Baptist history is filled with many fascinating but little-known stories.
The name of Martha Stainback Wilson (1834-1919) is most likely unknown except to the most dedicated readers of the history of “women’s work” in the South. I discovered her by accident while working on another project.
Eulogized at her death as a Confederate heroine (she was a nurse and reportedly spoke to General Sherman on his march through Georgia to insist for the proper care of the wounded), Wilson was probably the most influential woman in Georgia Baptist life in the late 19th century.
A member of the most prominent church in the state, Second Baptist Church of Atlanta, she helped spearhead the creation of the Georgia Woman’s Missionary Union and served as the organization’s first corresponding secretary. She was also a key player in the early work of the national WMU that was headed by Annie Armstrong.
What happened to Wilson is very revealing. She became very enamored with the work of Martha and T. P. Crawford, Southern Baptist missionaries to China, and began supporting their work. T. P. Crawford, however, championed what is called Gospel Missionism, the idea that missionaries should be supported solely by local churches rather than national organizations. Crawford’s ideas had similarities to Landmarkism (a movement that emerged in the mid-1800s holding that all ecclesiastical authority is vested in the local church).
Martha Wilson sought to support both the Gospel Mission Movement and the developing Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Annie Armstrong, the executive secretary of the national Woman’s Missionary Union, thought Wilson’s views were irreconcilable and would destroy the cooperative efforts of Southern Baptist churches to do the convention’s burgeoning mission work. Armstrong thought Wilson demonstrated insufficient loyalty to the developing denomination and chastised the “work of Satan” in one of God’s children.
Armstrong won the battle of course; and Wilson soon lost her leadership position in Georgia. But as she fell from grace her words were revealing.
Wilson rebuked the developing Southern Baptist Convention for a growing top-down bureaucracy and complained that the centralized national organization was starting to make decisions for local churches.
Appealing to her Southern heritage, Wilson resorted to the icon of states rights and suggested that national boards should not interfere with the decisions of the state Woman’s Missionary Union.
Appealing to her Baptist heritage, Wilson contended her liberty of conscience was at stake, because some mission leaders were attempting to dictate which mission methods were acceptable. Pointedly, she retorted, “I follow the hand that never errs.”
Wilson’s approach to missions was filled with difficulties. Annie Armstrong was correct. Ultimately Wilson could not support a mission plan that relied exclusively on local churches while at the same time claiming to support a plan calling for cooperation by churches with a national body.
But what happens when genuine voluntary cooperation is replaced by coercive calls to conform? Perhaps Wilson was also right.
Loyalty to a denomination can lead to a loss of individual conscience if the call for loyalty is coercive rather than voluntary. And the demand for unquestioned loyalty to a denominational entity is a threat to the importance of the congregation to govern itself according to the lordship of Christ.
The Baptist vision is not unquestioned loyalty to institutional structures, but rather loyalty to the historic vision those institutions are supposed to embody. Prophecy needs order. Visions need institutions to provide some structure to gospel ministries. But the best of the Baptist vision means that missions is not an exercise of coercive conformity but of voluntary cooperation.
In recent history, denominational structures have become more important than the vision of faith that they embody.
Doug Weaver is assistant professor of religion at Baylor University.