By: Keith Harper
On October 23, 1902 WMU’s Corresponding Secretary, Annie Armstrong wrote a letter to E. E. Bomar of the Foreign Mission Board. She apologized for an earlier letter that Bomar had found unclear, but noted, “I am not surprised that I occasionally become ‘kaflumexed’ as I am trying to do half a dozen things at one time – writing letters, getting out new literature, preparing for Annual Meeting, arranging to leave home for a trip to Virginia, making numerous addresses, visiting dress-maker, going to the dentist, and, and, and, and, etc.” Indeed. Annie Armstrong was a busy woman whose life revolved around WMU and Southern Baptist Missionary enterprises. Her boldness encouraged some and irked others.
Contemporary Southern Baptists usually associate Annie Armstrong with the annual offering for North American mission work that bears her name. However, she is far more important than this honor suggests. Armstrong played a crucial role in shaping the modern denomination. As Corresponding Secretary of WMU, she worked closely with state WMU workers and key denominational agency leaders. More than anyone else, Annie Armstrong shaped WMU’s contour in the early days and thereby shaped the modern denomination.
Born on July 11, 1850 Annie professed faith at age 19 and became a member of Seventh Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1871, however, she and some 117 others left Seventh Baptist to form Eutaw Place Baptist Church. She served her church in numerous capacities, especially those related to children and missionary enterprises. Not surprisingly, Armstrong quickly became a leader among Maryland women who wanted to promote missions. In 1888, concerned women formed the Woman’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention. The new organization tapped Annie Armstrong to be their first Corresponding Secretary, a role that allowed her organizational genius to blossom. As Corresponding Secretary of WMU, Armstrong controlled virtually every aspect of WMU’s work. Her capable leadership catapulted WMU into the forefront of Southern Baptist life.
As WMU’s “executive officer,” Armstrong faced monumental challenges. The WMU was born during a time of financial crisis. The American economy of the late nineteenth century experienced dramatic “booms” and “busts” and many Southerners faced hardship thanks to the region’s agriculturally centered economy. Southern Baptists supported missionary activity with their meager resources but denominational leaders faced serious financial problems. The FMB and HMB could scarcely maintain the missionary presence they had already established, much less fulfill any biblical mandate to “preach the gospel to every creature.” Despite the fact that many questioned whether or not women should wield ecclesiastical power, the WMU appeared to be a Godsend to the cash-strapped mission boards and Armstrong quickly proved her mettle.
Soon after WMU organized, H. A. Tupper, Corresponding Secretary for the FMB approached Armstrong with an urgent need. Lottie Moon had been serving as a Southern Baptist missionary in China since 1877 without a furlough. Moon suffered from numerous health related issues and needed to come home but she refused to leave until the Board could send someone to take her place. Tupper turned to Armstrong and in a matter of months WMU raised over $3,300, more than enough to meet the need.
If the initial offering for Lottie Moon gave Southern Baptist women confidence to expand their work, it also helped define Armstrong’s role as WMU’s leader. She understood that Moon’s offering exceeded anyone’s expectations and she used this early success to develop clear lines of communication between the WMU, FMB and HMB. On a professional level, Armstrong looked to SBC board leaders as colleagues and advisors but on a personal level, she saw them as friends and confidants.
In addition to her work with the Southern Baptists mission boards, Armstrong worked closely with the Sunday School Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists made several attempts to establish their own publishing house before finally succeeding in 1891. Armstrong understood how influential this new venture could be. If Southern Baptists had their own press they could print and distribute literature that promoted their specific interests. She became a tireless advocate of Sunday School as a means of discipleship and promoting missions.
As WMU assumed its identity Armstrong integrated the organization’s mission impetus into Baptist life. Stated another way, Armstrong guaranteed that WMU would become a regular part of Southern Baptist life if for no other reason than the money it generated. In so doing, however, she also galvanized Southern Baptist activity around mission work. It would be going a bit too far to say that she organized Southern women for missions; the WMU was organized in 1888 and grew largely from works at the local and state levels. However, as Corresponding Secretary for WMU Armstrong focused the organization’s energies on one thing – mission work. Moreover, every woman in Southern Baptist life could participate in WMU activities if she so chose. Thus, WMU gave Baptist women a sense of identity through their participation, or sense of commonality through shared experience and a sense of empowerment through the results they achieved. For instance, in its first year WMU accounted for 18.14% of all missionary giving and between 1899 and 1906, WMU accounted for well over 30% of all missionary receipts.
If Armstrong mobilized women, she also fostered clear communication lines between the main Southern Baptist organizations. Turn-of-the-century Southern Baptists had no reliable mechanism to fund its entities. Consequently, each Southern Baptist entity competed with the other entities for money. Armstrong took a certain amount of pressure off of the agencies and as WMU flourished, the Boards looked to WMU for more support.
Annie Armstrong’s outspoken, sometimes blunt manner led to numerous conflicts ranging from complaints that WMU over-promoted home missions to using questionable fundraising methods. Her sundry squabbles eventually took their toll. In 1906, she stepped down as Corresponding Secretary of the Woman’s Missionary Union. Thanks largely to her, the SBC had ethos and network, not to mention the wherewithal, to carry the gospel to the ends of the earth.
For more information about The Annie Armstrong Easter Offering visit NAMB.net