Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Time to drop the Lottie Moon starvation myth?

The use of Moon’s death as a means to shame Southern Baptists for their financial neglect of the Foreign Mission Board proved effective in the latter half of the twentieth century as it had been in the early decades.
This is Regina Sullivan’s conclusion in her new book on Lottie Moon. What that sentence doesn’t say is that the common account of Moon’s death, that she stopped eating as a protest to the FMB’s inability or reluctance to help with Chinese famine relief and in order to send all of her own money to those Chinese who were suffering, belongs in the realm of myth and legend, not fact.

Sullivan reviews Moon’s death along with the reactions to it and traces the story of the sacrificial death myth. She attributes it to Cynthia Miller, the missionary nurse who was accompanying Moon on her journey home and who was with her when she died in Kobe, Japan harbor on Christmas Eve, 1912. Later in that journey from Japan to the states, Miller met with one of Moon’s friends, Jennie Snead Hatcher, in Honolulu. Based on her conversation with Miller, Hatcher wrote a full-page remembrance of Moon that was published in the Virginia Baptist newspaper. That remembrance was a sacrificial death narrative coupled with an emotional fund-raising appeal.

Hatcher wrote of Moon, that...
...after months of heroic exertion and unexampled self-sacrifice, she broke down and sank into a melancholy state, refusing food that the hungry might be fed. The indebtedness of the [Foreign Mission] Board also preyed upon her mind until the very last.
It's not difficult to go from there to statements such as this one from the "Lottie Moon is Starving Again" promotional theme of the 1988 Lottie Moon Offering:
Lottie Moon literally starved to death...So she gave all she had to give from her food to her last ounce of strength.
Well, not true, but what a tale.

The facts of Moon’s death included a refusal to take solid food, a wild, demented, and irrational concern for her own money and that of the FMB, depression, and a rather severe and deep boil behind her ear on her neck that was thought to have affected her mental and physical condition. She became sick, rapidly declined, and died at 72 - a tragedy and great loss to the missionary work in China.

Evidence against the starving-herself-to-death narrative are contemporary accounts from her missionary colleagues who did not note such things, the fact that she died with plenty of money in the bank and had lived with FMB money problems for decades, obituaries which didn’t so explain her death, and, most notably, errors passed along from the nurse to Moon’s friend Hatcher.

We Baptists, back then and today, are certainly pragmatists. We know and like something that works, especially if it brings in the shekels. If the facts don’t quite support the story, well, we are loath to give up such an effective story. What’s the harm in a little legend if it helps the flow of money for good causes?

Sullivan writes that Moon’s biographer, Catherine Allen, was faced with those who wanted the myth corrected in her new book but also those who “advised her not to ‘tamper with the precious story.’” Allen decided to leave the implication of the death narrative myth intact, while not directly stating it. Like I said, we like a good fund raising story and hate to give it up.

It’s time to give this one up.

Lottie Moon’s 39 years on the mission field is far more significant, much more thrilling, and vastly more inspiring than the events of the last few months of her life.


Anonymous said...

Yep, you beat me too it. I have to admit, that I wasn't that engaged in it. I'm reading a couple of other books at the moment, and this book has been relegated to the "list" of books that I'm "getting to."

Thanks for looking into it!


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed the book and will do a couple of additional blog articles from it. The book is tedious at times but quite interesting overall.


New BBC Open Forum said...

Your blog format won't let me log in or preview. :-( So here goes...

A few years ago I found a copy of Lottie Moon Cook Book compiled by Claude Rhea (now deceased). I bought it because of the author, but it's an interesting book. This information was copied from the dust cover.

From the short bio inside (written by the author's wife, Carolyn):

The "Custard" Years

The first ten years in Tengchow had been discouraging ones. After she decided to drop the boarding school for girls, she channeled her efforts toward witnessing to responsive women in country villages around Tengchow.

"I returned yesterday," she wrote, "from a short tour of four days. On the first day, being overtaken by the rain, we only visited four villages. The next day we visited twelve. The third day we visited nine villages and had an enjoyable time talking with the women. That the men chose also to listen was no fault of mine!"


Missionary reinforcements, so earnestly pleaded for, were slow in coming. Funds were not available. When missionaries were finally sent to Pingtu in 1891, Lottie Moon took a much needed furlough after fourteen years of service.


Through the years she labored fearlessly and tirelessly under difficult circumstances. The Boxer Rebellion forced her to leave China and seek safety temporarily in Japan in 1900. In 1911 revolution broke out, followed by a famine which swept into Pingtu in 1912 attended by the plague, smallpox, and other diseases. Lottie gave all that she could herself and appealed for money to help alleviate the hunger of those who were dying from lack of food, but at home the Board was already deeply in debt.

The years of toil had exacted their toll upon her frail body physically and in other ways. It is interesting to note that during those last few years in China primarily the custard recipes are marked (Chambliss Pudding, No. 205, with the last recorded date of May 18, 1912), pointing up the simplicity of her existence. At last her health broke. It was discovered that she was practically starving to death trying to economize as her own means of coping with the famine and the Board's debt.

On December 20, 1912, she set sail for America, accompanied by Miss Cynthia Miller, a missionary nurse whose furlough was due. While the ship was anchored at Kobe, Japan, on Christmas Eve, Lottie Moon quietly slipped into eternity. Japanese law decreed that the body be cremated. On January 28, 1913, a memorial service for Lottie was held at Second Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, and her ashes were interred in Crewe, Virginia.

The inscription on her tombstone includes her name, the dates 1840-1912, and these words: "Forty years a missionary of Southern Baptist Convention in China. Faithful unto Death."

That account indicates food was indeed in short supply in China in 1912. Her notations in the cookbook indicate she was using the most economical recipes. Whether this was from lack of food, funding, her health, and/or her will is unclear.

One of Lottie Moon's cake recipes called for a "gill" of brandy and the cake was to be served with "wine sauce." I noticed the IMB/WMU has published a couple of her recipes online. Needless to say this cake wasn't one of them!

Anonymous said...

I've had difficulty myself in making comments to my own blog. I don't know why.

Sullivan makes some points on the starvation business that suggest that the standard account of LM's death by starvation is exaggerated:

- She had plenty of money in the bank.
- Her contemporaries on the field made no mention of her starving to death.
- She had already 'coped' with the FMB's debt for decades.
- She exhibited some dementia in the final months of 1912.
- She was as vigorous as ever in the spring and summer of 1912.
- In September of that year a mssy couple, he was a physician, visited LM and found her healthy and well.

Beginning in Oct LM declined rapidly, the initial evidence being mental issues.

The death by starvation is a great fundraising tool. Her life is a better one.


William Thornton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William Thornton said...

another test