Saturday, June 05, 2010

Annie Armstrong and the Woman's Missionary Union

Lottie Moon (1840-1912)
Part of an ongoing series on Southern Baptist history . . . 

Southern Baptist missionary to China, Lottie Moon noticed that the Methodist women in America had organized to mobilize missions, and with Annie Armstrong in 1887, they together called for a national women’s mission organization.

The Woman’s Missionary Union was organized as an auxiliary of the SBC at the Convention in Richmond in 1888. Choosing auxiliary status gave the WMU freedom to help the SBC while also being self-governing and self-supporting. It would become the largest Protestant missions organization for women in the world.

WMU’s two objectives were educating women and children about missions and raising funds for mission work worldwide. Motivated by the severe financial handicap under which the Foreign Mission Board operated in the 1880s, the WMU immediately went to work raising money. The annual offering for foreign missions began almost as soon as the WMU organized in 1888. Begun as an effort to raise funds to send an assistant to Lottie Moon in China, it was expanded to apply funds to the entire foreign field. By 1918, the annual offering was named in honor of Lottie Moon. The annual offering for home missions began in 1894 and would be named for Annie Armstrong in 1934.

Women in the churches now had an outlet to raise money and mobilize missions, and they did it with ferocity. From 1897-1902, the WMU was responsible for 35-40% of all missionary giving in the SBC. Most of these women were at home, but they collected dry goods, advocated offerings, sold bricks for building projects, and organized children’s offerings. The WMU gave women jobs in the churches. They became female Sunday School teachers, mission leaders, and became a strong part of the SBC.

Annie Armstrong (1850-1938)
Annie Armstrong was a strong, brilliant, hard-driving woman who served as WMU’s first corresponding secretary, refusing a salary and traveling at her own expense. In that position she corresponded with missionaries and denominational leaders, writing over 18,000 letters in 1893 alone. Many of those letters were addressed to Home Mission Board President Isaac T. Tichenor, in which she pled with him to send more personnel and resources to areas in the South and West, areas Armstrong herself had visited on her own and assessed firsthand. By 1895, difficulties were developing between Armstrong and other WMU leaders. When WMU president, Fannie E. S. Heck of North Carolina, opposed her on an issue regarding how to integrate Sunday Schools in missionary work, Armstrong declared, "either she must resign or I shall!"

Soon afterward, Armstrong became embroiled in conflict over the establishment of a Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union Training School in Louisville, KY, at Southern Seminary to train female missionaries. Armstrong opposed the establishment of the school and became an outspoken critic of the institute afterwards. She argued that the WMU's funds should be directed exclusively towards missionary work on the field, not education.

Despite Armstrong's opposition, the SBC voted to build the training school in 1906, but the day it opened the next year, the Convention billed the WMU for the full cost of its construction. The female students were allowed to take seminary classes alongside male students, angering Armstrong who feared the policy would culminate in the ordination of women. Seminaries should educate men only, she argued. The institute was just a school for women to find a husband anyway, she remarked.

When a denominational newspaper in 1907 criticized her opposition to the institute, Armstrong took the editorial as a personal attack and resigned her WMU position in a huff, vowing never again to serve the SBC. She went home to Baltimore and managed a nursing home the rest of her life, but remained active in her local congregation in Baltimore. Four years before her 1938 death, "Strong Arm Annie," as she was called, consented to let the Easter home missions offering be named in her honor.

Though she was not always an easy person with whom to work, Annie Armstrong can be credited as one of the three individuals who ensured the longevity and legacy of the Southern Baptist Convention among Baptist churches in the South. The other two were J.M. Frost of the Sunday School Board and I.T. Tichenor, president of the Home Mission Board. Without them, the SBC may never have lasted across the South. Through the Woman’s Missionary Union and Armstrong’s encouragement of J.M. Frost and her personal financial support in producing published materials through the Sunday School Board, she placed the vision of the SBC in the minds and hearts of local Baptist churches across the South. Through her voluminous correspondence with SBC leaders, missionaries, and local churches, she kept the vision of the SBC burning brightly. But her greatest contribution to the long-term vitality of the SBC was through the missions mobilization, fund-raising, and missions education Armstrong did among the Baptist women of the South.

The WMU would operate the institute until 1956, changing its name in 1953 to the Carver School of Mission and Social Work. After the SBC assumed responsibility in 1956, it merged with the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1963, where it became the nation’s only seminary-based school of social work, and its curriculum drifted leftward. During the consolidation of the Conservative Resurgence, Southern Seminary in 1998 transferred the Carver School to Campbellsville (KY) University.