This is an article from the January-March 1999 issue: Women and Missions

Lottie Moon: “Saint” of the Southern Baptists

Lottie Moon: “Saint” of the Southern Baptists

Charlotte Diggs "Lottie" Moon (1840-1912) has often been referred to as the "Patron Saint" of Southern Baptist missions because of the influence she had on missionary outreach and giving. She was raised on a Virginia plantation and after the Civil War pursued a teaching career in Georgia, but her heart was in foreign missions. She was motivated not only by her faith in Christ but also by her desire to move beyond the routine of life in the post Civil War South. Other family members had "marched out to fight for the Stars and Bars" and had performed "splendid service" while she had remained home on the plantation. Now it was her opportunity to become involved in an exciting venture.1

In 1873 she sailed for China, where she initially taught in a children's school. She was lonely and her job was unfulfilling. She was tempted to try to solve her problems by getting married, but she broke an engagement to a brilliant missionary-minded young man because he had adopted the Darwinian theory of evolution. He later became a professor at Harvard University, while she, in her own words, was left to "plod along in the same old way." Years later, when reflecting on the broken relationship, she said, "God had first claim on my life, and since the two conflicted, there could be no question about the result."2

With that decision to remain single came a determination to carve out for herself a more fulfilling ministry among the Chinese people. She was convinced that her talent was being wasted and could be better used in evangelism and church planting. She had come to China to "go out among the millions" as an evangelist, only to find herself chained to a school of forty "unstudious" children. Giving women such assignments, she argued was "the greatest folly of modern missions." She viewed herself as part of an oppressed class--single women missionaries--and her words were an appeal on behalf of all those who were facing similar frustration in their ministries. But the examples she used precisely fit her own situation. "Can we wonder at the mortal weariness and disgust, the sense of wasted powers and the conviction that her life is a failure, that comes over a woman when, instead of the ever broadening activities she had planned, she finds herself tied down to the petty work of teaching a few girls?"3

Lottie Moon's plea for her sex was always in the context of her ministry. Indeed, she was not pleading for women's rights as much as she was pleading for the right to best use God-given gifts in ministry: "What women want who come to China is free opportunity to do the largest possible work.... What women have a right to demand is perfect equality." 

It is interesting that one of her bitterest enemies on this issue was a woman--a not uncommon scenario in women's history. A Congregational missionary wife, Mrs. Arthur Smith, questioned Lottie's mental stability and denounced her "lawless prancing all over the mission lot." In her view the appropriate role of a woman missionary was to attend "with quivering lip" her own children.4

Lottie's insistence on doing evangelism and church planting was not readily endorsed by her field director. Indeed, she feared that he might seek to further limit the ministry opportunities for women in the mission. Despite some vocal opposition, women missionaries serving with the Southern Baptists were at least permitted to vote--a liberty not granted Presbyterian women missionaries. Fearing that that liberty might be rescinded, Lottie made her position very clear: "Simple justice demands that women should have equal rights with men in mission meetings and in the conduct of their work." And in reference to her field director's efforts to limit her ministry, she wrote, "If that be freedom, give me slavery."5

Despite her field director's initial opposition, she successfully conducted evangelistic work, and in 1889 her work in P'ingtu was described as the "greatest evangelistic center" among the Southern Baptists "in all China." This remarkable success was in part due to her own personality and gifts. After working among the people for a time she wrote, "Surely there can be no deeper joy than that of saving souls." But there were other reasons as well, and her sex no doubt had as much to do with her success as did her own capability in this type of ministry. As an unordained woman, she was not qualified to lead the churches she planted. Thus it was imperative for her--more so than for her male counterparts--to train indigenous ministers as soon as possible. This worked in favor of a strong local church. Indeed, within two decades the Chinese pastor at P'ingtu had baptized more than a thousand converts.6

In light of her own successful ministry, Lottie aggressively appealed to women at home to raise funds for China missions and to sponsor single women missionaries for the work. "What I hope to see," she wrote, "is a band of ardent, enthusiastic, and experienced Christian women occupying a line of stations extending from Vingtu on the north and from Chinkiang on the south, making a succession of stations uniting the two.... A mighty wave of enthusiasm for Women's Work for Women must be stirred." Her emphasis on recruiting women was based not only on the confidence she placed in female evangelists and church planters, but also on the stark reality that Southern Baptist men had virtually handed over the work of China missions to women by default. Earlier Lottie had written, "It is odd that a million Baptists of the South can furnish only three men for all China. Odd that with five hundred preachers in the state of Virginia, we must rely on a Presbyterian to fill a Baptist pulpit [here]. I wonder how these things look in heaven. They certainly look very queer in China."7

Lottie identified closely with the Chinese people, and when a time of great famine inflicted devastation on her Chinese friends, she gave her own food supplies to needy families. She was simply unable to eat when there were starving children at her door begging for food. As a result, she herself died in 1912 at the age of seventy-two from complications relating to malnutrition, and perhaps it was fitting that she died on Christmas Eve. She had initiated a Christmas offering from women at home for the China work, and her death served as a symbolic offering of the very life that stirred the conscience of the Southern Baptists. The Lottie Moon Christmas offering became a widely celebrated fundraising tradition for missions among Southern Baptist women that in recent years has netted tens of millions of dollars annually.8

For all that she did to promote women's involvement at home and in China, showing that women indeed could function on an equal level with men, Lottie Moon could not change the perception that some men would always have of women. In recognition of her singular work, the Foreign Missions Journal paid her its highest tribute by saying that she was "the best man among our missionaries."9

  1. Irwin Hyatt, Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three Nineteenth-Century American Missionaries in East Sahntund (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976), 95.

  2. Ibid., 99.

  3. Ibid., 104.

  4. 104-105.

  5. Ibid., 106.

  6. Ibid., 115, 117.

  7. Ibid., 113.

  8. Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 288.

  9. Catherine Allen, The New Lottie Moon Story (Nashville: Broadman, 1980), 288.


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