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Diverse Baptist attitudes toward women in missions. (Diverse Baptist attitudes toward women: a panel).

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.

As women gained professionalism and numbers in the missionary ranks, they felt permission to function in previously prohibited avenues of service, often keeping their status secret. They had permission to do anything, but they could take credit for nothing.

It may be safely said that without the organized force and financial control exerted by Woman's Missionary Union on the Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist women would never have gained permission to exercise their spiritual gifts in missions. But with that organized support, Baptist women did extraordinary work.

Recent Foreign Mission Board searches into records indicate that at least twenty-nine of its women missionaries have been ordained ministers. Some of these seem to have dated from the 1920s. (5) But never prior to the late 1980s was this recognition revealed. Even now, perhaps five ordained women remain on the foreign missions force, but they are forbidden to do pastoral work

What can be confirmed is that in 1949, 29 percent of all missionaries under appointment by the FMB were alumnae of the WMU Training School, despite the fact that the school enrolled only 7 percent of all students in SBC seminaries. In the years 1944-49, 17.5 percent of WMUTS graduates became home or foreign missionaries. (6)

In 1940, women made up 63.68 percent of foreign missionaries. In 1945, the percentage of women reached its peak of 64.99. (7) Although the FMB had urged WMU to send all the women it could muster, now the policy shifted.

M. Theron Rankin, secretary of the FMB, said in 1949 that it was not right for one-third of the missionaries to be single women. His successor, Baker James Cauthen, always praised and championed the heroic work of single women; yet, he, too, believed that the missionary family was better field strategy. (8)

A missionary wife in the mid-twentieth century was known only by her husband's name. In 1974, WMU, through its executive director Carolyn Weatherford, asked the FMB to identify married women missionaries by their personal names in publications. Weatherford (later Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler) asked that wives be given their own job assignment and title, if they wished, rather than be limited to the customary "homemaker" role. She reported that WMU was satisfied with advances in this regard by 1978. (9)

Nevertheless, the percentage of women in missions began to decline. Between 1957 and 1963, WMU was forced to turn over control of the WMUTS to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where it was merged into oblivion. Between 1950 and 1970, the percentage of women enrolled in SBC seminaries declined from 17.1 percent to 10.6 percent.

In 1956, WMU officially gave the mission boards final say in how the WMU offerings would be spent (these are the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for Home Missions). Gradual loss of financial controls cost WMU its unofficial but often determinative voice in setting mission strategy and backing women appointees.

The Southern Baptist Convention had seldom granted official permission for WMU to function. In January 1963, the SBC Executive Committee asked the WMU Executive Board if it would like to prepare a "program statement" for inclusion in the SBC Organization Manual. The SBC gave WMU full inclusion in a new process of coordinating recommendations for church activities, so as to eliminate duplication or overlapping effort. All the while, the SBC did not attempt to compromise WMU's autonomy and independence as a self-perpetuating organization controlled entirely by its own members. (10)

In this new process, WMU felt secure in its role as promoter not only of women in missions but of the entire missions enterprise. But the cooperative planning process cost WMU heavily. Each time a new cooperative effort was launched, WMU lost members, initiative, and pieces of its complex family of missions promotion.

Problems and Persecution

"Thou hadst better not...." An undertone of warning against women in missions began to sound in 1979, when a movement took form to make the Southern Baptist Convention extremely conservative. The hidden agenda has only recently become completely clear. In 1998, the SBC added a new section to the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) which had been adopted as a doctrinal guideline in 1963. The new article on "The Family" limited the wife's role to that of manager of the household and children, and made the husband leader.

The missions implications of this statement were not assessed at the time. Perhaps few people read the lengthy commentary voted by the SBC along with this amendment to the BFM. It clearly stated the ultimate application of the new law: "Leadership patterns in the family are consistently reflected in the church as well." Furthermore, the commentary insisted that a woman's "gracious and joyful" embrace of her restricted role would be "a resource for evangelism." (11) Since new missionaries of both SBC mission boards were required to pledge their agreement with this statement, it certainly discolored the possibilities for women missionaries. Furthermore, trustees of the Foreign Mission Board have argued with a high degree of success that the prohibition against women's leadership in home and church should also apply to missions administration. (12)

Actually, the intent of the new hyper-conservative SBC leaders could be foreseen in 1990. FMB management issued a policy to affirm missionary wives "in their biblical role of Christian homemakers and in their God-called responsibilities as missionaries." But managers reminded them that "Adequate care and attention for children is of primary spiritual importance. This statement will be given full weight in assisting all missionary parents, especially mothers, in defining the use of their time." (13)

In the 1980s and 1990s, the FMB had three women serving at the top administrative level. Two of them supervised field personnel, a total of approximately 1,800 persons. Both resigned after disputes with trustees about policy issues arising from the new conservatism of the SBC. No women remain today at an executive level in supervision of missionaries of the International Mission Board (formerly FMB). One woman at the North American Mission Board (formerly HMB) has policy-level supervision over a few mission personnel.

Attitudes restricting women in missions had clearly crystallized before the final edict was issued in the revision of the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 which made those attitudes mandatory for every missionary. The 2000 revision limited the pastoral office to men. (14) With modern church staffs and missionary approaches, the definition of "office of the pastor" has been and will be subject to wide interpretations. Many women missionaries will be restricted from doing what they have done effectively from the time of Lottie Moon in 1873. Personnel of the International Mission Board are required to affirm the BFM and furthermore to teach in accordance with it. Personnel of the North American Mission Board also must pledge adherence to BFM 2000.

The biggest losers in this new attitude toward women in missions are those millions of women across the world who have not obtained hope in Jesus Christ. The new Baptist doctrine of women will not free them from their spiritual or cultural bondage.

Never before in the history of major doctrinal statements influential in Baptist life in America or Europe has there been a statement that defines roles for women or limits leadership to men. (15) Truly this is something new in the world of missions.

There is no salvation for women under the current BFM, unless masses of Baptists overthrow it and its promulgators. Is that possible? After all, fewer than 11,000 Baptists participated in adoption of the statement, and fewer than 40 percent of those were females.

History would lead one to expect rebellion from the Woman's Missionary Union. That is not likely. WMU enrollment has declined to 859,123, the same level as the late-1940s. Southern Baptist women are not unaware of the restrictions on them. The last announced tally of percentages of women in SBC membership stood at 57 percent. This contrasts with estimates in the 1960s that women made up 66 percent of SBC membership, and it is less than the 61 percent estimated among worshipers of all faiths by the Lilly Endowment. (16) Truly the pool of potential women in missions is shrinking in the SBC, and the power of WMU has been seriously sapped.

The SBC's subjugation of WMU began in earnest in 1993, when WMU began to offer publications assistance to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. WMU leaders had been prominent in the formation of a moderate wing in the SBC during the preceding nine years.

In 1993, research by the SBC agencies found that missions ranked at the bottom of priority concerns of church leaders. (17) Instead of rallying the missions faithful to address this crisis, the chairman of FMB trustees accused WMU of adultery. Adrian Rogers told FMB staff members that WMU must be brought under control of the SBC. He called for missions to be given a "more masculine look" and expressed regret over the "feminization of missions" which WMU had inflicted upon the SBC. (18)

Rogers set the stage of a total reorganization of SBC agencies which commenced in 1993 and was completed in 1995. (A major study in the dynamics of this movement should be written, but space does not permit at this point.) According to Dellanna O'Brien, executive director of WMU, the reorganization committee asked WMU at the outset if it would relinquish its auxiliary autonomy. When the answer was no, WMU's traditional services to the denomination were handed to other agencies with a mandate to take over.

Pubic outcry resulted between announcement of the plan in February and its adoption by the SBC in June 1995. In unsigned handwritten notes by an SBC Executive Committee staff member, the reaction of the reorganization committee was clear. In a telephone conference for "damage control" Ronnie Floyd, an Arkansas pastor, was noted as saying, "[WMU's] leadership day has past. This is not a WMU convention." Neither the committee nor the SBC Executive Committee would agree to make any acknowledgement of WMU. It was finally decided that a "surprise" motion to recognize WMU would be entertained from the floor.

This motion which was ultimately brought by Roy Smith, executive director of the North Carolina Baptist Convention, added a footnote to the report "welcoming WMU in its continued role of support of missions." (19) WMU's initiatives and practical roles were not restored but were allocated to the unilateral control of SBC agencies.

While this battle raged, the Foreign Mission Board (now renamed the International Mission Board, IMB) was discovered by the WMU of Virginia to have taken legal steps secretly a year earlier to obtain unilateral rights to trademark the name Lottie Moon. After public outcry and negotiation, the FMB apologized, WMU accepted the apology, and WMU gained the trademark for Lottie Moon and also for Annie Armstrong. But WMU granted license to the mission boards to use the names with some restrictions.

On another front, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1995 abolished the academic programs of Christian social work which were rooted in WMU heritage. Thus the only academic course in which women were significantly numbered was abolished. Albert Mohler, president of the seminary, said that he found social work not congruent with the work of a theological seminary. It should be observed that Mohler could not work with the only woman dean in an SBC seminary, and he would not approve faculty who favored women in pastoral roles.

After Wanda Lee became executive director of WMU, SBC in 2000, WMU terminated its agreement to assist the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The last CBF publications crediting WMU were published in March-April-May 2001. WMU had no representation at CBF Assemblies of 2000 or 2001.

To date, there has been little attempt to assess the damages on women and on the cause of Christ because of the problematic attitudes toward women in missions. The next century does not look promising for Baptist women in missions, if the question is left to the SBC. A bit of situation summation is urgently needed.

As of early 2000, only 53.9 percent of IMB missionaries were females. The percentage has been as low as 52.5 percent in 1995. Only 12.5 percent of missionaries were single women. The IMB actively recruits single men but not single women. Job categories open to women are mostly restricted to secretarial work, teaching of missionary children, some health care, and evangelism. Most IMB job categories have no women assigned to them.

Photos and assignment information of new IMB missionary appointees are normally published in the IMB's magazine, The Commission. A survey of twelve issues between July-August 2000 and March 2002 showed 53 percent females. Of the total roster, 8 percent were single women. Only 10 percent of married women had job assignments outside of the home/local church category. One woman was appointed to specialize in any form of women's ministry. More than 30 percent of women had no college degree (and 7 percent of men had no college degree). (20)

On June 10, 2002, the IMB Web site listed personnel needs for more than 1,200 persons. Only one called for a woman to do ministry specifically with women. Only twenty-two requests were for a single female. There were 161 requests for a single male.

Women's statistics at the North American Mission Board are harder to analyze and more distressing. As of February 2000, only 149 females were home missionaries with full appointments and funding (most of them jointly funded by NAMB plus another Baptist entity). This is out of a claim of more than 5,000 missionary personnel. Truth to tell, only 1,765 were "primary workers" or full-time missionaries paid a full support package. The 149 females would be only 8.4 percent of actual missionaries. Half of these were short-term appointees.

It should be recognized that of the 149 females under full appointment of NAMB, more than twenty are stationed in state convention offices with assignments related to WMU promotion. According to information shared informally at the WMU national meeting of 2002, twenty-seven of forty-one state WMU workers who have voting positions on the national WMU executive board are financially supported in part by NAMB. These would presumably be required to profess support of BFM 2000, though some may not have faced the issue due to their longevity in their jobs. The fact that a majority of voting board members of WMU, SBC are locked into the SBC support system would make it extremely costly for a majority vote to be obtained in opposition to a policy of the SBC or its mission boards.

In February 2000, NAMB was still certifying chaplains. There were 9.7 percent females among 2,614 chaplains accredited by NAMB. According to external certification requirements, all of them had to be ordained. In 2002, NAMB trustees ruled that they would no longer certify ordained women as chaplains.

In both mission boards, the quality of missionary work assignments at the IMB is quite different from the numbers of ten years ago. Short-term workers, many providing their own funding, are fattening the numbers. IMB officials acknowledge that it is easy to get women to serve on the short term. Few make it into the career ranks, where numbers have barely increased since 1994. (21)

The 1995 reorganization of the SBC agencies promised to save money that could be used in missions. The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for Home Missions, still faithfully promoted by WMU, is technically used by NAMB for missions purposes only. Bookkeeping cannot disguise the fact that the offering offsets expenses for production of missions education literature and programs which undercut WMU's own survival income. Whereas the three agencies now combined in NAMB once received 24.15 percent of the Cooperative Program, in 2001 NAMB received only 22.79 percent. IMB allocations have held steady at approximately 50 percent. (22)

An Interesting Prognosis and Promise

"Thou ought to do something about women in missions!" This is my message and hope. It seems that one must step outside the SBC structures and rules to give the full message of hope in Jesus Christ to women.

Openness to women in the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has extended around the world. Barbara Baldridge is co-coordinator with her husband Gary of CBF Global Missions. She is thought to be the only woman head of a missionary-sending entity among evangelicals or Protestants. CBF policy for missionaries accords completely equal status to men and to women. Women have specific missionary job assignments which may be different from that of their husbands. Compensation and benefits are exactly equal when males and females are compared. In February 2000, only 51 percent of CBF missionary personnel were females. But by May 2002, the percentage of women had grown to 56 percent. Of all field personnel, 14 percent were female, and more females are being sought. In proportion, women in CBF missions exceed that of the SBC.

In December 2001, eight Baptist women incorporated Global Women. Instigated by women prominent in WMU leadership who continue as WMU loyalists, the new organization does not propose to replace or offer an alternative to WMU. Its purpose is to address the growing crisis for women missionaries and for women who are not receiving the gospel. Global Women will be a missionary facilitation network.

The prognosis for the third century of Baptist missions is grim for women, unless more people find a way to promote and protect women in missions. One cannot say what is the attitude of the masses of Southern Baptists toward women in missions. Quite likely, few are aware of the factual status of women at this point. But facts of the last twenty-two years indicate that SBC officialdom will continue to tighten the chains on women in missions, and have official permission to lock them down with the Baptist Faith and Message. The official acts of the SBC and its mission boards, seminaries, and chief publishing house are rolling back attitudes toward women in missions to the "Prohibition" status of the early-nineteenth century.

(1.) Joan Jacobs Brumberg. Mission for Life: The Story of the Family of Adoniram Judson (New York: The Free Press, 1980), 82.

(2.) "Farewell Sermon of Jonathan Allen," February 5, 1812, quoted in Brumberg. 82. Awareness of the Judsons innovative approaches prior to contact with Baptists was developed by writing a chronology of their lives in preparation for lectures I delivered during a research trip through Burma in December 1999.

(3.) Catherine B. Allen, Century to Celebrate: History of Woman's Missionary Union (Birmingham. Woman's Missionary Union, 1987), 263-87.

(4.) Ibid., 175-83.

(5.) "Female Ordained Missionaries 01/01/00 through 02/09/00," internal document. International Mission Board, furnished by the board's library staff in early 2000.

(6.) Allen, Century to Celebrate, 281.

(7.) Martha Skelton, "Women in Foreign Missions," The Commission (January 1985). 21.

(8.) Allen, Century to Celebrate, 176. Interview September 1978 with Eloise Glass Cauthen, wife of Baker James Cauthen. She said, "Baker and I believe that we need more missionary families on the field. Single women make good missionaries, but families are better."

(9.) Allen, Century to Celebrate, 179.

(10.) Alma Hunt and Catherine Allen, History of Woman's Missionary Union, rev. ed. (Nashville:, Convention Press, 1976), 189-91.

(11.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention 1998, 78-81.

(12.) Correspondence in spring 2000 with Faye Pearson, former vice president of the Foreign Mission Board.

(13.) Bob Stanley, "Committee Affirms Homemaker's Role," The Commission (August 1990), 40.

(14.) Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article VI, as read on

(15.) W. L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith (Valley Forge: Judson Press, rev. ed., 1969, 3rd printing, 1978). Lumpkin drew no analysis about implications for women in this book. William E. Hull called attention to the unprecedented impact on women of the BFM in a sermon, "Women and the Southern Baptist Convention," June 18, 2002, Mountain Brook Baptist Church. Birmingham, Alabama.

(16.) "Survey: 10 Percent of Churches Draw Half of All U.S. Worshipers," Western Recorder May 21, 2002, 1.

(17.) Art Toalston, "Survey Shows Baptist Waning on Missions, Fearing Apathy," Baptist Press February 19, 1993.

(18.) Robert Dilday, "Rogers says SBC Should Control WMU," Religious Herald, as printed in Western Recorder (March 9, 1993).

(19.) Associated Baptist Press, June 20, 1995.

(20.) Survey based on missionary appointment data published in twelve issues of The Commission, published by International Mission Board between July-August 2000 and March 2002. March 2001 issue was unavailable for the study. Some appointed missionaries may not be featured in the publication because of security issues, but those featured do give a definite impression of women in IMB missions.

(21.) Bobby S. Terry, "A Passion for the Lost," Alabama Baptist (May 16, 2002).

(22.) Trennis Henderson, "What Ever Happened to SBC's Covenant Goal?" Western Recorder (February 27, 2001).

Catherine B. Allen is treasurer of Global Women, a new women's mission network of which she was one of eight founders in December 2001.
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Date:Jun 22, 2002
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