Before there was Lottie Moon, Annie Armstrong or Woman’s Missionary Union, there was Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend, who overcame the societal constraints and paternalistic attitudes of her day to found the South’s first missionary society in 1811.
In “Her Way: The Remarkable Story of Hephzibah Jenkins Townsend,” Rosalie Hall Hunt introduces readers to a 19th-century woman whose missionary zeal, dogged determination and unflagging sense of justice led to the founding of a missionary society that became the blueprint for missions-supporting organizations today.
“Her Way” is also a captivating love story — both the love between Hephzibah and her husband, Daniel, at their plantation home on Edisto Island off the coast of Charleston, S.C., and the enduring love Hephzibah felt for the slaves who cared for her in her infancy and throughout her life. A cherished servant, Bella, assisted an entrepreneurial Hephzibah in starting a cake-baking business in order to raise funds for missions giving — a venture unheard of at the time.
Through her baking business, the mission society offerings flourished, and Hephzibah was able to fulfill her dream of building a Baptist church on Edisto, where nearly all of the members were enslaved people. In the latter years of her life, a revival broke out among the slaves, and Hephzibah assisted her pastor in baptizing 60 new believers.
Although tragedy struck her family often (she lost more than half of her 15 children to deadly diseases), her faith never wavered.
In 1888, more than 40 years after Hephzibah’s death, Woman’s Missionary Union was formed. Today, WMU is “synonymous with missions, and both owe much to the work of a mostly unknown lady from South Carolina,” writes Bob Terry, editor of the Alabama Baptist. “It is time Baptists knew her story.”
“Hephzibah blazed the missions trail for all of us,” said Linda Cooper, president of national WMU. “Her sheer determination and ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’ attitude is a reminder that each of us can make a difference in the lives of others.”
Laurie Register, executive director-treasurer of South Carolina WMU, introduced Hunt to Hephzibah several years ago. “She felt an immediate bond with Hephzibah and right away began to talk about telling her story,” said Register.
“I was able to take part in one of Rosalie’s research trips. What a delight it was to see her at work, digging out the smallest details of this amazing woman’s life — details that will be meaningful to many who read her story.”