Lottie Moon: The Long Shadow of a Tiny Missionary Giant

Editor’s note: The following is the transcript of a story David Platt shared during the IMB Dinner at the 2018 SBC Annual Meeting.

The harvest is very great, and the laborers, oh! so few. Why does the Southern Baptist church lag behind in this great work?

Such were the words of Lottie Moon on November 1, 1873. Twenty-four years prior, the Foreign Mission Board (FMB) had established a policy that no single woman could serve as a missionary. But Lottie believed that every person, regardless of gender, and every church, regardless of size or resources, had a part to play in reaching every nation.

The year 2018 marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) official acknowledgment of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. We’ve raised billions of dollars in honor of this fiery miniature missionary, a four-foot-three woman whose feet didn’t even touch the floor when she sat in a chair. But you have to look back to before the formation of the SBC to see why the messengers of the 1918 convention made sure we’d remember her name one hundred years later.

The Beginnings

December 12, 1840—that is the day Charlotte Digges Moon was born in Virginia, not too far from the estates of Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe. Before long, Charlotte picked up the nickname of “Lottie.” Her family was thoroughly Baptist and financially wealthy, giving her access to education other girls did not have.

She attended the Virginia Female Seminary at the age of fourteen, and then the Albemarle Female Institute at seventeen, becoming proficient in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, taking up Hebrew as well. By the time she finished school, John Broadus called her “the most educated woman in the South.”

But while her mind was strong, her heart was sinful. When she was eighteen, Broadus held a series of evangelistic meetings at the church near the school. Lottie wasn’t interested in going, but her friends prayed specifically for her by name until one night she decided to attend the meetings in order to mock what was happening.

But that night, December 21, 1858, Lottie Moon was born again.

Her zeal for God grew, as did her desire to teach, so she moved to Danville, Kentucky, where she taught at a girls’ school. While there, Lottie met G. W. Burton and A. B. Cabaniss, former Southern Baptist missionaries to China. By the time she moved with her friend Anna Safford to Cartersville, Georgia, to start a girls’ school, she was giving money regularly to the FMB.

But Lottie never thought of going as a missionary herself. One of her biographers, Catherine Allen, wrote, “Most Baptists did not think that God called women to anything.” Preachers “wouldn’t have [even] thought to direct the mission call to women in [their] audience[s], except as they might ride along with [their] husbands.”

Things soon began to change in 1872 when a Woman’s Mission to Woman organization started in Baltimore, eventually spreading to different states. Through this, women began raising funds for missions that flowed to the FMB, and with those funds came great influence. Henry Allen Tupper, the corresponding secretary (equivalent to the position of president) of the FMB at the time, began sending single women as missionaries overseas.

This was due to a simple case that had arisen: a couple planning to go overseas wanted the wife’s sister, who was single, to come along with them. As soon as the Board approved this case, a single woman from the Moon family appealed to go as well. But it wasn’t Lottie—it was her sister, Edmonia. She said, “If you’re sending single women, sign me up,” and on April 9, 1872, Edmonia Moon became a Southern Baptist foreign missionary. Two months later, she was in China.

The Call to Go

It didn’t take long for Edmonia to appeal for Lottie to join her. She wrote: “You are doing a noble work at home, but are there not some who could fill your place [there]? I don’t know of anyone who could fill the place offered you here. In the first place, it is not everyone who is willing to come to China. In the next place, their having the proper qualifications is doubtful.”

With the seeds planted in her heart, in February of 1873, Lottie heard a sermon from her missions-minded pastor, R. B. Headen, who pleaded for more laborers to go. Lottie spent the afternoon praying and would later say that day that God’s Word, through her pastor, cemented her determination to go to China.

Coincidentally, Anna Safford, Lottie’s Presbyterian friend and fellow teacher, sensed the same call. They told the girls and families at their school that they would be leaving to become missionaries; many people who heard this remarked that it was a “waste of such excellent women on the uncaring heathen.” Why go to China when these good Southern girls in Georgia needed education so desperately?

However, steadfast in the face of discouragement, Lottie was officially appointed as a missionary by the FMB on July 7, 1873, leaving the United States on September 1, 1873, at the age of thirty-two. After a brief stop in Japan and many tumultuous days at sea, Lottie finally landed in Tengchow, China, her home for the next thirty-nine years.

One Presbyterian leader said of Tengchow, “No one lay or clerical will hold out in this place without a clear call of God to labor for the souls of men.” There was much work to be done—Tengchow was surrounded by millions of people in villages where the gospel had never gone. It was a tough city with tense hostilities. However, those in the city were indeed open to receiving foreigners. This allowed a great opportunity for Lottie.

Work in Tengchow

Before long, Lottie was traveling with other missionaries to villages to share the gospel. They would ride into town and were immediately greeted by curious onlookers. A crowd then drawn, they would share the gospel, teach songs, and answer questions.

In this setting, Lottie’s fiery personality would come out. It was not uncommon for people to call Westerners “foreign devils,” and Lottie was patient with the adults who spoke this way, but she would not tolerate this speech among children. One day, some boys surrounded her on the street, ridiculing her and calling her names.

In response, she stood up to her four-foot, three-inch height, gave them a stern lecture, and told them they had no manners. They were dumbfounded. With mouths shut, they sat down around her, and thirty minutes later those same boys who had berated her were chanting the catechism and singing the hymn “Happy Land” with her.

Slowly, Lottie began falling more and more in love with the place and people she knew in China. She would spend her days traveling from village to village. At one point, she covered forty-four villages in eleven days. She was hooked. She had found her life’s work in China.

She labored in this way for three years until her sister Edmonia became sick, needing to go back home to the US. So, in the winter of 1876, Lottie escorted Edomnia back to Virginia. However, she was restless to get back to the field as soon as she could.

When she returned overseas a year later, she wrote, “I do so love the East and Eastern life! Japan fascinated my heart and fancy four years ago, but now I honestly believe I love China the best, and actually, which is stranger still, like the Chinese best.” With this love for the Chinese in her heart, she went to work setting up a school, teaching women and girls in the church, and traveling into villages for evangelism.

Her ministry was hard work, which is why she was unhappy when she read that the Biblical Recorder back home had announced that the days of missionary hardships were over. She wrote home, saying,

I am always ashamed to dwell on physical hardships. But, this time I have departed from my usual reticence because I know that there are some who in their pleasant homes in America, without any real knowledge of the facts, declare that the days of missionary hardships are over. To speak in the open air in a foreign tongue from six to eleven times a day is no trifle.

The fatigue of travel is something. The inns are simply the acme of discomfort. If anyone fancies sleeping on brick beds in rooms with dirt floors and walls blackened by the smoke of many generations, the yard also being the stable yard and the stable itself being within three feet of your door, I wish to declare most emphatically that as a matter of taste, I differ. If anyone thinks he would like the constant contact with “the great unwashed,” I must still say from experience, I find it unpleasant. If anyone thinks that the constant risk of exposure to smallpox and other contagious disease, against which the Chinese take no precaution whatsoever, is just the most charming thing in life, I shall continue to differ. In a word, let him try it! A few days of roughing it as we ladies do habitually will convince the most skeptical.

Indeed, these hardships took a toll on many people. By 1877, of the eight new missionaries who came after Lottie, three were dead, three had breakdowns and left the field, and one had resigned over a doctrinal issue. Thus, more reinforcements were needed. This troubled Lottie. Why, she asked, did one million Southern Baptists only have one man and three women witnessing to thirty million souls? She wrote, “[A Christian] should ask himself not if it is his duty to go to the heathen, but if he may dare stay at home. The command is so plain: ‘Go.’”

Transition to Pingtu

Lottie stayed in Tengchow and its surrounding villages until 1885, when she decided it was time to go inland to a city called Pingtu. At that time, Pingtu held the twelfth largest population in the world. No missionary had ever been able to establish work there. In fact, the US consul was strongly opposed to any woman going inland because of lack of protection.

But this uncertainty—knowing the task would be especially difficult—did not stop Lottie. She wrote, “I feel my weakness and inability to accomplish anything without the aid of the Holy Spirit.” She wrote home, requesting people to “make special prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Pingtu, that I may be clothed with power from on high by the indwelling of the Spirit in my heart.”

God answered those prayers. People started placing their faith in Christ, converts were baptized, churches were formed, and missionaries were being trained and sent out. One man with whom Lottie started studying the Bible, Li Show-Ting, came to Christ and would later become the greatest evangelist of North China, personally baptizing upwards of ten thousand people.

Lottie knew that God’s Word was doing all of this work. She wrote in her Bible, “Words fail to express my love for this holy book, my gratitude for its author, for his love and goodness. How shall I thank him for it?”

The Charge for Help

More funds and missionaries were needed to sustain the now growing work in China, causing Lottie to write a letter on September 15, 1887, that would go down in Southern Baptist history. It read,

In a former letter, I called attention to the work of Southern Methodist women, endeavoring to use it as an incentive to stir up the women of our Southern Baptist churches to a greater zeal in the cause of missions. Southern Methodist women, in one year, have contributed to missions, clear of all expenses, nearly sixty-five thousand dollars! Doesn’t this put us Baptist women to shame?

And I am convinced that one of the chief reasons our Southern Baptist women do so little is the lack of organization. Why should we not learn from these noble Methodist women, and instead of the paltry offerings we make, do something that will prove that we are really in earnest in claiming to be followers of him who, though he was rich, for our sake became poor?

Lottie suggested that Southern Baptists spend a week of prayer together for global missions, followed by an offering to be gathered at Christmas, “the most appropriate time to consecrate a portion from abounding riches and scant poverty to send forth the good tidings of great joy into all the earth.”

With this idea presented at the end of 1887, debate followed through the following spring that led to the SBC and the women’s meeting of 1888. That year, an executive committee of Woman’s Missionary Societies, soon to be called the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), auxiliary to the SBC, was formed during the convention at Richmond. By the end of that year, the WMU had raised enough money to send three women to help Lottie.

When these women were on their way to meet her, Lottie wrote,

Please say to the new missionaries that they are coming to a life of hardship, responsibility, and constant self-denial. They must live, the greater part of the time, in Chinese houses, in close contact with the people. They will be alone in the interior and will need to be strong and courageous. If “the joy of the Lord” be “their strength,” the blessedness of the work will more than compensate for its hardships. Let them come “rejoicing to suffer” for the sake of that Lord and Master who freely gave his life for them.

Hardships and Trials

Suffering was indeed increasing, and persecution was becoming a greater problem at Pingtu. When newly converted Christians stopped worshiping their ancestral tablets, family members began beating them. At one church, some came running to tell Lottie of the persecution. Lottie hurried to the scene where she stood in front of the persecutors and boldly declared, “If you try to destroy this church, you will have to kill me first. Jesus gave himself for us as Christians, and I am ready to die for him now.”

In addition to mobs like this, Lottie encountered bombs from Japan. One year, she was on her way home from Christmas in Pingtu when she heard that the Japanese had bombed Tengchow. As soon as she arrived at her house, she found it bombed and deserted. The other missionaries had fled to a nearby US warship. The locals begged Lottie to stay and help bring comfort to them amidst the bombings, so she did.

A similar situation played out a few years later during the Boxer Rebellion when Christians were again under attack at Pingtu. As soon as she heard the news, Lottie wanted to go to the Christians there but knew that to do so would be risky since she was a foreigner. So she got together an enclosed sedan chair, similar to what Chinese officials rode in, and dressed herself in a man’s long Chinese robe and short coat like the officials wore.

She put on large rimmed glasses and slicked back her hair, wearing on her head a hat with an official’s bright red button. She opened the front lap of her chair and sat with her arms folded on the crossbar, looking royally from side to side. Everyone thought she was a Chinese official as she was transported safely into Pingtu. Upon arrival, she removed the disguise and found thirteen Christians who had been brutally tortured. She consoled and encouraged them, and they knew she had risked her life to care for them.

Through this hardship, Lottie was thriving in many ways, saying, “I have never found mission work more enjoyable. . . . I constantly thank God that he has given me work that I love so much.”

Decline in Health

Yet she was struggling in her health. In 1903, at sixty-three years old, Lottie returned to the States for rest. Those who had known her could see that she was struggling physically and pleaded with her not to go back to China but to instead retire in the United States. To this Lottie responded, “Nothing could make me stay here. China is my joy and my delight. It is my home now.”

So she returned to Asia. Immediately, she jumped into organizing four day schools, counseling visitors, teaching classes, and overseeing Sunday schools, all in addition to her main work of evangelism in the city and the country.

By 1910, she had the privilege of attending an associational meeting of Chinese churches and seeing a room full of second and third generation believers, the fruit of her labors. At the same time, 250 people a year were being baptized in Pingtu.

Yet amid the reward of her labors, Lottie experienced an increasing loneliness. After more than thirty-five years on the field, Lottie wrote, “I pray that no missionary will ever be as lonely as I have been.”

The year 1911 brought severe famine to the Chinese, and to Lottie. She wrote, “How can we bear to sit down to our bountiful tables and know of such things and not bestir ourselves to help? Missionaries not only give their money but give their lives to help the famine stricken. Hardly ever did I know of a famine that did not claim its victims among missionaries.” She pleaded for more funds from Southern Baptists, but she received word that the FMB was in debt and could send nothing.

So Lottie used her own funds to provide relief for the starving around her until she had nothing left.

At this point, Lottie was struggling physically. She asked another missionary, Dr. Adams, to come and help her write her will. When Dr. Adams came, he found a woman who weighed approximately fifty pounds and was extremely frail. Wondering how she had deteriorated physically so quickly, he learned that Lottie had made a conscious decision not to eat so her impoverished Chinese neighbors could be fed instead.

The missionaries decided they needed to send Lottie back to the United States. She had no desire to go, but they insisted it was the only way she could recover. She had no strength to fight them. So they tucked her into a shentze for a journey to the coast, where they carried her aboard a ship and placed her in a quiet cabin.

One night, Lottie whispered to the missionary accompanying her, Miss Miller, “Jesus loves me. . . . They are weak, but he is strong. Do you know that song, Miss Miller?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Miss Miller replied. “Many is the time you have taught that song to the Chinese, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” Lottie answered, then asking, “Will you sing ‘Simply Trusting Every Day’ for me?”

Miss Miller sang the hymn to her, to which Lottie replied, “Oh, that is a sweet old song.”

Through the long night, she would rouse and say, “We are weak, but he is strong.” By morning she could no longer speak but only point upward whenever Miss Miller approached her. The ship slowly made its way to a stop in Kobe, Japan, and there, on Christmas Eve, Lottie opened her eyes. She smiled silently and looked around her. Then with great effort, she raised her fists together in the fashion of a fond Chinese greeting, and the next moment her spirit and body were completely still.

Following her death, the captain of the ship wrote,

Tuesday, December 24, 1912, harbor of Kobe, Japan. Miss Lottie Moon, age seventy-two, died of melancholia and senility. The remains were cremated at Yokahoma on December 26. Personal effects consisting of one steamer trunk taken care of by Miss Cynthia Miller, her traveling companion and friend.

The remains of Charlotte Digges Moon were returned to the Foreign Mission Board in a small brown package. The Chinese mourned. “When will the Heavenly Book Visitor come again?” they would ask. “How she loved us.”

In the year that she died, almost 2,500 people were baptized where she had worked. This was the fruit of a woman who once had said, “I would I had a thousand lives that I might give them to China!”

Continuing Lottie’s Legacy

“The harvest is very great, and the laborers, oh! so few. Why does the Southern Baptist church lag behind in this great work?”

Why, Lottie Moon had asked, with so much opportunity to spread the gospel around the world to people who have never heard the name of Jesus, do so few Southern Baptists go to them? Why were Southern Baptists placing limits on the kinds of people who could go? Why were Southern Baptists placing limits on the amount of support they might send?

Lottie wrote,

The needs of these people press upon my soul, and I cannot be silent. It is grievous to think of these human souls going down to death without even one opportunity of hearing the name of Jesus. Once more I urge upon the consciences of my Christian brethren and sisters the claims of these people among whom I dwell. Here I am working alone in a city of many thousand inhabitants, with numberless villages clustered around or stretching away in the illuminate distance: how many can I reach? Why are the laborers so few? Where we have four, we should have not less than one hundred. Are these wild words? They would not seem so were the church of God awake to her high privilege and her weighty responsibilities.

And so on the one-hundred-year anniversary of the offering that bears her name, I exhort pastors and church leaders across this room: “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” So how will you pray, and how will you pastor your church to change that? How will we as a convention of churches change that?

This is why we exist as a Southern Baptist Convention: for the sending of missionaries to men, women, and children like those in Tengchow and Pingtu who have never heard the good news of the gospel.

At the IMB, we believe that every church, regardless of size, location, or resources has a vital role to play in reaching every nation. You can lead your church to engage in prayer and giving. The IMB can help. You can equip your church to understand God’s mission. The IMB can help. You can lead your church to go to the nations by taking short-term trips or sending individuals and families from your church to join missionary teams. The IMB can help.

This is a collective effort, and it is going to take all of us playing our part—every church working together for the spread of the gospel to every nation. We must not settle for anything less than that in the Southern Baptist Convention.

David Platt is president of the International Mission Board. You can find him on Twitter @PlattDavid

The quotes in this article originated in Lottie’s letters from the field back home. You can find a collection of some of her letters and quotes here. Learn more about the offering that bears Lottie’s name here.