Many Southern Baptists know Annie Armstrong only as the namesake of their annual offering for North American missions. But according to church historians, she was also one of the primary shapers of the modern Southern Baptist Convention.
"I tell my students that Annie Armstrong and her frequent collaborator I.T. Tichenor [longtime secretary of the Home Mission Board] were the architects of the twentieth-century Southern Baptist Convention," Nathan Finn, associate professor of historical theology and Baptist studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, said. "Most Southern Baptists think Annie Armstrong is just the name of a missions offering. They have no idea the role she played in raising money for foreign missions, championing home missions, and advocating a Southern Baptist Sunday School ministry—she was a tireless denomination-builder."
Armstrong (1850-1938) helped to found the Woman's Missionary Union in 1888 and served as its inaugural corresponding secretary. A prolific letter writer on behalf of the WMU and its mission, Armstrong once wrote more than 18,000 letters in one year.
Finn said Armstrong is a key figure in SBC history for three reasons: she helped found WMU; she exerted a significant influence in the broader denomination; and she championed southern identity during a tenuous time in the postbellum South.
Armstrong served as WMU secretary from 1888 till 1906. During her tenure, total receipts for the Foreign Mission Board increased from $86,000 to $315,000, Finn said.
"Our global missions outreach at the turn of the twentieth century would have possibly remained limited to a few hundred missionaries in a half dozen nations had WMU not taken the lead in raising money," Finn said.
Armstrong was born into a longtime Baptist family. Converted at age nineteen, the Baltimore, Maryland, native became active in church life as a member of Seventh Street Baptist Church in Baltimore, where Richard Fuller served as pastor. Along with 117 others, she left Seventh Street and helped plant Eutaw Place Baptist Church in February of 1871, where she taught the infant class for three decades.
From 1900 through her resignation as WMU secretary in 1906, Armstrong refused to accept a salary. Her resignation came after the union mandated that the corresponding secretary be paid. Armstrong often traveled great distances in her work with WMU, once covering 3,300 miles in 21 days, visiting 19 places, stopping at 26 different addresses, according to her biography at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives.
One often-overlooked fact is that Armstrong was a prolific writer of curriculum. She wrote leaflets for WMU, started a young people's Scripture section in the Sunday School Board publication Kind Words, and wrote a column along with two sections in The Teacher curriculum. Additionally, she frequently contributed to two mission publications, Foreign Mission Journal and Our Home Field.
Keith Harper, Baptist historian at Southeastern Seminary, said Armstrong is an important, but underrated, personality in Baptist history.
"Her biographer styled her as a 'dreamer in action,'" he said. "I would put the emphasis on action. She worked long, hard hours in too many ventures to recount in a brief story."
Tom Nettles, professor of historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, called Armstrong "a person who looked at her gifts and her opportunities and pushed through any personal inhibitions and contextual prejudices to do what she believed God wanted her to do for His glory and the extension of the Kingdom."
"Her work as corresponding secretary for the WMU created a consciousness of the necessity of purposeful organization for missions, home and abroad, in Southern Baptist life," Nettles said, adding that many missionaries could not have done their work without her help.
Jeff Robinson is pastor of Philadelphia Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.