Regina D. Sullivan

Lottie Moon


1840 (December 12):  Charlotte Digges Moon was born to wealthy slaveholders in Albemarle County, Virginia.

1858:  Moon had a conversion experience and joined the First Baptist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.

1861:  Moon earned the equivalent of a master’s degree from Albemarle Female Institute, Charlottesville, Virginia.

1873:  Moon began her career as a Southern Baptist missionary in Shandong Province, China.

1885:  Moon moved into the Shandong interior alone and established her work as an independent missionary.

1885:  Moon inspired the first Christmas Offering fundraiser for mission work, which drew Southern Baptist women together to support her personal mission.

1888:  The Woman’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), formed as an independent organization, separate from the SBC, as a result of the Christmas Offering campaign.

1912 (December 24):  Moon died en route back to the United States in Kobe Harbor, Japan.

1913:  Virginia Snead Hatcher’s article, “Miss Lottie Moon. She Being Dead, Yet Speaketh,” created the myth that Moon starved herself to death.

1918:  The Woman’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention, named their annual fundraiser, “The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” and began using her life story to publicize it.

1927:  The Southern Baptist Convention published the first hagiography of Lottie Moon, turning her life story into a fundraising tool.

1980:  The Southern Baptist Convention published the second hagiography of Lottie Moon, firmly establishing a starvation myth as part of her narrative.

2018:  The SBC raised nearly $160,000,000 through the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” with the total since 1888 being more than $4,500,000,000.


Charlotte Digges Moon was born in 1840 to an elite slaveholding family in Albemarle County, Virginia. The fourth of seven children, Moon grew up in a privileged antebellum household yet one in which the daughters each received educations comparable to their brothers’. Her older sister Orianna, for example, wanted to earn a medical degree as their brother had and was the first Virginia woman to become a trained physician. Lottie Moon, too, attained an elite level of education, earning in 1861 the equivalent of a master’s degree from Albemarle Female Institute, which shared faculty with the University of Virginia. Notably, both Moon and her older sister openly resisted religion and held opinions that were at odds with the views of their society. Orianna Moon took pride in her lack of religion, her belief in women’s rights, and her opposition to slavery. (The following biographical account comes from Sullivan 2011.) Their mother and grandmother were prominent Baptists, but until she was eighteen years old, Lottie Moon remained happily areligious. She mocked her pious classmates and teased her devout friends. But in 1858, she decided to become a Christian. Her conversion came not in a sudden emotional religious experience but rather through a decision to give rational consideration to the topic. Afterward, she was devoted to her beliefs, but her intellect and rebellious personality did not change.

After her graduation from Albemarle Female Institute in 1861, she had hoped to go abroad as a missionary, but the Southern Baptist  Convention (SBC) denomination [Image at right] discouraged single women from applying for such positions. There was no justification for sending single women into the mission field since, according to the social norms of the time, only men could publicly evangelize mixed audiences containing men and women. Such activities were deemed outside of women’s proper sphere in the home. After the Civil War (1861–1865), however, Baptist men began to question the proper conduct and place of southern women in light of the difficult economic conditions in the postwar South. In short, women’s work was needed. In 1871, the Southern Baptist Convention’s Foreign Mission Board (FMB), an all-male body, changed its policy and began allowing single women to receive appointments to missions abroad. The justification for this change was a policy known as “woman’s work for woman,” which argued that single women, unburdened by family responsibilities, could visit Asian women in their homes and teach school. While this policy opened mission work to women like Lottie Moon, who left for China in 1873, it also limited their influence specifically to women and children.

Soon after Lottie Moon arrived in the city of Penglai (then known as Tengchow to the missionaries) in Shandong province in 1873, she began making trips outside the city walls with two female colleagues. The women would travel to a village, wait for a crowd to gather, and then speak to them about Christianity. The missionaries did not separate the villagers by gender before beginning to talk with them. Instead, they simply started speaking or preaching, as they termed it themselves. Moon immediately understood that their behavior blurred the boundaries of what was considered proper in her home country, but she was committed to her Christian responsibility for the souls of all those she met, not simply the souls of women.

In the early 1870s, female missionary societies were just beginning to form in southern states, and Southern Baptist missionaries were few. In her earliest reports to the Foreign Mission Board, Moon appealed for more workers, especially men who were permitted to preach and evangelize in public. Finally, after two years in China and many such appeals, Moon wrote that she had recently been invited to a nearby village to speak to a hall overflowing with potential converts. She described her dilemma: “I hope you won’t think me desperately unfeminine, but I spoke to them all, men, women and children . . .” (Moon 1876).

In late 1885 Moon relocated to the Pingdu district in Shandong province, sensing that rural folk might find her teachings more appealing than had the city dwellers of Penglai, where the main mission station was located. Until the Foreign Mission Board could approve the new station, Moon wrote to the FMB informing it that she had taken up residence in Pingdu. When she heard back from the FMB months later, she discovered it had decided against funding the new station, but it was too late. Moon was already settled and refused to abandon her post. During the next five years, she would make her home there. She used the freedom this isolated village afforded to work autonomously and create a personal mission in a place where she could finally be, as she put it, “responsible to God and not to man” (Moon 1879).

It was in the Pingdu district that Southern Baptists found their greatest number of Chinese converts. Through Moon’s personal evangelism and the efforts of missionaries funded by the Christmas offering, a church and school were formed in the village of Shaling in 1891, and by 1898 there were four churches in the Pingdu district and educational services were added as well. In 1891, Moon returned to the United States for her long-postponed furlough. When she returned to China in 1894, she left the Pingdu district to younger missionaries and devoted herself to evangelism in the Penglai area and, from time-to-time, she organized and oversaw schools. Moon remained on the mission field in Shandong Province, China until she fell ill in 1912. She died aboard a ship in Kobe harbor, Japan while en route back to the United States on December 24, 1912.


Although Lottie Moon grew up in a Baptist household, the antebellum period was one of religious flux in Virginia, and she was exposed to other beliefs before deciding to become a Baptist. Her maternal uncle, James Turner Barclay, and his family, for example, converted and became the first Disciples of Christ missionaries and, later, her two youngest sisters became Catholics.

Throughout her missionary career, Moon proved devoted to Southern Baptist doctrine. Evangelism defines the Southern Baptist self-concept and was, indeed, the main justification for creating and maintaining an overarching denominational structure. In fact, the denomination was created when northern Baptists refused to appoint southern slaveholders to the mission field. Southerners broke away and formed their own organization in 1845.

The Baptist beliefs that emerged out of the Protestant revivals of the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840) emphasized the conviction that each Christian can access God through prayer and can read and interpret the Bible for himself/herself with God’s guidance and without the mediation of a priest. Therefore, each individual Christian is responsible for using their gifts in service. Baptists also stressed the need for an emotional conversion experience; the importance of full immersion water baptism; and participation in the Lord’s Supper. Southern Baptists took, and still take, the command to go out into the world to teach the Gospel message as the supreme directive. Lottie Moon took seriously God’s call to preach the Gospel and this led her to bump up against the restrictions that women on the mission field faced.

Moon therefore decided to break with Baptist tradition, which reserved the privilege of preaching to men  alone. [Image at right] While on evangelistic tours outside the United States, she spoke to men whenever the situation presented itself. She rejected the “woman’s work for woman” policy that had been used to justify sending out unmarried women as missionaries. In 1883 she wrote, “Can we wonder at the mortal weariness and disgust, the sense of wasted powers and the conviction that her life is a failure, that comes over a woman when, instead of the ever broadening activities she had planned, she finds herself tied down to the petty work of teaching a few girls?” (Moon 1883:48). Moon now began to argue that the restrictions placed on single women missionaries were impractical and, in many cases, unjust. Her openness brought harsh criticism. To her critics, she replied, “What women have a right to demand is perfect equality” (Moon 1883:54). Two years later Moon made her final break with the “woman’s work for woman” policy by moving 150 miles into the interior of Shandong province to live alone and independently engage in direct evangelism, although she never abandoned the Southern Baptist denomination or her position as a missionary.

While there were theological controversies and disagreements during her lifetime that caused the Southern Baptist Convention to remove some of its prominent intellectuals and to push out supporters of what came to be known as Landmarkism, Moon never wavered. She had studied classical languages and could read the New Testament in Greek. When the issue of higher biblical criticism challenged the Baptist belief that the Bible is written by God and is therefore inerrant, she took no public stand. She never challenged traditional Baptist beliefs, nor did she ever support alternative funding models that would have eliminated the SBC Foreign Mission Board.

Instead, Moon kept faith with her denomination’s primary objective: direct evangelism. When she found that the gendered restrictions placed on her kept her from what she saw as her true and highest calling, she spoke out against these traditions. Her solitary accomplishments in China led her to argue that all Southern Baptist women should abandon their fear and trust that defying male authority was proper (and even necessary) when following the Gospel imperative.


After the Foreign Mission Board declined to fund her missionary station in 1885, Lottie Moon began a public campaign for financial assistance by publishing articles in the Foreign Mission Journal and state Baptist newspapers. Moon first directed her appeals to the FMB and Southern Baptist men. When she received no response, Moon turned away from the men and appealed, instead, to the Southern Baptist women’s missionary societies. White Southern Baptist women had been trying for years to form an overarching women’s organization for their local missionary societies and had failed due to opposition from male denominational leadership. A women’s organization, even if it functioned solely to raise funds for missions, would exist outside formal control of Baptist men and would thus be “irregular,” according to the men (Religious Herald 1888).

In 1887, Moon published an article in the August issue of the Foreign Mission Journal in which she advocated for a female organization to support missions. To shame the Southern Baptist women into taking action, she compared their efforts with those of their closest denominational rival, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Moon wrote: 

The Southern Methodist women manifest an intense enthusiasm for foreign missions. They give freely and cheerfully. Now the painful question arises: What is the matter, that we Baptists give so little? Whose the fault? Is it a fact that our women are lacking in the enthusiasm, the organizing power, and the executive ability that so conspicuously distinguishes our Methodist sisters? It is certain that women can be found willing and glad to come and work for God in China. The lack is not of women who would come but of money to send and sustain them (Moon 1887a).

In the December 1887 issue of the Foreign Mission Journal, Moon spoke out again, but this time she included more detail and even stronger language. She reminded her readers that, until the Methodist women organized, their work in China had reached its nadir: “In like manner, until the women of our Southern Baptist churches are thoroughly aroused, we shall continue to go on in our present ‘hand to mouth’ system. . . . [W]e shall continue to see other denominations no richer and no better educated than ours, outstripping us in the race” (Moon 1887b:224).

Despite continuing opposition from many Baptist men, in 1888 the women, using Moon’s arguments, formed an Executive Committee, which would become the Woman’s Missionary Union. While they claimed to have organized the white Baptist women of the South into a region-wide association, in reality, approximately thirty women had voted to form a committee of nine that now claimed to speak for all Southern Baptist women. To engage local societies across the region, they would need a special project. In July 1888, the FMB secretary wrote to the Executive Committee and suggested that the women take on a fundraising campaign to support one of their own, Lottie Moon. The Executive Committee decided to do as Moon herself had suggested. They would use the Methodist model and lead Southern Baptist women in a fundraising campaign centered around the Christmas holiday, an offering designated to help Moon in Pingdu.

The Christmas Offering campaign captured the imagination of Southern Baptist women as no other fundraising effort previously had. In total, approximately $3,500 was raised in 1888, $1,500 more than the original goal. By July 1889, the Executive Committee of the WMU was earning praise from Southern Baptist men where a year earlier it had heard only criticism. There had been only thirty-five women at the organizational meeting in 1888, but in 1889 latecomers found standing room only. Among the many speakers on the agenda were two who spoke about Lottie Moon. The first was a recently returned missionary who gave the women a firsthand account of the situation Moon faced in Pingdu. Then one of Moon’s schoolmates recounted a letter she had recently received asking once again for help. At that point, a woman rose to remind the delegates of their success with the Christmas Offering and expressed concern that other fields might be neglected if everyone remained so intensely focused on Moon and China.

The women of the Southern Baptist Convention, though, would not be turned away from Moon and her work. Annual Christmas Offerings organized by the WMU continued with Moon and Pingdu as their special object for three more years. Unlike the first Christmas Offering, which was publicized mainly through the women’s missionary societies’ journals, later campaigns increased in scope and spread to the state Baptist newspapers, intensifying as Moon continued to postpone her furlough. She remained in China where the yearly Christmas Offerings she inspired guaranteed that her station would not suffer from lack of funding as the Foreign Mission Board struggled to stabilize its finances. It was not until 1892 that Moon finally agreed to leave China for her furlough.

During the WMU’s first decade, strengthened organization and successful fundraising increased its power and assured its legitimacy. By the end of the nineteenth century, Southern Baptist women had moved firmly into the public realm. And, as a result of her efforts, Lottie Moon was lauded as no other Southern Baptist missionary had ever been. Women regularly paid tribute to her in state Baptist newspapers and journals. But perhaps the most telling measure of Moon’s stature in her denomination came in 1890 when, at the Southern Baptist Convention meeting, a delegate, after hearing the report of her work for the year, remarked that it had often been said of her: “She is the greatest man among our missionaries” (SBC Proceedings 1890).


It is not this story, however, that the Woman’s Missionary Union has perpetuated about Lottie Moon . In the materials that the WMU has produced, [Image at right] her vital role in the organization’s formation is downplayed or not mentioned at all. Her use of rights language and her willingness to defy male authority are overlooked. Instead, the WMU re-characterized her life, flattening it into stereotypical images of the southern “lady,” idealized missionary, and martyr. The irony is that Moon’s experience does not fit these stereotypes. Although privileged, she never played the “southern belle” role in her youth. Instead, she studied, pursued a profession, and became an advocate for women’s equality and organization. As a missionary, she again broke the mold, refusing to speak only to women in the mission field or to confine her work to a prescribed area where she was under male control. Instead, Moon ignored policies designed to restrict her activities and became a pioneering evangelist on her own. Her solitary accomplishments in China led her to argue that all Southern Baptist women should abandon their fear and trust that defying male authority was proper (even necessary) when following the Gospel imperative.

In fact, when the Chinese Revolution (1911–1912) brought fighting to the region Moon refused to follow the U.S. Consul’s order to remove to the port city of Yantai (then known to the missionaries as Chefoo) for protection. Instead, the intrepid seventy-one-year-old traveled alone to the city under bombardment to volunteer with the Red Cross. After she returned to her home in late summer 1912, Moon developed a boil on her neck, which caused a serious infection that eventually affected her spinal cord. The illness caused mental deterioration and physical wasting, although she was under the constant care of medical professionals.

Throughout the twentieth century, denominational accounts of Moon’s life remained relatively close to the historical record except when relating the details of her death. While outlandish claims about her accomplishments persist on denominational websites to this day (for example, that she translated the Bible into Chinese and led a campaign against foot binding), the most persistent fiction remains the starvation myth. Its main components are as follows:

Moon sacrificed her life for the Chinese on the mission field and, most symbolically, at her death. Overwhelmed by the Foreign Mission Board’s indebtedness and inability to help with famine relief, Moon stopped eating as a protest and in order to give all of her own money to those suffering. Ultimately, Moon starved herself to death to save Chinese Christians and to bring attention to Southern Baptists’ lack of financial commitment to the FMB.

This rendition was first put into print in an article written by a school friend following Moon’s death, but soon faded (Hatcher 1913). The 1927 hagiography, Lottie Moon, written by Una Roberts Lawrence (1893–1972), a writer for WMU, repeated the starvation story (Lawrence 1927), but the narrative did not become a standard feature in promotional materials until the mid-1960s. When WMU employee Catherine B. Allen published her updated hagiography of Moon in 1980, she admitted that some Southern Baptists hoped for a more fact-based account. In the foreword to the first edition, Allen noted that many had asked her not to perpetuate “that myth about [Moon] starving to death in a famine” while others advised her not to “tamper with that precious story” (Allen 1980:4). In the end, Allen chose to continue the legend. She writes that by the fall of 1912 Moon “had ceased to eat so that her impoverished Chinese might be fed” (Allen 1980:276).

Perhaps the story’s most dramatic use came in 1988. On the centennial of the WMU’s founding [Image at right] and  the first Christmas Offering, posters designed to publicize the event proclaimed, “Lottie Moon Is Starving Again.” The text reads:

Just 76 years ago, foreign missionary Lottie Moon literally starved to death. She refused to see the Chinese people she loved go spiritually or physically hungry. So she gave all she had to give—from her food to her last ounce of strength. . . . This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. It’s been six years since we’ve met the offering goal. Lottie Moon is starving again. The 1988 goal is $84 million. If each Southern Baptist gives $10, we will not only reach, but surpass the goal. But if we don’t, what happened to Lottie Moon could happen to foreign missions. How much will you give to keep foreign missions alive? (Lottie Moon Christmas Offering Promotional Files 1988 ).

This narrative of martyrdom has proven to be an amazingly successful fundraising tool, and it continues to have profound significance for Southern Baptists.

Moon’s life ended at age seventy-two on December 24, 1912, on a ship en route to the United States, then in Kobe Harbor, Japan, but her memory has lived on, taking shape in this new narrative, one with such power and flexibility that it changed Moon from a historical figure into a legendary symbol for Southern Baptists. The “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” named for her in 1918, brings this story  [Image at right] into Southern Baptist churches across the nation and around the world each December. Annually, the WMU and the Foreign Mission Board, now called the International Mission Board, produce new materials to teach 14,500,000 adherents about the SBC’s commitment to overseas evangelism. For more than a century Moon’s life has provided the centerpiece to this fundraising effort. In a religious tradition dominated by men, Southern Baptist women gained power by creating a gripping account of female piety and sacrifice, one that has brought the denomination more than $4,500,000,000 and ensured the survival of Southern Baptist mission efforts.

Since its inception, the Woman’s Missionary Union, with headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama, has existed as an independent organization, free from the control of the male leadership. To raise money, the WMU needed an appealing narrative but, even more importantly, it needed one that would downplay their struggles with the Southern Baptist leadership. Moon’s role as instigator of the WMU and rebellious pioneer female missionary are, therefore, silenced in favor of Moon as a martyr to the mission cause. According to the narrative, Moon protested Foreign Mission Board policies by starving herself, not by encouraging Southern Baptist women to organize, the new account goes. Thus her memory has served the institutional purposes of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has subsumed her active life to its own need for effective fundraising for missions that does not challenge male denominational leadership. In the end, a tension remains. A factually remembered Moon would be a female activist who preached to mixed male-female audiences in China, argued for women’s equality, and inspired Southern Baptist women to bring the WMU into existence. Yet such activities conflict with the traditional understanding of the female role for Southern Baptist women as submitting to male headship.

Moon, therefore, for Southern Baptists remains a female saint who evinces Christ-like qualities by sacrificing her own life, refusing to take food so that famine sufferers in China might have more and so that she would not increase the Foreign Mission Board debt. That this story of martyrdom is not true has not prevented it from resonating deeply for Southern Baptists for more than a century.


Lottie Moon’s struggle to live an independent life as a female missionary had ramifications both in China and in the United States. As she found her personal calling and moved alone into the interior of China, she challenged patriarchal gender roles (in America) and inspired Southern Baptist women back home to form an independent organization in 1888, the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), to support mission work financially, specifically women’s missionary work. Moon’s popularity among white Baptist women across the South made her famous in her lifetime. The creation of “The Lottie Moon Story” by the WMU has ensured that her memory, although distorted for fundraising purposes, lives on into the twenty-first century. She is, arguably, the most remembered and regularly celebrated nineteenth-century Southern woman in the Southern Baptist tradition, celebrated around the world each year within the denomination.


Image #1: Lottie Moon, ca. 1860s, from a Woman’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention, pamphlet.
Image #2: Lottie Moon, ca. 1880s. Charcoal drawing. Hunt Library, Woman’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Image #3: Lottie Moon with Ella Jeter (left) and Jessie Pettigrew (right), 1905, Penglai, China. International Mission Board, Southern Baptist Convention.
Image #4: “Lottie Moon Is Starving Again” poster. Woman’s Missionary Union, Auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention
Image #5: “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering” promotional material.


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