Script for KWBU-FM and Texas NPR Stations
By Petra Carey
HOST (Mary Landon Darden) The historical accounts and personal documents of Dr. & Mrs. W.B. Bagby provide an in-depth, personal look at the challenges, struggles, and triumphs of this legendary couple’s foreign mission work in the late 19th-early 20th century. Missionaries to Brazil, the Bagbys left a credible, long-lasting mark on both Brazil and Texas—even present to this day. Petra Carey unearthed their story, and she’s here today to share with us about this amazing couple and their devotion to mission work in Brazil. Welcome, Petra. It’s a pleasure to be here.
WRITER (Petra Carey)
I know that much of the history of the Bagby family mission work is housed in the Texas Collection. How extensive is that collection? The Texas Collection holds almost 1,600 folders of historical documents relating to the Bagbys’ family, missionary journeys, personal letters, and photos. The details and accounts of their family, their dreams, sorrows, fears, and successes are immense. There are letters between Mrs. Anne Bagby and Dr. William Bagby prior to their marriage; between Mrs. Bagby and her parents; between the Bagbys and the Foreign Mission Board, and even diaries kept by Anne. All said, it hardly leaves any room for puzzlement on all that the Bagbys endured and achieved both on and off the mission field.
The Bagbys were known as passionate and faithful laborers, and their history is as rich as it is extensive. Their accomplishments were vast and are still felt to this day.
Indeed. Consider these numbers. The Bagbys first docked on the coast of Brazil in 1881. Within 10 years, the Bagbys had established 10 churches, performed 434 baptisms, and church membership totaled 419. By the time Dr. Bagby passed away in 1939, Southern Baptists reported 778 churches, 47,114 baptisms, and 68,731 Brazilians members in Brazil’s Baptist churches.
That is an amazing feat. I’m sure it could not have come easily. Let’s start at the beginning. How did the Bagbys meet? In retrospect, it seems as if Anne and William’s paths were destined to cross at some point. Both came from devout, Baptist families, and both were actively involved in their respective churches. In 1878, Sunday School work in the Baptist church was a relatively new endeavor. So, the Baptists organized a statewide convention in Calvert, Texas, and churches sent their own workers to attend. Anne describes their first encounter in her diary.
At the first meeting, I saw in the front of the church a young man whose eyes
always met mine and after the close of the session had the pleasure of an introduction to him. The convention closed all too soon and, as we prepared for our homegoing, I remarked that my only regret was that I had not become acquainted with a certain young minister. What was our surprise when a note was handed to me at the next moment requesting an immediate interview…I must have done all the talking, for I spoke of my desire, even purpose of becoming a foreign missionary…
Anne goes on to say that shortly after she arrived home, she received a letter from William asking to correspond with her. Funny thing is that her dad warned, “If you consent to this request, you will receive a proposal in less than three months.” And sure enough, she did.
You mentioned that Anne felt her purpose was to be a foreign missionary. Can you tell us how that came about? There’s a great story to that, too. See, Anne’s father, Dr. John Luther, was a pastor. It was always his desire to be a missionary, and he even applied to do so with the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention but asked to have his name removed as a candidate because he was in poor health, and he doubted his teaching ability. Still, Dr. Luther always had a heart for missions, and his congregation was reminded of his burden often in his sermons. So, during one Sunday night sermon, he proclaimed, “God has blessed America, and we must share that blessing with the world! So few dedicate their lives to God on such a high sphere. If you go, remember, we will always be here supporting you in prayer on our knees.” He ended with, “Who will go?” Well, when he gave the invitation for those wanting to be saved or desiring to serve as a foreign missionary, only one person came forward…12-year-old Anne! She’d already accepted the call to faith, so he knew the only other reason she could have approached was to answer the call to foreign missions. His exasperated whisper to her was, “Child, I didn’t mean you.” But Anne was named after her mother, who was named after Ann Hasseltine Judson, the wife of Adoniram Judson—a foreign missionary. Knowing her namesake and its history, Anne always felt a connection to foreign mission work. But a seed was placed in her heart that night and continued to be cultivated as she grew up.
And William? Did he feel he had the same destiny?
It’s interesting that you ask that, because not initially. Again, he grew up in a godly home, and his mother did pray that he would be a minister of the gospel. He was a theology student for a brief time at Waco University, but his desire was to either teach in a school or to pastor…in America. And knowing Anne’s utmost desire to serve as a missionary, it was interesting to see how their courtship would play out while I was reading their letters to one another. In one of Anne’s letters to William’s mother she wrote: “Should our paths lie in different directions, my affection, I am convinced, would never be withdrawn from the object to which it now clings.” But things started to fall into place naturally when William started to feel a burden for the Burmese. At that point, he wrote to Anne: “I am willing to go anywhere except to Africa.” And throughout correspondences after that point, William assured Anne that she hadn’t persuaded him into foreign missions—that it was a personal call he was responding to.
That’s a great story. So, how soon did they marry and when did they go? They married in October of 1880 and set sail for Brazil the following January. The voyage lasted more than six weeks, and Anne kept a diary while aboard and wrote faithfully nearly every day. Both suffered from sea sickness, but William suffered the most. In one entry on January 26, Anne wrote: “I am willing to undergo any inconvenience to reach my field of labor. We must be willing, leaving all we love, to lay down our lives, if need be, for the cause, and who would shrink at a little sickness?” They finally reached Brazil on March 8.
Were the Bagbys the first Baptist missionaries to Brazil, or had others started the work previously? Actually, three others attempted to establish a work in Brazil before the Bagbys arrived, but their efforts were challenged by health problems and lack of funding.
The first effort was made by T.J. Bowen in 1959. His goal was to establish two congregations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: one would be English-speaking and the other for those who spoke Yoruba, which was the language of the slaves in the area. But when he did this, the government suspected he was initiating a slave revolt, which resulted in persecution for the church. By February, his health was so poor he had to return to the States.
The second effort occurred after the Civil War when southern colonists moved to Brazil. Those in Santa Barbara, Brazil, organized to form the First North American Baptist Missionary Church of Brazil under the Reverend Richard Ratcliff. They requested missionaries from the Foreign Mission Board, but funding wasn’t available, especially after the Civil War. A minister from Hillsboro, Tex., E.H. Quillen, was willing to serve as a self-supporting missionary. But he had a congenital physical deformity and became addicted to pain killers, which eventually led to alcoholism. Before long, the church in Santa Barbara split.
Just prior to the Bagby’s arrival, a Civil War general named A.T. Hawthorne helped establish a colony in Santa Barbara, Brazil. On a return trip to the United States to recruit more colonists, he had an opportunity to hear the gospel and was converted. So, he altered his plans to recruit missionaries too. He attended the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Louisville that year (1880) to make his appeal. They were so moved by his passion and burden that they appointed him to the Foreign Mission Board. It was Hawthorne who first contacted Anne about doing mission work in Santa Barbara, Brazil. She was immediately persuaded and then asked him to talk to William as well.
So, once they reached Brazil, was it everything they hoped it would be? Not entirely. William’s first burden was for Burma, but after speaking with Hawthorne, he settled on Brazil. But he only had a couple of people’s accounts to go on. So, he wrote down a list of reasons why it would be better to go to Brazil than Burma, and this is what he shared with Anne:
The government is more favorable to Evangelical Christians, and especially to Southern people.
It’s nearer home.
But none of these were entirely true. A multitude of Brazilians could only be reached by mule, so evangelizing was going to be challenging in that regard. Flare ups of malaria and yellow fever were common. And yes, Caucasians were present, but most Brazilians were of African descent. Also, the government permitted the practice of Christianity but did not allow Protestants to conduct meetings in public. And though Brazil was closer to home than Burma, it would still take three months to receive letters via steamboat. So, loneliness was sure to set in at some point.
So, in reality, it was adding misconception on top of a culture shock. I’ll bet that was difficult for the Bagbys. It was. The Bagbys also had to contend with the fact that the church at Santa Barbara wasn’t as stable as they’d been led to believe. The American colonists had damaged the evangelization effort, and there was a lot of back-biting and gossip among the members, which seems trivial but can really tear down the foundation of a church. William also realized the need was too great for him alone and requested additional missionaries from the Foreign Mission Board. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before friends of the Bagbys arrived to help out—a married couple by the name of Z.C. & Kate Taylor.
When were the Bagbys finally able to reach a breakthrough? The Bagbys and Taylors decided to search for a new mission site apart from Santa Barbara. They wanted to be in a more central area for prime effectiveness and ultimately settled on Salvador, Bahia, which is on Brazil’s eastern coast.
A coastal city lent itself to business advantages, direct communication with the Board, and would ensure prestige for the Baptists if successful. So, the Bagbys and Taylors established the First Baptist Church of Brazil on October 15, 1882, and it was truly Brazilian; even the services were conducted in Portuguese.
Given the Bagby’s ultimate success in Brazil, how were they able to make strides when others weren’t? What was their strategy?
Well, William Bagby and Z.C. Taylor knew they weren’t biblical scholars, so they simply relied on the Bible for direction. They especially referred to the book of Acts. Just as the apostles preached in cities, Bagby and Taylor decided to do the same.
Also, the two followed the order of service commonly practiced on the Texas frontier—a more evangelistic approach without unnecessary formalities. They preached Jesus—plain and simple—and closed the service with an invitation for sinners to accept Christ.
William also used the Brazilian government’s persecution to his advantage. He pointed out to his new converts that even the New Testament church suffered persecution, so it must be a sign that the gospel he preached was true and of God.
Z.C. Taylor wrote about the persecution at one point:
Persecutions are pressing us on every side, now. The “padres” have dropped their pens to use the sword. Four soldiers who attended the Presbyterian church have been in prison for a month. Their crime is reading the Bible. All efforts to get them out have been in vain so far. Another strategy that proved successful was that the Bagbys convinced the Foreign Mission Board to separate Brazil’s Southern Baptist mission into three fields: Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and Maceio. Most other denominations tended to put all of its efforts into one central field, but the Bagbys didn’t see fit to do it that way. With three fields, they were sure to reach more Brazilians, and they did.
Also, Brazil declared itself a republic in 1889 with a coup d’état. And William had a unique opportunity to influence the country’s constitution.
Really? How so?
Before the revolution, Aristides Lobo—who would later become Brazil’s Secretary of Interior—met with William to ask questions about the U.S. Constitution in regard to the separation of church and state and other domestic issues. Lobo even hand-wrote a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Ultimately, Brazil’s constitution mirrored that of the U.S. in many ways. The establishment of a republic only spurred the Southern Baptists efforts in Brazil.
Considering the Bagby’s hailed from Texas, what role did Texas play in their missionary efforts? As Texas’ interest in foreign missions grew, the state’s giving increased exponentially. From 1845-1879—that’s 34 years—Texas gave a total of $9,345. During the first 10 years of the Bagby’s ministry in Brazil, Texas gave a total of $77,667. That’s an 850 percent increase! What makes this amount even more amazing was that Texas was going through a drought during this same decade.
Texas also sent forth workers, and that was one thing the Bagbys always were in need of—people willing to assist them. There even came a point when Baylor College for Women had more alumni in the foreign mission field than any other college in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Did Anne work alongside William or did they have separate roles in the field? Anne was devoted to education, and it wasn’t long before Baptists realized illiteracy was a prime obstacle in their effort to evangelize. How could one truly continue to learn more about the Bible if they couldn’t read it? Anne’s ultimate goal was to establish a Christian school for Brazilian children. She noticed Brazilians were committed to seeing their children educated and saw this as a way into their hearts and a means of sharing the gospel.
Though a republic had been formed and the constitution banned religious discrimination, Protestant children who attended Catholic schools suffered persecution. So, to have an alternative Christian environment for their children was reassuring for Brazilians. So, Anne and William purchased a school in Sao Paulo City 1901 and renamed it the Girls’ School of Sao Paulo.
Was this a first for the Southern Baptists in Brazil?
It wasn’t the first school, but it was the flagship school in all of Brazil for the Southern Baptists because of its sheer size. It was two times as large as any other Baptist school in Brazil and was the only one exclusively for girls until 1939. Anne even set up a program within the school to train teachers to work in schools at other field sites in Brazil.
Before long, though, the combined efforts of evangelism and education began to cause some friction.
Oh, really? Share more about that. Well, the educational portion required a lot of monetary support, and soon, more money was being used for that than for evangelism. A number of missionaries in Brazil started to feel a bit uneasy about the disproportionate spending. William expressed his concern about this in a letter to the Southern Brazil Mission secretary. He wrote:
For some time I have wished that it were possible for me to see you, and have a long good talk with you, and go before the Board about a number of matters…Some grave errors have been made and are being made…Radical changes ought to be introduced and at once. We are neglecting evangelization, and putting the best new men—all, or nearly all—into the schools. The emphasis is being put on education to the woeful neglect of evangelization!
So, even William had some reservations about how much was being spent on education needs in comparison to those of evangelism and outreach. But education was such a concern for Anne. She was even fretful about whether or not her children were receiving the same quality education as their U.S. peers. Her fears were put to rest when the Bagby’s eldest daughter, Ermine, graduated in good standing from Baylor College for Women in Belton, Texas.
How many children did the Bagbys have? Did any of them follow in their parents’ footsteps and devote their lives to foreign missions?
The Bagbys had nine children in total. Two sons died as toddlers—one from scarlet fever and the other from meningitis. Anne’s response to their deaths showed signs of a strong Christian with a deep love for God and his ultimate will.
I would rather my children die now than be even cold Christians. I want them to be afire with love to Jesus. God grant that we may, none of us, grow cold or indifferent in his service. If I must be kept warm by losing what I love best, I cannot ask otherwise. A third son died in a drowning accident while trying to save a friend. A fourth son—Oliver—went missing one year prior to graduating from Galveston Medical College.
Nepotism was a cultural norm in Brazil, and it’s likely that the Bagbys wanted to pass the baton—so to speak—to their children. In fact, by 1935, 14 percent of the Southern Baptists’ foreign missionaries in Brazil were children of missionaries. It’s suspected that Oliver wanted to take a different direction in life. In his dorm room were two trunks with all of his belongings inside and a note attached that read, “Keep till called for.” As it turns out, the Bagbys had just sent Oliver the money needed to return to Brazil. Some wonder if he used it to establish himself somewhere else—in a place of his choosing.
Wow. Had anything like this ever happened before to others?
This wasn’t the first time a missionary’s son had gone missing. Just three years prior, the same fate fell upon a missionary to China, but his son showed up again in about two years. So, the Foreign Mission Board thought the same would happen in Oliver’s case and encouraged the Bagbys not to worry. The Bagbys eventually hired a private investigator to look for Oliver but to no avail. The Bagbys suspected a certain package they received from Melbourne, Australia, was from Oliver, but he never made contact with them after his disappearance.
All of the other five children joined their parents as missionaries in Brazil, and two more generations followed suit. Helen Bagby Harrison also composed her parents’ history in Brazil and authored The Bagbys of Brazil. One source, David Lancaster, mentioned that she destroyed any letters that would have reflected her parents in a negative light. However, this wasn’t confirmed in any other sources on the Bagbys.
But it can’t be said their efforts weren’t successful. Correct. That can’t be denied. With the help of faithful servants like themselves, they saw to it that the gospel was spread throughout Brazil, from its most northern edge to the southern tip. For one, the Bagbys established a “Texas Connection,” which was critical to their efforts financially.
They gained the respect and support of prominent Texas ministers such as George W. Truett, R.C. Burleson, B.H. Carroll, and A.T. Hawthorne. With William as the first theology student of Waco University in 1873, William claimed he and Carroll comprised the first Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with William as the student body and Carroll as the faculty. Carroll went on to establish Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1908, and his friendship with the Bagbys influenced Southwestern’s commitment to training students for the foreign mission field.
And as a graduate of Baylor College for Women, Anne’s alma mater had more female alumni in Brazil’s mission fields than any other Baptist College.
Also, because of the Bagby’s efforts and devotion, Texas began supporting foreign missions wholeheartedly, giving copious amounts despite financial hardships.
So, a unique bond was created between the Baptists of Texas and the Baptists of Brazil due to the Bagbys.
It was pneumonia that took William’s life in 1939. Just two weeks later, the Bagby’s daughter, Ermine, passed away from pneumonia.
On December 22, Anne died from complications of what seems to have been a heart attack by description. Baptists in northern Brazil asked that she buried there since William had been buried in the south. So, even in death, their legacy extends throughout the entire country.
One of William’s sermons summarizes their legacy best
…And though a man may not discover the elements of his greatness until he has passed from among them, still his name will be honored, and imperishable monuments will be erected to his memory long years after his departure. How true. Thank you for being with us today, Petra. Thank you for having me, Mary.
Time doesn’t allow us to cover everything in one sitting. If you would like to learn more about the Bagbys and their work in Brazil, the Texas Collection on Baylor campus has an enormous collection of primary-source documents, including letters and correspondences, diaries, journals, photos, and memoirs.
Property of The Texas Collection at Baylor University
Final Edit: January 9, 2010
Petra Carey, Writer
Dr. Mary Landon Darden, Executive Producer
Pattie Orr, Vice President of Information Technology and Dean of
John Wilson, Associate Director of The Texas Collection
Dr. Thomas L. Charlton, Director of The Texas Collection