established, this one for Home Missions. It was eventually designated as the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, recognizing Annie’s outstanding contributions.
Both the Christmas and the Easter offerings were heavily promoted by the WMU, encouraging churches to be mission-minded and missions-hearted. Over time, WMU proved to be an effective platform for women’s voices and would keep the missions cause front and center in Baptist life.
Armstrong died in 1938—the year WMU celebrated its 50th anniversary. She was confident in God’s calling, in His equipping, and left us a legacy of mission advocacy.
May we follow in her footsteps and “Go forward!”
Susie Hawkins lives in Dallas, Texas. She enjoys teaching the Bible, speaking, and working with ministry wives. Susie serves on the board of Baptist Global Response and has an MA in Theology from Criswell College. May we follow in her footsteps and “Go forward!”