Lottie Moon: A life poured out for China and for God
If the Southern Baptists of America had a saint, it would undoubtedly be their most famous missionary, Charlotte (“Lottie”) Digges Moon. She was a devoted missionary to China, martyr to her convictions, and namesake of the annual Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for missions, the single largest annual offering gathered by any group of Christians in the world. So who was Lottie Moon, and what did she do?
Born in 1840, in Viewmont, Virginia, the third daughter of wealthy parents, Lottie Moon grew up there, to her full height of 1.3 m (4 feet 3 inches). As a student, she excelled in classical and modern languages, graduating in 1856 with a diploma in French. High-spirited, one April Fool’s day she climbed the school’s bell tower and wrapped towels around the bell so it would not ring.1
From skeptic to believer
She then attended the Albemarle Female Institute, the female counterpart to the University of Virginia, and completed a Master of Arts degree in 1861. Here she was openly skeptical of religion, and even signed a friend’s autograph book as ‘Deville’ to emphasize her non-belief.1 It was also here that the diligent and vivacious Lottie formed a lasting friendship with one of her teachers, the brilliant linguist Crawford H. Toy, who later became Professor of Hebrew and other Oriental Languages at Harvard University.
Many were praying for the skeptic’s conversion. It came about in December, 1858. One night a barking dog prevented Lottie from sleeping. While she lay awake the thought came to her, “Perhaps these things concerning the soul are true.” Determined to give the subject honest investigation, she went to a revival service at the local Baptist church the next night and committed her life to Jesus.2
In 1861, Toy proposed marriage to Lottie, but by then she had other priorities. Educated, independent, biblically literate, Lottie had been gripped by the Chinese people’s need to hear of Jesus, and wanted to go there as a missionary.3 She had to wait until the American Civil War (1861–1865) was over, and then for the Foreign Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention to change its reluctance to send women abroad. With few men available because of the war, this finally happened. On 1 September 1873, at the age of 32, Lottie went from First Baptist Church, Cartersville, by ship to China.
Missionary teacher and evangelist
Lottie quickly acquired the language, and in due course settled in the treaty port of Tengchow in the north-eastern province of Shantung as a girls-school teacher. However, she believed her call from God was to do evangelism, and this often took her into the countryside. At first, residents called her names such as ‘devil woman’, but when she responded by baking teacake cookies she became known as the ‘cookie lady’.4 She was a pioneer in identifying with the people by wearing Chinese clothing and adopting Chinese customs, which gained her trust and acceptance among the people whom she loved as friends. She became a leader in the effort to ban foot-binding of young girls, and she broke down barriers against their education.4
The Foreign Missions Board expected women missionaries to severely restrict their activities to ‘women’s work’, but when Lottie appeared in a village a crowd usually formed to listen to her. In a letter to the Board she wrote: “I halted at two villages and had an enjoyable time talking to the women. That the men chose to listen, too, was no fault of mine.”5
She fearlessly travelled across more than 26,000 km2 (10,000 square miles), visiting women and sharing the Gospel in their homes and on the streets. She explained the source of her strength amid this difficult work in a letter to the Secretary of the Board: “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.’”6
In another letter home she wrote of speaking in the open air in a foreign tongue from six to eleven times a day, the fatigue of travelling, the discomfort of sleeping on brick beds in rooms with dirt floors and soot walls blackened by the smoke of generations. And she suggested that anyone who thought the day of missionary hardships was over should come out and try it.7
In an appeal for more workers, Lottie wrote: “Let them come ‘rejoicing to suffer’ for the sake of the Lord and Master who freely gave His life for them.” And in 1877, Lottie wrote to the Baptist women of Virginia suggesting a week of prayer and a special Christmas offering. In due course this became an annual event that continues to this day as the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, which raises many millions of dollars, all for missions.
The fertile field of Pingtu
Later, Lottie transferred to Pingtu, 240 km (150 miles) west of Tengchow, because she found the people there were very interested in the Gospel. For years she was the only missionary there, beyond the reach of U.S. government protection and with no male supervision. In later years she wrote: “I hope no missionary will ever be as lonely as I have been.”
Never loath to issue a challenge in support of missions in her many letters home to Christian magazines and mission leaders, she often asked the question, “How many more souls are to pass into eternity without having heard the name of Jesus?” And in a letter to the Foreign Mission Journal she wrote: “When will some church say, ‘We will sustain one missionary in Pingtu and not only say but raise the money and send the missionary’?”8
In time, other missionaries were sent to Pingtu and the district provided the denomination with its greatest number of converts—some 400 in 1903 and 1,400 by 1910, in the field pioneered by Lottie Moon.9
The saint’s suitor
Some of Lottie’s letters home were published in the Religious Herald. These too portrayed how lonely she was. As a result, from 1877 her former heart-throb, Crawford Toy, began exchanging letters with her. By 1881, Lottie was deeply in love with him, and they were planning to marry when she returned to USA on furlough, and then go overseas to Japan as a missionary couple.
It was not to be. Toy had become involved in controversy. Following the Civil War, he had studied in Europe, absorbing both Darwinism and the higher criticism and rationalism of German scholars such as Wellhausen, who denied that Moses wrote the Pentateuch.10 Seeking to harmonize the first chapters of Genesis with the emerging science of his day, he held that the days of Genesis 1 were geological periods. However, as a Hebrew scholar, he knew that the Hebrew text required that the term ‘day’ meant a natural day of 24 hours.11 So he then moved to the view that the writer of Genesis was not describing history but had divided all created things into categories and had assigned them to days for poetic and rhetorical vividness. This too ceased to satisfy him because the Hebrew grammar clearly shows that Genesis is written as historical narrative.11 So he eventually began to ask, does not this chapter simply represent the “crude cosmogenic ideas of the Israelites and the Babylonians, from whom the Israelites seem to have got them?” Sadly these ideas brought him to the point where he was convinced that the proper approach to the Bible was to “take the kernel of truth from its outer covering of myth”.12
Speaking in 1985, Dr W.A. Criswell, two-term president of the Southern Baptist Convention, summarized: “Dr Toy went into the Unitarian Church13 and, finally, never went to church at all. He was a world famous scholar, internationally known author, a lovable man. But the virus of higher criticism destroyed his spiritual life and work.”14
Lottie was shattered and grief-stricken when she learned of the new theology and liberal beliefs of the man she had once so much admired and now so deeply loved. When asked by a relative in later years if she had ever been in love, she replied, “Yes, but God had first claim on my life, and since the two conflicted, there could be no question about the result.”12 She returned to China heart-broken, never to return home to America, never to marry, and died in the Orient, lonely in soul and pouring out her life in ministry to the Chinese people. Later in China, more letters arrived, and she wrote, “The temptation is great. The professor, however, now espouses theories that do not square with God’s Word. … My cross is loneliness.”12
Faithful unto death
In 1912, following civil war and famine in China, and approaching age 72, Lottie’s physical and mental condition began to deteriorate, and she suffered from depression. Her fellow missionaries recommended repatriation to the USA, accompanied by a missionary nurse. En route, she slipped into a coma, and in Kobe, Japan, went to be with her Saviour (Philippians 1:21–23), whom she had served so faithfully. Her ashes were then buried in her brother’s plot in the Crewe Cemetery in Virginia.15 Her memorial includes the words “faithful unto death” from Revelation 2:10, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Lottie Moon’s story has inspired generations and has helped shape the modern missionary movement. Her courage in choosing personal suffering rather than sacrificing biblical integrity continues to challenge—perhaps more than ever, in this age of increasing biblical compromise in the Western church.
References and notes
- Sullivan, R., Lottie Moon: A Southern Baptist Missionary to China in History and Legend, Louisiana State University Press, 2011, p. 23. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 25. Return to text.
- For a brief history of Protestant missions in China, see Grigg, R., The impact of evolution on the missionary evangelization of China, Creation 34(3):44–46, 2012. Return to text.
- dans.faithweb.com/missions/lottie/index/html. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 52. Return to text.
- The Little Woman with the Big Legacy, ChristianHistory.net. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 52-53. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 68. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, pp. 147 and 148. Return to text.
- Grigg, R., Did Mosses really write Genesis, Creation 20(4):43-46, Sept. 1998; creation.com/jedp. Return to text.
- For documentation, see the articles under creation.com/genesis and creation.com/compromise. Return to text.
- From an essay by Dan Gentry Kent, The Saint’s Suitor: Crawford H. Toy, baptisthistory.org. Return to text.
- This group denies the biblical Trinity doctrine; see the articles under creation.com/god. Return to text.
- Criswell, W., Whether we Live or Die, Message to the Pastors’ Conference, Southern Baptist Convention, Dallas, Texas, 06/10/1985. Return to text.
- Ref. 1, p. 168. Return to text.