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Annie Armstrong and the Women’s Missionary Union

Secretary of the Women's Missionary Union.

DURING THE 1800s missionaries such as Adoniram and Ann Judson inspired many Baptist women of the southern United States to throw their support behind mission work. By 1873, some were supporting Lottie Moon in China. Two leaders in the Baptist mission movement agreed that an organization representing the entire church was desirable. However, if such a women’s organization was to be recognized by the Southern Baptist Church, each state should elect delegates. The two wrote many letters arranging the election of a delegation. Male leaders were not enthusiastic. Women, they argued, would first assume control of the money, then of the deaconship, then of the pulpit, then of the entire church! 

The women overcame these objections. On this day, 14 May 1888, Baptist women from twelve Southern states met in Richmond, Virginia and formed the Executive Committee of what became known as the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU). They elected Annie Armstrong as their corresponding secretary. In effect, this made her an executive director. 

Born on 11 July 1859 in Baltimore, Maryland, Annie was no stranger to mission work. She had been a leader in the Woman’s Baptist Home Mission Society of Maryland and also served as secretary of the Maryland Mission Rooms. Her first endeavor had been to get relief supplies to Indians in Oklahoma. Later, she was behind the appointment of two black Baptist women as missionaries to other African-Americans. As the corresponding secretary for the WMU, she handwrote or typed thousands of letters a year. In 1893 alone, she wrote 18,000 letters—all without ballpoint pens, electric typewriters, or copiers—let alone computers. 

For eighteen years, she served in the mission society without pay, promoting the mission work of Southern Baptists among Native Americans and in foreign nations. Not until the 1900s would she allow the society to reimburse her travel expenses. She traveled widely, uniting churches behind the work, covering 20,000 miles in these travels. “How I wish that I had the ability to get our women to recognize fully what a glorious thing it is to be a co-worker with God in winning the world for Christ,” she wrote. 

In addition to writing letters, the energetic Armstrong published Baptist literature. As a charter member of Eutaw Place Baptist Church, she involved herself deeply with ministries to children, the poor, African-Americans, sick people, and immigrants. 

At the same time, she could be very protective of her turf. When a former missionary to China tried to open a women’s training school without consulting Armstrong first, assuming the support of the WMU would be forthcoming, she resisted the project so fiercely that she delayed it for several years. When she realized she could not prevent its being voted in, she resigned rather than have any part of it. 

But overall, her contribution to Southern Baptist missions was so great that the church named its annual Easter mission offering in her honor starting in 1934.

Dan Graves

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