The first great wave of Baptist women mission volunteers coincided with the first American movement for women’s rights, in the 1840s.
At that time mainstream American religion prescribed the role of “domestic evangelists” for women. Their ministry was to occur in the private “sphere” of the home, “separate” from men.
As Baptists competed with Methodists and Disciples of Christ for members, social roles and gender stereotypes for both women and men divided the denomination.
Southern Baptists seceded from the national convention in 1845 over slavery. When one of the Southern Baptist Convention’s first missionaries spoke in 1851, the all-male convention voted to suspend its business before hearing from a woman. At that time many Southern Baptist men believed women’s mental abilities inferior to men’s, and they advocated corporal punishment of wives.
In 1885, Arkansas sent two female messengers to the SBC. Male messengers voted 202 to 112 not to seat the women, fearing more women would follow. The majority changed the SBC constitution to read “brethren” rather than “messengers.” The minority 112 men continued, in varying degrees, to support women’s representation, shared decision-making responsibilities, and the spread of the Gospel by any means.
In 1888, white women leaders formed a missions auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention. The Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) was led by, among others, the talented Annie Armstrong and Fannie Heck. Armstrong worked closely with leaders of the Woman’s Auxiliary of the National Baptist Convention, which emerged when freed slaves left Southern Baptist churches after the Civil War.
Both the WMU and the Woman’s Auxiliary addressed various gender-related issues within their respective conventions. The WMU eventually became one of the most effective mission agencies in Protestant history, making it an attractive target to other interests later.
WMU named its largest missions offering in honor of Lottie Moon, who noted that women missionaries followed her to China seeking the “free opportunity to do the largest possible work” for God’s kingdom. Congregationalist missionary women criticized Moon for demanding equal voting rights in mission meetings and decision-making.
Women’s suffrage became the issue of the second American women’s movement at the turn of the 20th century. Significantly for Baptists, this wave of Feminism in America coincided with the rise of 20th-century Fundamentalism.
As Baptists wrangled over Fundamentalism-Modernism, debates over the roles of women often took center stage.
Carol Ann Vaughn, Ph.D., is director of the Christian Women’s Leadership Center at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. Vaughn received her doctorate from Auburn University, where she specialized in women and religion.