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Annie Armstrong Letters


"Local [women's mission] auxiliaries, like temperance groups and women's clubs, offered conservative women a forum for developing skills in public speaking, fund- raising and organizational management that could be easily transferred from these semiprivate spheres to the public arena. And when the women of small-town America embarked upon the systematic study of foreign mission fields, their cultural horizons were considerably broadened. Women who served overseas as missionaries or who headed denominational societies at the national level carved out careers for themselves in mission service. Thus, paradoxically, this eminently respectable, religiously conservative movement fostered a wider sphere of responsibility for ordinary churchwomen and opened up new professional opportunities for several thousand American women."
Patricia Hill 1



       Not until 1918 (the end of the period upon which this site focuses) did Southern Baptist women gain the right to act as voting representatives at Convention meetings. Before this date they could neither attend the Convention nor serve as leaders on the Convention's Boards (Foreign Missions, Home Missions, Sunday School). The official history of the Southern Baptist Convention in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, therefore, largely focuses on the work of male ministers and male Convention leaders.

       But the majority of the laity in the local churches were women. And in the late nineteenth century, well before they could vote in Convention meetings or serve as members on the Convention's Boards, middle-class Southern Baptist women, like their counterparts nationally, began organizing societies for the purpose of supporting foreign missions.


The Appeal of Foreign Missions

       The interdenominational women's foreign mission movement, according to historian Patricia Hill, was the largest of the great women's movements of the nineteenth century, eclipsing the more famous temperance movement and women's rights movement.


"Foreign missions gripped the imaginations and enlisted the support of hundreds of thousands of middle-class churchwomen in the late nineteenth century. By 1915 there were more than three million women on the membership rolls of some forty denominational female missionary societies. The interdenominational women's foreign mission movement . . . was substantially larger than any of the other mass woman's movements of the nineteenth century."
Patricia Hill 2

       Hill argues that while the explosion of foreign mission work among evangelical protestants around the turn of the twentieth century is usually attributed to America's growing imperialism at this time, the women's foreign mission movement is at least as important an explanation for protestant churches' forays into foreign missions.


"[E]vangelical women were instrumental in popularizing foreign missions. The massive foreign mission crusade mounted by the Protestant churches in the late nineteenth century owes its existence as much to the 'harrowing' of the churches by female missionary societies as to the imperialistic mood with which it has been causally linked by historians of American religion."
Patricia Hill 3

       Why did foreign mission work appeal to middle-class Victorian women? The reasons must have been various and complex for the individual women involved, but it seems fair to say that foreign mission work offered women new opportunities that did not initially challenge their strictly prescribed social roles. The movement offered women an experience of vicarious adventure (through prayer for and correspondence with foreign missionaries) as well as a social outlet (attending auxiliary meetings) that did not compromise their status as "true women." The Victorian ideal of woman as pious, pure, and domestic need not conflict with the middle- class women's mission activities if the ideology of foreign missions prioritized pious self-sacrifice and domesticity. Patricia Hill argues that women were, in fact, given special status within the movement:


"In the mid-nineteenth century, American evangelicals had adopted a theology of missions that attached special significance to the conversion of 'heathen' mothers as the most efficient means of Christianizing heathen lands. Since it was widely accepted that only women could reach the secluded females of the Orient, this emphasis on the conversion of mothers elevated the importance of woman's mission and made American women peculiarly responsible for the success of the Protestant mission crusade."
Patricia Hill 4

       In 1913, on the 25th anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention's Women's Missionary Union (WMU), first president of the WMU Fannie E. Heck wrote a celebratory history of its first twenty-five years. Heck characterizes the early rumblings of the women's foreign mission movement in terms that clearly support Hill's argument about women's special mission to "heathen" mothers:


"The sorrow of heathen womanhood was pressing heavily upon the hearts of American women everywhere. They felt within them the power to answer the cry, which God had opened their ears to hear."
Fannie E. Heck, 1st WMU President 5

       For Victorian women, the ideology of foreign missions emphasized the ultimate importance of their social role. But women entered the foreign missions movement as missionaries or as home front auxiliary members not just out of a sense of duty, but because foreign missions carried the appeal of adventure and romance, an opportunity for a vicarious (or real) experience that also explains the attraction of the nineteenth century's sentimental fiction. Middle class women in the late nineteenth century not only participated in significant numbers in foreign missions causes but also made up the primary readership of the popular sentimental novel. The vicarious adventure offered the reader of sentimental fiction was also available to the woman on the home front of the foreign mission movement. The fact that both activities gripped the imaginations of Victorian women is evidenced by the close resemblance between sentimental fiction and mission lore. WMU leader Fannie Heck relates the sentimental tragedy of the daughter of a frontier missionary who dies of privation and disappointment when her family doesn't receive the promised care package (called a mission box) from the "city church in the East." 6 Alternatively, when the children of missionaries do receive the much anticipated mission box, the results are marvelous, as in Heck's story of the "pine pandora box of fate [that] made a missionary":


"Jewell's [mission box] made it possible for her to go to college [by sending her an appropriate dress to wear to school]. After college came the training school."

Heck goes on to tell us that after training school Jewell became a missionary to China. On a trip back to the United States, Jewell visited a local women's mission auxiliary, where she told the story of the mission box that had changed her life:

"When it dawned upon her hearers that they had sent the box, which had given a young life to China, their joy knew no bounds. Today, . . . their Jewell shine[s] in the darkness of China."
Fannie E. Heck 7


The Woman's Missionary Union Established: 1888

       Women's mission societies first began forming in local Southern Baptist churches around the middle of the nineteenth century, primarily in more urban areas like Baltimore (which would eventually be the first headquarters of the Woman's Missionary Union). By the 1870s, as Reconstruction drew to a close and the Southern Baptist Convention was renewing and expanding its work, so too did Southern Baptist women in Baltimore and the Upper South begin attempts to organize Southern women for the missions cause. Their methods included sending circulars throughout the South encouraging Baptist women to collect money for domestic and foreign missions by placing mite boxes in their homes. The fundraising efforts of Southern Baptist women attracted the attention of the Convention's male leadership, whose domestic and foreign mission work increasingly benefitted from the donations of the churchwomen. According to Southern Baptist historian W.W. Barnes, "The Foreign Mission Board, recognizing the possibilities in the new movement, agreed to supply the mite boxes." 8 During its 1875 meeting, the Convention officially commended the fund-raising efforts of "these gentle and loving servants of Jesus":


"The native earnestness, the loving sympathies, and the intuitive tact of woman, most happily qualify her as a valuable auxiliary in this work . . ."
Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1875 9

       Beginning in the 1870s and growing stronger throughout the 1880s were calls for Southern Baptist women to organize beyond the local church level. Various administrative structures were suggested, including state central committees and a female superintendent of women's work. The Baltimore women who circularized the South with calls for women to give their mites for missions also advocated organizing Southern Baptist women into local societies and state committees for the purpose of greater efficiency. By the early 1880s the wives who traveled with their husbands to the Convention meetings (always in a different Southern city) began assembling to pray, socialize, and discuss women's work while their husbands attended the Convention across town.

       Calls for a women's organization came not only from women. Male leaders of the Convention who were arguing for stronger denominationalism at this time saw in the women's work great potential for strengthening the Convention. The work of the women would have been difficult for the male leadership to ignore if Fannie Heck is correct in stating that as of 1885 (while women were not organized beyond the local church level), "women were giving one-third of all given to foreign missions." 10 (Given the fact that representation to the Convention was determined by financial contributions, the meetings would certainly have looked different if women were allowed representation at this time.) Historian Patricia Hill, in her study of the women's foreign mission movement nationally, reports similar figures:


"Indefatigable fund-raisers, women systematically collected dues and planned bazaars, fairs, and missionary teas. They pinched pennies from their household budgets and, following the admonition of Catherine Beecher, collected 'the drops and rills . . . to distil on parched and desert lands.' In the four largest Protestant denominations, between one- fourth and one-fifth of the total receipts for foreign missions were contributed through the women's societies -- and this at a time when women rarely controlled more than small sums of money."
Patricia Hill 11

       But many, perhaps most, Southern Baptist men who attended the Convention's meetings in the 1870s and 1880s saw in the women's work more threat than promise, particularly if women were to organize South-wide. The determined debate that ensued indicates a general awareness among Southern Baptist men of the growing strength of the women's mission movement in Southern Baptist churches. W.W. Barnes narrates the debate that occurred on the floor of the 1884 Convention over whether to appoint a female superintendent of women's work:


"Dr. J. William Jones opposed the resolution. He feared it would be the entering wedge for women's rights and women's speaking in public. . . . Rev. J.W. Willmarth of Philadelphia warned Southern Baptists against the tendency to liberalism in the North and West: women speaking in public to mixed bodies, new theology, etc. Let women have their societies in the churches but work under the Boards of the Convention. Rev. J.W.M. Williams favored [the appointment of a female superintendent]: 'I am afraid the women will work without us if we don't permit them to work with us.' But the opposition was strong and vocal."
W.W. Barnes 12

       Richmond's more progressive Baptist newspaper, The Religious Herald, reported on the 1884 meeting's events:


"[T]hat we need some more effective means for stimulating and systematizing the liberality of our Southern women is beyond all doubt. The women love organization and work well together. It remains for our wise men to formulate some scheme that will effectually utilize our Southern women."
Religious Herald, May 22, 1884 13

       Throughout the 1880s and 1890s conflict abounded among Southern Baptists -- on the Convention floor, in state convention meetings, in churches, and in the religious press -- between the progressives who wanted a centralized regional denomination and the conservatives who wanted Southern Baptist power to remain in the hands of local churches and state conventions. This conflict had a social element as well: the progressives embraced an expansion of women's work for the purposes of a stronger denomination, while the conservatives both opposed a stronger denomination and saw in women's work the potential for "things unwomanly," notably public speaking before "mixed assemblies." Fannie Heck, who was active in women's mission work in North Carolina in the 1880s and who became the WMU's first president, looked back on the 1880s controversy in 1913:


"More than from any other weapon, woman shrinks from ridicule. . . . the whole undertaking stood accused of looking to things unwomanly. Well might one in an early report write with deep feeling, 'I pray God to enlighten the hearts of our benighted husbands and show them their error.'"
Fannie E. Heck 14

       In their 1885 meeting, the men of the Convention temporarily settled the question of a women's organization with the decision that each state convention would appoint a central committee (of women) to oversee the women's work in that state. States that opposed a woman's organization, as in the case of Virginia, simply didn't appoint a committee. But most of the Southern states did appoint women's committees, and the work of organizing Southern Baptist women for the cause of missions began immediately:


"[Between 1885 and 1886], the state central committees were being appointed, the women's societies were being grouped by states under the leadership of the central committees, and a corporate consciousness was being developed. The Heathen Helper, edited by Miss Agnes Osborn, Louisville, furnished a medium of communication among the societies throughout the South, and served as a voice to express the developing consciousness."
W.W. Barnes 15

       The women's meeting of 1887, held in conjunction with the Convention meeting in Louisville, revisited the issue of creating a Convention-wide central committee of women for the purpose of greater and more efficient work for missions. They decided that an official vote on the question would take place the following year, 1888. The women advocating a central committee, who certainly did not align themselves with the women's rights movement and who wanted to assure the men of the Convention that organizing a central committee of woman's work would not threaten men's power, issued the following statement from their 1887 meeting:


"Resolved, that [the call for a central committee of woman's work] is not to be construed as a desire upon the part of the ladies to interfere with the management of the existing [male-led] Boards of the Convention, either in the appointment of missionaries, or the direction of mission work, but is a desire, on their part, to be more efficient in collecting money and disseminating information on mission subjects."
1887 Women's Meeting 16

       When the women met the following year in Richmond, again in conjunction with the men's Convention meeting, they voted to organize a central committee, the name of which in 1890 became the "Woman's Missionary Union (WMU), Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention." The preamble to their Constitution, submitted to an anxious men's meeting a few blocks away, read as follows:


"We, the women of the churches connected with the Southern Baptist Convention, desirous of stimulating the missionary spirit and the grace of giving, among the women and children of the churches, and aiding in collecting funds for missionary purposes, to be disbursed by the Boards of the Southern Baptist Convention, and disclaiming all intention of independent action, organize and adopt [this Constitution]."
Women's Constitution, 1888 17

       The story of the events of 1888, in which the women met in one Richmond church while the men nervously awaited their decision in another church a few blocks away, has become the stuff of Southern Baptist lore, told and retold in personal accounts and church histories. Each time it is told, the story subtly pokes fun at the "benighted husbands" who recognized enough potential power in their women that they could even speculate on a female takeover of the Convention itself:


"The Southern Baptist Convention was in session at the First Baptist Church a short distance away [from the historic women's meeting]. While the women were forming the organization in the Methodist church, there was uneasiness in the Convention. The attitude of many there might be expressed in the words of one pastor who, suffering the same uneasiness, said he always felt it safer to attend the women's meetings, as 'You never could tell what the women might take to praying for if left alone.' The discussion on the Convention floor as to the organization grew heated. Some predicted the women would follow other women's organizations and control their own money, send out their own missionaries, desire to serve on the Boards, and, in the end, seek to run the Convention."
Ethlene Boone Cox 18

       Rather than forming an organization separate from their male-led denomination, as the women of most missionary societies in other parts of the country had done, Southern Baptist women made the more conservative decision that the WMU would function as an auxiliary to the already established state conventions and denominational Boards. The nervous men at the Richmond Convention in 1888 were correct in their estimations of the power of the women's missionary movement but had no cause to fear an immediate challenge to male control of the denomination. Far from wreaking havoc on the Southern Baptist Convention, the Woman's Missionary Union would play an absolutely central role in the Convention's growth from the 1880s into the early twentieth century.


The WMU's Impact on the Convention

       During the 1880s and 1890s leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention conducted a South-wide campaign to convince local churches and state Baptist conventions to align themselves with the Southern Baptist Convention. This would not be an easy task for a number of reasons. The Convention leaders who wanted to see a strong regional denomination tended to be urban progressives, and most Baptists in the South were accustomed to more locally-oriented, traditional ways of life. Rural Baptists, many of whom would never affiliate with the Convention, understood the local church to be the highest form of religious organization, and they had little interest in domestic or world missions. Leaders of the state conventions did engage in missions work, but they were suspicious of a regional denomination that might exercise too much control over local and state missions activities or over matters of theology. In the decades following the Civil War, many of these state conventions would, in fact, choose to accept the assistance and cooperation of the Baptist societies of the North, a situation that pro- Convention Baptists interpreted gravely. (For more on this, see the Introductory Essay, Home Mission Board, and Sunday School Board.)

       Southern Baptists, along with Americans in general, were unaccustomed to centralized authority in the nineteenth century. Representatives to the Convention came together once annually to make decisions about the Convention's work. In a sense, that annual meeting was the only time that a single Convention existed; during the rest of the year the Convention's work was divided among its Boards: Foreign Missions, Home Missions, and Sunday Schools. The Boards were located in separate cities, had entirely separate leadership, and conducted their own separate work.

       The Woman's Missionary Union was a new type of Convention organization. Because this was a women's organization, it did not enjoy an equal status with the Convention's Boards. It defined itself as an auxiliary to the Convention generally, a Convention that did not exist outside of its separate Boards. In order to act as an auxiliary, the WMU entered into cooperative work with each of the Convention's Boards, providing not only valuable labor and funds, but also binding the separate Boards closer through their mutual affiliation with the WMU. The WMU considered its purpose to be the spread of "missionary intelligence" among the women and children of the Southern Baptist Convention and the collection of funds for missions work, but this purpose would prove broad enough to encompass virtually all of the Convention's work. The WMU was the only organization whose mission and purview were Convention-wide. (For an example of the ways in which WMU leaders fostered communication between the Boards of the Convention, see the Annie Armstrong letters.)

       In addition to working across the Boards of the Convention, the WMU created greater vertical unity by binding local churches and state conventions to the denominational Boards. Far more than any other Board of the Convention, the WMU, with its goal of establishing a women's mission circle (and soon children's organizations) in every church, put laity to work for the Convention. Inspired by the women's foreign mission movement taking place nationally, it was the women of the churches who took up the missions cause before missions was widely accepted by pastors and male laity. And since world-wide evangelism was the fundamental purpose for the existence of the Southern Baptist Convention, it was female laity who would most easily support the Convention's existence and growth. Furthermore, according to the WMU's 1888 Constitution, the significant funds raised by the women of the churches were not to be routed directly to the WMU's Baltimore headquarters or to the Foreign or Home Mission Boards. Money raised by the women was to be sent to the appropriate (male-led) state conventions. State conventions used part of this money for their own mission work and forwarded part to the Convention's Home and Foreign Mission Boards. The WMU, by "disclaiming all intention of independent action," promoted goodwill and cooperation between the local, state, and denominational levels at the same time that the Convention's male leaders were vigorously campaigning for South-wide denominational unity. Auxiliary only in name, the WMU was central to the Convention's success at the turn of the twentieth century.

       Taking local churches and state conventions and molding them into a denomination had everything to do with the creation and promotion of a particularly Southern identity. More significant, then, than fundraising for and correspondence with foreign missionaries was the work that the WMU did on the home front. The WMU worked closely with the Home Mission Board and the Sunday School Board (the two organizations whose primary mission was to gather Southern Baptist churches into the Convention's fold) by contributing to their publications, supporting the work of the Mountain Mission Schools in the Southern highlands, sponsoring a Convention-wide "Missionary Day" to promote missions giving in Sunday schools South-wide, and perhaps most importantly, organizing a graded program of missions education classes (beginning with the preschool-age "Sunbeams") for Southern Baptist children and youth. This program, including groups such as the Girls' Auxiliary (GA's) and the Royal Ambassadors (RA's), continues in Southern Baptist churches today.

       Sunday School Board leader J.M. Frost recognized the importance of the Board's alliance with the WMU to its campaign to become the sole supplier of Southern Baptist churches' Sunday school literature. According to the 1892 Report of the Sunday School Board, the WMU's contribution to the Sunday school series Kind Words promoted the Convention's causes throughout the South:


"[The 4th page of Kind Words edited by the WMU] makes Kind Words pre-eminently the Convention's missionary paper for the Sunday-school and home, with missionary information told in a way attractive to the young. Here the children can learn -- have it told in their own tongue -- the story of the wonderful works of God through the Foreign Board and Home Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. . . . There could scarcely be a more powerful way of reaching the children and impressing their tender heart and plastic mind with the great missionary thought and need and duty. . . . It is manifest that the Sunday-school Board, through the power of its periodicals, may become a great factor in our denominational machinery second indeed to no other force in its influence upon our denominational life. . . . Who can foretell the results simply in increased contributions to the Boards of the Convention, when you shall have two, and three, and four generations of men and women who almost from their cradle have been trained to think missionary thoughts, pray missionary prayers and make missionary sacrifices in contributions laid at the Master's feet?"

Report of the Sunday School Board, 1892 19


       Historian Patricia Hill speculates that Southern women participated in home missions in greater numbers than their Northern counterparts because "Southern women were usually not allowed as active a role in foreign mission work as their sisters in Northern denominations played." 20 While it is true that Southern Baptist women chose to remain an auxiliary to the Convention rather than appointing their own missionaries and directing their own missions work, home missions work does not appear to have been their consolation prize. Hill underestimates Southern Baptist women's greater interest in home mission work on behalf of their beloved South, otherwise known as "Our Southern Zion" by WMU President Fannie Heck and other Convention leaders. (For more on this, see the Introductory Essay.


      Individual leaders such as first Corresponding Secretary Annie Armstrong also played a role in popularizing home missions in the South. Armstrong herself worked as a home missionary before and after her tenure as WMU Corresponding Secretary, and her letters reveal a strong interest in uniting churches under the Southern Baptist Convention. At a time when individual leaders played a large role in directing the Convention's future course, Armstrong's apparent disagreements with Foreign Mission Board Secretary Harris, as opposed to her close working relationship with the leaders of the Sunday School Board, may provide a further reason for the WMU's home field emphasis. The WMU, the Sunday School Board, and the Home Missions Board, established within ten years of each other, worked closely together at the end of the nineteenth century to popularize the Southern Baptist Convention all across the South.


Mission Church in San Antonio, Texas

The WMU and Victorian Women

       Clearly the Woman's Missionary Union was instrumental to the growth of the Southern Baptist Convention. Just as significant is the role the WMU played in Southern Baptist women's lives. In her silver anniversary history of the WMU, first president Fannie Heck would write that "women everywhere received the news that women were called to a world-wide endeavor." 21 The missions cause provided middle-class women with new opportunities not available in the realm of motherhood and domesticity. Local auxiliary members' experiences learning about mission fields at home and abroad and raising money for the cause brought them outside the home both literally and imaginatively.


"[T]he woman's foreign mission movement gave ordinary churchwomen a chance to utilize talents that had lain fallow in the home; through their work for missions, women gained confidence in their ability to function competently outside the confines of a narrowly defined domestic sphere. And they were assured that the world needed them."
Patricia Hill 22

       Fannie Heck writes about the difficulty WMU leaders encountered in their efforts to organize women's missions auxiliaries in every church during the 1880s and 1890s. In organizing women for missions the leaders would come up against the widely held belief that women should confine their labors to the home and should not take part in public endeavors -- a belief embodied in Southern Baptists' absolute opposition to women speaking in public. While Southern Baptist leaders had accepted the 1888 organization of the WMU, convincing local pastors to allow an auxiliary and convincing "indifferent" women to participate would prove a challenge.23

       Becoming active in a local missions auxiliary meant entering unknown territory for many Southern Baptist women. According to one Tennessee WMU member:


"Among our ranks it was interesting to note the development of many who 'learned by doing.' Beginning with mere attendance, afraid of the sound of their own voices, by degrees they would take a share in the responsibilities, until, in some instances, one had successively filled all the offices with honor. It would be difficult to find an agency more stimulating to all womanly powers than the mission cause."
Tennessee WMU Member 24

       While it would be the job of their daughters (the "New Women" of the 1890s and early twentieth century) to break into the male bastions of higher education and professionalism, the WMU's first generation of women auxiliary members did get a taste of the world of work through their voluntary labor for missions:


"[I]t was in this volunteer work, and in those monthly meetings free from all formality, that timid recruits learned to keep minutes, list addresses, and make out reports, and so became prepared for expressing in active service their love for Christ's cause, and fitted for leadership when responsibility was laid upon them."
Fannie E. Heck 25

       According to Patricia Hill, women selected by local auxiliaries for leadership positions were assured that serving as officers would not be construed as feminism:


"In 1875, the pages of Woman's Work for Woman contain a letter from an organizer of local women's missionary societies that indicates the attitude of ordinary churchwomen toward active participation in even such a patently respectable organization as a female missionary group.

'Few are aspirants to office, but when it becomes their duty to assume such responsibility, they 'wear their blushing honors' gracefully, and are learning to conduct affairs according to parliamentary rules. Many, shrinking from this work because of the publicity it may involve, have yet to learn that there is a wide distinction between the bold advocacy of Woman's Rights (so-called), and the modest testimony of a woman nerved to duty in religious work by the strength of the Master whom she serves.'"
Patricia Hill 26

       The conservative women in the first generation of the WMU, while they saw no common ground with advocates of women's rights, would nevertheless believe in the importance of women's solidarity for the cause of Christ:


"It is an estimate of the largest liberality to say that one-fourth of the women who are members of Southern Baptist Churches are members of the societies. The proportion of Sunday-school children is far less. The day when all shall unite for mission conquest is far ahead. To gather them all seems the despair of the missionary organization. Yet there is victory somewhere down the years; a victory which must be won by individual conquest of the indifferent woman by the woman aroused. Each woman gained here means a woman helped there. In a very real sense, women stand hand in hand; an American woman and a Chinese woman; a woman of ease and one of poverty. It is missionary service of a high order to persuade an indifferent Christian woman to stretch out her hand to the woman who is dying for her aid."
Fannie E. Heck 27


The WMU in the New Century

       The WMU, much like the Sunday School Board, labored during the 1890s to define its work and build support in the South. And like the Sunday School Board, the WMU by the early twentieth century had largely succeeded in its enlistment campaign and would now increase its efforts toward greater standardization and efficiency. As a progressive, modern organization, the WMU would embrace the scientific methods and business practices emphasized in the broader culture, trends that supported a rise in professionalism. While the WMU's leader's celebrated modern trends, including an expansion of the women's sphere, they also expressed a vague anxiety about the secularism that accompanied modernity. (Similar trends were occurring throughout the Convention. See Introductory Essay, Sunday School Board, 75 Million Campaign.)

       Like its sister organizations around the country, the WMU inaugurated a "Study Class" for its local auxiliaries in 1907. While then-president Fannie Heck celebrated the progress to be brought about by the more systematic study of missions, historian Patricia Hill sees different results of this new scientific approach to missions. Hill argues that the Study Class reflected larger cultural trends: toward secularization and professionalized bureaucracies.


"[T]he actual transformation wrought in auxiliary meetings by the introduction of textbooks was a dilution of their religious, prayer-meeting atmosphere. One leader of a local auxiliary reported proudly that since they had begun using textbooks their 'missionary meetings [were] almost as popular as any club meeting, and no matter what the weather is a goodly number attend.' As modern, 'up-to-date' women, the leaders of the woman's foreign mission movement applauded rather than regretted change."
Patricia Hill 28

       Hill goes on to argue that the Study Class's focus on textbook knowledge and teaching ability shifted the focus of the movement from praying laity to professional leaders.


"The displacement of prayer in a movement that had . . . located in prayer a source of power available to the humblest seamstress, encouraged the stratification of the movement into a hierarchy based on knowledge and expertise, a hierarchy engendered by the mission study movement's call for trained leaders. Woman's instinctual gifts, her natural religious impulses, were now not so highly valued as cultivated gifts of intellect and managerial or pedagogical skill. The distance separating leaders from the rank and file . . . widened as experience and training initiated certain women into the inner mysteries of missions and made the rest of them dependent upon instruction from the initiates. . . ."
Patricia Hill 29

       In order to train this new professional class of female missionaries and managers, the WMU opened the Baptist Woman's Missionary Union Training School in Louisville, Kentucky (home of the Convention's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) in 1907. The female students in the Training School took classes at the Seminary alongside the male students in addition to living and taking additional classes at the Training School.


"1907 was distinctly the young woman's year. . . . For years young ministers who had not completed their preparation for the ministry before their marriage had been bringing their wives with them to [the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at] Louisville. Unforbidden but unnoticed, some of them would venture to accompany their husbands to the classes, in the Theological Seminary, drinking in the teaching and studying diligently at home to prepare themselves for the many duties of a pastor's wife. If married women could be taught why not single women, who wished to prepare themselves for distinct missionary work?"
Fannie E. Heck 30


Woman's Missionary Union Training School, Louisville, Kentucky

       In addition to their academic training, the young women of the Training School assisted in running a settlement house in Louisville. The Training School's curricular emphasis on the settlement house marked a trend in the WMU as well as in the larger culture in the early twentieth century: an increasing emphasis on social work and the social gospel as opposed to evangelizing the "heathen." The Convention as a whole would find itself in the early twentieth century wrestling with secular trends such as the social gospel -- in which American progressive reformers began to view people's material circumstances (poverty) as greater threats to the social good than their spiritual states ("heathenism").

       Shortly after the 1907 establishment of the Training School, first WMU President Fannie Heck spent several days visiting the school and observing the young women's activities. She recorded her impressions in her 1913 history of the WMU. Her observations of one of the settlement house's Camp Fire groups reveals this Victorian woman's bewilderment as she observed the mission work of the next generation:


"To stumble in upon a camp fire circle as they sit with feathered heads around a Training School girl . . . is perhaps to wonder what it all means. To listen a while as they explain that their queer, Indian sounding motto stands for work, truth, and beauty, and tell of the 'degrees' to which they rise by helpfulness, self-training and unselfishness, is to come into a broader understanding of the great uplifting power behind the outward forms that catch and attract the eye."
Fannie E. Heck 31


       In her visit to the Training School, Heck had encountered the "New Women" of the Southern Baptist Convention, the next generation of Southern Baptist women who now had far greater social and professional opportunities than the Victorian women who had founded the WMU. While Heck celebrated the opportunities for missions training now available to this next generation, she also recognized that these opportunities posed a threat to the continued power of the WMU. Writing in 1913, Heck worried that "The girl who enters college never returns quite the same. . . . She may drift from her moorings." 32 For Heck, the social gospel emphasis on physical well-being was no substitute for the Christ-centered work of soul-saving:


"If [the college girl] is not enlisted for work that makes for the physical and spiritual salvation of the world through Jesus, she will find the expression of her trained powers in selfish self-culture and Christless philanthropy, which, while it has its beginning and impulse in His teachings, strives to heal the body, while ignoring the great and only physician of the heart and soul."
Fannie E. Heck 33

       Hill writes about similar trends throughout the women's foreign mission movement by the early twentieth century:


"The leaders of the woman's foreign mission movement embraced modernity as the product of social and material progress, not realizing the secularization that accompanied modernization would eventually undermine their movement. Without the melodramatic appeal that worked so effectively on the sensibilities of Victorian females, the women's societies experienced difficulties in recruiting new members in the era of modern missions."
Patricia Hill 34

       Perhaps in response to the anxiety over modernity and also consistent with the early twentieth century's emphasis on business methods and efficiency, the WMU inaugurated its "Standards of Excellence" program in 1911. According to Heck, "It was time someone set a standard for a 'good' society":


"This the Union did in 1911 by adopting a Standard of Excellence. A good society was a society which was praying for and studying mission; which was increasing in contributions and membership; which reported regularly; in which not only the 'faithful few,' but the entire membership, felt called upon to keep up a high average of attendance. Confessedly the standard was high. But it was not impossible. . . .

"Then came the revelation. Some of the societies which had thought themselves best discovered that they were lacking in many particulars. . . . For instance, a society in a large city church which, though it had a long roll of members, had only a tenth of the membership in attendance, which contributed the same as last year, had sought no new members and gave no thought to training the children, was not as good as the village society which averaged a regular attendance of half its members. Or as good as the country society which increased its gifts by ten per cent and mothered an active Sunbeam Band. Moreover the city societies which thought they knew the entire world because they had read the morning paper were put to the blush by the growing knowledge of those who took time to catch something of God's point of view."
Fannie E. Heck 35

       While its purpose was to promote greater commitment to the missions cause, the Standard of Excellence provided another example of the ways in which the WMU moved from lay movement to professionalized bureaucracy by the early twentieth century. The shift from mite boxes to systematic giving offers a further example:


By the twentieth year of the Union (1908), "the call for the left-over penny was changed to the demand for a definite and proportionate part of the income. . . . Women were handling more than the Sunday eggs and, deciding how other funds than the hard-saved pennies should be spent. Thousands of younger women were in business earning their own living, while the wives were beginning to be recognized as partners in the making and expanding of the family income."
Fannie E. Heck 36

       Like the Convention-wide 75 Million Campaign begun in 1919, the WMU's program of systematic giving resembled trends toward incorporation taking place in the business world around the same time. Hill would go as far as to compare local auxiliary members to "stockholders" in an increasingly hierarchical, bureaucratized women's mission movement:


"Women in missionary auxiliaries were no longer being told that the success of the work abroad depended as much on their active service -- their prayers and their letters -- as it did on their financial support. They had become -- to borrow a metaphor from business, as missionary administrators were fond of doing -- simply small stockholders in a large corporation. They were furnished with investment prospectuses and shareholders' reports, but they actually exercised little influence on the board of directors and company officials."
Patricia Hill 37

       In 1918, thirty years after the controversial founding of the Women's Missionary Union, Southern Baptist Women gained the rights to vote on the Convention floor and to serve on the Convention's Boards. The beginning of more equal rights for women -- American women would finally win the right to vote just two years later -- marked the end of an era in which the WMU (and her sister organizations nationally) provided one of the only outlets for women's achievements. As Southern Baptist women, along with their counterparts nationally, entered the public realms of higher education and the professions, missions work was no longer their only option. While the WMU would continue its denominational missions activities throughout the twentieth century up until today, its high membership rate (proportionate to Southern Baptist female church members) would gradually decline.

       The WMU's highpoint took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a time when mission work offered women new opportunities for adventure and achievement. This was also the period of the Southern Baptist Convention's enlistment campaign, an effort made successful by the fervent voluntarism of Southern Baptist women.

  
Annie Armstrong Letters



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1 Patricia R. Hill, The World Their Household: The American Woman's Foreign Mission Movement and Cultural Transformation, 1870-1920 (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1985) 4.

2 Hill 3

3 Hill 39

4 Hill 5

5 Fannie E. S. Heck, In Royal Service: The Mission Work of Southern Baptist Women (Richmond: Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1913) 96-97.

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6 Heck 151

7 Heck 153-154

8 William Wright Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1953 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1954) 153-155.

9 Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1875. Cited in Barnes 144.

10 Heck 115

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11 Hill 62

12 Barnes 148

13 "After It Is Over," Religious Herald (Richmond) May 22, 1884, p.2 col.1. Cited in Barnes 148.

14 Heck 107

15 Barnes 152

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16 1887 Women's Meeting. Cited in Heck 128.

17 1888 Women's Constitution. Cited in Barnes 156.

18 Ethlene Boone Cox, Following in His Train (Nashville, Broadman Press, 1938) 64. Cited in Barnes 155.

19 "Report of the Sunday School Board," Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1892.

20 Hill 57

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21 Heck 148

22 Hill 109

23 Heck 142

24 Heck 148

25 Heck 146

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26 Hill 52

27 Heck 207-208

28 Hill 148

29 Hill 150

30 Heck 194

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31 Heck 204

32 Heck 214-215

33 Heck 217

34 Hill 5

35 Heck 218-219

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36 Heck 210

37 Hill 159