Letters to the Editor

by William Tracy Commons

Continuing the Discussion of “Women in Missions.”

Continuing the Discussion of “Women in Missions”
Leanne Dzubinski wrote a letter to the editor in January 2011 (p. 7) responding to a letter by Gordon Reed Phillips III, missionary surgeon with ABWE. Phillips had requested more scripture to validate Dzubinski’s assertion that gender roles are cultural rather than scriptural.

Dzubinski’s response included this observation: “ABWE, Dr. Phillips’ sending agency, was itself founded by a woman, Lucy Waterbury Peabody, in 1927.” After listing Peabody’s many achievements in mission leadership prior to that time, Dzubinski asserts, “Yet only seven years after founding the agency she was forced to resign because some in her own organization objected to a woman leader” (italics mine).

ABWE gladly acknowledges that our first president was Lucy Peabody, who served with distinction from 1927 to 1934, although our founder was her son-in-law, Raphael Thomas, hospital administrator and evangelist in the Philippines. Her presidential leadership was supported by a number of other gifted and godly women leaders who stood with her when she resigned from the American Baptist Foreign Mission Society in 1927 because of the theological liberalism and anti-evangelism spirit that had infected the Northern Baptist Convention’s leadership.  

With the financial backing of Mrs. George W. Doane, Peabody partnered with Ellen Martien, Helen Hinkley, Bessie Traber, and Alice Drake to launch an organization that would emphasize evangelism and hold to the cardinal doctrines of the historic Christian faith.  

Named the Association of Baptists for Evangelism in the Orient (ABEO), the initial missionaries included such outstanding women as Bernice Hahn, Edith Webster, Edna Hotchkiss, Bethel France, Stella Mower, Ruth Woodworth, and Esther Yeager. ABEO was renamed Association of Baptists for World Evangelism (ABWE) when new fields were opened in South America.

The early ABEO administrative and financial leaders included Peabody as president and Olsen as treasurer, who was later succeeded by Alice Hudson, who served for many years. Doane was chair of the finance committee. The prominence of so many outstanding women in early ABEO/ABWE leadership and field ministry gave rise to the quip: “We were feminist before feminism was cool!”  Women have always played a significant role in ABWE’s eighty-four years of global ministry, and are highly valued by our mission.

Dzubinski’s assertion that “(Mrs. Peabody) was forced to resign because some in her own organization objected to a woman leader” merits review. It is in stark contrast to Peabody’s own words, which she printed on the front page of THE MESSAGE magazine in May 1935:

My major reasons for resigning are the propriety and wisdom of electing a man to fill this important office since it deals with churches and pastors, as well as with questions which properly belong to masculine leadership in the church. It will be a privilege to accept election to the Board of the Association and to serve a little longer as Editor and Publisher of THE MESSAGE.  

Although ABWE’s historical records show that there was some resistance to a woman president making ministry and policy decisions for the field, the transition of presidential leadership “was accomplished smoothly and with good feeling, without rancor or resistance.” In addition, an internal doctrinal issue arose. When the ABEO board added a pre-millennial plank to the doctrinal statement, Peabody knew she could not continue as president due to her postmillennial position.
Dzubinski completes her letter with this conclusion:

Dr. Phillips and his ABWE colleagues are fruit of the diligent work and faithful labor of Lucy Peabody. The purpose of my article is to show a lasting legacy of good fruit from many faithful women missionaries of the last century or more, and to plead that women be supported, not hindered, as they continue to employ their gifts for the cause of God’s kingdom.

To that we say a hearty AMEN!
William Tracy Commons, international vice president for strategic initiatives, ABWE

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