Review: Virginia Broughton: The Life and Writings of a National Baptist Missionary
Virginia W. Broughton. Virginia Broughton: The Life and Writings of a National Baptist Missionary. Edited by Tomeiko Ashford Carter. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010. 121 pp. ISBN 9781572336964.
Tomeiko Carter offers access to an influential figure in African American religious history by editing the works of Virginia Broughton. Broughton served as a missionary in Tennessee from 1887 until her death in 1934. She worked as a teacher in the Memphis school system before becoming a traveling educator for a Bible Institute and a missions program called the Fireside schools. Her work with the Fireside schools established Virginia Broughton’s reputation as a Christian leader and missionary. She went on to publish a curriculum of Christian Education, two pamphlets about Christian service for women, and an autobiography. These activities placed Broughton at the forefront of the American women’s mission movement.
Carter has published the first collection of Virginia Broughton’s pamphlets and National Baptist Union articles. Virginia Broughton: The Life and Writings of a National Baptist Missionary is an ideal complement to the only book published by Broughton, Twenty Years’ Experience of a Missionary (1907). Carter published this book in order to “explore the multidimensionality of Virginia Broughton’s identity and the identities of the women with whom Broughton worked and served” (xxxvi). She accomplished this goal in several ways. The book provides evidence of Broughton’s constancy in mission work, while including clues to the origins of her dedication: the strong interest in education shared by her parents and siblings, her experiences as an educator, and her advocacy of female Christian leadership.
Carter searched archives, Fisk University records, and family papers to present a clear chronology of Broughton’s life. Details about Broughton’s birth date and lineage were unclear in the autobiography, so Carter’s introduction gives scholars valuable insight into Broughton’s early life. Carter also includes articles from the National Baptist Union that provide historical context for Broughton’s activism. The comments from Nannie Helen Burroughs, corresponding secretary of the National Baptist Woman’s Convention, and from the National Baptist Union editorial board connect Broughton to pivotal moments in the history of Black Baptist women and southern race relations.
Carter’s edited volume includes themes that are often isolated in historical studies of Christian professional women during the Jim Crow era. Previous scholarship on this topic has focused on educators, social workers, missionaries, and reformers between 1880 and 1920.1 Of those leaders, Broughton is most often compared with African American women who served as traveling ministers.2 Historians describe this period as a pinnacle for American women’s activism and a low point in American race relations. Broughton’s writings show how she knit both of these issues into her ministry with the belief that “the standard of any race is based upon the virtue and integrity of its women” (31). To improve life for all African Americans, Broughton focused on educating black women and empowering them for Christian service.
Virginia Broughton performed her mission work on behalf of the largest Black Baptist denomination, the National Baptist Convention. Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham featured Broughton in Righteous Discontent as one of many Baptist women who defied expectations to promote female ministry.3 The articles in Virginia Broughton will help readers discern different stages in the professional relationship between Broughton and other leaders of the National Baptist Woman’s Convention. Cooperative service with white Baptist women was also a key feature in the work of the Woman’s Convention. Keith Harper published edited volumes featuring the two female leaders most responsible for making women’s mission work part of the white Southern Baptist Convention.4 Carter adds to the historiography of Southern Baptist women by including a 1903 National Baptist Unionarticle about the financial partnership between black and white Baptist women. By writing instructional articles about mission work and Christian service, Broughton raised interest for the home missions projects endorsed by Annie Armstrong and Nannie Helen Burroughs. Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow featured this type of joint social project as an important development in American racial politics.5 This argument also rings true in Carter’s book, where we see the seamless connection that Virginia Broughton drew between spiritual activism and social change.
The book divides Virginia Broughton’s publications into five sections. The first section contains Broughton’s first autobiography, which has never been published in book form before. In it, Broughton argued that women’s mission work was the best way to “evangelize and educate the masses.”6 Her emphasis on broad social change fit the contemporary tradition of racial uplift and civilizing missions, but she added a unique spin on tradition by advocating female leadership. The second section is from a 1904 booklet titled Woman’s Work which displays Broughton’s skill in Biblical analysis and female-centered theology. The following sections build on her autobiography and theology to show how Broughton practiced her ministry goals.
As the guest writer for the National Baptist Women’s Convention, Broughton sought to increase the visibility of the denomination’s missions efforts and increase female participation in the movement. Section three includes several articles from Broughton’s “Christian and Educational Training Course” series in the Baptist Union. Carter also includes articles from the Baptist Union editors and Nannie Helen Burroughs to indicate how Broughton’s articles incited a controversy over National Baptist women’s claims to denominational resources. Section four contains systematic Bible Studies that Broughton provided to teach women and train future missionaries. Section five gives readers a glimpse into the ways that Broughton continued her missionary endeavors in her seventies.
Virginia Broughton offers readers the rare opportunity to observe how a black female minister interpreted her public role. Through the published pamphlets and Baptist Union articles, we see the progression of Broughton’s thoughts on Baptist missions and female leadership over nineteen years. Broughton’s 1907 autobiography has been used as an example of how a professional Black woman understood her ministry. But most of the other records for Black female ministers before or during Broughton’s lifetime are limited to one or two published sources or intermittent articles. Inferences about these women’s early perspectives must be made by interpreting a source written later in life. However, with Virginia Broughton we can read how she understood her spiritual calling in 1895 (when she was entering her fortieth year) and observe how that personal awareness blossomed through her Baptist training curriculum into an exceptional expression of womanist Christianity in her Woman’s Work booklet. The systematic Bible studies in Chapter 4 also show readers the means that Broughton used to accomplish her missions goals. Though these Bible studies do not mention personal details of Broughton’s life, the structure of the studies displays her education and attention to detail.
As the final article related to mission work, Carter included a tribute published by the Tennessee branch of the National Baptist women’s missionary convention. The convention praised Virginia Broughton in 1929 by writing, “Because of her intellectual advantages and religious fervor, she has not exalted herself but humbled herself and become one with those who did not have her advantages, and helped them to see the light” (92). This compliment praises Broughton’s dedication through a Biblical reference to Christ.7 The tribute also captures the overall message of Carter’s book. Broughton’s collected works display her skills as an educator and a writer, as well as her commitment to what she considered a God-given spiritual purpose. Tomeiko Carter, who plans to publish more of Broughton’s writings, has represented her subject’s tireless ministry and provided resources to allow future scholars to delve further into the history of African American female missionaries.
The book-length studies include Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); Colleen McDannell, The Christian Home in Victorian America, 1840-1900 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986); Louise Michele Newman, White Women’s Rights: the Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); Rhonda Anne Semple, Missionary Women: Gender, Professionalism and the Victorian Idea of Christian Mission (Rochester, N.Y.: The Boydell Press, 2003); and Stephanie J. Shaw, What a Woman Ought to Be and to Do (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).↩
Richard J. Douglass-Chin, Preacher Woman Sings the Blues: The Autobiographies of Nineteenth-Century African American Evangelists (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001); Spiritual Narratives,ed.Sue Houchins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988).↩
Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 125-133.↩
Keith Harper,Send the Light: Lottie Moon’s Letters and Other Writings (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2002); Keith Harper, Rescue the Perishing: Selected Correspondence of Annie W. Armstrong (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2004).↩
Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996).↩
Virginia Broughton, “Autobiography,” Virginia Broughton: The Life and Writings of a National Baptist Missionary, ed. Tomeiko Ashford Carter. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010), 5.↩
Phil. 2:5-8. The Bible. New King James Version.↩