History (and her own letters) hint that the great missionary loved her friend and teacher Crawford Toy. But she loved God more.
Even in this cynical age, we tend to idealize our heroes.
The media relentlessly expose the foibles of politicians and preachers. Revisionist historians attack the reputations of everyone from Christopher Columbus to Abraham Lincoln.
Weary of the negative onslaught, we cry, "Say it ain't so, Joe." Isn't there someone who merits our wholehearted admiration?
Lottie Moon does.
The legendary missionary died in 1912 after four decades of selfless service in China. But her amazing life still motivates Southern Baptists to pray for missions, support missionaries with their financial gifts, and volunteer for mission service.
"As a child in Sunbeams and later Royal Ambassadors, I was captivated by the story of Lottie Moon, told to us along with accounts of contemporary missionaries as if she were still alive," recalls Jerry Rankin, who became a missionary and is now president of the Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Board. "In a sense she is (still alive); her calling and sacrificial commitment continue to inspire hundreds of Southern Baptist missionaries who still follow in her steps."
Rankin is convinced no other American "has had such a global impact. Her influence is not limited to this nation or even this world. It has eternal significance."
How could he reach such a conclusion about this tiny woman, who defied enormous odds to go to China in 1873 as an unmarried female missionary, challenged a fledgling denomination to build one of the largest mission efforts in church history, and continues to challenge it today?
Rankin makes the case in his book, A journey of faith and sacrifice: Retracing the steps of Lottie Moon, recently published by New Hope and available in Baptist Book Stores.
Yet the Lottie Moon who emerges in these pages is very human. She had personal needs — and failings — like anyone else, but overcame them in obedience to God's lifetime call.
Moon was a brilliant woman. She also was strong-willed, independent, sometimes rebellious — like most pioneer missionaries. She disagreed vehemently with her mission colleagues at times. She chafed at mission traditions that sought to limit her to "women's work" such as teaching children. She longed to strike out on her own and evangelize villagers who had never heard of Jesus.
She wrote thundering letters back home appealing for more support and additional missionaries. She fell into discouragement, even depression, when too little help came.
And Lottie Moon — who embodies our ideal of the single, self-sacrificing missionary — fell in love.
"In Lottie's day — and to a certain extent in our own — it was often presumed that an unmarried person who left for the mission field would remain single," Rankin writes. "Some today never give serious consideration to the prospects of marriage and family as they pursue their mission call. Others struggle with the seeming permanence of their single status, even overseas."
Lottie apparently was one of the strugglers, at least in her early years on the field. We can only imagine the depth of loneliness she must have felt in 19th century China — an alien culture that viewed all white missionaries as "foreign devils" and single women as bizarre curiosities.
Years before, during her education at Virginia's Albemarle Female Institute, Lottie had met Crawford Toy, a young professor who taught there and at the University of Virginia. Toy was a brilliant teacher of English and classical languages, and Lottie was his star student.
"Girls were known to develop serious crushes on the eligible Professor Toy," who was both single and handsome, writes Catherine Allen in her biography of Lottie, The New Lottie Moon Story, (Broadman). Lottie was charmed by Toy, and the attraction seems to have been mutual.
The two corresponded for years after Lottie left the Institute. Both were interested in missionary service, and they may have discussed marriage before she went to China for the first time. But Lottie had seen other bright, ambitious women like herself rushed into unhappy marriages, and she may have hesitated.
"If there was a marriage proposal, Lottie was not ready for it," Allen writes. "And, at the same time, a gentle hint went out in foreign mission circles that consideration might be given to appointing single women as missionaries. It might not be necessary for a woman called by God into missions to go on the strength of a husband."
That "gentle hint" became a reality among Southern Baptists, and Lottie sailed for China in 1873.
Still, Toy and Lottie kept up a regular correspondence, and their romantic attraction seems to have endured. But Toy's career took a sad turn. He had become a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and his views came under fire in the denomination.
"Toy had been educated in the German school of 'higher criticism' of the Bible and apparently questioned the authority and reliability of Scripture as accepted by the churches of the denomination," Rankin writes. "His views became evident when he (later) became a Unitarian. Lottie may have recognized the incompatibility of his teaching with a basic doctrine of her faith: that all who have yet to come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ are lost, whether in China or America."
Toy was asked to resign from the seminary faculty in 1879. Yet even after he began teaching at Harvard, Toy and Lottie considered marriage. She informed her missionary colleagues that she was leaving the mission field to "take the professor of Hebrew's chair at Harvard University in connection with Dr. Toy," according to a September 1881 letter written by China missionary T.P. Crawford.
Harvard would not employ women professors for another 40 years. The "connection with Dr. Toy" was apparently to be marriage. Lottie asked family members in Virginia to prepare for a wedding in the spring.
No wedding ever occurred. Perhaps Lottie could not accept Toy's liberal theological views. Relatives of Toy understood that the pair broke their engagement because of "religious differences."
One thing is certain: Lottie decided she could not leave her post in China, which was woefully depleted by other missionary deaths and departures – and the lack of reinforcements from home. In the end, no amount of loneliness or hardship could turn her away from her call.
Asked later if she had ever been in love, Lottie responded: "Yes, but God had first claim on my life, and since the two conflicted, there could be no question about the result." Lottie remained faithful to that decision for another three decades in China — through war, famine, and privation — until her death.
In asking for more mission workers, she once appealed: "Please say to the missionaries that they are coming to a life of hardship, responsibility, and constant self-denial …. If 'the joy of the Lord be their strength,' the blessedness of the work will more than compensate for its hardships."
In her solitary life of service, this heroic woman lived her words, and found them to be true.