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Baptist missionary funding: from societies to centralization: baptists sprang from a well of separatism and independence. The absolute primacy of the local church was the heartbeat of the organism, energizing all other work.

This local autonomy served the churches well, allowing communities to develop congregations that met the needs of a wide variety of ethnic, economic, and educational situations.

Autonomy, however, proved to be a handicap when it came to missions endeavors. A single local church could never gather enough funds to support large numbers of missionaries. The cause of missions created the emotional impetus to draw Baptist churches out of their local isolation into a shared vision of evangelizing the world. To finance these efforts while still guarding the ideal of local autonomy, Baptist organizations initially instituted a system of voluntary giving, with each missions agency responsible for raising its own funds. This method proved successful but still limited the scale of missions efforts.

Baptist missions efforts expanded rapidly only after autonomous churches agreed to an uneasy truce with a centralized organizational structure. This development was most clearly evidenced in the Southern Baptist Convention's (SBC) creation of the Cooperative Program (CP). Southern Baptists were able to create this joint funding effort because the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU), auxiliary to the SBC, had already developed a centralized national organization and could effectively organize church members on the local level to support the new CR

Early Missions Efforts

Baptists' early funding efforts began with the organization of the Baptist Missionary Society in England in 1792, which supported William Carey. This society functioned on a voluntary basis. Any church or individual could donate money to the missions enterprise. But they could also choose to withhold the funds, leaving the society's budget in a state of uncertainty. (1)

The idea of local societies each supporting one or two missionaries changed with the dynamic story of Luther Rice and the Judsons. Their dramatic decision to reject their Congregationalist roots and accept Baptist theology spurred Baptist churches in America to create the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States for Foreign Missions in 1814. This convention met every three years and came to be called the Triennial Convention. Delegates representing missions societies or churches that contributed at least one hundred dollars a year gathered at the convention meetings, leaving the organization independent of any one group of churches. The delegates elected a managing board to direct missions work between convention meetings. (2)

A New Convention

Protestant organizations continued to use the society method of missions funding throughout the nineteenth century, with the missions organization functioning separately from any one denomination. Not until the organization of a new Baptist convention in 1845 did a different organizational structure bring changes to the missions effort. That year the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) broke away from the Triennial Convention over the issue of slavery.

The SBC created foreign and home missions boards, both functioning under the direct auspices of the convention, with less autonomy than earlier boards had held. Southern Baptists, however, did not take a further step and change the funding of these boards. They continued operating under the society method of funding, with each missions board responsible for raising its own financial support. (3)

The new convention's missions efforts were limited during its early organizational years. Tensions over the nation's growing sectional divide slowed missions efforts in the 1850s. The Civil War all but ended Southern Baptist missions work as it wreaked havoc on the southern economy. Throughout Reconstruction, church members focused their efforts on rebuilding their churches and their communities, giving little or no thought to missions efforts.

In the 1880s, Southern Baptist missionary agencies began to experience growth as the South regained its footing. Yet, lack of funding proved an obstacle. Local church missions societies, mostly all female, responded to the financial need through a variety of fund-raising efforts, including church dinners, entertainment socials, and the sale of handmade items and farm products, such as eggs and butter. Women proudly brought their hard-earned dollars to their societies with dreams of helping missionaries in far-off places.

During this period, the established method of sending funds to the missionary agencies was through local churches. SBC agency leaders were greatly disappointed when they realized church leaders were retaining funds for local needs rather than forwarding them to the national entities. Reacting to this situation in 1878, H. A. Tupper, executive director of the Foreign Mission Board (FMB), urged Southern Baptist women to form a Central Committee for each state. Central Committees were to function as collection and distribution centers, gathering funds from local missions societies and channeling the monies directly to the missions boards. This method assured women that their funds would go to the board they had designated. (4) By functioning under the guidance of a state organization, local women's groups had taken the first step toward centralization.

Woman's Missionary Union

Mission-minded Southern Baptist women had attempted to create a national organization to support missions since 1845. Yet, men in the convention resisted these efforts, fearing a separate women's group might create its own missions agency. But with the development of the Central Committees, and the staunch support from both missions board presidents, Southern Baptist women had the momentum they needed to organize. They voted to create Woman's Missionary Union in 1888, selecting Annie Armstrong as the first corresponding secretary (executive director).

The relationship between this national organization and the women's local societies differed from that of the SBC to the local church. Women's missions societies were more willing to accept direction from the national WMU than the autonomy-driven local churches were from the SBC. This openness allowed the WMU to set fund-raising goals for each state, which, in turn, set goals for each local area, known as an association, which set goals for each local society. This process established a direct line between the WMU and the local society, a centralized organization. It also significantly increased the amount of money the two missions boards received.

WMU groups gathered the largest amounts of money through two special offerings, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for foreign missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for home missions. For these special offerings, local societies received materials from the WMU, including theme interpretations, studies, and offering envelopes.

A New Method Emerges

Even with the support of the WMU network, SBC missions agencies constantly found themselves lacking needed funds. Board representatives went directly to churches to plead for donations. The convention attempted to rectify this problem first through the Seventy-Five Million Campaign in 1919 and then through its successor, the Cooperative Program (CP), which began in 1925 and continues to the present. The CP was successful in allowing Southern Baptists to pool their financial resources and to fund adequately their boards and agencies. Scholars agreed that this marked the beginning of a modern denominational structure for the SBC.

SBC leaders initiated the Seventy-Five Million Campaign in 1919 in an attempt to raise $75 million "to give increased support for all missionary, educational, and benevolent work." This fund-raising effort marked the genesis of cooperative giving for convention-wide efforts. Local churches pledged $92 million during the campaign, and state conventions and SBC agencies created budgets based on the amount pledged. Unfortunately, at the end of the five-year campaign, Baptists had contributed only $58 million, leaving many Baptist entities deeply in debt. (5)

In 1925, SBC leaders, facing the daunting task of financing ongoing work of convention agencies and institutions and retiring old debts, initiated the Cooperative Program, which program encouraged percentage-giving to state and national levels. Individual churches determined a set percentage of their budgets to send to the state conventions that, in turn, sent certain percentages to the national level where the SBC divided the funds among various entities, freeing those entities from the need to plead for funds.

The WMU leaders were involved with both the Seventy-Five Million Campaign and with the CP through the national committees overseeing these programs. In 1920, SBC named the WMU executive director, Kathleen Mallory, to the Conservation Commission of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign. This commission was instructed to carry out the original plan for the campaign and to enlist churches in the program's support. (6)

The WMU's experience working with autonomous local groups to form a centralized, national structure proved invaluable to the maturing of the SBC. The WMU leaders knew that educating local groups was essential in assuring their voluntary support. Mallory made several proposals to help local pastors motivate church members. The WMU offered the use of their previously established Week of Prayer for Home Missions, which preceded the Easter offering, as a vehicle to communicate the convention's needs. The commission and the WMU sent out a joint appeal urging Baptist pastors to preach a sermon of self-denial in connection with the beginning of the campaign. (7) The commission also asked the WMU to develop a week specifically for the campaign, demonstrating the respect leaders held for that format. (8) SBC leaders also encouraged state and local Baptist officials to include the WMU in all organizations created to support the campaign. (9)

At the same time, Minnie Kennedy James, the WMU president, served on the campaign's executive committee, called the Headquarters Committee. James stressed the importance of missions study to the success of the WMU and urged pastors to begin missions study groups for men. James further recommended that pastors present a missionary program once a month at midweek prayer meetings, stating that churches conducting these meetings "led in spiritual power and in gifts to the Campaign." (10) The WMU recognized that no issue united Southern Baptists more firmly than the romantic, self-sacrificing, image of the missionary suffering in distant lands.

These committee actions pointed to the appreciation many had for the ongoing work of the WMU. In 1928, the CP committee agreed that its stewardship campaign should use "the same themes and terminology" that the WMU had chosen previously for its emphasis. (11) SBC leaders publicly acknowledged the importance of the weeks of prayer for both home and foreign missions and the WMU use of these weeks in encouraging giving to the campaign and to the CP. (12)

The WMU won influence within SBC leadership because of its willingness to support the convention program. The women's extensive network from the national level to local missions society groups heightened their influence. The SBC made attempts throughout the early 1900s to build the kind of modern structure that the WMU had in place, but was unsuccessful. Autonomous churches and their independent pastors brooked little direction from the national entity, which they saw as dangerously centralizing. The WMU had succeeded in building a national organization. SBC was able to use this organizational structure to infiltrate churches with their efforts to build a modern denomination. The WMU's assistance was essential for making the Seventy-Five Million Campaign and the CP a success.

Fighting for Missions

The CP covered a wide range of agencies that received funding through the new structure: two missions boards, a seminary, an annuity board, and other ministry efforts. The WMU did not see all these efforts as equally important. Missions was the heartbeat of the WMU. Women founded the organization to support missions work through education, prayer, and giving. Missions remained the underlying motivation as the WMU supported the efforts of the CP, giving little or no emphasis to other agencies and institutions that received funds through the CR In 1925, Ethlene Boone Cox, the WMU president, issued a challenge regarding involvement in the CP: "This is an unprecedented opportunity to prove our loyalty to the cause that called our organization into being. It is imminently the hour to give missions first place in our denominational and individual lives." (13) Missionary needs was the key factor stimulating the WMU contributions. In 1916, North Carolina State WMU leaders proudly "called attention to the fact that the increase in Foreign Missions [donations] for the state was made entirely by the women." (14)

During the early years of the CP, the FMB experienced extreme debt. No money was available to employ new missionaries. (15) The board debated recalling some missionaries and closing the work completely in some countries. (16) The FMB board of trustees sent urgent funding appeals to state WMU annual meetings. (17)

The WMU responded to this need with the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering funds. The WMU Executive Committee (EC) voted to designate the offering to deploy a set number of foreign missionaries and to support them for seven years. (18) Later discussion established the number at twenty experienced missionaries who would be returned to the field and twenty new missionaries who would be sent for the first time. (19) The FMB agreed that the WMU would have some input in determining which missionaries would receive Christmas Offering funds. (20)

Although the WMU leaders always kept missions boards' needs foremost in their planning, such was not always the case with those responsible for developing the CP. Every year the SBC Executive Committee recommended to the SBC the percentages of CP funds that each entity would receive. In the early years of the program, the FMB received 50 percent. (21) The WMU urged the Executive Committee to retain permanently this percentage for FMB. (22) SBC leaders, however, did not accept this proposal.

State WMU organizations also actively sought to funnel more donations into missions. Churches directed their CP funds first to the state level. Each state Baptist convention determined the percentage of receipts they would send to the national Executive Committee. Funds that remained in the state would not be proportioned out to the missions boards. State WMU organizations urged their state Baptist leaders to send 50 percent of receipts to the CR State leaders often chose to ignore these pleas and keep higher percentages in their own area of influence. (23)

The WMU's mistrust of the convention's commitment to fully fund foreign missions was only one indication of the organization's growing discontent with the modernizing SBC. The WMU had supported the Seventy-Five Million Campaign through its rhetoric and its actions. As the CP became the SBC's plan of unified giving, the WMU rhetoric still supported the program; but the organization's actions pointed toward a different conclusion.

A Challenge to the WMU

Over the years, the WMU established special offerings for causes other than foreign and home missions, such as a Bible Fund, supporting a home for missionary children, and community centers in inner cities. As the CP began, the WMU stated that special offerings should be kept separate from the program. The WMU leaders realized that the CP represented a potential threat to the centralized, auxiliary status of the women's organization. Giving control of its funds to the increasingly centralized convention would diminish the power the WMU had worked to harness for itself.

The distinction of whether the special offerings were actually a part of the CP was not clearly stated to local WMU members. The Texas WMU informed women of their yearly CP goal, stating that the State Mission Week of Prayer and the WMU special offerings were included in their CP goal. The Christmas Offering and the Easter Offering were "over and above gifts to the regular budget" but were included in the CP goal. (24) Local women heard and responded to the rhetoric, strongly supporting the new CE Leaders did not pass on information regarding the actual exclusion of these funds from the CR

National WMU leadership saw in the CP a threat to the organization's standing as an auxiliary to the SBC. As denominational bureaucratic power grew, the WMU strength in the local church weakened. For decades, the WMU had been one of the few national entities of significance reaching into the local church, guiding the actions of church members. Women who wanted to be involved in a national effort to support missions saw the WMU as the only reliable option. The CP offered another viable option. Through this channel, church members could send their tithe and be assured that a portion would reach the missions boards. With the CP, the denomination had a powerful tool to make its presence felt on the local level.

This weakening of local WMU groups became evident early in the Seventy-Five Million Campaign. Churches needed to gain more control over member's contributions in order to document their support of the campaign. The only way to exercise this control was to have all church funds channeled through the church treasurer.

Divided channeling of funds could not continue if churches were to participate in the CE In 1920, First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida, adopted a new program of giving. One of the resolutions stated that no organization of the church could raise money without first receiving approval from the congregation. Another resolution specifically targeted the WMU:
 Resolved, that all funds of the church and the organizations,
 including the Woman's Missionary Union, the Sunday School and
 the Baptist Young People's Unions be paid over to the First Baptist
 Church of Pensacola, Incorporated, and by it held and expended for
 the maintenance and support of the church and its organizations and
 sundry other objects carried on or fostered by them. (25)


The Texas WMU leaders realized that many WMU groups were contributing their CP funds through their church treasurer and feared that the groups would not receive proper credit. They warned groups to develop a systematic way to receive accurate reports of women's giving from the church. (26)

The WMU leadership realized the growing strength of the SBC was changing the landscape of the local church. The organization was caught between desires to save its centralized structure and to maintain its auxiliary status. The WMU decided to keep its offerings and special gifts out of the CP to retain control over a significant amount of funds.

But the leadership also sought affirmation from SBC leaders for their decision, fearing a loss of auxiliary status. They urged the CP chairman to write a letter stating his approval that the offerings be seen as separate "over and above" items from the new unified budget. (27)

The constant emphasis placed on the concept of "over and above" giving, and the fact that the WMU rhetoric sounded a defensive note toward their offerings and special efforts, points to some sort of attack on their plans. Opposition to the WMU's continued control of funds must have existed within the convention. The fact that money equaled power in the denomination did not go unnoticed by SBC leaders, from local pastors to convention leaders. National WMU gained power in the convention when it convinced local church women to channel funds through the organization. With the CP, SBC challenged the WMU to allow its strength to be subsumed in the new denominational structure.

The WMU's defensive reaction to this new order was evident in the rhetoric of its leaders. In her report to the 1926 annum WMU meeting, Kathleen Mallory began by stating that the Christmas offering the previous year totaled almost half of what had been given by the rest of the denomination for a special Christmas clearing of FMB's debt. She argued that once this comparison was publicized "then surely no discreet thinker or ardent friend of missions will again worry because the Union encourages its members to make alabaster, self-denial offerings." (28)

The WMU felt compelled to support the CP because of its status as an SBC auxiliary. But throughout the program's development, the organization's leaders insisted on its right to retain previously developed missions funding methods. Many SBC leaders were content with the WMU as long as it continued to support SBC missions work. Others expressed strong desires to bring the work of the WMU completely under SBC's control.

Saving Lottie

The conflict reached a crescendo in 1929. That year, the SBC Executive Committee developed a new twist to the CR The plan stated that all funds that the state Baptist conventions collected should be sent to the Executive Committee, which would, in turn, distribute money to each agency according to a set percentage. One point in the plan stated that any gift given to an agency from any source would be counted against its percentage, which meant that the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering would count toward the percentage allotted to the FMB, making the offering a de facto part of the CP. (29)

National WMU leaders reacted strongly against the proposal. Mallory sent a copy of the proposed financial plan to all state WMU leaders, urging them to study the document to be able to plan an action to "safe-guard the offerings ... as well as any other gifts which might be made with the longing to increase by such 'over and aboves' the maximum allotted to any object included in the SBC Co-operative Program." (30)

State WMU organizations also responded. In April, the Virginia WMU passed a resolution stating members' "deep concern" about the proposed plan. Their argument centered on the fact that such a policy would restrict individual freedom in giving and was contrary to the "voluntary principle underlying the life and history of our denomination." They formally protested against the plan, stating it went against "the inalienable right of the individual" and would hurt the work of the WMU. (31)

In May immediately prior to the WMU and SBC annual meetings, Austin Couch, executive secretary of the SBC Executive Committee, spoke to the WMU Executive Committee concerning the financial plan. He did not assuage the women's fears. The committee passed a resolution stating their continued objection to the plan. The core of their complaint was that the plan controlled and restricted "the individual freedom in giving which has characterized the very life Of our denomination." They asked that "this time-honored and fundamental principle be in no wise disregarded by any centralization of authority." (32)

The wording of the WMU leadership became even stronger as the annual SBC meeting began. The WMU report to the convention that year stated that the organization was "radically opposed to any budget system which would preclude or discourage the offerings" to the missions boards. (33) These words were not ones that fit the image of conservative women commonly held in most Baptist churches. The WMU leaders were using their financial power as a muted threat to convention leaders.

When the CP financial plan was finally approved, the WMU had proven its clout. The last section concluded:
 Gifts designated for general purposes of an agency shall be
 chargeable to 'the definite sum' of an agency; specially designated
 gifts shall not be chargeable to 'the definite sum' allocated to
 such agency, unless such specific designation is to an object
 already named in the operating budget. The right and practice of
 the WMU in making special offerings for extra budget items is here
 by recognized and approved as in line with these policies. (34)


The WMU had won the right to continue holding its offerings separate from the CP.

Initially, the WMU supported the development of SBC into a modern denomination and its accompanying budgetary plan. But as the convention's centralized organizational structure developed, the WMU became aware of a threat to its independence because of the unified funding and the increasingly powerful SBC Executive Committee that controlled the distribution of funds. In response, the WMU withdrew its offerings from the CP budget.

By 1929, the Executive Committee had created a financial plan that would, in effect, put the offerings under the control of the convention. The WMU reacted vehemently against this proposal. The strength of the WMU in the SBC was proven when the financial plan was changed to allow the WMU to continue its traditional method of collecting and designating missions funds as women saw fit. But tension remained between the modern denomination and the women's organization that helped build it.

Much of the tension between the WMU and the SBC occurred on the leadership level. Local WMU groups took the CP to their bosoms and nurtured it to maturity. Most never knew the stand their leaders had taken against the convention leadership. Any liberal, independent leanings within the upper echelon remained quietly in the background, though such women must have been pleased with their victory.

Because Southern Baptists were able to use the national structure of the WMU to develop their own centralized organization and funding program, the convention became the largest missionary-sending Protestant entity in the world. By the 1950s and 1960s, SBC missionaries were on stronger financial footing than those from other, less centralized Baptist groups. But was anything lost in the bargain? While centralization was a boon for the missionary endeavor, did it move Southern Baptist congregations so far from their rich heritage of local autonomy that they cut themselves off from their independent, dissenter roots?

(1.) Bill Leonard, Baptist Ways (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2003), 103-07.

(2.) Robert Torbet, A History of Baptists, 3rd ed. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1963), 248-51.

(3.) Leonard, Baptist Ways, 189.

(4.) William R. Estep, Whole Gospel, Whole World: The Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1845-1995 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 119-21.

(5.) W. E. Grinderstaff, Our Cooperative Program (Nashville: Convention Press, 1965), 22-31.

(6.) Minutes, Conservation Commission of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign, May 15, 1920.

(7.) Ibid., January 24, 1923.

(8.) Ibid., June 3, 1924.

(9.) Minutes, Conservation Commission and the Southwide Conference on the Program of the Seventy-Five Million Campaign, June 28, 1922.

(10.) Minutes, Headquarters Committee, June 28, 1922.

(11.) "Corresponding Secretary's Report," Minutes, WMU Executive Committee, June 13, 1928.

(12.) Ibid., November 3, 1926.

(13.) "President's Report," Minutes, WMU Executive Committee, November 30, 1925.

(14.) Minutes, Central Committee, North Carolina WMU, May 8, 1916.

(15.) Minutes, Board of Trustees, International Mission Board, June 19, 1924.

(16.) Ibid., June 10, 1925.

(17.) Ibid., October 14, 1925.

(18.) Minutes, WMU Executive Committee, January 27, 1927.

(19.) Ibid., May 2, 1927.

(20.) Minutes, Board of Trustees, International Mission Board, June 14, 1927.

(21.) Minutes, Headquarters Committee and Special Committee on Allocation of Percentages for 1927, March 10, 1926.

(22.) Minutes, WMU Executive Committee, February 4, 1925, January 28, 1926.

(23.) Minutes, South Carolina WMU Executive Committee, June and December 1925.

(24.) "Important Information," 1928 Record Book of Woman's Missionary Union of Texas , FBC Dublin, Texas.

(25.) Toni Moore Clevenger, On the Bay--On the Hill: The Story of the First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Florida, ed. Martha Pope Trotter (Pensacola, FL: First Baptist Church, 1986), 153-54.

(26.) 1928 Record Book Woman's Missionary Union of Texas, FBC Dublin, Texas.

(27.) Minutes, WMU Executive Committee, January 26 and February 25, 1927.

(28.) "Corresponding Secretary's Report," Minutes, WMU Annual Meeting, 1926.

(29.) Minutes, Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, March 5-6, 1929.

(30.) "Report WMU Corresponding Secretary," Minutes, WMU Executive Committee, April 3, 1929.

(31.) Minutes, WMU Executive Committee, May 6, 1929.

C. Delane Tew is associate professor of church history at Carson-Newman College, Jefferson City, Tennessee.
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Author:Tew, C. Delane
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Date:Mar 22, 2006
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