Woman’s Missionary Union of North Carolina (WMU-NC) gathered for “Missions Extravaganza” April 4-6, its first meeting since the group was required to give up its office space and all Baptist State Convention (BSC) support in order to retain its autonomy.
Former executive director Nancy Curtis brought an important historical perspective on opening night, reminding more than 1,300 participants that WMU has always lived on the edge and had to overcome considerable opposition from the Convention’s male leadership before it could even begin.
“WMU has always been and will always be about missions,” Curtis said. Women controlled very few resources in the late nineteenth century, but they established “Cent Societies” to support missions, contributing pennies from the “butter and egg” money they were generally allowed to keep.
“WMU has always lived on the edge because that’s where the lonely, the lost and the hurting are,” Curtis said – “and where the missionaries are.” Baptist churches cannot do without what WMU does for missions, she said. “Nobody does it better.”
As WMU has sought to carry out its mission, “it has never been easy,” Curtis said. In 1877, the Foreign Mission Board asked women in every state to organize mission societies. Mattie Heck of Raleigh organized a number of societies who raised more than $300 for missions, but at the next BSC meeting – where women were not allowed to speak – the male messengers acted to quash the movement.
Ten years later, again at the request of the Foreign Mission Board, Mattie Heck’s daughter Fannie – then just 24 years old, accepted the challenge of leadership, and recruited Sally Bailey, the 16-year-old daughter of Biblical Recorder editor Josiah Bailey, as her assistant. By the end of the year they had organized 71 mission societies and raised more than $1,000 for missions, a large sum at the time.
Despite their success, when representatives from the states gathered to establish the national WMU organization in1888, Heck attended but had been instructed not to join on behalf of North Carolina. Some men expressed fears that if WMU was allowed to raise money, the women might end up taking over. One noted that the women prayed as if everything depended on God, but worked as if everything depended on them.
WMU-NC was allowed to join the national group two years later, but the women and their efforts were frequently ridiculed, Curtis said. “It has never been easy.”
While supporting missions despite the obstacles, “WMU has always been a minority organization,” Curtis said – “but an overwhelming minority.” Even among women in most churches, WMU members are in a minority, she said, “a zealous, committed, faithful few” who do the work year in and year out.
“Adversity has been a friend that has made us stronger,” Curtis said. “WMU has been indomitable because of its passion for missions.”
More than once, WMU women have sacrificially given to bail out national and state convention ministries. “You have been remarkable,” Curtis said, “but still face apathy, opposition, even ridicule.”
“Some think we no longer need WMU,” she said, “that some other women’s program can take our place.”
“No one can take the place of WMU,” she said, asking what other organization has established worldwide networks for prayer, communicates missionary needs, trains all age groups in missions, raises billions for the cause of missions, and helps members to grow spiritually.
“If not WMU, who?” she asked again. “There’s not anybody.”
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.