By Elizabeth Wells
Even in the era of hoop skirts and big hats, even when the best way for them to get from one town to another involved a horse and buggy, even before they were given the right to vote — women have always played a vital role in Alabama Baptist life.
Through the years Alabama Baptist women have served as leaders concerning issues affecting the moral and religious fiber of local, state, national and international life and as catalysts developing programs and organizations for spreading the gospel.
Every step of the way, The Alabama Baptist (TAB) chronicled and encouraged the contributions of these deeply committed Christian women.
Creating a convention
Do you want to turn a dream into reality? Then call on Alabama Baptist women, who were at the forefront of doing just that in the early 1800s. When today’s Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, Judson College, Samford University and TAB were only dreams, women were front-and-center in their establishment.
At the organization of the Alabama Baptist Convention in 1823, half of the funds given were raised by women and contributed by the Ladies Societies, a precursor to today’s Woman’s Missionary Union. Early Alabama Baptist leader Julia Tarrant Barron gave the land and funds for establishment of both Judson Female Institute (later renamed Judson College) in 1838 and Howard College (later renamed Samford University) in 1841. She was one of the Association of Brethren that owned and operated The Alabama Baptist (TAB) when it was birthed in 1843.
Early in its existence, TAB reported news of women’s mission efforts and work in the local church. In the days before the Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845, TAB printed personal letters from Adoniram and Ann Judson, America’s first foreign missionaries who served in Burma for almost 40 years. The state Baptist paper recognized the importance of reporting on matters of specific interest to women – allotting equal space for announcements of activities and work in women’s’ educational institutions as well as their advertisements.
Launching Alabama WMU
After the flurry of activity in the early 1800s, Alabama Baptist women kept the momentum going. In 1888 the Alabama Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) was formed, with a full report, including the organization’s constitution, published in TAB. News from the WMU was often on TAB’s front page.
In the 1890s the national WMU’s annual meetings were held simultaneously with the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, but often at another venue. In 1891, then-TAB associate editor C.W. Hare, covering the national convention, could not attend the WMU meeting. In true reporter fashion, he made it a point to obtain the WMU report so that it could be included in TAB.
In 1893, Alabama WMU held its first annual meeting.
In planning sessions for the 1893 Alabama Convention, the “Ladies” meeting was discussed:
Resolved that hereafter, Ladies Societies of our churches be and are hereby invited to hold by their delegates, a meeting of one day at some time during the session of this body; provided, that said meeting shall not interfere with the meetings of the Convention.
WMU Secretary Mrs. J.C. Brown reported in TAB:
The First annual meeting of the Woman’s Missionary Union of Alabama, auxiliary to the State Convention, met Wednesday, October 8, 1893, in the Presbyterian church of Greenville, Alabama. An attractive program had been prepared by the Central Committee, and was heartily participated in by a number of the workers. Reports from the associations were rendered by the vice-presidents, which, with the discussion of mission topics, filled the hearts of the hearers.
Welcoming a new day in higher education
Ever try “to dam up the Mississippi or to stop a cyclone”? Rather than trying to do the impossible, messengers to Alabama Baptists’ 1895 annual meeting voted to admit women to Howard College.
At that meeting the Howard College report, Col. Ward reported that Howard College (would begin admitting women) or (made a motion to start admitting women). He presented rationale for admission, noting that 90 percent of all teachers were women and that intellectually women were equal to men. The proviso was that women would not take the complete, four-year course but would enter at the junior level. Concluding:
You might as well attempt to dam up the Mississippi or to stop a cyclone to try to stem the tide on this question. The movement has come to stay. Auburn, Tuscaloosa, and Greensboro have wheeled into line and Howard purposes to stand abreast of them. The colleges need the gentle, refining influence of women in the formative period of life.
In the July 19, 1895, issue, TAB Editor John Harris commented on women at Howard College. He supported women’s education but considered coeducation a part of the “woman craze,” writing:
We predict that in the South, at least, the time will never come when any considerable number of our young women will attend the male college, which are throwing open their doors to them.
In another column, Harris affirmed women for their commitment to missions. He noted that banks might fail and the cotton prices were low. Still, he wrote, “Baptist women of Alabama go on raising what they can, sending boxes to frontier missionaries, presenting an example of ‘patient continuance in well-doing.’”
Supporting mission work
In 1898, there was a depressed tone in TAB Editor Harris’ column, but there was no hint of discouragement in Alabama Baptist WMU leader Mrs. L.F. Stratton’s column. She reported the continuation of a “Christmas Offering” for China, urged support for missionary Willie Kelly in Shanghai, encouraged observation of a week of prayer for missions, and emphasized the importance of sending boxes to frontier missionaries.
Even as most women continued in traditional roles of homemakers, many women were beginning to enter the workforce. An article in the same issue of TAB as Stratton’s column recognized that of the 20,000 government clerks in Washington, D.C., more than 6,000 were women, with annual salaries ranging from $600 to $2,800.
In 1899 TAB printed correspondence from missionaries Willie Kelly and Lula Whilden in China, with Annie Armstrong sharing their strength and work. Kelly was in the walled city of Quin San, and Whilden traveled to Canton with a guard because work in her area might be considered a disturbance by authorities.
When Frank Willis Barnett became editor in 1902, he dedicated “Our Women’s Page” to share correspondence and business for women statewide, “presided over by Mrs. L.F. Stratton, President of the Central Committee.” He asked readers to support all the missionaries, particularly those with Alabama ties, with prayers and finances.
In 1909, Alabama WMU moved its headquarters to Montgomery. Women were not only teaching about missions, but also encouraging missions giving. The 646 Alabama Baptist women’s and children’s organizations gave one-fourth of the $44,000 given to home and foreign missions by Alabama Baptists. The women expressed appreciation for TAB:
The merits of the page so kindly given them in The Alabama Baptist proves their appreciation of this organ, as well as their loyalty to it before the people whom they urge to subscribe it and support.
Affirming the voice of WMU in TAB
Women had long had a voice in TAB, and that voice continued to resonate, even as new editors took the reins.
In one TAB column in 1913, Barnett commented on the woman’s page:
For it took only a short time after coming back to Alabama to become editor that we made up our mind that the WMU was going to have a voice in The Alabama Baptist. So, we gave them a page, not merely because there were women of refinement and culture, but because we realized that they had definite ideas, and were consumed with an ardent desire to do things for the Master.
There is nothing wish-washy for what they believe in is responsive, aggressive, and efficient service. No other paper in the Southern Baptist Convention has a woman’s page equal to ours. Among the Baptist women of Alabama are many ‘elect ladies and not a few of the finest bachelor maids in the land.’
In 1920, Editor L.L. Gwaltney supported women for their work in missions and their leadership in the temperance movement, writing:
It is useless to fight against women. Better not, unless you want to get whipped. Paul ran when women opposed him. When the nations of the earth are coming to freedom, why not liberate women?
Editors of the paper supported, praised and publicized the role of women as they actively lived out their Christian commitments in local, state, national and international settings.
Editor’s Note: Elizabeth Wells is a retired archivist for Samford University and librarian for its Special Collection and Archives department in Birmingham. She also did the research for the upcoming book “The Alabama Baptist: Celebrating 175 Years of Informing, Inspiring and Connecting Baptists.” This article was originally published in The Alabama Baptist in July 2017.