It was soon after Thanksgiving when Chelsen Vicari noticed a new foreign-missions display at the Southern Baptist church she joined after moving to Fancy Gap, in the Southwest Virginia hills.
What caught her eye was a large -- sort of -- image of Lottie Moon, a pioneer missionary and educator in the late 19th century.
”I was relatively new to Southern Baptist life, so I had no idea who she was,” said Vicari, describing that moment two years ago. “I couldn’t understand why they made the cardboard cutout so short. ... I asked around and what everybody kept telling me was that she was a missionary in China and that she was really short -- like 4-foot-3.”
Vicari kept digging and found details that, as a writer, left her intrigued. For starters, the Southern Baptist project long known as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering -- with deep ties to the Women’s Missionary Union -- has raised $4.4 billion since 1888. The International Mission Board’s 2017 goal is $160 million.
Eventually, Vicari read many of the letters Moon began writing after she reached China in 1873. These inspiring and poignant epistles, over her 40 years of service, helped change how Baptists built their global work in missions.
The letters challenged comfortable Americans to consider the needs of suffering people in China. But they also included blunt quotations such as: “I have a firm conviction that I am immortal until my work is done,” and “I would I had a thousand lives that I might give them to the women of China!”
Moon died on Christmas Eve, 1912, her body weakened by a near-starvation diet she adopted while serving others during a famine.
“So here we have this giant international missions offering, raising millions of dollars year after year, and it’s dedicated to the life and ministry of this tiny, but really strong woman,” said Vicari, evangelical program director for the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. “You could say that Lottie Moon is the Southern Baptist’s Mother Teresa, except that what I’m discovering is that many young Baptists don’t know anything about her.”
It’s the kind of life Christians have honored through the ages. As the Baptist historian Justice C. Anderson once wrote: “If they had a Pope, Southern Baptists would surely insist that he beatify Charlotte Digges Moon. Although they all consider themselves ‘saints,’ Lottie, as they affectionately call her, would be their ‘Patron Saint.’“
In an online tribute, Vicari noted several key details in this missionary’s story.
-- Raised in a wealthy Virginia family, Moon excelled at foreign languages and, unusual for a Southern woman in those times, earned a graduate degree. She founded several schools in Kentucky and Georgia and continued that work in China: offering educational options for girls.
-- Moon was one of the first unmarried women sent overseas by the Southern Baptists. Over the decades, she helped support medical projects, as well the establishment of a theology school. In northern China, many tolerated or welcomed her work, but others called her a foreign “devil woman.”
-- When many Chinese declined invitations to church, Moon began going door-to-door, focusing on evangelizing women. During one 11-day trip, she visited 44 villages.
-- In her letters, Moon stressed mission field challenges, as well as progress reports. She wrestled with disputes among missionaries, as many suffered from stress, depression, fatigue and local illnesses. Her candid reports led to strategic policy changes, including furloughs to help prevent burnout on the mission field. In one letter, she noted: “I pray that no missionary will ever be as lonely as I have been.”
What emerges from Moon’s letters is a brilliant, determined and, at times, even rebellious woman. She never married, although Vicari noted that private letters included heartbreaking passages revealing that she was in love with one of her Virginia professors. But she went to China anyway.
“She must have been a rather feisty and faithful woman to have taken on the Southern Baptists of her day and done everything that she did,” said Vicari. “She truly believed that she had heard a call from God and nothing was going to stop her from answering it. She let God use her in a remarkable way and her work is still touching people around the world.”
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)