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.