May Whittle Moody--Women's Ministry Pioneer
May Whittle Moody (daughter-in-law of Dwight L. Moody) started following Christ at age 11. From that day forward, she maintained that she never again doubted Christ's love or his word. She was a loving wife and mother, an extraordinary hostess, a compassionate soul, a gifted musician, a generous philanthropist, and a pioneer in women's ministry. Her life story is quite encouraging, and if you have some extra time, I'd encourage you read it here. But for today, I'd like to focus on just one year of her life--the year that she started the first bible conference for girls at age 23. Here is her account taken from an address given at a meeting of the Directors of the Northfield League in 1929 ...
As far as one knows, in 1893 there had never been a conference for girls anywhere in the world, except a small group of secretaries who met at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in 1891. The first conference of any kind held in Northfield was called by Mr. D. L. Moody in 1882. This was called a “General Conference” for ministers and Christian workers. In the summer of 1886, the men’s conference had begun. About 200 gathered at Mt. Hermon School and it was there that the Student Volunteer Movement sprang into being when one hundred college men volunteered for the foreign field. It was my great privilege to be there with my father who was one of the speakers. The experience never left me. One felt the power of God’s spirit calling them into service.
This conference grew very rapidly as the delegates scattered to their colleges and shared their experience. Among the many well known men of that generation were Dr. Watt and Dr. Speer. In 1895, there were about six hundred men, and this did not include southern or western colleges, as other conferences had started for them. The report of this conference closes with this paragraph: “The leaders of the Northfield Conferences have sought from the beginning to instill and foster a deeper love and clearer knowledge of the Scriptures in the hearts and minds of men and women; and to this the growing power of these conferences is due."
Two years later the men told Mr. Moody that ten days was too short a time to get the Bible study they needed, and asked if could have them for a month, which he did in July, 1989. They studied under the leadership of the strongest conservative men of our country and abroad. The program annually included Bible Classes and addresses on the work of the Holy Spirit and personal work.
These were the days when groups of college men would go into the hills about Northfield and pray to be filled with God’s spirit and power for service. It is the rule and not the exception to have an outstanding minister or layman of that generation say, “I attended the Northfield Men’s Conference when I was an undergraduate."
All this history of the men’s conference is necessary in order to get the setting and atmosphere out of which our own conference came into being. From the first, a changing group of fifteen or twenty girls attended the men’s conference. They were not invited to any sessions except the platform meetings and some Classes. They met together for discussion and prayer. In 1892 such a group attended the men’s conference and lived at the Merriam Cottage on Main Street. Mrs. Bailey, who was Mrs. Speer’s mother, chaperoned us. At one of the sessions in Stone Hall, one of the girls [Editor’s Note: Actually May Whittle herself] sat beside C. K. Ober and said impulsively to him, “Why can’t we have a girls’ conference and fill this place with girls instead of men?” “You can,” he responded sympathetically. “Go ahead and start it.” That was enough, and that day a petition to Mr. D. L. Moody was written and many sheets pasted together for signatures of both men and women. Confidentially, the leaders of the men’s conference were delighted at the prospect of eliminating a distracting element.
In the fall of that year, this girl took the petition to Dublin, Ireland, where Mr. D. L. Moody was conducting a mission. She met again with an enthusiastic response and the condition that if she could persuade the Y.W.C.A. to work up the conference in the colleges, he would invite them to Northfield. Accordingly, the petition was taken to Chicago, where the President of the Y.W.C.A., Mrs. John V. Fawell, lived. She showed sincere interest and promised to bring it to her executive committee. This she did, with the result that they agreed to visit the colleges and invite delegations “to attend Mr. Moody’s conference at Northfield."
The first girls’ conference met at Northfield, June 22-30, 1893. About two hundred girls attended, among them seven from Great Britain. The program for this first conference was as follows: two Bible classes each day for the entire conference. From 9 to 10 the “workers” Bible Training Class with Mr. James McConaughy. The theme was the Christian’s life among men, and dwelt on the method of the Saviour with men and women, making adaptation to those present. It gave practical help to all and created in many a desire for soul winning in college and home life. The second class from 10 to 11 was led by Robert Speer in The Gospel of Work. Besides these two Bible classes, there were three conferences each morning: one for college girls, one for city girls, and a third for the general conference on “work for young women by young women"...
...The conferences at Northfield have been to college men and to college girls a source of real inspiration and strength. Many young men and women have testified and proved that their lives have been made richer and more useful because of the time spent at Northfield and the consideration of those things which are most worthwhile. We all need to take time, in the busy lives we lead, to quietly listen to the voice of God, that the soul life, as well as the mind and body, may grow in beauty and power...”
...The conferences grew from three hundred to nine hundred, and about 1919, we held two conferences, each attended by about six hundred girls. Who can estimate the countless contacts made with God through this channel of His word?"
Giving thanks for May
I am personally thankful for May's story because she inspires me to serve college women with greater passion. May was 23 when she started the girls' conference, and she served young women faithfully until the age of 93. Oh, how I long to follow in her footsteps! My prayer is that one day I, too, will be able to ask "Who can estimate the countless contacts made with God through this channel of His word?"
As women who now have the opportunity to attend great national women's conference like the Gospel Coalition Women's Conference (where I'll be in two weeks!) and the True Woman conferences, we should also collectively thank God for our sister May and her vision to "instill and foster a deeper love and clearer knowledge of the Scriptures in the hearts and minds" of women. Less than 150 years ago, Christian women didn't have the vast resources and conferences that we have available today...so let's not take those for granted!
Today, would you join me in praying for the women who will be attending the Gospel Coalition Women's Conference in two weeks? Like May, let's pray that the conference would instill and foster a deeper love and clearer knowledge of the Scriptures in the hearts and minds of the women attending.
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