The modern missions movement owes much to an unknown entrepreneur, Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend, who overcame social constrictions in the antebellum south to rally women toward missions giving.
Her journey unfolds in the form of a novel, Her Way: The Remarkable Story of Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend by Rosalie Hall Hunt of Guntersville, Ala., who also has written a biography of pioneer missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson and a history of Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU).
For Hephzibah, surviving a dangerous birth in Charleston two days before the city was captured by the British in the Revolutionary War was confirmation to her that God had a purpose for her life. Her mother had died following childbirth, and a couple of slaves risked their lives to take her back to her family’s plantation on Edisto Island, south of Charleston.
Hunt, a former national WMU officer, told Baptist Press she spent three years researching Hephzibah and then tried to reconstruct her personality and her philosophy of life in the novel.
Fashioning her research into a novel “gave me an opportunity to make her story immediate by using conversation to unfold the material,” Hunt said. “I did find it a challenge because I prefer to write with annotations, listing sources. I personally like a book with a lot of endnotes, but many people do not.”
As told by Hunt, Hephzibah’s father “taught her the old adage, ‘To him who wills, ways are not wanting.’” At 15, in marrying Daniel Townsend, a distant cousin, she brought to the marriage 4,000 acres of sea island cotton on Edisto. But in those days husbands controlled the dowry, and Hephzibah’s fortune was not available to her.
Most young brides may have been okay with this, but Hephzibah was not one of them, Hunt said.
Rosalie Hall Hunt
Though her father was an Episcopalian elder and her husband was a Presbyterian elder on Edisto, Hephzibah said she always had Baptist leanings. She had relatives in Charleston who were Baptists, and any chance she got she went to First Baptist Church with them. The pastor was Richard Furman, a prominent theologian of the era who was “very influential on her life and who baptized her when she was in her 20s,” Hunt said.
“She used to go by rowboat every Sunday that she could, six hours there and six hours back,” Hunt said. “She showed loyalty.”
Hephzibah gave birth to 15 children, but only six of them lived to adulthood. She experienced tragedy upon tragedy, including the untimely death of her closest brother.
Along the way, Hephzibah learned from Furman about William Carey and missions in India. She also learned of Polly Webb, a paraplegic in Boston who had started a mite society to give to missions. From Edisto, Hephzibah decided to join the missions cause.
“So she went to Daniel and said, ‘I need some funds for missions,’ and he said, ‘I’m sure Dr. Carey is a very worthy man but I’m not going to release the money,’” Hunt said. “… So she said, ‘Alright, I’ll find a way.’”
Since women were not necessarily allowed to have vocations back then and had to be creative in raising funds, Hephzibah sent a beloved servant named Bella to Charleston to learn from the leading pastry chef there how to make specialty cakes and gingerbread, Hunt recounted. “Meanwhile, she took servants over to the property that her brother had willed to her and built outdoor tabby ovens just yards from the Atlantic Ocean. Tabby is oyster shells and lime and water, like a cement. She built these ovens, and Bella came back and began baking the bread.”
They would bake all week and then row their goods over to the market in Charleston on Saturdays. “And that’s how the missions business began,” Hunt said. Each woman in the female mite society Hephzibah founded on Edisto learned to do the same.
In 1812, the mite society on Edisto gave an offering of $122.50 to the Charleston Baptist Association.
“I like to think that was a lot of gingerbread,” Hunt said. “That started it, and other societies began to spring up in South Carolina, in North Carolina, in Alabama and Georgia and Tennessee and other states. Then of course in 1888 it became the Woman’s Missionary Union.”
Hephzibah badly wanted a Baptist church on Edisto, particularly concerned for the slaves because few of them were in church services or had religious instruction. She and Bella started a catering business for weddings and special occasions, and by 1818 she had enough money to build a church, about $2,000, Hunt said.
Hunt’s novel includes a copy of a letter Hephzibah wrote to a lawyer ensuring that the property she gave to the church would remain in its possession – because 95 percent of the members were slaves.
Edisto Island Baptist Church was the only place on the island where a slave had any dignity or voice, Hunt said. “They could sit anywhere and they were deacons. This was like a gift from Hephzibah.”
Hephzibah described the slaves as her people, “and she didn’t just say it; she meant it,” Hunt said. The church is still an active congregation to this day, and Hephzibah is the only white person buried there.
“One of the most interesting things I found was in the minutes book that the pastor had written in the 1830s and ’40s,” Hunt said. “He had recorded the revival service of 1844. And he said, ‘Sister Townsend invited us to meet in her parlor.’ So they sat in the parlor of her home Dec. 21-26 and they met at night because that’s when the slaves were able to have free time, and the pastor said they started at 7 each evening and never finished before midnight.
“The last night of the services, Dec. 26, he said, ‘Sister Townsend assisted me in baptizing the 60 converts,’ and he listed them name by name – everyone who had come to faith. Isn’t that incredible? In 1844, a woman ministering like that. It was an amazing thing to read. And the dignity that she afforded these that she called her people,” Hunt said.
Hunt wrote the biography, she said, because WMU is the largest missions organization for women in the world, “and we need to know where we came from so we can pass it on.”
Laurie Register, executive director of South Carolina WMU, told Baptist Press though the name Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend is unknown – and was unknown to many in her day – “her commitment to her Lord and His mission; her determination that other women pray and support those called to the missions field; her love and concern for the spiritual needs of ‘her people’ provided the impetus for early women’s missions societies across our country.
“As a member and leader in Woman’s Missionary Union, I see a direct connection between Hephzibah’s female mite society … and this organization which now provides missions discipleship for every member of the church, and has a worldwide impact,” Register said.
Her Way is published by Courier Publishing, an extension of the Baptist Courier newsjournal in South Carolina. Butch Blume, managing editor at the Courier, told Baptist Press they were excited to publish Hephzibah’s story “mostly because it was a gripping tale with deep roots in South Carolina Baptist history.”
The novel is available through Barnes & Noble, Amazon and other booksellers. All proceeds go to missions causes.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Erin Roach is a writer in Nashville.)