Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Tennessee Women: Ministering to the Cities

Academic journal article Baptist History and Heritage

Tennessee Women: Ministering to the Cities

Article excerpt

Southern Baptist women in the post-bellum South formed themselves into Woman's Missionary Societies (WMS) and ladies aid societies to meet the needs of their local communities, educate themselves on missionary activities, and raise money for both local needs and missionary support.

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As these groups grew in strength, leaders among the women and of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) missionary agencies began to call for a national entity to guide the work of the local societies. In 1888 women formed the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU) as an auxiliary to the SBC. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, the national organization began enlarging its directives. Eventually, national leaders initiated a program that required WMS groups to be personally active in local mission work. Leaders included elements of progressive reform in their rhetoric as they encouraged WMS members to he involved in ministry to their community and to the larger urban area around them.

Many of the needs that national WMU placed before its membership resulted from expanding southern cities. Urbanization was a growing influence in the early twentieth-century South. The South's agriculturally based economy significantly delayed the growth of southern cities, and during the Civil War northern armies destroyed much of what had developed. But with the lure of a New South rising from the ashes, southerners began to dream of rebuilding their world and witnessing a flourishing of large cities to compete with those in the North. Urban growth caused the region to experience the accompanying blight that northern industrial areas had witnessed decades earlier. Problems of crime, poverty, and prostitution were compounded by the cultural conflicts inherent in the waves of immigrants flooding northern shores and pushing into the South.

In large eastern and midwestern cities, volunteers began to create settlement houses in response to needs of poor immigrants and poverty-stricken Americans. The most famous of these, Hull House in Chicago led by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr, opened in 1889. By the early twentieth century, volunteers had established more than 100 settlement houses. To staff these institutions, leaders looked to mostly female volunteers, many of whom were church members. The distinction that many historians drew was that the settlement houses did not focus on evangelism, as did the church-established houses, which those scholars referred to as missions. (1)

The effort to direct WMS members into personal involvement in ministry began in 1910. (2) WMU leaders created the Personal Service program as a systematized method of encouraging WMS groups to participate in activities that went beyond traditional mission study and financial mission support. This program encouraged "voluntary services rendered by the societies for the Christian upbuilding [sic] of their own communities, such as mothers' meetings, visitation of the sick and prisoners, sewing schools and other Christian activities ...," (3) WMU leaders challenged members to work with the poor, African Americans, tenant farmers, and immigrants in cities and towns. (4) Personal Service reports included a long list of possible ministries: (5)

* homemakers' clubs

* Cheer-all clubs for girls

* boys' clubs

* rescue work

* sewing for the destitute

* Vacation Bible School

* day nurseries

* classes for illiterates

WMS organizations within a given area, known as associations, began to develop institutions based on the settlement house idea, where all the above mentioned activities could be held in one location, ministering to particular communities and ethnic groups. The women called their work Good Will Centers (no relation to the modern Goodwill organization) based on the words of Luke 2:14, "peace to men of good will. …

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