While many individuals are held in high esteem in our denomination, Southern Baptists have only one saint and her name is Lottie Moon.
Of course, we don’t refer to her as “Saint Lottie,” but the legend that has arisen around her life story qualifies Lottie Moon for the highest regard in Baptist life.
After all, who but Lottie Moon set off to serve alone as a single woman to China in 1873?
Who but Lottie Moon worked with Chinese women and children, leaving the preaching and mission politics to men?
Who but Lottie Moon starved herself to death because she gave all her food and money to feed the Chinese around her?
Those questions comprise the legend of Lottie Moon as generations of Southern Baptists have come to know her.
The Real Lottie Moon
Unfortunately, none of the above statements is completely true, according to Regina D. Sullivan’s new book, “Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary to China in History and Legend.”
The author of this new groundbreaking book grew up Southern Baptist and is now a professor at Berkeley College in New York.
Sullivan contends that many of the hagiographic details of the “Lottie Moon story” were embellished by others in a misguided effort to bolster missions funding and to camouflage Moon’s advocacy of women’s rights in SBC life.
Contrary to both the policies of the former SBC Foreign Mission Board, which appointed Moon in 1873, and the current SBC International Mission Board, Sullivan also contends that Moon believed in and lobbied for an equal voice for women on the mission field.
The historical record shows that Moon worked not only with Chinese women and children, but also preached to and taught Chinese men and boys when the situation demanded it.
And here in the United States, at Moon’s urging, Southern Baptist women organized themselves into the Woman’s Missionary Union, despite the opposition of many SBC pastors in the late 1800s.
In short, Moon was an egalitarian when it came to women’s service in Baptist life.
Pulling Back the Curtain
Sullivan has done Southern Baptists a great favor by pulling back the curtain of misinformation that has surrounded Lottie Moon’s story since her death.
Working from primary sources that have never been surveyed comprehensively, Sullivan researched SBC archives at current SBC institutions but also expanded her inquiries to other institutions such as the University of Virginia, Drexel University, Yale Divinity School and many other non-Baptist sources.
Sullivan’s Lottie Moon is not the typical Baptist biography of Moon, like “Her Own Way” or “The New Lottie Moon Story.”
Rather, Sullivan has positioned Lottie Moon in the ranks of significant Southern women. Impeccably footnoted and referenced, the endnotes, bibliography and index comprise a quarter of the book’s volume.
The publication of this book by Louisiana State University Press in its “Southern Biography Series” speaks to the quality of her research and the integrity of Sullivan’s work as an academic.
The significance of this book for Southern Baptists is that the real Lottie Moon story is better than the myth.
After the Civil War, at a time when women in American society were advocating women’s political rights, Moon was a pioneer in her advocacy for women’s rights within the religious culture of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Sullivan skillfully weaves the details of Lottie Moon’s life, the struggles of SBC Foreign Mission Board, the emergence of the Woman’s Missionary Union, and the politics of the Southern Baptist Convention into a single compelling story.
At the center of it all was Lottie Moon, a force to be reckoned with in the late 1800s, and after her death a legend to be exploited for fundraising.
Moon’s defiance of the SBC Foreign Mission Board when she moved alone from the established mission compound in Tengchow to pioneer work as a single woman in Pingtu is a historical fact that cannot be ignored or rehabilitated to fit Victorian or contemporary notions of a woman’s “proper place.”
Had the Foreign Mission Board been prescient enough to anticipate Moon’s entrepreneurial approach to mission work, the board would never have appointed her.
The Myths Continue Today
For the same reasons today, Lottie Moon would not be eligible for appointment by the current International Mission Board (IMB).
But the current IMB website continues to perpetuate the myth of Lottie Moon with statements like these:
“Lottie served 39 years as a missionary, mostly in China’s Shantung province. She taught in a girl’s school and often made trips into China’s interior to share the good news with women and girls.”
The truth is that Lottie Moon started some of the schools in which she taught, and established and ran the Pingtu mission singlehandedly.
While she did teach women and girls, she also taught and preached to men and boys out of necessity and in defiance of SBC Foreign Mission Board rules for female appointees.
“In 1912, during a time of war and famine, Lottie silently starved, knowing that her beloved Chinese didn’t have enough food.”
This carefully worded IMB statement tries to perpetuate the Moon myth, but carefully decouples the connection between Lottie Moon’s death and the famine in China.
The truth is that in her last days Lottie Moon suffered from an abscess behind her ear. This condition led to bouts of dementia and delusions, which included her refusal to eat solid food.
Moon was taking liquids until she slipped into unconsciousness on Dec. 23, and died aboard a ship in Kobe, Japan, at 1 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 1912.
The legend that she starved herself to death because she gave all her food and money to feed the Chinese is not correct.
That account appears to have originated with articles written after her death by those who were not present with her on the mission field and for the purpose of raising additional funds for missions work.
Why spoil such a wonderful story? After all, Lottie Moon has been a role model for Baptist mission work and sacrifice for almost 140 years.
And, largely because of her story, Southern Baptists have given more than $1 billion to international mission work through the SBC Lottie Moon Christmas Offering.
A True Pioneer
But Moon’s story is even more wonderful because she was a true pioneer. Lottie Moon was a woman who grew up in a family that educated its girls, expected them to excel and gave them room to grow into intelligent, thoughtful young women.
Moon’s sister, Orianna, was the first woman in Virginia to study medicine and be granted a medical license. Moon’s family encouraged their young women to find their own place in a rapidly changing society. Moon’s sister, Edmonia, preceded Lottie to China as a missionary, and Lottie joined her and others there in 1873.
It is important that the real Lottie Moon story find as enthusiastic an audience as the mythological story did.
The real Lottie Moon was an articulate, forceful, determined and visionary woman who reshaped and probably saved Southern Baptist foreign mission efforts in China.
Moon did this by writing compelling articles for SBC and other missions publications.
Not only did she plead for more money and more missionaries in these articles, Moon also argued for women missionaries’ right to vote on mission matters; the necessity for women missionaries to lead worship and preach in the absence of men on the field; and, for dropping the pejorative use of “heathen” when referring to the Chinese people and their culture.
By reading and acknowledging the real Lottie Moon story over the myth we have long embraced, Southern Baptists will give the legacy of Lottie Moon its true and rightful place in our history and heritage.
We make people into the heroes we want them to be. Unfortunately, Lottie Moon’s wisdom, fortitude, perseverance and convictions have been altered in to a “politically correct” caricature that she would not recognize.
We do not need to beatify Lottie Moon. But we do need to embrace her for who she was, what she did and the manner in which she lived her life.
In her case, the real Lottie Moon story is much better than any we could create. We’re indebted to Regina Sullivan for uncovering the real story of Lottie Moon that we in Southern Baptist life have been unable, or unwilling, to see previously.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.