Printer Friendly

The story of Asenath Brewster: pioneer in urban missions and mentor of Southern Baptist Leaders: by the time Asenath Brewster was thirty-two years old in 1911, she had taken a leading role in sending her denomination's first missionaries abroad and in forming its women's missionary organization.

To honor her efforts, the General Association of General Baptists, a small, Missouri-based denomination, named its annual Christmas mission offering in her honor. Yet, even the General Baptists know only the early part of her story. She is virtually forgotten in Southern Baptist circles, where she spent her later years working as a home missionary in the most desperate neighborhoods of Louisville, Kentucky. There she also influenced a nucleus of young Baptist preachers and seminarians in the early 1940s who later became some of the best-known progressive activists in the Southern Baptist Convention, including social reformer Clarence Jordan, fiery preacher Carlyle Manley, and seminary professors Henlee Barnette, Wayne Oates, and Frank Stagg. Brewster spotted their talents and recruited many of them for street missions, and these men paid tribute to her work for the rest of their lives.

Until shortly before her death at age seventy-three on Good Friday in 1952, Brewster was still busy with the quiet work of an urban missionary, visiting homes by the hundreds and conducting Vacation Bible Schools all summer long. An overflow crowd of rich and poor attended her funeral service on Easter Sunday at Highland Baptist Church, where she was a member. Although she had periodically clashed with male preachers who challenged her over petty things such as her use of guitar in Sunday Schools, one such minister paid tribute to her in an obituary. The minister recalled that during a discussion of some pressing need, she declared, "If I were a pastor, I'd do something about it." (1)

In fact, Brewster did not let the fact that she was not a pastor--or any other obstacle-prevent her from doing whatever needed doing. In some ways, she was like a combination of two other women for whom mission offerings have been named--Annie Armstrong and Lottie Moon. Like Armstrong, Brewster mobilized her denomination's women on behalf of missions. Like Moon, Brewster went into the mission field herself and worked right up until her death. Brewster's story deserves a place in the wider story of the women's missionary movement.

Context: The General Baptists

Brewster moved easily among Baptist denominations. She spent her early years among General Baptists, was strongly influenced by a Free Will Baptist pastor, and was trained at a Northern Baptist missionary school before going to work for the Southern Baptists. This flexibility probably stemmed from the inclusiveness of the capital-L "Liberal Baptist" movement in which she grew up. This movement, which included General and Free Will Baptists, emphasized open communion and opposed Calvinist notions of predestination. Given the importance of Brewster's work among the General Baptists, following is a short primer on this denomination, whose history has been overshadowed by that of larger Baptist groups.

Most Baptist histories begin with the story of the English General Baptists of the early seventeenth century, who were influenced by Arminian free-will theology and began practicing adult baptism. The General Baptists who emerged in America in the late 1600s had no organic connection to the English movement, but they were likely influenced by that movement and even used the same name. Pastor Benoni Stinson founded a General Baptist movement with an anti-Calvinist proclamation that "Christ tasted death for every man." (2) These General Baptists had a small but notable presence in such states as Indiana, Missouri, Illinois, and Kentucky. They founded Oakland City College in southwestern Indiana, now a university that still represents a center of denominational activity.

As Brewster came of age at the turn of the twentieth century, General Baptists, like many denominations, were responding to a mix of progressive and reactionary movements. Some members reacted to modernism by retreating into traditional revivalism, biblical literalism, and a distrust of educated ministers and mission organizations. (3) Other General Baptists agitated for temperance and foreign missions. Thus, Brewster's small, mostly rural denomination was experiencing the same ferment as that of the wider Protestant world.

Context: The Women's Missionary Movement

One of the leading sources of that ferment was the women's missionary movement. Methodist, Presbyterian, and Episcopalian women had organized in order to support missionaries and had founded missionary training schools for women. Northern and Southern Baptists also founded training schools in Chicago, Philadelphia, suburban Boston, and Louisville. (4) This movement was an outgrowth of feminism within the church and related to women's leadership in the crusades for temperance and women's suffrage. Carrie Littlejohn, historian and former president of the W. O. Carver School of Missions and Social Work in Louisville, interpreted the trend this way:
 To the devoted Christian woman this urge for a full share in a
 common humanity found its satisfaction in sharing with women in
 pagan and heathen lands the experience that had lifted her out of a
 position of inferiority to one of equality in life and service.
 While her American and British sisters were supporting the suffrage
 movement and various humanitarian projects in an effort to secure
 equal citizenship, the missionary-minded Christian woman found her
 "freedom of action ..., achieved through demonstration of
 efficiency in service ... in missions." (5)

Within the General Association of General Baptists, women also began agitating for foreign missions, which coincided with their growing roles in other areas. They served as delegates to associational meetings and as members of General Association committees and boards. Women (like Brewster) were licensed to preach, while others were appointed deaconesses or even ordained to ministry, according to Charles Carr, historian of the General Baptist missionary movement. What makes this especially significant is that, while the polity of most Baptist denominations calls for local churches to ordain and license, General Baptists did so through a presbytery of ministers in each association. Thus, it was not maverick churches here and there putting women in the pulpit; this trend represented the consensus of entire associations. (6)

Early Years

Brewster, nicknamed Sena, was born on March 9, 1879, in Pike County in southwest Indiana. She was one of eight children in a family that claimed to trace its ancestry to Mayflower Pilgrim William Brewster. (7) She went to local public schools and attended Bethel Baptist Church, a congregation with about 110 members in the town of Winslow. By her early twenties, Brewster was serving as church clerk and as delegate to annual associational meetings. (8) In 1905, the presbytery of the United Association in Southwest Indiana licensed her to preach. (9)

Brewster graduated from Oakland City College in Oakland City, Indiana, in 1908, where she had taken courses in theology, Bible, missions, and "expression," or oratory. Her early oratorical endeavors included a speech titled "Freedom of American Women." (10) The school catalogue noted that religious courses were designed to prepare ministers, missionaries, and other lay workers. (11) Missionary fervor was sweeping Oakland City, promoted in part by T. H. Drake, a local Free Will Baptist pastor:
 The Oakland City College campus must have been a tremendously
 stimulating environment for the fervent, idealistic minds of young
 Christians nurtured on the missionary hymns of Fanny Crosby, W. H.
 Doane and others.... This was a generation bent on making the world
 a different and better place in which to live--all for the glory of
 God. (12)

In 1907, four years after its formation, the Foreign Mission Board of the General Association of General Baptists formally recognized Brewster and three other Oakland City students preparing for missions. "This Board ... [feels] sure that God will impress our people to supply the necessary means for their support." (13) The means for their financial support, however, was problematic. A few General Baptists had entered the mission field through other denominations, but the General Baptists themselves had failed to sponsor a single missionary, and thus, Brewster postponed her own missionary ambitions to rectify that situation.

Brewster began with her local United Association. A resolution sponsored by the missions committee, of which she was a member, offered an example of her creative strong-arming. The resolution requested that "each pastor hold at least one Foreign Mission service in each of his churches each year ... conducted by one or more of our volunteers and they take a collection for the cause." The motion added that "should a pastor fail to hold these services that the volunteers be given the right to go and conduct such a service without an invitation." (14)

Field Worker for the General Baptists

After graduating from Oakland City College, Brewster studied at the Baptist Missionary Training School in Chicago, founded by the Women's Baptist Home Mission Society, a group within the Northern (or American) Baptists. She graduated in 1909. (15) That same year, the General Baptists' General Sunday School Board hired Brewster as a field worker to organize Sunday Schools in churches. Soon the General Christian Endeavor Board, which organized youth ministries, hired her to do the same. (16) In 1911, Brewster reported her workload as follows: (17)

Miles traveled: 5,567

Public addresses: 128

Letters written: 675

Homes visited: 235

Churches visited: 104

Special Sunday School meetings: 55

Sunday School conventions attended: 10

The Christian Endeavor board reported:
 We cannot praise too highly the incessant and untiring efforts and
 the spotless character of our beloved field worker, Miss Brewster,
 in her attempt to establish [Christian Endeavor] societies in our
 churches, and save our young people and train them into useful
 service for our Master. It is with a feeling of deepest regret and
 tenderest love and sympathy that we grant her a leave of absence
 for much-needed rest, and our prayers are continual that Providence
 may open a way for us to have her again soon. (18)

Working for the Foreign Mission Board of the General Baptists, Brewester had traveled from church to church raising funds, and her efforts met with success. On September 6, 1911, she personally witnessed the departure of Arthur and Edith Logan from the train station in Oakland City as they embarked on a journey to Guam, where they became the first General Baptist missionaries. "The well-wishers' tears of farewell were offset by the joyful realization that after so long a time of hope and preparation, General Baptists were finally seeing one of their dreams come true." (19) Brewster continued to raise funds, establishing a "mite-box" system by which General Baptists raised funds to construct a new church in Guam. (20)

Even before the Logans departed, Brewster made her most lasting contribution to the General Baptists. She took a leading role in organizing a conference in Oakland City in 1911 to form the women's auxiliary to the Foreign Mission Board. Brewster became the first secretary-treasurer of the auxiliary, which later became an independent Women's Mission Board and continues operating to this day as the General Baptist Women's Ministries. (21)

Home Missionary

Brewster later taught at schools in Indiana and began to prepare for her own missionary career. She then worked at a mission in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, serving as "nurse, teacher, missionary, diplomat and sometimes a lay preacher," according to an unpublished biography by her relatives. (22) While in Appalachia, Brewster boarded with a family of eleven whose home consisted of one room and a loft. Apparently, she enjoyed her work there for
 She bubbled when she talked of her school and her work among the
 Hill People. She spoke often of their great pride, dignity and
 talents to make something from nothing, how everyone struggled for
 an existence and the long trips for needed supplies. She talked of
 their Shakespear[e] English, the beauty of their souls, their hunger
 for learning and their acceptance of God. She described their
 "walking games." This was a walk of special designs to a chant. They
 formed lines and chanted ... or sometimes it was done with the aid
 of a dulcimer or mouth harp. (23)

When a circuit preacher railed against these folk practices, Brewster demanded scriptural support for his charges. For this challenge, her mission board recalled her for a meeting. The board evidently vindicated her, because it returned her to service for an additional eight years.

When Brewster later worked in urban missions in Louisville, another male preacher confronted her because he did not like her playing a guitar in Sunday School. She said the preacher "kept her humble because she had to spend so much time on her knees," praying about how to deal with him, and yet
 She was a joyful person, always ready to laugh at her self. She
 loved people, and she often complained, after a "God please
 forgive," of the sour-faced, pompous people she had to work with,
 and why couldn't they enjoy their walk with the Lord. She would
 sprinkle her conversations with the love she had with her God. (24)

In Louisville

The date of Brewster's arrival in Louisville is not certain, but records indicate that she was the founding superintendent of a mission formed on Baxter Avenue in 1937. The new mission was sponsored by Highland Baptist Church, then one of the city's most historic and prominent Southern Baptist churches. Barely a mile away from that church's fashionable Highlands neighborhood, this mission was housed in a former storefront saloon in an apartment house, located in a gritty neighborhood bordered by distilleries, a workhouse, and a set of railroad tracks. (25) The mission was scheduled to open on Sunday, January 24, 1937, but instead became a refugee center as Louisville was inundated by the great Ohio River flood of that year. When it did open, Brewster taught Sunday School and read Bible stories to neighborhood children. She provided continuous leadership there as a succession of seminary students preached each Sunday, including Frank Stagg, who became the mission's first pastor. (26)

By 1938, the mission was renting the entire building, sponsoring a choir, a Baptist Training Union chapter, a Boy Scout troop, and Vacation Bible Schools. A women's missionary circle also was formed and focused on the spiritual, intellectual, and physical well-being of its members who heard lectures on everything from cancer to the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. When Stagg left for a new job in 1941, he wrote that the mission "owes an immeasurable debt to Miss Brewster and has a genuine love for her." (27) Stagg later served as professor at two Southern Baptist seminaries, New Orleans and Southern, and became known as a theologian, author, and advocate for civil rights, gender equity, peace, and ecumenism. (28) But he never forgot his early mentor. More than fifty years later, he continued to pay tribute to Brewster as "that remarkable woman." (29) The mission they started eventually became the independent Baxter Avenue Baptist Church, which remains open today.

Jefferson Street

Brewster left the Baxter Avenue mission in 1941 to live and work as religious education director at the Union Gospel Mission in Louisville's notorious Haymarket District. The mission had operated for decades under an interdenominational board. By 1941, its traditional sources of funding had dried up, and the board turned it over to the Long Run Baptist Association of Louisville, which eventually renamed it Central Baptist Mission.

Union Gospel Mission was located in "one of the worst slums in America," according to Henlee Barnette, then a seminary student and pastor of the mission. "There were ninety whiskey stores, honky tonks, nightclubs, houses of ill repute, gambling dens within a radius of three blocks of where I lived." (30) Even in this environment, Brewster was more than capable of taking care of herself. Along with Barnette, Brewster set up the rudiments of a church, sponsoring worship services, mother's clubs, religious movies, classes, and a day nursery for the children of workers in Louisville's wartime industries. According to Barnette, "A lot of the credit for the success of that mission goes to her." (31)

Brewster quickly set up a "widely varied but efficient and constructive religious program." She took girls to summer camp and conducted Vacation Bible School programs all summer both at the mission and at churches elsewhere in the city. A report of the Long Run Association noted, "This is indeed a remarkable record, and much credit is due Miss Brewster, of whom it has been said, 'She can conduct a Bible School on a penny and a shoe string.'" (32)

Brewster had been hired by Clarence Jordan, who went on to fame as the founder of the interracial Koinonia Farm in rural Georgia, as author of The Cotton Patch Gospel, and as co-founder of Habitat for Humanity. In the 1940s, Jordan served as superintendent of missions for the Long Run Association. He had already made a bold stroke in helping found the Baptist Fellowship Center for African Americans in West Louisville, which was a rare joint venture between the white Long Run Association and the black Central District Association.

The less flattering aspect of this arrangement was that the Baptist Fellowship Center was viewed as the place for blacks and the Union Gospel Mission, where Brewster worked, as the place for whites. During this era in which segregation was still legally enforced, Brewster led segregated Vacation Bible Schools, some for blacks, some for whites. While she never sought to integrate those programs, which would have been truly heroic and remarkable in that day, she displayed a sensitivity to racial disparities and did what she could to alleviate them within the system. Given that she had a good working relationship with Jordan, the two most likely influenced and reinforced each other's commitments to social justice.

In addition to hiring Brewster, Jordan also recruited Barnette to volunteer in the Haymarket. At a Southern Baptist Theological Seminary chapel service, Jordan challenged the audience: "If there's a young preacher boy ... out there who isn't looking for the First Baptist Church in Podunk Holler, there's a place for you in the Haymarket, where there are 10,000 unchurched people." (33) But it was Brewster, Barnette recalled, who observed his volunteer efforts and recommended that Jordan hire him as pastor of the mission.

Brewster brought in other volunteers as well, including students from area churches, the seminary, and the Women's Missionary Union Training School. (34) According to Barnette, "She was a genius at picking good people." He recalled one group of eleven student volunteers that he and Brewster recruited. "Every one of them became famous" as preachers, professors, or missionaries. They included Wayne Oates, a future Southern Seminary professor and a pioneer in pastoral counseling; Carlyle Marney, an outspoken preacher, civil rights activist, author, and ethicist; and Jack Kilgore, later the chairman of the department of philosophy at Baylor. Of course, Barnette himself went on to fame as a controversial seminary professor who opposed the Vietnam War, brought Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak at Southern Seminary, and spoke out against the rise of fundamentalism.

Other Urban Missions

In 1944, Brewster moved on to another of Long Run's urban ministries and became superintendent of the Boyce Settlement House. She later was a field worker for East Baptist Church, a historic congregation that was struggling to reach out to its deteriorating downtown neighborhood. One of her last recorded projects was a 1952 survey of the East Church area. Brewster, then in her seventies, reported that she "took it street by street, going into every home, getting a family card, talking with the unsaved, and trying to get unaffiliated Baptists into the church. I turned over hundreds of cards, duplicated, to the church." That same year, she held Vacation Bible Schools across the city for eight weeks straight, recording forty-six conversions and rededications. (35)

Throughout this time, Brewster lived among the people she worked with, first in the Union Gospel Mission building and later in an apartment next to East Church. She died on April 11, 1952, about two weeks after she was hospitalized with a heart blockage. Her funeral was held at Highland Baptist Church, where she had maintained her membership. The choir and overflow crowd in the congregation sang hymns in her memory. Her body was returned to her native Pike County, Indiana, for burial.


Brewster left a variety of legacies, including the Asenath Brewster Christmas Offering, which the General Baptist Women's Ministries has taken up in her name each year since 1976. A recent report noted that the offering funded projects ranging from a Hispanic church in Kansas to a water system in Honduras to a sewing center in India. (36) But Brewster left subtler legacies as well. She touched countless individual lives through her work with urban missions, Vacation Bible Schools, and other ministries. She set a remarkable example with her tireless work, her joyful devotion, and her contrarian refusal to brook the periodic foolishness of male church leaders.

Brewster has to be taken into account when the story is told of the remarkable generation of Baptist prophets, such as Clarence Jordan and Carlyle Manley, who emerged from Southern Seminary in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She did more than spot their latent talents; she also set an example for them of what a committed, competent woman could accomplish with a passionate commitment to ministering among the neediest. The last of this group, Henlee Barnette, died in 2005. I interviewed him about Brewster just a few months before his death. The ever-alert Barnette had been learning about the Internet, so we booted up his computer and I showed him a Web page about the Asenath Brewster Christmas Offering. This was the first he had known of this tribute to his colleague from so long ago, and he responded with reverent delight, "Asenath, we bless your name, and your ministry to the poor."

(1.) Fred G. Tucker, "Miss Asenath Brewster--a Faithful Worker," The Long Run Baptist, May 1952. In a unpublished biography of Brewster written by her relatives, Sharon Harvey and Thelda Smith, the authors indicate that Tucker challenged Brewster over her use of the guitar.

(2.) Charles L. Carr, Seed, Soil, and Seasons: A One Hundred Sixty-five Year History of General Baptist Foreign Missions (Poplar Bluff, MO: General Baptist Foreign Mission Society, 1988), 14.

(3.) Ibid., 32-32.

(4.) Carrie U. Littlejohn, History of Carver School of Missions and Social Work (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1958), 7.

(5.) Ibid., 5. At the end of the passage, Littlejohn was quoting from an article by W. O. Carver, an early organizer of the school that bore his name.

(6.) Carr, Seed, Soil, and Seasons, 40-41.

(7.) Sharon Harvey and Thelda Smith, "Asenath Brewster," unpublished, undated manuscript (from the archives of General Baptist Women's Ministries).

(8.) Minutes, United Association (IN), 1902-1905.

(9.) General Baptist Women's Ministries, Asenath Brewster: Who Was She and Why Do We Take an Offering in Her Honor? (Poplar Bluff, MO: General Baptist Women's Ministries, 2002). This source says without explanation that she voluntarily gave that license up in 1910. Associational records do not say this, but she does disappear from its rolls of licensed preachers at this time. Minutes, United Association, 19061911.

(10.) Harvey and Smith, "Asenath Brewster."

(11.) "Annual Catalogue: Oakland City College: 1908-1909."

(12.) Carr, Seed, Soil, and Seasons, 40.

(13.) Minutes, General Association of General Baptists, 1907, 16.

(14.) Minutes, United Association (IN), 1908, 288-89.

(15.) Faith Coxe Bailey, Two Directions (Rochester, NY: Baptist Missionary Training School, 1964), 102.

(16.) Minutes, General Association of General Baptists, 1910., 58.

(17.) Ibid., 1911, 72.

(18.) Ibid., 69-70.

(19.) Carr, Seed, Soil, and Seasons, 55.

(20.) Minutes, General Association of General Baptists, 1914, 141.

(21.) Carr, Seed, Soil, and Seasons, 284-85.

(22.) Harvey and Smith, "Asenath Brewster." This biography does not indicate which denomination Brewster worked for at the mission, and research queries to missions organizations have failed to identify it. But the biography appears to be credible. Its descriptions are vivid and specific, and its accounts of other points in her career are independently verified.

(23.) Ibid.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) Minutes, Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, KY, January 10, 1937.

(26.) Asenath Brewster, "Brief History of the Beginning of Baxter Avenue Chapel," unpublished manuscript from the archives of Highland Baptist Church, Louisville, KY, 1945, 1.

(27.) Bulletin, Highland Baptist Church, January 26, 1941.

(28.) "Frank Stagg Library Adds Greatly to Samford Baptist Collection," Seasons: The Magazine of Samford University 18, no. 2 (Summer 2001), summer2001/stagg.html.

(29.) Frank Stagg, "Henlee Hulix Barnette An Activist," christian Ethics Today, 12 no. 15 (September 1997), Barnette%20An%20Activist%20By%20Frank%20Stagg_012_15_.htm.

(30.) Henlee Barnette, interview with Peter Smith, January 10, 2004.

(31.) Ibid.

(32.) Minutes, Long Run Association (KY), 1941, 30-31; 1942, 34-36.

(33.) Barnette, interview, January 10, 2004.

(34.) Later known as the W. O. Carver School of Missions and Social Work.

Peter Smith is the religion writer for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Baptist History and Heritage Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Smith, Peter
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2006
Previous Article:The quiet revolutionary: Amelia Morton Bishop: following is the story of a simple Texas housewife, mother, sometime denominational worker (especially...
Next Article:Women hymn writers and hymn tune composers in the Baptist Hymnal, 1991.

Related Articles
Diversifying the operation: Southern Baptist Missions in China at the turn of the century 1890-1910.
Married women in missions: the effects of cross-cultural and self gender-role expectations on well-being, stress, and self-esteem.
Relationship between role perception and well-being in married female missionaries.
Baptist Women around the World: the Baptist History and Heritage Society voted to dedicate the 2005 annual meeting to the topic "Women in Baptist...
Women in cultural captivity: British Women and the Zenana mission: in a little pamphlet outlining the work of two British Baptist women, Marianne...
Canadian Baptist mission work among women in Andhra, India, 1874-1924: Baptist women evolved a role for themselves in an otherwise male-dominated...
The role of women and women's issues in the Baptist World Alliance: in 2005, the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) celebrated the centennial anniversary...
Jewell Legett and the social curriculum: the education of a Southern Baptist woman missionary at the WMU Training School, 1908-1909: Jewell Legett...
The shifting landscape in Baptist missions during the twentieth century: dozens of excellent books and hundreds of articles have been written in the...
The future of Baptists and missions: what is the missions future for Baptists? The question is more than a rhetorical one or the speculation of an...

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |