As I began my graduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I stumbled across the quotation above and, when I did, it gave me pause. The open defiance of authority expressed was notable in the writing of a female missionary, certainly. But this was not any missionary. This was Lottie Moon, the Southern Baptist icon and namesake of the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, promoted vigorously each year to supply funds for the denomination’s mission efforts. The woman I remembered from a childhood spent in Southern Baptist churches seemed at odds with this intriguing quotation so I began to focus my research on Moon. Who was this woman who supposedly starved herself to death out of devotion to the Chinese and mission cause? As I delved into the sources I discovered that the one-dimensional character I was familiar with from my youth deserved a more complex and comprehensive treatment of her life and work than had been created by denominational publications.
In my recently published study of Moon, I have stripped away the layers of misinformation that had built up since her death in 1912. As I looked closely at the primary sources, I found a woman whose life and work offers a view of nineteenth-century womanhood that corrects an understanding of them as passive and resigned to a domestic fate. Moon’s decision to go abroad as a pioneering single woman missionary was notable, to be sure. But her decision to advocate for the formation of the Woman’s Missionary Union and to argue for equal treatment of male and female missionaries moves her into the realm of activist and advocate. Only by removing the artifice of legend was I able to reveal the story of Moon’s unusual upbringing in Albemarle County, Virginia, her willingness to challenge gender norms and to support female organization.
Yet to consider Moon’s biography alone would provide only part of her powerful story. The legend of Moon’s death from starvation on the mission field has played a central role in how she has been remembered, especially since the myth of her Christ-like sacrifice is essential to Southern Baptist mission fundraising. Through painstaking research I was able to locate the origins of this mythology and explain how it formed and bloomed into legend. Moon did not starve herself to death nor did she give all of her money away to famine relief, as has been popularized in denominational publications since the early twentieth century. It is, indeed, ironic that Moon’s active life, her call for female equality and her support for female organization have been overlooked in favor of the starvation myth. Instead of being remembered for her forceful public call for female equality in mission work, Moon is made a self-sacrificing martyr each Christmas as the story of her death is retold to publicize the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. I invite you to a new consideration of the missionary in Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary in History and Legend.
Regina D. Sullivan holds advanced degrees in religion and history from Yale Divinity School and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches U.S. and global history in New York City. Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary in History and Legend is 264 pages and is available from Louisiana State University Press.