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ANALYSIS: Women & missions

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Police detain a young woman hiking alone through rural Asia. Doesn’t she know she is forbidden to carry the Christian leaflets stuffed in her pack?

A nurse and grandmother, a former missionary to Africa, heads to desolate Ethiopia to embrace the starving men, women and children who stagger into a remote camp, some only a breath away from death. Doesn’t she realize she will see things that break her heart?

A gifted young college professor helps organize women across Texas to support missionaries and then heads to frontier Brazil with her new husband. Doesn’t she know their home will be pelted with stones and bones, that her husband will be heckled and arrested because of his preaching and two of her nine children will die in Brazil?

Don’t women know the mission field is no place for them? Evidently not — thank God.

Don’t women know that the mission field is not for women?

Evidently not. Throughout the 157-year history of the International Mission Board, women have followed God’s call — usually in greater numbers than men — into all the world. Today about 54 percent of Southern Baptists’ 5,241 missionaries are women, about a fourth of them single.

Southern Baptists’ first appointed missionaries — Samuel C. Clopton and George Pearcy — were appointed in the fall of 1845 as single men. But when they sailed for China the next summer, their new brides, Keziah Turpin Clopton and Frances Miller Pearcy, were on board. Mrs. Clopton was a widow within a year, a clear signal of the dangers that lay ahead for early missionaries, male and female.

The then-Foreign Mission Board was quite willing to send missionary women with their husbands — and wasn’t above introducing single men and women who inquired about serving — but board members at that time were not convinced of the “propriety of appointing unmarried females as missionaries.”

Harriet Baker, appointed in 1849, was an experiment — a teacher sent in response to Issachar Roberts’ plea for two female teachers. But she — as did the board — soon came into conflict with Roberts and moved to another assignment. Poor health forced her home in 1853, never having started a school. She continued working in San Francisco with the Chinese, but the board considered the experiment with a single woman a failure.

The position softened as leadership changed. Acknowledging “the larger and better portion of our church members are the sisters, and there might be a concurrence of circumstances which would justify and require us to appoint one of them to a foreign field,” the board made a policy in 1859 that as a general rule they would not appoint single women. But they left the door open just a crack.

One of the women to step through that crack, Charlotte Diggs (Lottie) Moon, missionary to China, should have blown away any questions that remained about the usefulness of single women on the mission field.

Moon not only lasted — serving 39 years from 1873 to 1912 in China — but she moved out alone into areas where the gospel had not been introduced and started indigenous churches still alive today. Ironically, she and other women, in their reluctance to take the leadership of the churches, put Chinese laymen in leadership roles from the beginning, still a key trait of church-planting movements.

Because Lottie Moon is so legendary, it’s easy to overlook the contributions of early missionary wives in China like Elizabeth Hartwell, Martha Crawford and Sally Holmes.

When Hartwell died in 1870, her husband wrote, “She was borne to the grave by the native brethren, who asked the privilege of doing this service. … Nine and a half years ago my dear wife and I came single-handed and alone, to commence here the first Christian missions. There was not then in all the city and region round about one single soul who had any knowledge of the way of life through Jesus Christ. Now, there was she, the faithful laborer, being borne to her final resting place by devout men and followed by a large company of deeply sorrowing Christians, both men and women, who had been converted to God from heathenism largely by her instrumentality.”

Crawford and Holmes made significant contributions to the mission work by tirelessly visiting Chinese homes, taking the message where male missionaries would not be welcome, but where “men have often been known to hide in an adjoining room to hear the sisters talk — men who would be ashamed to be seen at church.”

Even after her husband was killed during the Taiping Rebellion, Holmes stayed and continued her ministry. Thus, she and Crawford were the ones who took the young Lottie Moon into China’s villages.

An 1880 report to the board notes that the previous spring and fall had been devoted to the villages. “Mrs. Crawford visited 220 villages, Mrs. Holmes 414, Miss Moon 310.”

Before and since, Southern Baptist missionary women have visited in countless towns and cities, villages and homes. Women like Hattie Gardner in Nigeria have lived alone in the bush to share the gospel. Women like Ida Mae Hays in Brazil have provided girls and women the education long denied them. Doctors like Ruth McCown and nurses like Jessie Pettigrew, both in China, have healed the sick in Jesus’ name. Women like Mavis Pate have served in war zones, although Pate is the only one to have lost her life as a result. And women like Anne Bagby, early missionary to Brazil, have raised up new generations of missionaries to answer God’s call.

Through the years Southern Baptist women have proved — as they’re still proving today — that the mission field is just the place for a woman.
Reprinted from The Commission, the monthly magazine of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

    About the Author

  • Mary Jane Welch