BATON ROUGE, La. (ABP) – A new book challenges the familiar story of Lottie Moon, a Southern Baptist missionary martyr who gave away all her money and starved to death to protest the Foreign Mission Board’s lack of funding for missionaries.
In Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary to China in History and Legend, historian Regina Sullivan says Moon deserves credit for her work as a pioneering single female missionary and strong advocate for the formation of Woman’s Missionary Union. The romanticized account of Moon’s death aboard a ship in a Japanese harbor on Christmas Eve in 1912, however, isn’t supported by primary documents, Sullivan claims.
After graduating from Ouachita Baptist University, Sullivan lived two yeas as an exchange student in Japan. The experience led her to Yale Divinity School, where she earned a master’s degree in religion. While at Yale she became interested in education in disadvantaged schools and decided to go to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Needing a research topic and having lived abroad, she was interested in women missionaries, who in the 1800s had more opportunities than those in the United States. During background research, she came across a quote from a letter by Moon to a male denominational authority: “It is a small thing to be judged of man’s judgment. It is good to know that we are judged by God.”
Sullivan found such open defiance intriguing and at odds with the Lottie Moon she learned about while growing up Southern Baptist in Benton, Ark. While several books and multiple articles have told Moon’s story from the denominational perspective, Sullivan says hers is the first critical study of her life by a historian of American history and religion.
Sullivan, who has since left the denomination, says that throughout the 20th century SBC accounts of Moon’s life remained close to the historical record except in details of her death. The basic story line goes that overwhelmed by the Foreign Mission Board’s indebtedness and inability to help with relief during a Chinese famine, Moon stopped eating as a protest and gave her money to those who were suffering.
She says Una Roberts Lawrence’s 1927 biography first put the story into wide circulation, but it did not become a standard part of the official “Lottie Moon story” until the 1960s and 1970s.
“She unselfishly gave all her savings and salary for relief to the Chinese people, because the Foreign Mission Board was badly in debt and couldn't help at that time,” a Baptist Press article promoting the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering reported in 1973. “If the people were starving, Miss Moon felt she should not eat either.”
A 1982 BP story said Moon “literally worked herself to death. During the great famine, she worked alongside her beloved Chinese in Tengchow until she grew too weak to continue. On the journey home to recuperate, she died aboard ship in the Kobe, Japan, harbor.
The message “Lottie Moon is starving again” was used to promote the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering during the WMU centennial year in 1988. “Almost 76 years ago, Southern Baptist foreign missionary Lottie Moon literally starved to death,” a Baptist Press article began. “Today, the same thing that happened to Lottie Moon could happen to foreign missions if Southern Baptists do not do something about it.”
Sullivan says the legend of Moon’s martyrdom started with missionary nurse Cynthia Miller, who accompanied her alone in her final days. Miller spoke to a former classmate, who wrote a full-page remembrance in the March 6, 1913, edition of the Religious Herald, the Virginia Baptist newspaper, titled “Lottie Moon: She Being Dead, Yet Speaketh.”
Sullivan said the story might have been forgotten if WMU had not made the annual Christmas offering first collected at Moon’s urging in 1888 a tribute to her memory in 1918.
Sullivan says a missionary doctor and his wife who visited Moon, and spent a few days in her home in September 1912, found her physically well. Soon after, co-workers became concerned about her erratic behavior. One missionary summoned to her home reported finding her in a “troubled state of mind.” She told the missionary she had overdrawn her bank account. He checked and found she had funds to her credit. Unable to convince her, he offered to loan her money.
Other visitors realized Moon was not herself. A missionary couple found her unable to care for herself properly and called a missionary nurse. She was thin and weak, and a large boil was found eating the flesh on Moon’s neck behind her ear.
The doctor who had seen Moon in September returned two months later and was shocked to see how dramatically she had declined. He found her delusional with paranoia fixed on money. She insisted she was out of money and afraid the Foreign Mission Board would run out of money and the missionaries would starve alongside the Chinese people.
The doctor treated the boil and theorized it injured her spinal cord, causing her dementia. The decision was made to send her to the United States for medical treatment. Some friends believed she would have preferred to die and be laid to rest in China.
Her doctor did not believe she would survive the journey. He put her on a liquid diet, because she had refused solid food for some time. At her death the ship’s captain didn’t want to bury her at sea, because it did not befit the dignity of a missionary. He was unsure if her embalmed body would be allowed in a U.S. port of entry, so the decision was made to cremate and inter her ashes next to her brother in Crewe, Va.
Sullivan noted with interest that the story of Moon’s death, while a powerful fund-raising tool, has largely overshadowed her life. She says Moon’s advocacy for female equality and support for female organization in the male-dominated Southern Baptist Convention moves her into the realm of “activist and advocate.”
“An actually remembered Moon would be a female activist who preached, argued for female equality and helped bring the WMU into existence,” Sullivan wrote. Such activities, however, “conflict with the traditional understanding” of the Southern Baptist view of women’s roles, Sullivan says, so Moon “remains a female saint.”
“Symbolically, Moon has been remade into a female Christ-figure, giving of herself so that others might live,” Sullivan wrote. “That this story of sacrifice is not true has not prevented it from achieving a deep resonance for Southern Baptists over nearly a century.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.
Lottie Moon, a missionary in history and legend