The Woman's Missionary Union (WMU), founded in 1888, is a self-governing auxiliary organization of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, WMU boasts a membership of nearly one million spread among local SBC churches. WMU exists to provide members with missions
education and to encourage them to become actively involved in volunteer mission work locally and to give financially to SBC
The evolution of the Woman's Missionary Union began in the 1870s with efforts by women in local SBC churches to pray for the SBC mission effort and to protect the funds they raised for missionary work, which were often rolled into general church budgets. With the help of the Foreign Mission Board (renamed the International Mission Board in 1997), SBC women began organizing state Central Committees throughout the South that would manage funds for the mission boards. During the 1880s, a group of women made several attempts to establish a national organization to oversee the state committees. Their efforts were hindered by male church leaders, who feared that a strong women's group might threaten the mission effort of the SBC. These women were finally successful in 1888 with the creation of Woman's Missionary Union. Annie Armstrong, of Baltimore, Maryland, became the first executive director and established the national headquarters in her hometown.
Armstrong's main goal was to ensure that WMU would remain true to its primary purpose of supporting SBC missionary work. She insisted that local groups maintain the conservative traditions of the SBC, deferring to and supporting the pastors of their individual churches. No supporter of the women's-rights movement, Armstrong was adamant that women should not speak in front of men and refused to speak before mixed audiences throughout her service with WMU. Armstrong did encourage local groups to augment existing mission education programs, such as those for Woman's Missionary Societies for adult women and Sunbeams, for children.
These groups were instrumental in supporting two offerings that WMU collected. From the time of its creation, WMU supported a Christmas offering for foreign missions and an Easter offering for home missions. All of these funds went to support SBC missionaries, with WMU using none of the funds for its own budgetary needs. In 1918 leaders voted to name the foreign mission offering the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, after a legendary SBC missionary to China. The Easter offering received its current name, the Annie Armstrong Easter offering, in 1934.
In the early 1900s, WMU established as one of its goals training women as missionaries and founded WMU's Training School in 1907 at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. WMU later deeded the school to the seminary, and it became the Carver School of Social Work. Many more changes to WMU's mission and activities came with the appointment of Alabama native Kathleen Mallory, who served as executive director from 1912 to 1948.
Under Mallory's leadership, WMU began to urge local groups to join together to create settlement houses in cities across the
South. These were called Good Will Centers (not related to the modern Good Will Organization). Mallory was the first WMU executive director to travel to overseas mission fields, traveling
to East Asia. Mallory also guided the relocation of WMU headquarters after members expressed concern that the Baltimore site
was not centrally located in relation to most SBC churches. Mallory was instrumental in selecting Birmingham, Alabama, as
the new headquarters. WMU moved into the Comer Building in downtown Birmingham in 1921.
During the 1980s a fundamentalist faction within the SBC orchestrated a successful takeover of all SBC boards and agencies by gaining control of the appointment process for members of these entities. But because the SBC does not appoint board members for WMU, the faction could not gain control of that organization. The newly empowered fundamentalist faction retaliated by taking responsibilities away from WMU and giving them to other entities.
The struggle became public in 1995, when the International Mission Board attempted to trademark a WMU fund-raising program,
the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This would have taken the program completely out of the control of WMU, which had created
the fund-raising drive. The IMB halted its efforts after negative publicity about the issue began appearing in state Baptist
newspapers. WMU and the two mission boards ultimately reached the agreement under which WMU would hold the trademark and provide
exclusive license agreements to the boards.
Current Organizational Structure and Activities
As an auxiliary entity, WMU works with SBC churches and supports SBC missionaries but remains independent from SBC governance. WMU does all of its own fund-raising, primarily through magazine sales. WMU publishes close to a dozen magazines that serve primarily as curriculum and leadership guides for various women's and co-educational organizations. Similar men's publications are provided by SBC's North American Mission Board (NAMB). In addition to magazines, WMU offers books and Christian-themed gift items and handicrafts on its Web site. The most significant financial contributions, however, come from two annual offerings, the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. The Christmas offering, the oldest and largest of the two, raised more than $2.3 billion from 1888 to 2005, making it the largest offering in the Protestant denomination worldwide. With these funds, WMU supports the efforts of the SBC's two mission boards, NAMB and the IMB.
WMU is a grass-roots organization. Members belong to groups at individual Baptist churches, and activities at all other levels are geared toward aiding these groups. Though WMU offers co-ed organizations, the vast majority of members and officers are females. Adult members of individual groups elect a president who, after election, usually serves on the church council. Local groups belong to regional associations that coordinate leadership training and ministry efforts. Association members elect a director to guide the work.
Members of local groups gather for meetings, at which they study the activities of SBC missionaries and the cultures in which they live in order to learn how best to support ongoing work. Attendees also engage in Bible study and assess mission projects they can perform in their local areas as volunteers.
WMU state associations meet annually and elect a state president. Many state organizations also have paid staff members and are headed by an executive director. Large associations, mostly in the South, have sizeable staffs. State WMU organizations primarily support their work through an annual offering campaign. Some also receive funds from their local state Baptist convention through their Cooperative Program funds, monies used to cover the SBC operating budget and to support SBC agencies such as seminaries and mission boards. Smaller states receive funds from NAMB to cover operating costs. These staffs are responsible for leadership training, material distribution, membership campaigns, and coordination of state-wide mission events and spiritual retreats.
The national organization's governing board consists of an elected president and a group of vice presidents elected from each
state. The national WMU produces literature for local group meetings, determines yearly themes, and sets goals for the mission
offerings. National leadership training involves providing materials for use at all WMU levels to better prepare the leaders
for their various responsibilities.
Allen, Catherine B. A Century to Celebrate: History of Woman's Missionary Union. Birmingham, Ala.: Woman's Missionary Union, 1987.
Sorrill, Bobbie. Annie Armstrong: Dreamer in Action. Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1984.
C. Delane Tew
Published September 19, 2007
Last updated December 17, 2009