Remembering Helen Barrett Montgomery: Eloquent advocate for witness and unity

By Richard W. Schramm

Editor’s note: First published in The Christian Citizen in 2007 (vol. 2), we share this appreciation of the life and legacy of Helen Barrett Montgomery in honor of International Women’s Day 2018.

A historical figure, but hardly a musty one, Helen Barrett Montgomery continues to lead us boldly into the core of the gospel message. The first woman to serve as president of what was then the Northern Baptist Convention, Montgomery was a tireless champion of foreign missions, women’s ministries, denominational unity, and above all the gospel of Jesus Christ.

An eloquent voice for the essential role of women in the life of the church at every level, Montgomery earned deep and widespread respect as a multi-gifted leader within denominational life. In the early decades of the 20th century, she focused Baptist identity and outreach as a passionate mission advocate, expert teacher and scholar, and inspiring author and speaker.

As president of the Woman’s American Baptist Foreign Mission Society for more than a decade beginning in 1913, Montgomery encouraged in word and deed the great overseas endeavors her denomination undertook to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. Her abiding desire to see the Great Commission fulfilled led her to an around-the-world trip to study and assess conditions in countries not yet impacted by Christian missionary work.

At the same time, at Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York, she took seriously the ministry entrusted to the local congregation, the fundamental Baptist unit of mission. Her longtime Woman’s Bible Class regularly drew 200 members, and she shared her gifts of teaching, preaching, and speechmaking in frequent presentations on subjects ranging from foreign missions to citizenship.

Most of Montgomery’s life was spent in Rochester, where she was a pivotal figure not only in the church-based activities of the community but also in educational and civic endeavors. In all her work she advocated for — and embodied — the rightful place of women in positions of leadership. She helped spearhead the movement to make the University of Rochester coeducational and broke new ground as the first woman to serve on the Rochester Board of Education.

Her academic credentials and scholarly accomplishments were impressive, particularly considering the obstacles to education encountered by women in her day. She held an undergraduate degree from Wellesley College and went on to receive honorary doctorates not only from her alma mater but also from Brown University, Denison University, and Franklin College.

Montgomery also used the written word to share her faith and the implications of Christian teaching. Between 1906 and 1929, she wrote eight books on subjects ranging from prayer to the evangelistic opportunities afforded through missions. Her best remembered and most vital legacy in print, however, is her translation of the entire New Testament from the original Greek, first published by Judson Press in 1924. It was reissued for the 1997 American Baptist Biennial Meeting in Indianapolis — the 75th anniversary of a previous gathering there at which she served as president.

Licensed to preach in 1892, Montgomery took advantage of Northern Baptist receptivity to women as commissioned, licensed, and ordained partners in the work of the Kingdom. The clarity and force of her writings give some indication of her ability to communicate from behind the podium.

When she assumed the podium for the national gathering of Northern Baptists in June 1922, her skills as a communicator of Christian truths — and as a reconciler and champion of unity within the denomination she loved — were severely tested. This was a historic meeting during which the classic diversity of Baptist thought was on full display. One focus of the meeting was the New World Movement, a major thrust of evangelism and mission that by its very ambition and resultant funding needs had garnered criticism.

The most contentious issue in Indianapolis, however, struck at the heart of traditional Baptist life and practice. Certain newly-organizing elements within the denomination, critical of what they perceived as inappropriate theological stances, especially among overseas missionaries and in denominationally related schools, urged delegates to adopt a doctrinal statement or confession of faith. It was then — and remains today — a pivotal moment for a community of faith that had steadfastly rejected endorsement of anything resembling a creedal statement.

In her presidential address, Montgomery had prepared delegates for the challenge by skillfully recounting and applying a Baptist history that included various statements of faith. “Every one of them was put forth for the purpose of enlightening the public regarding the real aims and belief of Baptists; not one was formulated to be an authoritative statement to which Baptist churches must conform. … The thing to emphasize in any such confession of faith is that it must be voluntary in its adoption and in its operation.”

The July 1922 report in Missions of the vote on the proposal details the skill and conviction of Montgomery’s leadership in a moment that could well have proved to be schismatic. “In beginning a session that was felt to be of great importance, Mrs. Montgomery suggested that ten minutes be spent in prayer, and called for many sentence prayers. … The President’s strong faith in prayer and in its immediate efficacy imparted itself influentially. There is no doubt, also, that her personality and her insistence that Christian spirit and decorum should mark all discussion had much to do with the courteous character of the proceedings.”

The ensuing vote soundly rejected the call for a mandatory doctrinal statement. Instead, the nearly 2,000 delegates overwhelmingly endorsed an affirmation “that the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement.”

It was a triumph of unity without uniformity, one obviously imbued with and transformed by the Holy Spirit — and one in which God used a special shepherd to guide and encourage. In a later speech, Montgomery would recall the words prominently displayed above the convention platform: “Agreed to differ, but resolved to love.”

Montgomery’s discernment of the Christian faith and its implications are expressed nowhere more succinctly than in her presidential address. The words she shared with delegates and visitors in Indianapolis reflect a lifelong zeal that encompassed the call of Christ and the rightful character of his church.

For her, the challenge of the gospel was clear and unconditional. “We cannot continue to sing ‘The Light of the World is Jesus,’” she declared, “and contribute only our loose change to make Him King and Lord. We must either abandon our claim of His supremacy and our devotion to His cause or square our gifts with our claims.”

In carrying out that calling, she reminded her Baptist brothers and sisters of their heritage and interdependence. “We Baptists may be proud of our history. We are trustees of some great principles, never more needed by the world than now. Let us not betray them. …The local church is our depository of ecclesiastical authority.” Beyond the church, the denomination that served it functioned as “voluntary cooperative associations created for the sake of greater effectiveness in the business of the Kingdom.”

Montgomery understood both the necessity for spirited dialogue and the ultimate commitment to move forward together. “As democrats we regard the right to cooperate as equally sacred with the right to differ,” she said. “It is ours to prove that without abandoning our democracy we can learn to stand shoulder to shoulder in the cooperative prosecution of the great tasks of the Kingdom.”

The diversity of her gifts and accomplishments were recalled at her death in 1934, at age 73. “What words can we summon to express a tribute worthy of this noble Christian?” Susan T. Laws inquired in Missions. “Time would fail us to speak of her love for our missionaries, her genius for friendship, her delightful sense of humor, her open-hearted hospitality. …Around the world women of many lands, women of many denominations, join hands and hearts in praising God for the beautiful life of Helen Barrett Montgomery.”

Richard W. Schramm served from 1996 to 2005 as deputy general secretary for communication for American Baptist Churches USA.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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