For almost a century, Lottie Moon has been a major icon for fundraising for bold mission efforts by the Southern Baptist Convention.
She is hailed as a late 19th- and early 20th-century pioneer for efforts on the foreign mission field, particularly to China.
She was also one of the most instrumental figures in the formation of the Woman’s Missionary Union.
Moon was philosophically a 21st-century woman who craftily advanced her cause in a 19th-century patriarchal society, according to Regina Sullivan, a professor at Berkeley College in New York who recently published a biography about the missionary.
Moon was a powerfully independent woman and a stark departure from – and often a nuisance to – what was considered appropriate in a male-dominated culture, both theologically and professionally.
Sullivan described the missionary as a “defiant pioneer,” one who would be described as a feminist in the modern culture.
Sullivan was a featured speaker at the recent Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Arkansas Assembly in Little Rock and wove a lecture on Moon’s life into the general theme of women in ministry.
Sullivan maintains, through extensive research for her book “Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary to China in History and Legend,” that Moon was a strong proponent of perfect equality with men with no restrictions on women and ministry.
“She behaved as if she had equality with men and became the most popular and respected missionary among Southern Baptists,” Sullivan said. “The irony is that her name has been used to raise money for Southern Baptist mission efforts while the denomination’s leaders have maintained a policy of women being subservient to men. … Her life has been interpreted and used for institutional purposes.”
Sullivan said the missionary was actually a rebel in a society in which women, and particularly single women such as Moon, weren’t allowed to preach, teach and serve as evangelists to men.
“She broke with tradition,” Sullivan said. “Her behavior blurred boundaries of what was proper.”
Sullivan said Moon, often defying established policies, preached to and taught men and women of difference races deep into the mainland of China.
“She decided that her calling was not tied down to petty work of tending a few girls,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan said Moon moved 150 miles into the interior of China to live alone with the natives and to engage in evangelism without boundaries. Denomination leaders considered that approach “irregular.”
“She said her responsibility was to God, not to man,” said Sullivan. “She had sole responsibility for territory deep in the interior of China. There she could operate by her own rules of appropriate behavior. … She lived by her conscience and stepped beyond boundaries of perceived female behavior.”
Sullivan maintains that Southern Baptist leaders have used inaccurate accounts of her death on Christmas Eve in order to create a legend of martyrdom to fuel their fundraising efforts for foreign missions.
The legend holds that Moon starved herself to death as a sacrifice so that more money and food could be used by the Chinese, who were suffering from a great famine.
That legend has, for almost a century, been highlighted by the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, the SBC’s largest single source of mission funding.
Sullivan maintains, from her research, that Moon actually died from an infection, the effects of dementia and subsequent loss of appetite; her medical needs were carefully attended to until her death by professional doctors and nurses.
“She didn’t starve to death to help with relief,” Sullivan said. “She didn’t seem to view her life and career as a sacrifice, but that God could use her life to the fullest under the circumstances.”
Sullivan said that Moon’s example inspired more women to be more active publicly in missions and evangelism, which led to the creation of the WMU as an organization that operated beyond the parameters of SBC agencies.
In 1890, echoing the sentiments of a delegate at a Foreign Mission Board meeting, the Baptist Foreign Mission Journal described Moon as “the greatest man among our missionaries.”
David McCollum is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.