On May 14 we celebrate 125 years of WMU – Woman’s Missionary Union. The women who began this organization were passionate about a lost world and what they could do to support missions. At a time like this, it would be easy to romanticize the early days and perhaps wish for days gone by. I have enjoyed wearing my GA, Girls Auxiliary, regalia during this celebration. This is the period of WMU history that influenced me the most. There are times I wish for GAs like it used to be and have been thrilled to see the return of some classic GA items. But lest we be tempted to wish for earlier days, let me remind you of some of our history.*
After each state had begun a Central Committee to encourage the development of missionary societies and raise money for missions, the women began to gather each year during the Southern Baptist Convention. They were deliberate in their decision to begin a national organization. The first national women’s meeting was in 1883 but it was not until 1888 that they came ready to vote. A core of 32 delegates met in Richmond, Virginia with about 100 Virginia WMU women also in attendance, who had come to watch history being made.
The women met on Friday, May 11. There were impassioned speeches urging the start of a national organization. Fannie Davis of Texas said, “This movement is not about ‘women’s rights,’ though we have our rights, the highest of which is the right for service.” Annie Armstrong wanted them to take the vote, fearing that there would not be time to work out all of the details. Others were concerned that the Southern Baptist Convention express its opinion before they voted. In a spirit of compromise, the vote was delayed until Monday, May 14 while a committee was appointed to work out all the plans for the organization.
Thus on Saturday the women crowded into the balcony where the men were meeting to hear the report on Convention improvements brought by F.M. Ellis. The lengthy report covered many issues including systematic giving. There was “a mild mention of women’s work” through the encouragement of missionary circles and children’s bands (groups). The mission boards were instructed to keep separate accounts to show the women’s contributions, and the women were invited to make annual reports to the mission boards through their Central Committees. After much debate, the report passed
It is reported that there was much doom saying by some about the start of a women’s organization. One account says that a Kentuckian said of this vote by the convention, “You can’t overthrow Paul and Paul said ‘If you vote for this organization, God only knows what the women will do. Nobody on the face of this earth will be able to manage them, and they will be in danger of wrecking the whole business.”
However, when the women reconvened on Monday, May 14, they felt that the Convention had said, “Do as you please, only send us your money.” Little has changed in 125 years. We still lead our own work and the Southern Baptist Convention is still glad to receive our money!
But we know it has been much more than that. WMU quickly realized the need for a systematic plan of prayer support for missionaries and developed the missionary prayer calendar. They realized the need to teach our children and began Young Women’s Auxiliary in 1907, the same year that national WMU assumed operation of the WMU Training School in Louisville. WMU began Royal Ambassadors in 1908 and Girls Auxiliary in 1913. WMU recognized the importance of personal involvement in missions and began promoting Personal Service, now known as mission action.
By 1913, Fannie E.S. Heck had begun to articulate the work of WMU through the Union Ideals:
- growth of Christian womanhood through individual and united prayer and study of God’s Word
- a larger intellectual life through mission study
- the enlistment of all Southern Baptist women in mission service
- systematic monthly contributions given in sums commensurate with one’s real ability and the demands of the world’s needs
- direct service rendered by members of the societies for the salvation of their own neighbors
- the care of missionaries children
- the recognition of the responsibility for the missions training of young women and children
- the training of young women for special service in the home church and in the home and foreign mission fields in the Woman’s Missionary Union Training School
While the wording has been revised and we’ve used terms such as aims, tasks, and now objectives, the basic purpose and work of WMU has never changed in 125 years.
When WMU began in 1888, the preamble to the WMU Constitution began:
We, the women of the churches connected with the Southern Baptist Convention, desirous of stimulating the missionary spirit and the grace of giving among the women and children of the churches, and aiding in collecting funds for missionary purposes, to be disbursed by the Boards of the Southern Baptist Convention, and disclaiming all intention of independent action, organize…
The organization has not always been understood. In fact in the Tenth Annual report of the Kentucky Central Committee dated May 1891, Eliza Broadus wrote:
“Objectors to our work often ask why we are not willing to work with our fathers and brothers, but want what we do reported separately. We answer that we do work with them. We insist on our women giving as they have always done, to the regular collections of the church, and that what we give in our societies must be that much extra, given often as the fruit of self-denial, of special exertions, or as a thank-offering for special mercies. To such gifts, our brethren will surely not object, if they only understand our position.”
On this 125th anniversary, we must not camp out in the past, but rather honor the past by continuing the work of WMU. On this anniversary it is fitting that we acknowledge and express appreciation for the efforts of faithful women across the years, women who believed in the purpose of WMU and led the work in church after church and in associations across our nation. We honor them by continuing to serve until Jesus comes. At times it is discouraging, as the population grows and hostilities towards believers increase. But we have read the end of the Book. The Revelation was given to John to tell us that hard times would come but that we are to be faithful witnesses until that day.
From time to time I receive calls from leaders who are discouraged. The calls that grieve me the most are from leaders who face opposition from within their own churches. Yet, there is a lesson from The Insanity of God that we must not miss: It is always possible to obey Christ’s call to make disciples. Every believer – in every place – is always free to make that choice….The question is never, “Am I free to do that?” Rather, the question is “Will I be obedient?” Believers in the world of persecution have already decided their answer to that crucial question.
With or without the support of others, every one of us is free to pray for missions, support missions, engage in mission action and witnessing, learn about missions, grow spiritually towards a missions lifestyle, and support the work of the church and denomination. It is simply a matter of obedience.”
In the immortal rallying cry of Annie Armstrong, may we “Go Forward!”
*Historical information drawn from A Century to Celebrate by Catherine Allen.