“Annie Armstrong” welcomes WMU visitors to her home church. (ABPnews/Herald photo by Bob Allen)
“Annie Armstrong” welcomes WMU visitors to her home church. (ABPnews/Herald photo by Bob Allen)

A picture worth 500 words: WMU’s 125th anniversary prompts a lively visit

Shifts in the Baptist landscape took on new meaning recently when WMU members touring Annie Armstrong’s Baltimore home dropped in on a once prominent Southern Baptist Convention church.

By Bob Allen

Members of Woman’s Missionary Union wrapped up a yearlong celebration of the Southern Baptist Convention auxiliary’s 125th anniversary with a rare photo-op.

Annie Armstrong, who led in framing the WMU constitution in 1888 and served as the first WMU corresponding secretary, famously vowed never to be photographed after the only portrait she ever sat for was reproduced without her knowledge and used in a way of which she disapproved.

“I’ll allow it today,” Woodbrook Baptist Church administrative assistant Liesl Bolin obliged tourists visiting historical sites in Annie Armstrong’s Baltimore home. Bolin was dressed in character as the pivotal figure in Southern Baptist history not known for changing her mind. Her visitors were in town for WMU’s annual meeting, held in conjunction with the SBC’s own yearly gathering.

By organizing and promoting what today is called the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, historians say Armstrong contributed as much as anybody in leading the SBC to embrace a national identity.

annie lieslDespite that, personality conflicts, power struggles and hurt feelings prompted her to resign her post in 1906. Upset by decisions the organization took — including opening a training school for female missionaries at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and approving compensation for WMU officers (she never accepted a salary) — Armstrong determined to walk away for good. She changed her mind shortly before her death in 1938, allowing WMU to use her name for an annual offering for home missions which now supports the work of the SBC’s North American Mission Board.

Her church, formerly known as Eutaw Place Baptist Church before it relocated from downtown Baltimore to suburban Towson in 1969, has had its own ups and downs in denominational life.

Founding pastor Richard Fuller preached both at the last meeting of the Triennial Convention — a denominational body which united Baptists in the North and South — in Philadelphia in 1844 and at the first meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 in Augusta, Ga. He was the third SBC president, serving 1859-1863, all prior to moving to Baltimore from Beaufort, S.C.

Woodbrook’s current pastor emeritus, John Roberts, served on the board of trustees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary before the “conservative resurgence,” a movement launched in 1979, systematically removed moderate and progressive Southern Baptists from SBC leadership and replaced them with trustees committed to biblical inerrancy.

Roberts, who retired as pastor in 2001, was a founding member of the Alliance of Baptists, formed in 1987 to uphold principles including local church autonomy, women’s ordination, academic freedom and the separation of church and state perceived in jeopardy in the evolving SBC. The group elected him as president in 1994.

During 2006-2007, Roberts served as co-chair of the Alliance of Baptists Convocation Committee with John Ballenger, who succeeded him as pastor at Woodbrook in 2003.

Ballenger, whose father was a high-ranking official with the SBC Foreign (now International) Mission Board prior to the conservative resurgence, admitted that he didn’t know exactly what to expect when asked to host a denomination that in many ways now seems distant to him.

“All the response we got was very positive,” Ballenger said. “The people who showed up seemed interested.”

“It was a lot of work,” he added. “Our volunteers were great and really stepped up.”