On Lottie Moon’s 181st birthday

Each year around Thanksgiving, Southern Baptists around the nation are reminded once again of her name. Charlotte Digges (or “Lottie”) Moon’s name has been associated with the annual missions offering taken in December since 1918. She may be the most famous woman in Southern Baptist history. And yet, most of the people who write a check each year to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions have no idea who she was.

I think that’s how she would have preferred it. She didn’t seek fame or notoriety, though she certainly could have. She was born to a wealthy family in Virginia on December 12, 1840. (That’s right. Today would be Lottie’s 181st birthday.) How wealthy was her family, you might ask? She grew up on the “Road of the Presidents”— the old route that passed the homes of James Madison, James Monroe, and Thomas Jefferson. When Thomas Jefferson died — the author of The Declaration of Independence, the second vice-president, the third president of the United States, and the real star of the Broadway musical, Hamilton — when he died, Lottie’s uncle bought Monticello — the famous mansion depicted on the back of the nickel. She grew up playing in the fields and on the estate of a former president.

Despite the fact that young women weren’t encouraged to pursue education beyond a certain point—they were to be prepared for marriage instead— her family’s wealth enabled her to study with tutors on the family plantation before being sent to a girls institute, and then after that to a woman’s college, eventually becoming one of the first women to receive a masters degree in the South. She had studied Greek, Hebrew, and Latin and had become fluent in Spanish and French. John Broadus, who was the pastor of Charlottesville Baptist Church and who would later go on to co-found and serve as the second president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY, claimed that she was best-educated and most-cultured woman in the South.

She could have sought to make a name for herself had that been her aim.

Three years before earning her masters degree, however, something in her life had changed. She had been a precocious and rebellious child. Her parents were devout Baptists, but she rejected their faith. When her cousin, Sarah prepared to go to Jerusalem with Lottie’s aunt and uncle as missionaries for the newly-formed Disciples of Christ — a new denomination that was forming as a break from the Baptists in America — Lottie scoffed.

All Christians do is argue, and the Bible is just a storybook. It’s a long way from Virginia to Jerusalem just to waste your time telling people fairy stories!

When classmates at her school noted that she was absent from church one Sunday during the school term, she replied that she was reading Shakespeare while lying on a haystack that Sunday morning. The bard, she believed, was much more to her liking than some dry, dusty ol’ sermon.

But in 1858, she was invited to attend a student revival, and in God’s providence she went for the purpose of making fun of it. But that night, the Holy Spirit would not relent. She was kept awake by a barking dog and discovered that she could not sleep. But the dog wasn’t her biggest problem. She began to worry about her spiritual condition and prayed. That prayer lasted all night. And eventually, she relented and trusted in Christ for salvation.

Lottie wasn’t able to sleep until she had found salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ.

She was baptized and was immediately drawn to the international missions effort. At that point, Southern Baptists had only ever sent one unmarried woman as a missionary and that had not gone well. In fact, Southern Baptists had determined never to do it again. If she wanted to go to the missions field, it seemed she would first need to marry.

Instead, she rode out the Civil War teaching her younger sister and helping her older sister — one of the first two Southern women to earn a medical degree — tend to wounded soldiers. After the war, she joined the faculty of a school in Kentucky and gave large portions of her income to missions through the Southern Baptist Convention. She taught in Georgia briefly, but in 1872, once the doors were re-opened for unwed women to serve on the mission field, it was only a matter of time before she took her opportunity.

For forty years, she made her home in Tengchow, China, teaching women and girls. But teaching was only her excuse. She wrote:

“Could a Christian woman possibly desire higher honor than to be permitted to go from house to house and tell of a savior to those who have never heard his name? We could not conceive of a life which would more thoroughly satisfy the mind and heart of a true follower of the Lord Jesus.”

Her gift was teaching. Her passion was evangelism — one-on-one, direct personal evangelism. She wrote letters — so many letters — to the president of what was then called the Foreign Mission Board (now the IMB) describing the life of a missionary in a foreign field, detailing the need for more workers, more teachers, more missionaries for the Gospel effort. But the board struggled with funding.

So Lottie took to her pen and wrote to encourage Southern Baptist women to organize mission societies in local churches to help support missionaries. It was her recommendation in 1887 that Christmas be designated as a special time for giving to the foreign missions effort.

“Need it be said, why the week before Christmas is chosen? Is not the festive season when families and friends exchange gifts in memory of The Gift laid on the altar of the world for the redemption of the human race, 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?”

The founding of the WMU — the Women’s Missionary Union — in 1888 was, in large part, due to Lottie Moon’s influence through her letters. That year, the first Christmas offering for missions was collected and over $3315 was raised — enough to send 3 new missionaries to China.

Her ministry gives us a helpful insight into the missions effort as a whole. She was studied in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin which were all beneficial in her study of the Bible. She was a gifted linguist in both Spanish and French, which were not necessarily helpful in her learning Chinese, but were beneficial in that she knew how to learn a language. And so, it’s unsurprising that she developed a keen command of the Chinese language that other missionaries and workers on the mission field envied. She become almost obsessed with honoring Chinese customs insofar as they were compatible with Christianity. She understood that the Gospel itself is an offense to the unbelieving. She did not need to be offensive in the manner in which she lived or behaved in their presence. And so she took on a posture of humility.

Along similar lines, she learned to live among the Chinese as the Chinese did. No doubt she had grown up accustomed to a particular way of life in the Virginia plantations, but she disciplined herself in such a way as to survive in primitive conditions among the lower-classes in China. She learned how to keep her composure under threats and confrontations and false accusations.

She exercised regularly in order keep her body strong. She ate a clean and balanced diet. She advocated that missionaries take regular furloughs to prevent burnout or premature death due to ill health and poor conditions and so extend their time on the mission field. The place she served in that particular part of China was known as a killing place. Numbers of missionaries suffered ill health and were taken home or died on the field.

Toward the end of her life, as she gained more influence among other missionaries in China, Lottie Moon cared for many of the missionaries and villagers who struggled out of her own personal expenses. It was a time of war and famine. She never carried much weight on her 4’3” frame, but in 1912, it was discovered that she was silently starving to death and weighed as little as 50 lbs., going without food in order to make sure others had enough. Fellow missionaries arranged for her to be sent home for medical care, but on December 24, 1912 she died in a Japanese harbor.

Had Lottie Moon sought to make a name for herself, she was well-equipped for the task. But her name is remembered specifically because she didn’t seek fame, but instead she was single-minded in one pursuit: “to tell of a savior to those who have never heard his name.”

This echoes the words of Isaiah 26, don’t they?

Yes, Lord, we wait for you in the path of your judgments. Our desire is for your name and renown (Isaiah 26:8, CSB).

More than fortune or fame, our aim and desire is for his name to be on our lips and etched on the hearts of those who have not heard. Whether your neighbors know the name of your church matters little. One hundred years from now, the only thing that matters is where they stand with Jesus. Do they know his name?

I could not offer you a better reason to give to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions. Every penny of every dollar goes directly to the missionaries on the field. One hundred percent of your gift supports men and women who are living in foreign lands declaring the name of Jesus — the only name by which we can be saved — to those who have not heard. What did the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering accomplish last year?

Last year (in the midst of COVID!, mind you), Southern Baptist churches cooperated together and, through their generous giving:

  • sent 422 new missionaries to the field,
  • planted 18,380 new churches,
  • led 144,322 people to salvation in Christ,
  • baptized 86,587 new believers,
  • and shared the Gospel with 769,494 people.

So I want to encourage you to participate this year in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. Pray about it. Ask the Lord what he would lead you to give for the sake of the Gospel in places where the name of Jesus Christ is not known.

In light of Lottie Moon’s life, I want to encourage you to participate in the missions effort in your local church. There are men and women and children in the neighborhoods around your church and around your home who do not know Jesus Christ as their Savior. As one of our church members shared with me just a few weeks ago, she told a boy she was going to church and his response was, “What is church?” Yes there is work to be done abroad, but there is work to be done here. That’s why I want to encourage you to continue returning the tithe and investing in the ministries of your local church, but also to be talking to your neighbors, your co-workers, your classmates, and anyone else you come into contact with. Explaining the difference that Jesus has made in your life should come as naturally as your next breath.

I used to think that talking about Jesus would come across as weird. As it turns out, it only came across as weird when I was being weird about it. It should be natural. And it will come more naturally if you’ll just speak freely about him. We find no difficulty speaking about our children or our pets or our favorite sports teams. Our words reveal our affections and our hearts. So speak of Jesus. It’s Christmas. His name is literally in the word. It’s all about Jesus!

Don’t shy away from telling others about the child in the manger. He is the Second Person of the Eternal Triune Godhead. He is the active agent of all creation — the one by whom and for whom all things were created — the one in whom all things are held together. And apart from him not one thing has been made that was made. He added humanity to himself and wrapped himself in flesh and was born, not as the king, but as the child of a young couple for whom there was no room in the inn. He would live a sinless life and die at the hands of sinful men. But in his death, he took the penalty of our sin and nailed it to the cross. He died, but on the third day rose again and ascended to the right hand of the Father. And there he intercedes on behalf of his children and invites every single person to experience forgiveness, redemption, and salvation through faith in him.

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