Miss Bertha Smith (1888-1988) is the shining star for Southern Baptist missions in the 20th century. For forty years Miss Bertha faithfully served the people of China, representing Christ and the Southern Baptist Convention as a missionary of the gospel. Thousands of men and women came to faith in Christ due to Miss Bertha's ministry in China.
In her later years, Miss Bertha became the conscience of Southern Baptists as she challenged those of us in the states to long for genuine revival, the kind she experienced on the field in China. She also called pastors and churches to never neglect their collective duty to support SBC missionaries through prayer and giving.
Those of us who knew Miss Bertha loved to hear her speak of her adventures in China and Taiwan, but we were even more moved to hear her petition the throne of God through prayer in ways that made everyone personally feel the power and presence of God.
In the early part of the last century, right before Miss Bertha was appointed to China, the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention changed the policies that forbad single women from serving on the mission field. As a result of this policy change, Miss Bertha went to China with FMB approval. Thousands of Chinese men and women are in heaven today because of the FMB's willingness to remove the gender/marital restrictions upon missionaries and enlarge the tent.
In 1977 Adrian Rogers proclaimed, “Miss Bertha Smith exemplifies what all of us feel a Southern Baptist missionary ought to be. She has been a blessing to countless thousands.”
Not anymore Dr. Rogers. Miss Bertha no longer exemplifies what a SBC missionary ought to be. In fact, Bertha Smith is now persona non grata among the majority of trustees on the International Mission Board.
You see, Miss Bertha experienced a private prayer language.
The same Board that changed policies decades ago to allow the appointment of Miss Bertha to China, just two months ago, changed the policies in order to disallow a private prayer language among SBC missionaries. According to current candidate consultants of the IMB, only 3% to 5% of all missionaries profess to have a private prayer language. None of those missionaries were allowed under the old policy to speak in tongues publicly or to advocate a private prayer language as the normative experience of the Christian. Yet, under the new policies, a majority of the trustees of the International Mission Board voted to say "no" to Southern Baptists who experienced a private prayer language and desire future appointment to the mission field.
Miss Bertha never taught that tongues was to be the ordinary experience of all believers. She felt private gifts should be kept private.
In effect, the Board is saying to our grand lady of 20th century missions: "Miss Bertha, our Board made a mistake eighty years ago when you were appointed. You were never called by God to be a missionary for the Southern Baptist Convention. You see, Miss Bertha, you experienced a private prayer language, and we can't claim you as a Southern Baptist missionary."
We should all shed tears for Miss Bertha Smith.
We should shed tears when we visit the special exhibit honoring Miss Bertha which is currently on display at the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives in the Southern Baptist Convention building in downtown Nashville, Tennessee.
We should shed tears when we visit the Southern Baptist theological libraries that are named after Miss Bertha. We should shed tears when we check out and read the three books she wrote. We should shed tears when we purchase the biography written about Miss Bertha by former Southeastern President Dr. Lewis Drummond.
We should shed tears for the new generation of pastors who have never heard of Miss Bertha Smith, and now may never hear of her, because she is no longer considered the model missionary.
How can this happen? The IMB already had excellent policies on the books that specifically stated that those who advocated public "tongues" speaking would be fired. The staff and President of the IMB have strictly enforced this policy throughout the years. However, in the past, the trustees and staff of the IMB never entered into the private prayer closet of SBC missionaries. It was believed that how a missionary prays and worships in private was a matter of conscience and private Scriptural interpretation, and of no concern to the trustees.
Surely some trustees who sought to drive the new policy change on "private prayer language" did not do so to embarrass Dr. Rankin, who himself has a private prayer language? Surely, a majority of trustees did not blindly follow trustee leadership without personally thinking through the ramifications of such a significant policy change. Surely trustees understand that the new policy did nothing but disown certain people within our convention since the former policy already prohibited the public practice of tongues. Surely not.
If that is not the motivation behind the changes then possibly some trustees do have a serious doctrinal concern about a private prayer language. I don't possess the gift of a private prayer language, but I'm sure not scared of people like Miss Bertha. Neither should you be. We should cooperate with each other.
Further, when I read fellow trustee Dr. Alan McWhite's brilliant letter to all of us, defending people within our convention who interpret Scripture to teach that a private prayer language is of God as having the right to cooperate with us in missions, I have a hard time seeing how we who believe in the inspired Word of God can simply dismiss texts like, "do not forbid speaking in tongues" (I Cor. 14:39)without giving room for various interpretations (as we did for Miss Bertha).
What are we to conclude. If there has been NO BIBLICAL DEFENSE FOR THE CHANGES, then what is propelling them?
Maybe you and others genuinely do not know. With all my heart I believe some do know the real motivation behind the changes, but we can't judge the heart or motive of another.
But before I shed any more tears over Miss Bertha Smith and the recent actions of a majority (not all) of the trustees on the IMB, allow me to express a few cheers as I reread personal anecdotes of Miss Bertha's life and ministry.
Miss Bertha: Woman of Revival by Lewis Drummond (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996) is a paperback book of 292 pages. The following quotes are from the pages enumerated and contain the key on how we can possibly correct a traic mistake within the International Mission Board.
(1). A Strong Belief in the Power of God to Bring About the Needed Change
One close friend of this author was praying with her one day. He was on his knees pleading with the Lord to help him die to himself ... Miss Bertha ... looked him straight in the eye and said, "Young man, you don't have to beg God to help you to die to yourself. You just tell Him and He'll kill you."(p. 248)
(2). An Insistence that Missionaries and Trustees Focus on the Essentials of the Faith and not Fixate on Non-Essentials.
Miss Bertha arrived in China with a good grasp of the evangelical Christian faith. Yet something was lacking ... Even the missionaries themselves - Miss Bertha included - confessed to a need for a deep movement of God in their own lives. (p.4)
(3). Directness, Even Bluntness, to Cut Through Games People Play
Miss Bertha was blunt and frank at times ... Once while she was praying with a very obese preacher, he prayed, "Lord, you know I have a tendency to overeat. "Miss Bertha broke in: "Don't try to fool God, just tell him you are a glutton." (p. 256)
Three cheers for Miss Bertha!
Should the IMB reverse her policies on a "private prayer language?"
“Bertha Smith exemplifies what all of us feel a Southern Baptist missionary ought to be. She has been a blessing to countless thousands"
Thanks Dr. Rogers for the answer to my question.
In His Grace,