By Jenny Call
If Baptist churches had saints, Lottie Moon would certainly be at the top of the list. This 19th-century Southern Baptist missionary to China is revered for her 40-year ministry career in a denomination that is still divided over the issue of whether women can serve in ministry leadership roles. Although Moon stood at a diminutive 4 feet 3 inches, her strong will and feisty spirit made her seem larger than life. It’s no surprise, then, that she spent a couple of her formative years at Hollins.
Charlotte “Lottie” Digges Moon arrived at the Female Seminary at Botetourt Springs in 1854 at the age of 14. The school would be renamed Hollins Institute in her second (and final) year. She likely lived in the old Botetourt Springs Hotel, where West (built in 1900) now stands. Moon studied arithmetic (with professor and Hollins founder Charles Lewis Cocke), English, Latin, and natural science, and received a diploma in French in 1856. According to anecdotes about her time at Hollins, she was quite a character. She was known for her intelligence and knack for languages, and she also helped to found the Euzelian Literary Society. But she was frequently marked down in her behavior grades, skipped mandatory chapel 26 times in her final two quarters, and shocked other students by telling them that her middle initial “D” stood for “Devil.” She was so resistant to religion in those days that as an April Fools’ Day prank in 1855, she silenced the bell that would sound to wake the students for chapel by wrapping towels around it. In a time when a woman’s reputation meant everything, she made it clear that she didn’t care much for what other people thought. This moxie served her well in a career in which she was often pushing the boundaries, challenging the status quo, and finding new ways of leadership.
Following her time at Hollins, she attended Albemarle Female Seminary, where she was one of the first five women in the South to complete master’s-level work. Her turning point came during a conversion experience in 1858, and after spending a number of years as a teacher, she answered the call to missions, departing for Tengchow, China, in 1873. Moon was one of the first unmarried female missionaries to serve as part of a new policy within the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board) called Woman’s Work for Women. The board aimed to connect single female missionaries with Chinese women in the hope that they would share the Gospel with their families. The Southern Baptist policy did not permit women to teach men or to preach, and Moon came into conflict with this standard as she often found herself in mixed crowds. Concerned with the salvation of the Chinese people, she preached to anyone who came, while chiding the Southern Baptist Convention for not providing enough funding or male missionaries. She continued advocating for a woman’s place in ministry leadership and was the first woman missionary to pioneer a new mission station after her independent move to Pingtu, China.
When the Foreign Mission Board struggled to provide the support she needed, she turned her focus to women in the United States, encouraging them to organize and provide funding for missionaries. The women were eager to help and in 1888 organized to form the Executive Committee, which would later become the Woman’s Missionary Union. Through the work of the WMU and smaller missionary societies led by women, a Christmas offering was collected that aided the debt-plagued Foreign Mission Board and supplied three new missionaries for China. That offering was renamed for Moon in 1918, and to date has raised more than $3.5 billion for missions.
For Southern Baptists and for women in particular, Lottie Moon was an early feminist voice saying, “What women have a right to demand is perfect equality.” Her words still inspire us today.
Jenny Call, university chaplain, is an ordained Baptist minister. She based her research on Regina Sullivan’s biography of Moon, Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary to China in History and Legend.