Few Southern Baptists would know the name Robert Benjamin Headden, the late Georgia pastor under whose ministry famed international missionary Lottie Moon would be called to China some 150 years ago.
By 1873, Headden, pastor of the Cartersville Baptist Church, had earned the reputation of a beloved pastor, dynamic preacher, denominational leader, and ardent supporter of missions, all of which would have been inconceivable 10 years earlier as he lay critically wounded for two days in Gettysburg.
The Confederate soldier survived against long odds to preach the sermon that convicted the heart of the woman who would go on to impact the world with the gospel.
Today, the fruit of Headden’s ministry continues through the 3,600 missionaries serving in countries around the world through the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.
Headden had challenged pastors and deacons of the Middle Cherokee Baptist Association, now the Bartow Baptist Association, “to pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest.” After preaching from the text the following Sunday morning, that evening a petite, 33-year-old, schoolteacher walked down the aisle responding to the call to missions. Her name was Charlotte Diggs “Lottie” Moon. Most have heard of Moon, but few have heard of Headden, or understood his role in her call.
Headden was born in the nearby village of Cassville where his father built and repaired wagons. The spiritual roots of this Baptist family began in England, where his grandfather had been baptized in a river at night to “avoid any disturbance by a mob.” The family immigrated to South Carolina before eventually settling in Georgia.
They were active in church, and his father supported Baptist higher education, especially the Cherokee Baptist College located in Cassville. Robert’s mother was a Godly woman who greatly influenced her nine children’s spiritual development. From these roots his faith grew leading to his conversion.
Robert graduated from the Cherokee Baptist College class of 1860. The last graduating class before shutting down at the beginning of the Civil War. Its buildings were destroyed in 1864 by Union troops during “Sherman's March to the Sea” and the school never reopened.
In 1861, Headden enlisted in the Phillips Legion of the Confederate Army. Early in the war he was wounded, then again in 1863 at Gettysburg, he was wounded in the hip and laid for two days on the battlefield before being taken as a prisoner and hospitalized. He remained in a hospital for several months until released in a prisoner exchange. Eventually returning to his unit he fought in several more battles and was at the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. The odds of his survival were not good. Of the 900 who served in the Phillips Legion, he was one of only 89 who survived to the end.
Returning to Georgia, he spent several years teaching school and married before his call to ministry. First serving as a bi-vocational pastor/schoolteacher before being called to the Cartersville Baptist Church in 1870. It was in Cartersville that he became known as a champion of missions. When the Georgia Baptist Convention established a new State Mission Board in 1877, he was selected as a founding board member and later served as its chairman.
In the fall of that same year, 1877, the Cartersville church experienced a month-long revival like few churches have seen. Headden, as was the custom of the day, preached the services. Town businesses, including two saloons, closed each morning between 9 and 10 to allow people to attend prayer meetings.
The church meeting house was often packed to capacity and many who could not find a space to stand outside near an open window were turned away. Between 75 and 80 professions of faith were made, most baptized into the church fellowship, although some joined other churches. The average age of those converted was 30 years old.
He encouraged the women of the Cartersville church to support missions. Including when they organized to support the work of Lottie Moon in China, becoming the second Women’s Baptist Missionary Union in the state. Supporting missions and specifically the work of Lottie Moon gave birth to the idea of taking up an annual Christmas Offering beginning in 1881. This offering was the foundation of the Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions established in 1888 across the South. This was renamed the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering after her death in 1912.
After serving 13 years in Cartersville, Headden accepted the pastorate of the Rome Baptist Church in 1883. There, he continued supporting missions and “to pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out messengers.” The church became a leader among Georgia Baptists in mission giving. Headden continued to influence young people, like Lottie Moon, to heed God’s call, not only as a pastor but by teaching the Bible and Biblical Literature courses at Shorter College, a Baptist school for women.
In 1905, the church, in appreciation for Headden’s years of service paid his expenses to the Baptist World Congress in London. This meeting became the organizational meeting the Baptist World Alliance. Headden wrote home from London praising the preaching and singing. Returning to the birthplace of his father and grandfather, he wrote of being moved by seeing John Bunyan’s home in Bedford, his pulpit, and the location of the prison where he spent 12 years during which time he wrote “Pilgrims Progress.”
Returning home, to Rome, he continued supporting missions and calling out the called until . . . God called. It was during the 50th Anniversary Blue and Gray Reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg. Over 53,000 thousand veterans from both armies had gathered in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As Headden retraced his steps across “the peach orchard” where he was wounded, undoubtedly his head must have been swimming with memories. After addressing a group, he returned to his tent where he was struck down again. This time it was neither shrapnel nor shell; it was a stroke. Unlike his experiences in 1863, this time he didn’t recover.
How was Headden, who died in 1913, instrumental in Lottie Moon’s call to missions?
In January of 1897, Headden shared an account of that experience in The Christian Index. Here’s what he wrote, just as he had written it: “In the spring of 1873 we held a Ministers’ and Deacons’ meeting with old Oothcaloga church, in Bartow county, It was an unusually rainy spell, and but few of the brethren attended. One morning, when no particular business was before the body, I arose and asked the moderator if the duty enjoined upon the disciples to pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers into his harvest was binding upon us now. Quite an earnest discussion followed the question, and the delegates present pledged themselves upon their return home to pray in private and public that the Lord would send forth laborers into his harvest.
“On the first Sunday after the meeting, I took that same Scripture for a text and preached upon the duty of praying that prayer. I also impressed the thought that praying that prayer bound us to go into the harvest ourselves if there was no obstacle to prevent. It was during the preaching of that sermon that Miss Moon made up her mind to offer herself as a missionary to our Foreign Board. This she did, was accepted, and that fall went to China . . . I did not know for some time after Miss Moon was in China that my sermon on that day decided her to enter the foreign field as a missionary. She wrote me of it and said that she had found her life-work.”
A pastor may never know the impact of any one sermon. A deacon may never know the impact of one simple act of service rendered. A teacher may never know the impact of a single lesson taught. A faithful giver may never know the impact of an offering given. A church member may never know the impact of a word well spoken. And God is still calling the faithful “to pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers.”