Who Was Lula Whilden?

Presented at the FBCG Women’s Dinner

October 4, 2011

Lula WhildenWho was Lula Whilden? Who was this woman who has been lying in her grave right over here in Springwood Cemetery all these years and whom we did not know? Who was she who has inspired this Task Force to take on the World Missions Offering in the attempt to revitalize it?

Well, I can tell you she was a brave, courageous, missions pioneer, a quiet, yet edgy, woman who faced rejection because she was a woman, but a giant of a woman whose only purpose in life was to serve the Lord. She was the first single female career missionary sent by the FMB to China, arriving there a full year before Lottie Moon.

I would like to tell you a little about Lula, about what it must have been like for her to apply and be approved and to go out as a missionary, and then a little about what Lula Whilden did and how she has inspired US here today.

She was born in Camden, SC in 1846, the middle child of Bayfield and Eliza Jane Martin Whilden. Bayfield was born into the fellowship of First Baptist Charleston and was baptized by – the Rev. Dr. Basil Manly. Bayfield was also licensed and ordained at that church. He later pastored at Camden, where Lula was born. Eliza Jane, Lula’s mother, may be the driving force in this family because she prayed constantly that her husband would feel called to the foreign mission field and that the lives of her children would be spent in missionary service. I don’t want to imply that she nagged him to death but within 6 years of their marriage he applied to the FMB for missionary service. He took his family, including three little children, ages 5, 3, and 2, to China in 1849. But a year later his wife, Eliza Jane (Lula’s mother) fell ill and died in China. Bayfield brought the family back, remarried – Miss Mary Barnette of Orangeburg, had three more children, each of whom died as young children, and later went back to China as a missionary. His second wife began to lose her eyesight, and again Bayfield had to return to the US, this time to stay.

2013 Lula 2At this point, I want to read a portion of the letter to Rev. Whilden from the Foreign Mission Board giving advice on how to prepare to leave the US. This letter was written in July 1848 by Rev. J.B. Taylor of the Foreign Mission Board in Richmond. (Remember that at this time Lula was three years old.) In the letter, he advises that the Board will allow $300.00 for the entire family to be outfitted – not just with clothing, but with household items, such as furniture, pots, pans, dishes, blankets and bedding, personal items, etc., and all of Rev.Whilden’s books and study materials. The Baptist ladies in the Charleston area would be responsible for making clothing for the family, accounting, of course, for the growth of the children during the years. At the end of his letter Rev. Taylor writes the following:

Present me affectionately to Sister Whilden. The Lord will guide you both in regard to the children. Any arrangements you make, either to take all of them, or to leave one with your mother, will be satisfactory to the Board.

Can you imagine considering a job that would mean leaving one of your children behind? Especially if you were going to a foreign country possibly never to return? Fortunately, Rev. Whilden decided to take the whole family with him to China. Even though they all had to come home after his wife died, their intention was to remain there until he retired.

2013 Lula 1So, Lula grew up in SC and attended the Greenville Female College, now Furman University. We know that she has several relatives in Greenville, and we know that she was related to Charles Townes. Our own church records show that she joined FBCG in April of 1868. The records do not show where she was living when she came to the College, but we believe she came from Winnsboro. Her program of study was a two-year degree, and she then taught at the college for another two years. During this time she began to petition the FMB to appoint her as a missionary because she was longing to serve the people of the land where her mother had given her life.

About this time, two fortuitous things happened. Her sister Jumelle married Rev. N. B. Williams who had been appointed as a missionary to China, so Lula could ask to travel with them, AND Dr. Henry Tupper of the FMB began to champion the cause of appointing single women to be missionaries. It had become apparent that female missionaries could reach women in ways that male missionaries could not. In addition, Lula did not sit around waiting for the men to approve her for missionary service. She wrote passionate letters on her own behalf, appealing to the Board to be approved. In her letter of 1871 to the Board she describes herself as in general good health, though not of a particularly robust constitution. She states, “There is something to me very sweet in the thought of being entirely dependent upon Jesus for my happiness for the remaining years of my life, and I know that having left all for him, he will be to me everything that I could desire. I trust that with God’s spirit to fit me for the work, and His grace to sustain me in the performance of it, I may be able to labor for the eternal welfare of the *heathen and that the Board may never regret its decision to send me. God’s strength will be made perfect in my weakness.” Lula had also written to her father and had received his blessing to go to China, as he said it would be a fulfillment not only of her own wishes, but also of the prayers of her own dear deceased mother.

*NOTE: The word “heathen” was used back then to refer to the people who had not heard the Good News of the Gospel. Through the years, the word has acquired a derogatory meaning and is not in general use. But in order to retain the authentic wording used in that day, I have left it as it is. Lula wrote a collection of stories, published after her death, called Life Sketches From a Heathen Land. Money from the sales of this book went to the mission in China where Lula had worked.

It seems, then, that the time was just right for Lula to be approved as a single female missionary, and she sailed with her sister and brother-in-law from San Francisco on May 1. 1872. Unfortunately, Jumelle, Lula’s sister, soon became ill and the Williams family returned to the US, to stay, leaving Lula there in Canton alone. How heart-wrenching it must have been for Lula to see her sister sail away.

It took over a week by steam train from SC to arrive in San Francisco, and at first she refused to travel on Sunday, preferring, of course, to spend the day in prayer and worship. However, she came to realize that it was costing more and more money to acquire lodging on Sundays, and that her work in China was being put off another day. That time and money could better be spent on the mission field in China. After arriving in San Francisco, it took another 90 days to get to Canton. As the years went by, the sea voyage took less and less time, and by the time Lula came home for the last time, in 1914, it took about 30 days.

Lula was undaunted by the harsh conditions in China at that time. She soon developed a profound love for the blind girls who had been turned out into the streets to beg for a living, and she began to bring them into her modest home. She wrote long and passionate letters back to the Board and to churches and individuals asking for money to build a school for these girls. Although it took several years, this dream was accomplished, and later additions to the home made it possible to house as many as 60 girls, albeit, a far cry from the need. These blind girls could never be expected to earn a living or to be married off, so they were often given or sold by their parents to a disreputable house. This is how our own dear, departed sister and ardent missions supporter Clara Smith describes them: “At about age 12 to 14 these girls were taken out into the streets at night to sing. They were handsomely dressed, their hair carefully arranged and decorated with flowers, and their faces painted and powdered. They were accompanied by an older woman who acted as keeper and guide. They went to busy streets with lots of shops and sang and played the guitar until they were invited in to spend the night there. Their womanly virtue was trampled upon. In the morning the girls went back to their owner’s house, and the master received the money secured at such a terrible cost.” These are the girls who captured the heart of Lula Whilden. Today, in Canton, there is a mobile refraction unit, called The Mo Kwang Refraction unit, that travels about to assist people who are losing their eyesight. The unit is owned by the government, but is dedicated to the memory of Lula Whilden. Perhaps you see the image of the eye in our logo, also dedicated to Lula Whilden.

There were times when she had nothing more to give these girls and the others who came to her for help, physically or materially, so she prayed fervently. She would often give her meager food to her girls, thereby endangering her fragile health even further. Prayer was the foundation on which she built her ministry. Many of her stories tell of the hours she spent praying with people who came to her for help.

Lula was unselfish to a fault, if that’s possible. In her letter dated Sept 6, 1875, three years after her arrival in Canton, Lula wrote to Dr. Tupper at the FMB in Richmond and said “I sympathize deeply with you and the Board in your financial difficulties. I write now to say that I am willing to reduce my salary one hundred dollars for a year beginning from Oct of 1875 (the following month) until Oct of 1876. If, however, before that time has come, the Board should be relieved from its pressing difficulties and embarrassment, I shall expect to receive from the Board my usual salary.” In addition, Lula asked that $50 be taken out of her salary annually to be used in other foreign fields, because she was aware of the tremendous needs around the world. She also asked that the money be given anonymously.

Lula also ministered to the boat women of Canton, homeless women who rarely ever set foot on land. She often traveled along dusty, dry roads or slogged through the mud to go from boat house to boat house delivering the gospel message. Sometimes the people insisted on helping her, so they put her in a wheelbarrow or in a sedan chair, and she bumped along those roads, causing bruises and scratches all over her body.

A particularly poignant and compelling story about Lula’s ministry, that happened over and over again, concerns the young mothers who had lost one or even more children in their infancy. These mothers thought that their dead children were still sick, hungry, and suffering and were wandering around in a strange and hostile place, alone and very afraid, longing for their mother’s gentle embrace. When these mothers heard Lula tell them about Heaven, they cried and cried for joy and relief because they were assured that their little ones were wrapped in the loving arms of God in this wonderful place called Heaven. What a comfort Lula must have been to those grieving women.

Lula’s health was, indeed, an issue, and after ten years (in 1882) she was forced to come home to rest. She kept making so many speeches to women’s groups and churches and Bible Schools to raise money for her work in China that she had to be sent to a sanitarium in New York to recuperate. She stayed in the US 8 years, all the while raising funds and working in a ministry with the Chinese laundrymen and their families in Baltimore. She finally returned to China in 1890, and during the next 14 years she had two other furloughs, each about 18 months at the sanitarium in NY. In 1914 she was severely beaten in a robbery in China. She made it back to the US, first to Greenville and then to Baptist Hospital in Columbia, where she died in 1916, never having recovered from the beating. She was brought back to Greenville for burial in Springwood Cemetery.

It’s difficult to talk about Lula Whilden without mentioning Lottie Moon, for they were sisters in the faith, for sure, and they led somewhat parallel lives. Neither ever married. They both had sisters who started out as missionaries, but who had to return home because of ill health. We know that Lula and Lottie met together at least once, for about three weeks in August of 1896. Lottie served in north China and died in 1912 (4 years before Lula’s death) just as she was preparing to sail back to the US for the last time. Lottie’s sister Edmonia had gone to north China also, (she was likely on the same ship that Lula sailed on), but Edmonia’s health deteriorated rapidly, and she was forced to return for good after only 4 years. We know that Lottie was from a wealthy, prominent family in Richmond and received more publicity and was able to raise more money for her missions efforts than Lula was able to do.

So, who was Lula Whilden? In addition to being a time-traveler, as we saw yesterday when she appeared in our worship service, Lula was:

  • A woman of extraordinary mind and indomitable spirit, filled with a holy zeal for the Chinese and for their salvation and welfare;
  • A brave pioneer who literally gave her life to delivering the gospel message;
  • A petite woman who had unrealistic expectations of her own physical strength;
  • A loving, ultra dedicated minister of the gospel who endured numerous attacks, beatings, and robberies, not only in her home, but on river boats as she traveled to distant villages; and
  • A woman who was absolutely unwavering in her desire to share the gospel in spite of much personal loss and grief.

May we raise up more people like her.

In closing, I would like to share with you some things I believe that Lula would say to us today, in the form of a letter that she was so good at writing.

To my dear brothers and sisters in Christ at First Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina,

How warmly and fondly I remember my years as a member of your fellowship and how much I appreciate your sending me off to China with such encouragement and hope.

You know that I never sought any publicity or notoriety for my work. It’s rather embarrassing to see my name on all these publicity materials. This lovely brochure and these posters and envelopes, and the powerful video are beautiful, and I don’t feel that I deserve such an honor. But, if whatever I did back then will help meet the needs of people around the world today and will help future generations know and understand the importance of mission work, then I am truly pleased to lend my name to your missions giving program. I do understand that my being a member of FBC Greenville will help you personalize the missions emphasis and make it your own very special, concerted effort. You are a wonderful, giving, generous church, and I pray that your work on behalf of world missions will inspire all of your church families to pray for, and give to, and participate in world missions. You are all, truly, ministers with me, in our Lord’s service.

With my most humble gratitude and fervent best wishes for your work, I remain your devoted sister in Christ who prays for you constantly, and desires God’s richest blessings on you and your missions efforts

   Lula Frances Whilden.

— Louise Stanford