Diverse Baptist Attitudes toward Women in Missions. (Diverse Baptist Attitudes toward Women: A Panel)

Article excerpt

Four points on the horizon of Baptist perspectives have determined the practical possibilities for women in missions. Many degrees of latitude in attitude may be glimpsed in between.


"Thou shalt not," said the Baptist missions establishment to women from its beginnings in the 1790s. For the first century of formalized missions, wives were considered part of the unavoidable equipage of male missionaries. Women were not required to meet standard qualifications or to be productive in missionary accomplishment. Unmarried women were generally dissuaded from participation as missionaries, or they were treated as less-than-competent junior assistants.

Yet, there were exceptions who changed the course of history. Ann Hasseltine Judson became the "moral heroine of the 19th century." (1) Her commission to tell Asian women that they were equal to males in God's sight was given by a minister of the Congregational Church. She and her husband worked in a partnership style of ministry for twenty-two months before they ever received dictums from the Baptist mission board which was organized for his support. (2)

To survey the history-making ways in which women overcame prohibitions against missions involvement, one must look at Baptists such as Charlotte Hazen Atlee White, the first unmarried Baptist appointee from America; Eleanor Macomber, who in 1836 became the first unmarried woman church planter, who firmly established Christian belief among Pwo Karens of Burma; Henrietta Hall Shuck of Virginia, the first American woman and educator of women in China; Martha Foster Crawford, Alabamian who was forced into an unpleasant marriage in order to fulfill her divine calling to China; Harriet Baker, in 1849 the first unmarried woman appointed by Southern Baptists (and the last until 1872); Edmonia Moon and Lula Whilden, appointed as "assistant missionaries" in 1872; and finally Lottie Moon, appointed in 1873 as the first in a continuous succession of professional women missionaries in their own right.

At the root of each success was one special idea: that women in unevangelized cultures could not receive the gospel without the devoted consistent efforts of Christian women. This same idea mobilized women of the Southern Baptist Convention to unite their efforts in support of missions. Because her son appealed for help for the women of China, Ann Baker Graves of Baltimore became the first Southern Baptist woman to instigate women's missionary societies. With collective power to control their contributions, the Woman's Missionary Union struggled from its shell in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. More women became missionaries. Prohibitions turned into permissions in the twentieth century.


"Thou mayest, BUT ..." was the implied message to women in missions through the twentieth century. With a willingness to dodge many limitations, Southern Baptist women claimed permission to make the twentieth century a golden age of progress in missions.

WMU assigned itself the task of recruiting women to be missionaries. The umbilical cord between the missionaries and the women in local-church missionary groups was mutually nurturing. As missionaries appeared, WMU found it necessary to provide academic training for women, primarily through the Woman's Missionary Union Training School in Louisville, Kentucky, beginning in 1907. From then until the 1960s, this school was the largest single source of missionaries appointed to foreign fields. The school developed the new concept of Christian social ministry, so that many women found transforming employment as local and home missionaries. (3)

In 1922, the secretary of the Foreign Mission Board, J. F. Love, estimated that twice as many women as men were volunteering for foreign missionary service. He credited WMU for this phenomenon. (4) In the case of home missions, from 1884 through the first half of the twentieth century, almost every female home missionary was personally recruited and funded by WMU effort for specific work with immigrants, Native Americans, miners, textile workers, and blacks. …