What’s Old Is New Again
By Anne Packard
“Let our rich women arouse themselves to consider the greatest problems of the time.”
--Belle Harris Bennett, Christian Advocate
, April 4, 1895
How could the younger daughter of a prominent family in southeastern Kentucky born a decade prior to the Civil War fulfill her dream of educating women for the betterment of God’s kingdom? The answer is simple – prayer.
Belle Harris Bennett was born the daughter of eight children to Samuel and Elizabeth Chenault in Madison County, Kentucky and named for her paternal grandmother who was the wife of a Methodist circuit rider. She became a church member at 23 years and soon noticed the poor preparation of Methodist missionaries, especially female mission workers. After being elected president of the Kentucky Women’s Missionary Society, she began raising funds from throughout the south to establish a school for female missionaries. Within a year, she secured a site and enough funding to create the Scarritt Bible and Missionary Training School, which opened with three students in Kansas City, Missouri in the Fall of 1892. Thousands were trained there in the next thirty years, including our own Mary Culler White.
After her sister’s death in 1892, Bennett continued to work with missionary education fulfilling her sister’s dream of creating a training school in southeastern Kentucky from where the Bennet family hailed. Working with Dr. Walter Russell Lambuth
, Secretary of Foreign Missions for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, the Sue Bennett Memorial College - consisting of eight cottages and a dormitory - was established on twenty-two acres in New London, Kentucky.
In 1896, Belle Bennett was elected president of the Woman's Parsonage and Home Mission Society where she reorganized the society so that it would no longer answer to the all-male Southern Methodist Board of Church Extension but to a Woman's Board with corresponding secretaries from each Conference Society. The new society then organized night schools and Korean and Japanese Southern Methodist Churches for outreach to the new immigrants arriving on the West Coast and settlement houses in the southeast where unmarried, working women could live cooperatively and safely.
In 1911, the Mission Home Society and the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society merged to form the Woman’s Missionary Council, and Belle Bennett served as its founding president. While she led this new organization for the next twelve years, membership tripled, donations neared one million dollars annually, mission work began in Africa, and mission work in Japan was accepted and enlarged.
In 1910, Belle Bennett was the first woman allowed to speak in session before the General Conference of the Southern Methodist Church, campaigning male leaders to grant women the full rights and privileges of the laity. The measure was defeated in 1910 and again at the 1914 General Conference where women from both sides of this issue were able to speak during the session. But it is believed that the work done by Southern Methodist women during WWI may have swayed delegates’ minds because in 1918, at the General Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, the delegates voted 265 in favor and 57 against women's laity rights. The battle had not yet been won, though, because the Council of Bishops vetoed this decision shortly after the meeting. The General Conference then sent the question to each of the Annual Conferences (approximately 40 Conferences constituted the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, at that time). The measure passed with a good majority, and women's laity rights were won by 1919.
Among her many accomplishments is a small, often unnoticed detail. Early in her years of devoted service to the Southern Methodist Church, Belle Bennett created a Prayer Calendar which was sent nationwide. In the very beginning of her immense work for the Methodist Church and women’s rights, she prayed. She joined her prayer to the prayers of other Southern Methodist women, regardless of what side of what issue was in the daily news at the time, and those powerful prayers changed the world.
At this time of societal change, what could prayer do for us?
Anne Packard serves as Conference Historian and director of the Arthur J. Moore Methodist Museum on St. Simons Island. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.