On a monument in China set up by the Tengchow Church in 1915 is inscribed the following description of Lottie Moon: “After she graduated from school she never married. She dedicated her whole spirit, body, and life to the service of God” (foreword).
There is no indication that Charlotte “Lottie” Moon purposed to be single all her life, but certainly, it’s clear that she not only had a brilliant mind and longed for satisfying work but also that she believed her call to the mission field took precedence over any personal or romantic desires. Lottie was once asked if she had ever been in love, and she answered, “Yes, but God had first claim on my life, and since the two conflicted, there could be no question about the result” (139).
“Through her singleness, Lottie became a living picture of Christ’s power in and for every Christian. This is a picture the church still needs today.”
That claim on her life was God’s call to the foreign mission field, specifically, China. Her call to the mission field coincided with the Southern Baptist Convention’s new willingness to send single female missionaries to serve in a foreign field. As a result, Lottie arrived in China in October 1873, when she was thirty-two years old. For the next forty years, she worked tirelessly to bring the gospel and various social reforms to China, including her work to educate girls and to end the practice of foot binding.
Although Lottie hadn’t set out to be single, she found there were many advantages to it, particularly on the mission field. Some of these advantages were practical. For example, she was free for itinerant evangelism (the practice of spending days walking through the countryside, going from village to village in order to share the gospel) in a way that the married female missionaries simply were not. Lottie wrote, “It might well be frankly said that only single women can be depended on to do evangelistic work. . . . Ladies with families cannot, and indeed ought not to do country work. Their work lies immediately around their homes” (143–44).
This unique ability of single women to devote themselves to the rugged work of itinerant evangelism was also not lost on H. A. Tupper, executive secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board, who said, “I estimate a single woman in China is worth two married men” (136).
But perhaps more importantly, Lottie’s singleness gave her the opportunity to experience important and profound theological truths. One example of this was that her singleness, according to Lottie, invited her to rely more intentionally and fully on the Holy Spirit. Certainly, Lottie depended on her fellow missionaries for support, encouragement, and help, but at the same time her singleness, as she saw it, created opportunities in which she did not have immediate access to human help and encouragement, such as when she moved by herself to P’ingtu in order to open a new mission station in 1885.
Although in many ways it was intimidating for a single woman to move into the interior of China by herself, Lottie looked forward to the greater freedom that would be available to her in P’ingtu. There she could explore her growing dependence on God and his power.
In a letter written during her first winter in P’ingtu, she said, “I feel my weakness and inability to accomplish anything without the aid of the Holy Spirit. Make special prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in P’ingtu, that I may be clothed with power from on high by the indwelling of the Spirit in my heart” (160).
“It was in China, by herself, separated even from her fellow missionaries, that [Lottie Moon] he discovered in a new and powerful way that Jesus himself was her truest home, friend, and fatherland.”
In her private spiritual life, Lottie approached an almost constant experience of the presence of Christ in her life and a profound dependence on the Holy Spirit in all she did. In a letter to H. A. Tupper she wrote:
As you wend your way from village to village, you feel it is no idle fancy that the master walks beside you and you hear his voice saying gently, “Lo! I am with you always even unto the end.” And the soul makes answer in the words of St. Bernard, the holy man of God, “Lord Jesus, thou art home and friends and fatherland to me.” Is it any wonder that as you draw near to the villages a feeling of exultation comes over you? That your heart goes up to God in glad thanksgiving that he has so trusted you as to commit to your hands this glorious gospel that you may convey its blessings to those who still sit in darkness? When the heart is full of such joy, it is no effort to speak to the people: you could not keep silent if you would. . . . What does one care for comfortless inns, hard beds, hard fare, when all around is a world of joy and glory and beauty? (89)
It was in her singleness that Lottie came to know the truth of Jesus’s promise to the disciples, “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matt. 19:29 NIV). She had willingly given up her fatherland, her home, and many friends, including one who could’ve become her husband. She left all of these things behind when she committed herself to doing God’s work in China.
Yet it was in China, by herself, separated even from her fellow missionaries, that she discovered in a new and powerful way that Jesus himself was her truest home, friend, and fatherland.
The Gift of Singleness
Through her singleness, Lottie became a living picture of Christ’s power in and for every Christian. This is a picture the church still needs today. Lottie’s life of ministry in singleness is a resounding “yes” to the idea that singleness can be received and stewarded just as marriage, and that singleness doesn’t simply have practical value but also theological value.
Single people in the church continually act as a reminder to all of us that it’s the calling and equipping of the Holy Spirit that fits any one of us for God’s work. It’s not our human relationships and institutions (as dear to us and as good as those things are) that move the church forward. Rather, it is the power of the Holy Spirit which enables the church to declare the gospel of Jesus Christ and to grow into God’s future.
Lottie Moon’s willingness to give up marriage for the call of Christ, her willingness to go into the heart of China even if it meant going by herself, her joy in these decisions, and the immense harvest sowed and reaped through her obedience testify to this very thing.
Christina Hitchcock is a professor of theology at The University of Sioux Falls, a Christian liberal arts college affiliated with the American Baptist Churches, USA, and is the author of The Significance of Singleness.