It was May 14, 1888, when a group of women gathered and formally organized what is known today as Woman's Missionary Union, Auxiliary to Southern Baptist Convention, in the basement of Broad Street Baptist Church in Richmond, Va. They elected Annie Armstrong as their leader and set up headquarters in Baltimore from 1888 to 1921.
"When WMU organized in 1888, praying for and giving to missions was at the forefront of the women's minds," Wanda S. Lee, executive director/treasurer of national WMU, said. "They had read many missionary letters; heard the pleas from individuals, like Lottie Moon; and recognized the need to raise awareness and increase funding to support missions. What began with gathering eggs and baking bread to sell for missions soon turned into a missionary movement unlike anything their churches had ever experienced.
"Once they saw the impact they were having in isolated areas," Lee said, "they realized there was strength in their collective efforts for missions. As a result, WMU was born and continues today with that same passion for praying and giving on behalf of our missionaries."
At that historic inaugural meeting of WMU 126 years ago, it was the determined voice of Annie Armstrong who challenged the women to organize with these words: "What are your marching orders?"
Born in 1850 in the industrial port city of Baltimore, Armstrong, or "Miss Annie" as she was affectionately known, attended Seventh Baptist Church. At Seventh, Armstrong was baptized at the age of 20, and shortly thereafter joined more than 100 members from Seventh to pioneer a new work at Eutaw Place Baptist Church. There, Armstrong remained an active member for nearly 70 years, until her death in 1938.
Describing Armstrong as "a tall, stately, outspoken, strong-willed leader," author Bobbie Sorrill credits Armstrong's Harvard-educated pastor Richard Fuller for building her deep convictions about missions. With his preaching described as "logic on fire," Fuller's passionate Southern lawyer roots paved way for his influence in framing the Southern Baptist Convention, at which he preached the first annual sermon, giving Armstrong and others an insider's view into the birth of the denomination.
At the local church level, Armstrong taught in the Infant class (also called the Primary Department, for children up to age 12) for 50 years. All the while, she maintained an interest in ministering to mothers, immigrants, the underprivileged, the sick, African Americans, Indians, and later in her life, her Jewish neighbors. Accordingly, she worked at the Home of the Friendless, a shelter for destitute children, where she served on the board of managers for more than 20 years. She also started the Ladies' Bay View Mission, an organization to help the destitute and poor of Baltimore, in the same site as today's Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.
Not only did Armstrong embrace Baltimore with the love of Christ, but her reach also extended to the uttermost parts of the world. Most notable are her efforts in missions education and missions support.
In 1880, in her first prominent leadership position, Armstrong served as the first president of the Woman's Baptist Home Mission Society of Maryland, which involved women in supporting the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention. The society's first priority locally was forming an Indian school and ministering to Chinese immigrants. The organization also provided support for work in Cuba and New Orleans.
Armstrong later became the corresponding secretary of the Maryland Mission Rooms, later called the Mission Literature Department, SBC. This department served as a missions library and reading room and ultimately became a publisher and distributor of missions literature.
Beginning in 1888, Armstrong led in framing the constitution of WMU. She served as corresponding secretary -- a position equivalent to executive director today -- until 1906, always refusing a salary for the work she did through WMU to further the Gospel.
"Annie set an example of sacrificial giving and commitment that continues as a part of the fabric of WMU today," Lee said. "From teaching children to caring for the immigrants in Baltimore to sending aid to the Native Americans of Oklahoma, she modeled during those formative years how Jesus calls us to share His story with all people while meeting their physical needs. Annie also established WMU as the missions information center for Southern Baptists."
Without the benefit of today's technology, Armstrong wrote letters by hand to all the Southern Baptist foreign societies. On one occasion, she asked them to contribute to the first Christmas offering to send one missionary to assist Lottie Moon in China. That offering resulted in enough money to send three. The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions, so named at Armstrong's recommendation, has raised more than $3.7 billion for international missions from 1888 through 2012.
In 1895, Armstrong led WMU to contribute $5,000 to help alleviate the Home Mission Board's $25,000 debt and prevent the withdrawal of missionaries from their mission fields. In response, WMU instituted the Week of Self-Denial as a time of praying for and giving to home missions.
"Miss Annie was never one to long for the past or to linger in the present," Debby Akerman, national WMU president, said. "From WMU's first offices in Baltimore, she envisioned WMU's future, prayed for God's guidance, and led the fledgling organization steadily forward ... laying a solid missions foundation on which future leaders would build."
WMU's headquarters remained in Baltimore until 1921 when they moved to Birmingham, Ala. The organization occupied two different locations in the downtown metro area, one from 1921–1951 and the second from 1951–1984, before moving to their current address at 100 Missionary Ridge.
Over the course of 126 years, WMU has grown from a group of women passionate about missions to a thriving international missions organization that encourages both genders and all ages to share the love of Christ and seek to make Him known.
Also consistent with WMU's focus on supporting missionaries, this year's WMU Missions Celebration in Baltimore prior to the SBC annual meeting will feature a rare opportunity on Sunday, June 8, to experience a joint commissioning service of approximately 100 new field personnel representing the International Mission Board and North American Mission Board. Those who attend will hear from SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page, NAMB President Kevin Ezell, IMB President Tom Elliff and national WMU leaders. This portion of the event will take place at 4 p.m. in the Baltimore Convention Center Ballroom. Admission is free and everyone is welcome.
For more information about WMU's Missions Celebration, visit wmu.com/baltimore. For more about missions discipleship and involvement opportunities, visit wmu.com.
Shannon Baker is director of communications at the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. Julie Walters is corporate communications team leader for Woman's Missionary Union.
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