The History of Free Will Baptist Women’s Ministry (1841-2014)
“I request that the women of this body be excused to go to another room and organize a national body.”
The work of women among Free Will Baptists began long before Fannie Polston of Nashville, Tennessee, made this request during the 1935 business meeting of the Eastern General Conference of Free Will Baptists at Black Jack Church in Pitt, County, North Carolina.
Free Will Baptist women’s ministry can be traced to the early 1840s, when Ann Winsor of Providence, Rhode Island, formed the first Free Will Baptist Women’s Missionary Society in her home after hearing Missionary Eli Noyes tell about desperate spiritual needs in India. When the Women’s Missionary Society became an official organization in 1873, women in the North became heavily involved.
They helped underwrite missions efforts in India and provided funding and teachers for Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, a school begun by Freewill Baptists to educate former slaves. In addition, the Society published The Missionary Helper, a missionary news magazine distributed from 1878-1919. While the group eventually lost its identity when most northern Free Will Baptist churches merged with American Baptists, these early efforts set the stage for Free Will Baptist women’s ministry in the modern era.
A New Century
During the early years of the 20th century, women’s organizations in the South and West, though influential, were largely confined to local churches. In time, they organized into regional groups, working together to support foreign missions efforts. They were referred to by a number of titles: The Women’s Home Mission, Ladies’ Aid Society, or simply Women’s Work. Their efforts soon expanded beyond missions to include education, stewardship, the Temperance Movement, and founding and funding orphanages.
During the 1920s, two women emerged as the faces of the movement: Alice E. Lupton of New Bern, North Carolina, and Fannie Polston of Nashville, Tennessee. As Free Will Baptists pushed slowly toward a unified denomination, these women worked feverishly to establish a corresponding organization of women.
The National Woman’s Auxiliary Convention (which later became the Woman’s National Auxiliary Convention or WNAC) formed in June 1935, six months before the National Association of Free Will Baptists came into being. Alice Lupton was elected president, along with five vice presidents from various regions of the country.
During the denomination’s formation meeting later that year, WNAC was treated like any other department, with its own board and elected officers. In 1939, however, WNAC requested that their board no longer be considered a department of the National Association, requesting instead that a single field secretary be assigned to represent women at the convention. The request was approved, and since 1939, WNAC has operated as an independent entity, separate from the National Association. It must be said, however, that no denominational department or agency could have been more loyal or dedicated to the work of the denomination.
Free Will Baptist women embraced their role, and in spite of limited funding, the ministry of WNAC grew quickly in its first decade. It soon became obvious that a permanent office was needed. In 1947, when Mrs. Huey Gower was named the first Executive Secretary, she established an office in her home in Nashville, Tennessee, where she worked part time. Six years later, in 1952, Executive Secretary Agnes Frazier moved into an office provided by Free Will Baptist Bible College (today Welch College), and when the National Association opened its first National Offices Building a year later, then Executive Secretary Gladys Sloan joined other denominational agencies in the building. In 1963, Mrs. Eunice Edwards moved from Desloge, Missouri, and became the first full-time Executive Secretary of the organization.
From the beginning, WNAC identified its primary purpose as funding and missions education. The scope of this ministry expanded until its impact was felt across the world. From 1955 to 1961, under the guidance of Eunice Edwards, WNAC adopted a project-oriented strategy, uniting the efforts of Free Will Baptist women into a single focus each year.
The strategy proved to be wildly successful. Over the next two decades, WNAC helped build a Bible Institute in India, a home for missionaries in Ivory Coast, West Africa, a mission station in Mexico, a home for missionaries in Japan, and provided furniture and supplies for a medical facility in Ivory Coast. In fact, the Nashville office received so many medical supplies, that they eventually sent a letter to say, “Stop sending supplies!”
In 1962, WNAC established the Missionary Provision Closet, a warehouse of linens, cooking utensils, and other domestic items to be distributed to missionaries going to the field or returning home. The project captured the hearts of Free Will Baptist women, and supplies began to pour into Nashville. Today, the Missionary Provision Closet continues to supply the needs of Free Will Baptist missionaries and their families.
According to Mary Ruth Wisehart in her book Sparks Into Flame:
WNAC has a missionary heart, a missionary purpose, a desire to fulfill the great commission in every way possible. Through the years, Free Will Baptist women have contributed time, money, and materials to help get the gospel to the world. It would be impossible even to attempt to set down all they have done. Only God’s records will show all the fruit produced by women who gave much because they loved much.
In 1961, WNAC began to publish CoLaborer magazine. Although it has gone through many variations in size, format, and page count—even names—the publication remains in print as Treasure Bible Study Guide. The publication gave a voice to Free Will Baptist women, and soon became widely distributed across the denomination.
When the 1971 national convention met in Fresno, California, WNAC reorganized under the leadership of longtime Executive Secretary Cleo Pursell who served the office from 1963-1984. Delegates voted to streamline the organization but retain the emphasis on missions that had been its catalyst since founding. Under Pursell’s leadership, the WNAC office relocated to the new National Office Building on Murfreesboro Road in Nashville, where it remained until the completion of the current National Office Building in 1991.
According to Sparks Into Flame, Mrs. Pursell made a profound impact on the operations of WNAC. She once wrote, “Who gives gifts to WNAC? Nobody!” She asked that dues be raised from the 30 cents set in 1935 to 75 cents. Under her leadership, the department established an emphasis month, with gifts going to the general fund.
Dr. Mary Ruth Wisehart followed Purcell as executive secretary-treasurer in 1985. That same year, WNAC celebrated its 50th anniversary with the publication of Sparks into Flame: A History of WNAC. In 1993, Wisehart led the department to change its name from Women’s National Auxiliary Convention to Women Nationally Active for Christ. She was instrumental in the establishment of an endowment trust, which eventually became the Dr. Mary Ruth Wishart Scholarship program and provides scholarship to female Free Will Baptist college students.
Marjorie Workman was selected as the fourth executive secretary-treasurer in 1998. Under her leadership, WNAC reached several significant milestones, including the first WNAC-sponsored missions trip in 2005 to take part in a Sisters’ Prayer Fellowship in Almaty, Kazakhstan. American women underwrote conference expenses for more than 500 Central Asian women who attended. WNAC also partnered with Master’s Men to host National Marriage Enrichment Conferences.
Into the Future
The two years following Workman’s retirement announcement in 2008 can only be described as transitional. The convention approved Danita High as Workman’s replacement. Wife of pastor John High, the businesswoman brought years of banking experience to the position and worked feverishly to secure the department’s financial position. Although she spent only a year in the office, she encouraged and enlisted a new wave of young women before her resignation in the fall of 2009.
The department celebrated its 75th anniversary by electing Elizabeth Hodges as sixth executive director—the third in as many years—at the annual convention in Oklahoma City. Hodges quickly set the tone for her work by emphasizing the importance of prayer, cooperation, and ingenuity in ministering to (and through) a new generation of Free Will Baptist women. She quickly reached an agreement with Master’s Men to share office space. The move did not affect the mission of either department but produced substantial financial savings to be redirected for ministry purposes.
In spite of transition, adjustments, and financial struggles, Mrs. Hodges is optimistic about the future of WNAC:
The best times are still ahead for Free Will Baptist women. If we can pass the baton of faith to the next generation who will continue long after we are gone, we will have been successful.”
About the Writer: Eric K. Thomsen is managing editor of ONE Magazine and author of Honoring Our Heritage, the 2012 documentary exploring more than 300 years of Free Will Baptist history.