Born in Albemarle County, Virginia, Charlotte “Lottie” Moon was the third of seven children. Her mother communicated her strong Baptist faith to Lottie and her siblings, but Moon did not profess a faith of her own until college. Moon was of “superior but undisciplined intelligence,” and drifted through several female academies before enrolling at the Albemarle Female Institute (an unofficial extension of the all-male University of Virginia) in Charlottesville in 1857. In this stimulating atmosphere, she matured spiritually and intellectually, graduating in 1861 with a master’s degree in classics. Moon was one of the first women in the southern United States to earn a master of arts degree. After graduation, Moon returned home, where she tended to the wounded during the American Civil War and helped tutor her younger sister, all while assisting to run the family estate, Viewmont. At the end of the Civil War, Moon, over-educated for a Southern woman, headed to Alabama and Kentucky to teach. There, she met another woman named Anna Cunningham Safford, with whom Moon became quite close. In 1871, the two decided to establish a female high school in Georgia. Although the school was successful, neither woman was satisfied. The door was opening for unmarried female missionaries, and Moon and Safford decided to enter the mission field in China.
In 1873, Moon joined the North China Mission and reported to Tengchow (Dengzhou), where her sister, Edmonia, was already serving as a missionary. Moon set in learning the language and serving as a teacher, remaining close to her sister. Unfortunately, Edmonia was very unpopular with the other missionaries. She was young and immature, and always claiming to be dealing with chronic illness. By 1875, Lottie Moon had taken over the school where her sister taught, and Edmonia finally left China in 1877. Moon threw herself into her language study, but she was extremely lonely and bored without the presence of her sister. An old beau of hers, Crawford Howell Toy, wrote to her proposing marriage and mission work together in Japan. Toy was teaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at the time, where his views on Darwin and his evolutionary theory were causing quite a stir. Moon read Darwin’s evolutionary theory and could not agree with his position. Consequently, she called off the marriage with Toy, later explaining that she gave up her love affair because “God had first claim on my life, and since the two conflicted, there could be no question about the result.” (Hyatt, 99) In the end, this situation with Toy only served to further confirm Moon’s conviction about her mission in China. From this point forward, Moon embarked on her own way and learned to fill her loneliness with God.
Moon set out to study her Chinese environment. In 1879, she went off on her first real country trip with fellow missionary Sally Holmes. She found that in the countryside, she was able to draw eager women, boys, and girls to hear her message. She discovered that itinerant country preaching offered superior evangelistic prospects than the city did. Moon began to form a preference for the countryside in China and took every opportunity to go out on evangelistic trips. 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 a life which would more thoroughly satisfy the mind and heart of a true follower of the Lord Jesus.” (Anderson, 208) Moon was also frustrated with her work in the school and tired of dealing with the conflicts caused by T.P. Crawford. Although she often agreed with Crawford in his disagreements with fellow missionary J.B. Hartwell, she was exhausted by having to serve as the mediator in their arguments. In 1885, she left Dengzhou for the countryside, going alone. Settling in P’ingtu (Pingdu), Moon became the first American woman to attempt sustained independent life under genuinely Chinese conditions.
Trying to arouse as little suspicion as possible, Moon made a practice of acting and dressing as the Chinese did. She waited to be sought out by the locals, setting a plate of cookies in her doorway to attract neighborhood children. Through these children, she met their mothers. Over time, Moon became accepted in her neighborhood. She described her plan of mission work: “The missionary comes in and settles down among the natives. His first objective is to convince them that he is human and that he is their sincere friend. By practice and gentleness and unwearied love, he wins upon them… Now begins the work of teaching with some hope of making a real impression.” (Hyatt, 108) Moon soon began to form women’s classes, teaching hymns and Christian doctrine.
During her first six months in Pingdu, Moon visited one hundred and twenty-two city homes as well as several hundred more in thirty-three surrounding villages. Although she always waited for an invitation, Moon made more friends in six months than she had made in ten years in Dengzhou. She reiterated to the Board: “I am more and more impressed by the belief that to win these people to God, we must first win them to ourselves. We need to go out and live among them, manifesting the gentle and loving spirit of our Lord…We need to make friends before we can make converts.” One frustration that Moon experienced was that she was not reaching any men in the community, and she felt that to make a tangible difference, she somehow needed to influence the men.
Still struggling with loneliness, Moon spent some time during the summers in Dengzhou, where she continued with teaching. Life in Pingdu was difficult, and Moon contracted a number of illnesses. She planned to go home on a furlough, but when three men showed up on her doorstep in 1887, asking her to come teach in their village, Shaling, Moon put off all thoughts of taking a break. Although for a woman to teach men in China was a breach of etiquette, since Moon was the only resident Christian, she had no choice but to work with the men. Moon quickly became the established spiritual adviser in Shaling, and she summoned Martha Crawford from Dengzhou to assist her in teaching the locals. About half of the area families went to hear Moon speak, with the result that Christianity soon became a neighborhood fascination.
When Moon wrote home with excitement about her progress in Shaling, her reports arrived at a crucial moment in Southern Baptist missions. Other mission stations were struggling, and finances were tight. Meanwhile, women’s interest in foreign missions was growing. They were looking for ways to get more involved. Moon urged women to help save the work of Southern Baptists through organization and donations. She suggested a week of prayer and special giving at Christmas for the benefit of missions work. Moon’s words struck responsive ears, and the Women’s Missionary Union was born. Following Moon’s advice, they solicited a special Christmas offering in 1888. With the money raised, they were able to respond to Moon’s requests for helpers to come live among the Chinese, sending three women over to join her.
In October 1889, Lottie Moon formally established the first Christian church in Pingdu at Shaling. In response, persecution broke out against the converts, but they remained strong in their faith and the church grew. Moon had been refusing to take her furlough until all the new recruits had been trained, but now she decided that she could take her long-awaited trip home to Virginia. She also wanted to allow the church to grow on its own, saying, “God grant us faith and courage to keep hands off [and allow the gospel to] grow naturally in China, without forcing the process.” (Hyatt, 117) Moon left for the United States in mid-1891 and did not return to China until early 1894.
From when she returned until her death, Moon spent her time in Dengzhou, never returning to Pingdu. Because her health was declining, she said she was drawn to quiet teaching in these later years of her life. Despite her absence, the church in Pingdu grew ever stronger, and by Moon’s death, over 1,400 people had been baptized and it had emerged as one of the greatest evangelistic centers the Southern Baptists had in all of China.
Moon spent her later years teaching boys in one institution while also teaching or supervising in six other schools for girls or women. She wrote about the boys’ school: “The school is the joy of my heart. It is a delight to see the boys growing in character…My boys are growing up to be gentleman, I hope, and perhaps someday they will be Christian gentlemen.” (Hyatt, 118) Moon also continued to write articles and to study Chinese, as she believed one must maintain his or her commitment to such an intricate language. In addition, Moon assisted in training new missionaries.
This was a time of great vigor among the whole missionary community in Dengzhou. T.P. Crawford was gone, and young, energetic missionaries had arrived. The other missionaries possessed a deep admiration for Moon, who evinced a great love for others and was convinced that she, the Chinese, and all Americans back home (including African-Americans) were equally brothers and sisters. Her time in Pingdu had taught her much about humility, sympathy, and imitating Christ. She was quite tolerant of others and insisted that “every missionary must be willing to yield to the Chinese social conventions, and strive to understand their viewpoint and conform to it.” (Hyatt, 119) She did not hesitate to admonish Southern Baptists for their doctrinal disputes, the inconsistency of their sending missionaries to Africa while oppressing blacks in the United States, and their meager support of foreign missions.
Moon remained in China during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, even though many other missionaries fled. She believed her presence would give courage to the Chinese. Moon fed the hungry, took in several orphans, and rescued a large number of dogs. She began to despair about the effects of the war in China, however. The cost of living skyrocketed, causing widespread starvation. Moon organized a nonpartisan Red Cross unit and a Women’s Missionary Union of North China to help alleviate suffering. The Foreign Mission Board was also struggling with financial difficulties, so Moon was left on her own to do this relief work. All of the suffering around her caused Moon to feel quite helpless, leading to her deterioration into a state of great depression by mid-1912. She withdrew all of her savings from a bank in Shanghai and gave the money to a famine fund. In August, she wrote “I pray that no missionary will ever be as lonely as I have been.” (Hyatt, 123) Her health continued to decline: she developed a cranial abscess and began to experience hallucinations.
Moon resolved that she would no longer eat, out of sympathy for the Pingdu Christians, who she believed were starving. Her colleagues decided to send her home, and Moon was placed on a ship that left on December 20th. Four days later, she passed away, apparently conversing with “Chinese friends long since gone on before her” (Hyatt, 123) Her body was cremated; her ashes sent home to Virginia, where they were buried. A memorial window was placed in the Baptist Church in the town where she was buried, with the inscription “Miss Lottie Moon, Our Beloved Missionary.” The Women’s Missionary Union pledged they would lift the debt of the Foreign Mission Board with their Christmas Offering of 1913, in honor of Lottie Moon. They also promised to tell her story; as a result, dozens of people said they responded to God’s call to become a missionary after reading about Lottie Moon.
Lottie Moon left quite a legacy, with her stature and impact only increasing after her death. The Women’s Missionary Union now collects more than $20,000,000 annually for Southern Baptist Mission work with “The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions.” This money constitutes over half of the total amount received by the Foreign Mission Board each year, providing support for more than 700 missionaries. Her life has also been memorialized in a motion picture (“The Lottie Moon Story”), a booklet, a cookbook, children’s biographies, playlets, Christmas cards, and cassette tape recordings.
Why did Lottie Moon become the patron saint of today’s Southern Baptist missions? Some speculate that her appeal stemmed from her status as both a Southern lady, gifted daughter of Virginia, and as “the greatest man among missionaries,” who was able to succeed where men had failed. Her work saved the North China Mission, and the Women’s Missionary Union’s efforts saved Southern Baptist missions.
In China, a monument to Lottie Moon was erected in the yard of Dengzhou Baptist Church in 1915, bearing her name, a brief explanation that she was an American missionary, and the words “How she loved us.”
- Anderson, Gerald H., Robert T. Coote, Norman A. Horner, and James M. Phillips, eds. Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1994.
- Hyatt, Jr., Irwin T. Our Ordered Lives Confess: Three Nineteenth-Century American Missionaries in East Shandong. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976.
- Tiedemann, R.G., ed. Handbook of Christianity in China, Volume Two: 1800 to the Present. Boston: Brill, 2010.