The Forgotten Story of the State Lady Missionaries

Just as families lose their stories from one generation to another, the same is true for South Carolina Baptists. The forgotten story of the State Lady Missionaries is an inspiring story of how missions, cooperation, and education – the three founding principles of the South Carolina Baptist Convention – came together to shape the future of the state convention and the understanding of State Missions.

From 1886-1919, as South Carolina was moving from an agricultural to an industrial state, the population increased rapidly, and the number of Baptist churches grew from 730 to 1,139. The convention, or State Mission Board as it was then called, employed missionaries who worked across the state planting new churches, supporting and strengthening churches.

At the turn of the 20th century, the state grew from 34 cotton mills to 159 by 1907, and more were being built every year. Thousands of people flocked to the mills, creating new towns and mission opportunities.

To this challenge, God called a group of 30-plus women workers, known as State Lady Missionaries. They were assigned to minister in the mill villages, basically with women and children. Others were assigned as city missionaries. The cooperation of the state convention and the state Woman’s Missionary Union made the work possible, as many associational WMUs supported the salary of a Lady Missionary.

The State Lady Missionaries had a special section in the convention annual, included in the Report of the Executive Board. They were called “noble and consecrated.” Even though most of the individual reports no longer survive, associational, WMU and church histories give insight into their commitment and energy.

The first lady missionary was Massie Marshall, who worked from 1888-1889 in Greenville with factory workers.

The convention then asked the Woman’s Missionary Union to support the Cannon Street Mission (Rutledge Avenue Baptist) in Charleston by providing the pastor’s salary. In 1891, the WMU financially supported Eliza Yoer Hyde, who served Charleston as a City Missionary until 1912. Hyde also worked with the industrial schools of both Charleston First and Citadel Square. She also organized a band for children, which came to be known as Sunbeam Bands.

In her honor and memory, funds were collected to build the Eliza Y. Hyde Memorial Chapel. Even the children in Sunbeams contributed their pennies. The convention, in its 1912 obituary report, paid her tribute: “She was a rare spirit, and gave it in consecration to her Master’s service. To the end of her days, she fulfilled her mission.”

Hyde’s dedication and success were a testimony to what women could do on the mission fields at home. Single women missionaries had already proved valuable on the foreign field. Hyde would be the only lady missionary for 10 years, with the exception of Mrs. A.P. Brown, who served as City Missionary in Columbia in 1894. In 1902, Maria Jones and Lois Baker were appointed to serve in Columbia. Jones was supported by Greenville Association WMU, and Baker by Abbeville WMU.

As the number of mills and workers increased, Thomas M. Bailey, then corresponding secretary and treasurer of the state convention, had a vision for reaching the unchurched people in the mill villages. He spoke of the needs and opportunities of State Missions on the same level as those of Foreign and Home Missions, challenging South Carolina Baptists to respond and urging WMU to support a Lady Missionary.

The convention’s 1904 Executive Board report shows 37 men and seven women working to minister to more than 75,000 mill workers. By 1907, there were 126,698 workers. The goal was to establish a Baptist church in each village. Money was given for church buildings, and many times the mill company assisted, giving land and money to supplement a pastor’s salary or build a parsonage.

The 1910 U.S. Census revealed that most State Lady Missionaries were in their early to mid-30s, single and living in boarding houses. Their salaries were between $300 and $500 a year.

The work of the women was similar: They were to visit house-to-house, giving not only spiritual guidance but also helping with the sick, and many times offering nursing assistance. They sold Bibles, gave out tracts and other spiritual literature. Attending and sometimes conducting prayer meetings, they organized mothers’ meetings, distributed clothing to needy families, taught Sunday school, and led WMU, Young Woman’s Auxiliary, Sunbeams and Royal Ambassadors. Their influence on the children of the mill village is beyond measure.

Through the ministry of State Lady Missionaries, the Baptists of South Carolina gained a new understanding of mission work in their home state. The best example is the first State Missions offering, now known as the Janie Chapman Offering for State Missions, which collected $908.32 in its first year in 1900, and $32,667.28 in 1920. The 20-year total offering was $200,744.42. As the State Lady Missionaries told their stories of State Mission work in the mill villages, hearts and pocketbooks were opened to the lost people across the state.

— Jane Poster is with the South Carolina Baptist Convention Historical Services.