Mary Emily Wright Wilbur, 1865-1923, urged Baptist women to serve the Lord with ‘singleness of heart and unity of purpose’
By Charles Jones
“To the Baptist women of the south, who with singleness of heart and unity of purpose, strive for the advancement of the redeemer’s kingdom and the glory of our God.” The 1902 dedication of the book, “The Missionary Work of the Southern Baptist Convention,” by M.E. Wright.
In the spring of 1900 the WBMU (Women’s Baptist Missionary Union) of Georgia did not have a singleness of heart, nor a unity of purpose when 34-year-old Mary Emily Wright was elected its third President. Many Southern Baptists, including some of Georgia’s WBMU leadership, were bitterly divided over a controversy called the Gospel Missions Movement. Six years later when she departed Georgia, the WBMU were united and “striving for the advancement of the kingdom.” During Wright’s tenure, the WBMU adopted a more balanced approach to mission support. Much of this change was a testimony to her exceptional leadership.
Early Baptist women’s leadership came primarily from urban areas; typically, the women were from wealthy families, had more leisure time, were well-educated by the standards of their day, and had disposable income. M. E. Wright fit all the criteria.
Born less than a year after the end of the Civil War, she was raised in Augusta, Georgia, the daughter of a wealthy merchant and his wife. Wright’s mission passions were inspired by “a sainted grandmother, who stirred a childish fancy with stories of Carey and Marshman, of Rice and Judson, and awakened an interest which has grown with increasing years.” Missions were a family affair in more ways than one, two of her siblings were named for leading Baptist’s statesmen: Francis Wayland and William Carey and a niece Lucy Wright would serve as an SBC medical missionary nurse in China.
Wright had gifts which served her “redeemers kingdom” well. A prolific writer, with a creative mind, and noted for the energy she brought to whatever she was doing. She kept the organization focused and moving forward. Possibly her most significant legacy was the development of the SBC Missionary prayer calendar in 1891, but that was one of many accomplishments in her lifetime.
Wright’s passion for missions was more than in word it was in deed. This included local missions through her church, the First Baptist Church of Augusta. She was involved in new member orientation under the direction of her pastor Lancing Burrows. She supported the establishment of a Chinese Sunday School and taught Bible stories to African American children in her home.
Chinese laborers came to America during the California gold rush and later to construct the transcontinental railroad. In the following years more were recruited to work on major construction projects across America including the enlarging of the Augusta Canal in 1873. Over 200 Chinese labors, some accompanied by family, were contracted to work on the canal. Many remained in Augusta after the work was completed bringing their families from China to join them. The Chinese Sunday School was established by Wright’s sister and others in 1885 at a time when anti-Asian sentiments were running high. After early Creek and Cherokee missions this was the third Baptist language mission work in Georgia.
In 1890 Wright began hosting Bible studies for African American children in the basement of the family home each Sunday afternoon. It was called the “Gingerbread Mission,” because children were served a gingerbread cookie each week. She maintained this ministry for ten years.
At a time when anti-Asian sentiments were high and Jim Crow laws were being enacted across the country, Wright was bucking the tide of popular culture. Working with Chinese immigrants and African American children it was obvious she cared more about the condition of their hearts than the color of their skin. This speaks volumes to the missionary heart of this woman.
Wright’s involvement with the WBMU of Georgia continued to grow as it was struggling to organize and find unity and direction in the 1890’s. Most of the early state leadership had come from Atlanta. The Atlanta women’s plan to establish the 2nd Baptist Orphanage in 1888 provided a goal around which the women of Georgia could unite. Its success helped the women gain a larger voice in Baptist life.
A prolific writer she created the first Missionary Prayer Calendar in 1891. It was prepared as a part of the “Centennial Celebration” of William Carey pioneering Baptist Foreign Missionary work in India. The calendars provided the missionary’s name, a verse, and a prayer request. This was the beginning of the Missionary Prayer Calendar which would later add missionaries’ birthdays. The calendar served a second purpose, proceeds from their sales were used to support missions. First prepared for the WBMU of Georgia, with promotion by Annie Armstrong they could be ordered by anyone across the south.
In 1891 Wright was chosen to be the “Women’s Missionary Editress” of the Christian Index. She prepared materials for week(s) of prayer emphasis encouraging women to “self-denial” to support missions. Often the focus of her weekly columns included letters from Georgians serving on foreign fields. In 1893 she literally gave voice to her passion when she was invited to be one of the inspirational speakers at the national WBMU meeting in Dallas, Texas.
She was a driver in the establishment of SBC medical missions. In 1898 following the death of three missionary children in China of a family from Georgia, she made a motion that the WBMU of Georgia help establish and support an SBC medical mission in China. This was presented by Georgia WBMU leadership to Dr. Willingham, who was the President of the Foreign Mission Board, when he was in Augusta, Georgia attending the Southern Baptist Convention. Their gathering with Dr. Willingham ended on their knees in a prayer meeting. At that time Southern Baptist had no existing medical missions.
When Dr. Willingham returned to Richmond a letter was awaiting him from a doctor in Anniston, Alabama. Dr. T.W. Ayers and his wife considered Hartwell, Georgia their hometown. In the letter Dr. Ayers explained that was compelled to write because God was calling them to foreign mission service. As it turned out Dr. Ayers was writing the letter at the same time the prayer meeting for medical missions was taking place in Augusta. Medical Missions and specifically the adoption of support for the Ayers family would become another key factor uniting the BWMU of Georgia.
In 1899 the President of the WBMU of Georgia and some of the other leadership had embraced and been supporting the Gospel Missions Movement for several years. Proponents of this movement argued that missionaries should be self-sustaining, finding employment or other means of support while on the mission field. Some of the women supporting the Gospel Missions Movement in Georgia resigned their positions with the WBMU and attempted to organize a separate organization in competition with the WBMU. It was in this divisive context that Wright was elected to serve as the third state President of the Georgia BWMU in 1900.
Wright did lead Georgia Baptist women to refocus, unify and move beyond the controversy. She continued writing, developing, and embracing the concept of a wholistic approach to mission’s stewardship and promotion. She took on the role of editor of the newly created Georgia BWMU “Missionary Messenger” magazine to promote missions among Georgia Baptist women.
A more balanced approach to missions was created by putting a face on missions and raising the status of Home and State Missions. The adoption of Dr. and Mrs. Thomas Ayers medical missions in China represented Foreign Missions. The adoption of a Home Missionary “Bible Woman” Miss Katie Perry of Oklahoma put a face on Home Missions. The Orphanage continued to be supported by the women with the many faces of children reflecting the need. Baptist education was emphasized, but it also had its own fundraising force. The last major area of missions to be addressed was State Missions.
Between 1900 and 1906 she led in the development of an emphasis on State missions. It culminated with the introduction of an annual Week of Prayer for State Missions and the adoption of the support of a State Missionary. The WBMU adopted H. C. Buchholz as their “State Missionary.” Buchholz who served as a State Evangelist of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board became the face of State Missions for the women of Georgia.
In 1902 she added to her literary accomplishments the publication of “The Missionary Work of the Southern Baptist Convention.” This 412-page volume was the first to cover the history of both SBC Foreign and Home Mission work. During this era, she was also elected the Recording Secretary of the national WBMU.
In 1906 her work in Georgia came to an end when she married Rev. John Milnor Wilbur, President of the Baptist Institute for Christian Workers, Philadelphia, PA. Becoming the Dean of this woman’s institute, she continued to support missions by training young women for Christian service. Furthermore, her leadership skills were recognized when she was elected Vice President of the Pennsylvania Baptist Convention, the first woman to be elected as an officer of that Convention.
Few women of the late 19th and early 20th centuries captured the spirit of their generation better than M. E. Wright Wilbur. Her legacy lives on through. . . the SBC Missionary Prayer Calendar (1891). Support of the establishment of SBC Medical missions to China (1898 ff.). The development of the Georgia State Mission Offering and Week of Prayer (1900-1905), as a prolific writer and editor of Georgia WBMU monthly “Missionary Messenger” (1899-1906) and as the “Woman’s Missions Editress” of the Christian Index (1891-1897) and as a trailblazing female SBC historian (1902).
All these milestones were achieved before leaving Georgia at age 41 to become an educator of Baptist women training for Christian service (1906-1923) and being elected the first female officer (vice-President) of the Pennsylvania Baptist Convention.
In 1923 at age 58 she quite unexpectedly suffered a heart attack and passed away. Her body was returned to Augusta and was buried in the Summerhill Cemetery. Many years have passed, and her contributions have been largely overlooked. Yet she was a trailblazer who used her gifts, energy, and resources uniting Baptist women of the north and south to “singleness of heart and unity of purpose, strive for the advancement of the redeemer’s kingdom and the glory of our God.”