I wish with this letter I might send you a large palm-leaf and a very attractive pitcher of iced lemonade, for I think if you had these, you might have more patience to consider the numerous items which I will now have to present to you, but as these comforts, or rather necessities during this intensely hot weather, cannot be sent through the mail, I will have to ask that you either provide them for yourself or — consent to be a martyr.
– Letter to T.P. Bell from Annie Armstrong, June 30, 1894
So began the letter Annie Armstrong wrote to then secretary of the Sunday School Board, T.P. Bell, on June 30, 1894. I could just picture "Miss Annie," fingers tapping quickly the keys of her well-worn typewriter, trying to add some humor to the somewhat routine task of gathering and giving information. I could also picture Mr. Bell opening the letter and chuckling at her words.
As the first corresponding secretary of Woman's Missionary Union, it was obvious that Annie took very seriously the word "corresponding." She wrote thousands of letters – lengthy epistles that touched on everything from personal details to professional concerns.
I first learned of Annie Armstrong when I was a GA leader at Second Baptist Church in Griffin, Ga. Wanting to know more about this woman named in the offering the GAs were giving money to, I went to the church library and checked out a copy of Annie Armstrong: Dreamer in Action. I found the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering not only worthy of monetary gifts, but that it truly did honor a woman who had been an incredible on-mission Christian.
Little did I know that years later I would be writing promotional materials for the Offering, or that the task would take me to the SBC Executive Committee in Nashville, Tenn., which houses an extensive library of Southern Baptist historical materials. Among those are some of Annie Armstrong's letters, written in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Thus, on a fall day last year, I became, as T.P. Bell did in the summer of 1894, a willing martyr. Facing me was the task of reading some of the letters contained in more than twenty folders in the library. Being handed the first folder from the librarian was like being entrusted with sacred treasure. While I had read what others had written about Annie and her work, I now had the unique opportunity to read what she herself wrote. The first folder contained a large stack of now yellowed letters, and I immediately leafed through them, noticing that they were for only a brief period of months in 1894-1895. Could she really have written that many letters – to one person no less? Bring on the iced lemonade. This could take a while.
Reading the first letter, I could not help but think of the scene in the Mission Rooms where Annie worked in Baltimore in 1894. I became immersed in her thoughts, fascinated at the details of her work, and tried to read between the lines to catch a more personal glimpse of her. And, in the palm-leaf wish to T.P. Bell, I found the connection. A committed on-mission Christian? No doubt about it. A passionate advocate for missionaries all across the world? The evidence supports it. A real person who faced physical and spiritual challenges with her job, her family, and her friends? Definitely. Suddenly, Annie seemed less historical and more human.
If it's true that in every piece of humor there is a hint of truthfulness, then T.P. Bell may have experienced the same bit of martyrdom I felt as I picked up yet another folder of Annie's letters and thought, "Here's another one." Plain and simple, Annie exhausted me. The key element needed to read her letters is patience. Between the long introductions that would often take up the first page, and the "Yours Very Truly" closing, Annie would embark in providing detailed information or requests, giving each paragraph or section a heading that would make it easier to organize her thoughts. But while she exhausted me, she also inspired me. In an age before email, carbonless paper, and computers, Annie wrote without distraction. Her advocacy and passion for missions and getting missionaries what they needed to do their work is a model for Southern Baptists today.
If Annie were alive now, she would no doubt delight in the modern conveniences (especially computers!) of our day, but I believe her heart would feel even more burdened by the needs represented in this time. Even as the scope of North American mission efforts has expanded and the number of missionaries has grown, the tremendous spiritual needs and the urgency to share Christ are greater than ever.
And, the truth be known, there are countless Annies who are alive today – those who give their lives as passionate advocates for missionaries and their efforts, who are praying without ceasing and giving of their time and money to reach North America for Christ. They are sacrificially involved in mission projects, but to them missions isn't a short-term or long-term commitment — it's a lifestyle. They recognize that Southern Baptists are on mission together, creating a synergy in partnership missions.
To the Annie of yesterday, Southern Baptists must say thank you and continue to hold her up as a model of an on-mission servant. But more importantly, we must join with the Annies of today in reaching people with the never-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.
For further insight into Annie Armstrong, please visit www.anniearmstrong.com.
Two Major Thrusts
The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering supports NAMB's two major thrusts: evangelism and church planting. An estimated 220 million people in the United States and Canada do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The agency provides assistance to churches, associations, and state conventions in soul-winning training; interfaith witness; and church and community ministries, which include Alternatives for Life ministries and special evangelistic events.
Southern Baptists are starting more than 1,700 new churches every year, more than any other faith group. Yet, we still fail to keep pace with population growth. NAMB provides resources and strategies for establishing churches and missions among all ethnic and language groups in the United States and Canada.