Let the Dead Bury their Dead?!?
Issacar Jacox Roberts and the Shaping of Southern Baptist Foreign Mission Efforts
by Keith Harper
Professor of Baptist Studies, SEBTS
When one thinks of Southern Baptist missionaries, several noteworthy individuals come to mind. Lottie Moon's 39-year career in China remains the denomination's supreme example of one missionary's self-sacrifice and surrender to Christ. One might also think of Bill Wallace's heroism or Annie Armstrong's determined, pragmatic, approach to financing missionary endeavors, not to mention her role in shaping Woman's Missionary Union (WMU) in its early days.
Of the many names one might mention, it is safe to say that no one thinks of Issacar Jacox Roberts. Little wonder. There are no offerings named for him. He has no entry in the Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, and William Estep scarcely mentioned him in the most recent history of the SBC's International Mission Board, Whole Gospel, Whole World. Yet, of the thousands of missionaries Southern Baptists have sent into service, I. J. Roberts may be the most important. His brief career raised nearly every major issue the Foreign Board would face in its first 100 years and thereby forced the Board to consider how it would interact with its missionaries, not to mention how they, in turn, would interact with the Board, each other, and their supporters back in America.
Issacar Jacox Roberts was born February 17 1802 in Sumner County, Tennessee. He converted to Christianity on March 19, 182l and was ordained to the gospel ministry seven years later in 1828. On January 4, 1830, he married Miss Barsha Blanchard, who, unfortunately, died the following year. According to his own testimony, Roberts surrendered his life for missionary work in China on his birthday in 1835 after nine months of prayer and deliberation. "I took the Word of God for my warrant," he recalled, "my inward conviction of duty for my prompter, and by faith I resolved, not knowing how the thing should be accomplished, but trusted all to God who commended, to bring it to pass." Undaunted by his friends and family who encouraged him to stay in America, Roberts left for China, in April, 1836.
There was scarcely anything about I. J. Roberts' tenure as a missionary that one might deem "typical." For instance, before leaving for China Roberts liquidated his assets and created the Roberts Fund and China Mission Society. Endowed with $30,000 Roberts planned to support himself, his native assistants, and his sundry ventures in China. He operated as a quasi-independent missionary in Macao for about 6 years where he ministered to a congregation of lepers. He also preached in Hong Kong and later Canton. Meanwhile, John L. Burrows, W. C. Buck, and others served as financial agents in Kentucky for Roberts' work, but the American economy of the 1830s and 40s was unstable and prone to periods of boom and bust. One could make a fortune, or lose one. Unfortunately, Burrows and Buck proved unable to maintain their self-endowed missionary and by the early 1840s, Roberts had depleted most of his missionary fund.
Forced to seek new revenue, the "Robert's Fund" officially became the China Mission Society of Kentucky, Auxiliary to the American Baptist Foreign Mission Board, Boston in 1842. This arrangement did not last long, however, and soon after Southern Baptists established their own Foreign Mission Board, Roberts quickly offered his services. He never stated explicitly why he wanted to leave the "Boston Board," but he may have clashed with the Massachusetts
brethren over how he spent his money in China. In an oblique reference to his brief stint with the Northern Board, Roberts complained that they had a habit of passing resolutions and "expecting their missionaries to carry them into effect, without giving us the reason for the measure, to which I strongly object because it is not a republican principle and can only be enforced by martial law." Apparently, Roberts was willing to receive the General Board's funding but not its direction.
Eager to expand their China work the Foreign Mission Board (SBC) accepted Roberts as their third foreign missionary in 1846. Their enthusiastic missionary wrote, "See what God has wrought in His providence for us-even exceeding our most sanguine expectations, to openings for the reception of the gospel. Who knows whether the Southern Baptist Board has not been constituted for a time such as this." In accepting Roberts as their missionary, however, there was a catch. The China Missionary Society of Kentucky agreed to surrender their funds to the Foreign Mission Board along with other funds received during the year provided the Board would earmark such funds for Roberts and his associates. In a word, Roberts wanted to receive funding and recognition from the Southern Baptist foreign Mission Board while retaining a measure of independence through his former Mission Society in Kentucky.
Roberts got off on the wrong foot with the Foreign Mission Board. On February 21, 1846, he complained through the pages of The Baptist, a denominational newspaper in Tennessee that would later become The Tennessee Baptist, that he had insufficient support to evangelize China. He noted," . . . I receive no assistance from any Board or Society at the East, and hence am under the necessity of appealing to my own brethren and sisters of Tennessee and the West for pecuniary aid." Things got worse in July when he complained that he was "destitute," which was a shame since, according to Roberts, he might be the only Baptist in China who could preach directly to the Chinese in their own language. Sensing something was amiss, The Baptist's editor responded, "Our brother is not, we presume, to be understood as saying that we have no other missionaries than himself who can preach in Chinese..." As for being destitute, the editor remarked that Roberts should have received support from the "Boston Board" until that association had been dissolved. Further, Roberts," . . . by his own request regularly received and is supported by the Board of Foreign Missions of the Southern Convention." Finally, the editor did not understand why Roberts maintained a separate connection with the China Mission Society of Kentucky, if he was in fact a Southern Baptist missionary. "Why then," The Baptist's editor asked, "Should he so particularly desire his support to come to him through the China Mission Society of Kentucky? We need light upon these subjects."
Roberts' status as a quasi-independent missionary immediately caused problems with his fellow missionaries. Roberts had retained property for his congregation at Uet Tang. His facilities were not in the best condition, however, and contrary to Board policy, he wanted FMB funding that would maintain property that the Board did not own. Additionally, Southern Baptist missionaries doubtless grew weary with Roberts' demeanor and overestimation of his own worth. His cavalier approach to missions coupled with his reluctance to fully cooperate with the Foreign Mission Board led certain missionaries to complain. Soon letters began pouring onto the Board's defenseless mailbox. It appears that everyone complained about the "new guy," but a somewhat conciliatory Roberts "forgave" his critics and confided to the Board that most of fellow missionaries were either ill or simply too inexperienced to understand him.
Of course, Roberts could complain too, and he quickly proved that he was no slouch when it came to bellyaching. Most of his complaints focused on money. In a letter dated August
18, 1847, Roberts said, "I beg leave here to make a statement of my money matters to the Board in order if possibly to get some relief." He further claimed, "and as I know the China Mission Society of Kentucky had passed resolutions in my favor to turn their funds over to my use, I therefore expected my own personal expenses and salary, and at least part of my contingent expenses would be refunded so as to be applied to their legitimate use, i.e. towards building my chapel and mission house!"
Of course, After lambasting the Board about his finances, he then shocked the Richmond brethren by asking them to send a single female missionary to China. Mrs. Samuel Clopton and Mrs. George Pearcy, wives of Southern Baptist missionaries in China, had helped secure a "female" congregation that needed special attention. In fact, Roberts noted that, "missionaries of every preaching point where located without females are only half prepared for the usefulness they might achieve with that useful and pleasant addition."
Of course, while it was true that female missionaries had opportunities to work with Chinese women that male missionaries did not have, Roberts had an ulterior motive in asking for a female missionary - he wanted a mate! He asked the Board to "send me a suitable female of sound health and mind; of the missionary spirit, and a Baptist in profession; suitably qualified to cooperate with me in Canton first as an assistant with me in this great work and second as a wife." He promised "God willing to take her for better or worse and with her consent, to unite with her in marriage after her arrival in China." Should the Foreign Mission Board choose not to honor his request, Roberts asked them at least to pass a resolution allowing him to return to America "at his own convenience" and find his own wife. He assured the Board that he was not picky and he claimed that he would gladly sacrifice his "taste" to the Board's judgment. Of course, back in the day his "fancy generally selected from those who were neither too large nor too small, about the middling size in person, of a face ... what is generally considered a good countenance, with high forehead, and full temples, black eyes and black hair!"
Of course, As peculiar as his request may sound, Roberts was serious. He claimed that he got the idea from fellow single missionary, Francis Johnson, son of William B. Johnson, first President of the Southern Baptist Convention. According to Roberts, his colleague had already arranged for the Board to send him a wife whenever he wanted one. In any event, Roberts was so convinced that the Board would comply with his request that he suggested they form a committee to find the future Mrs. Roberts. He was flexible on this point, but he believed the committee should at least include J. B. Jeter, President of the Foreign Mission Board, J. B. Taylor, Corresponding Secretary of the Foreign Mission Board and who even served as pastor of the church where the as-of-yet-unnamed woman had her membership.
Of course, Convinced that the Board would see the logic in his request, Roberts began sending notes to the unnamed female missionary that he hoped would become Mrs. Roberts. His first two notes were rather routine - he looked forward to meeting her, he promised to look out for her, etc. He got serious in his third note, however, and made no secret of his desire for a helper in ministry and companion in life. To allay her fears, Roberts assured her that Chinese couples frequently married without courtship and thus took "each other for better or worse without a single interview beforehand."
Meanwhile, Roberts' dispute with the Board over money continued throughout 1848 and well into 1849. The Foreign Board's Minutes dated March 21, 1848 indicate that he had requested $2000.00 to finish a chapel and house he had been working on for some time. The Board declined his request because they would neither own nor control the facility once they
were completed. Instead, they resolved that Roberts make his case for more money to the local mission and work through established procedures, especially Rule #8 which stipulated among other things that the members of each mission were to work harmoniously with each other.
By the end of 1848, Roberts decided that he needed to come back to America for a visit. He had been in China since 1836 and he needed a rest. Besides, he had never even met the brethren in Richmond and Roberts had business with the Board. The details are not available, but Roberts was present when the Board met in August 1849. The Minutes indicate that he met with the Board and after "several hours" of discussion, the Board reluctantly agreed to provide him $250.00 per year in rent - he had worn 'em down! He had also submitted a "Plan of Operations" for the entire China Mission for 1850 that the Board promised to give due consideration. Apparently pleased with events, Roberts headed for Kentucky to visit his friends and supporters.
In the meantime, two important events began to take shape. First, Miss Harriet Baker requested the Foreign Board to send her to China as a missionary. The Board carefully considered her request and finally agreed to send her on March 5, 1849. Apparently some of Roberts' reasoning had influenced the Board's thinking. They were NOT sending him a wife, but they saw a measure of logic in American women working with Chinese women and children. Hence, Harriet A. Baker became the first single female the Foreign Board appointed for international service.
Shortly after Baker sought appointment, another single female, Miss Virginia Young, petitioned the Board for an appointment to China. Unfortunately, the Board declined to appoint her. In a letter dated December 4, 1849, the Board thanked her for her zeal and interest in reaching China for Christ. Even so, sending Baker to China was risky and they were still not certain they had made the correct decision in appointing her. They made no secret of the fact that Baker was a test case to determine whether or not they would send single females to the field in the future. At any rate, the Board encouraged Young to use her pen and personal influence to spread the missionary cause wherever she went. They also added, "It may be that God, in His adorable Providence, will at some future time indicate that you should go forth to the work. You may then cheerfully and confidently wait upon him and he will guide into the path of duty."
Providence, indeed! The ink had scarcely dried on the Board's letter of December 4, when Virginia Young proudly announced her upcoming nuptials with I. J. Roberts. The details of how the happy couple met are long lost, but Roberts had numerous friends in Kentucky who knew he was single and looking and that she was single and available. It seemed like a match made in heaven - it wasn't, but it looked that way. And so, in the summer, 1850, the newly-weds sailed for China.
It would be nice if one could say they lived happily ever after, but they did not. In fact, Roberts' prior difficulties with the Board and his fellow missionaries scarcely amounted to a dress rehearsal for the firestorm to come. Between fall, 1850, and winter, 1851, life changed dramatically for everyone associated with the work in China. The difficulties the mission experienced during this time would forever shape all Southern Baptist missionary efforts. Indeed, this period will demonstrate why Roberts could well be the SBC's most important missionary, character notwithstanding.
It is difficult to say if Roberts knew the Board had sent a single female to China. But, imagine his shock to arrive in China with his new wife in tow and a single American female
missionary in Canton. On a personal level, the best he could hope for was that the Board had NOT shared his emotive sonnets with the single female missionary who had NOT united with him in holy wedlock. On a less-than-professional professional level, Roberts immediately disliked Harriet Baker and showed nothing but contempt for the co-laborer for whom he had literally begged. The opportunities he had touted for a single female missionary vanished and Baker soon learned just how miserable Roberts could make her life. He was obviously displeased with her presence and Baker complained to the Board that Roberts only allowed her $6.00 per month for a language teacher when good ones commanded at least $8.00. There could be no mistake: Roberts wanted nothing to do with Harriet A. Baker.
The situation worsened as news of what must surely be the most bizarre incident in the history of Southern Baptist missions filtered back to Richmond. Apparently, Harriet Baker lived with the Roberts family once they returned to China. But, housing was scarce and expensive. Therefore, the trio moved in with Rev. J. G. Bridgman, a Congregational missionary in China. Later reports suggest that Bridgman had been showing signs of mental instability for some time and on December 1, 1850, he slit his throat with a razor and he later died on December 6. Virginia Roberts and Harriet Baker were alone in the house with Bridgman and I. J. Roberts was some distance away on a preaching tour. Fearing for their lives, the horrified women locked themselves in their rooms and began writing desperate notes for help that they hoped the house servants could deliver to someone who could render aid. Eventually, Rev. J. B. French found his way to the Bridgman residence and found Miss Baker sitting on the stairs, while Virginia Roberts remained in her room. It was not long before one of the house servants returned with word from Roberts. He addressed his comments to his wife but an excited Harriet Baker tore the note open and read, "Let the dead bury the dead, I must preach the gospel. Mr. B. has enough of his own Board to attend him." It hardly mattered that Roberts had scribbled his incomprehensible reply on the very note that had pleaded for his help.
News of Bridgman's suicide and Roberts' callous note spread quickly to the other missionaries. Once they were over their shock, they demanded answers from Roberts for his outrageous behavior. Instead of explaining himself, Roberts blamed Harriet Baker for spreading malicious rumors about him. He reasoned that if Baker had minded her own business and not read mail intended for someone else, most of the subsequent unpleasantness could have been avoided. Baker apparently apologized repeatedly but Roberts would hear none of it and the other missionaries on the scene took note. They demanded that Roberts apologize for his actions which he eventually did, but not before Harriet Baker had left the Canton mission and sailed for Shanghai.
The Foreign Mission Board had finally had enough. la the summer, 1851, they decided to sever their association with I. J. Roberts. Upon learning that he had been terminated, a somewhat contrite Roberts wrote, "I received the painful intelligence of your resolution by which our connection has been temporarily dissolved." He was confident that the Board would restore him once they knew the whole story, and that he would be allowed to serve out the "remnant" of his life enjoying the Board's "prayers, sympathies, and support." The Board, however, did not intend to reinstate Roberts regardless of how eloquently he stated his case.
Another missionary might have seen his dismissal from the Board as a sure sign that he needed to repent from certain sins and seek forgiveness, but not Roberts. Instead, he launched a blistering attack against the Foreign Mission Board. In October, 1852 he made the front page of The Western Recorder, the denomination's flagship paper in Kentucky. Roberts complained
that the Board had mistreated him, and their failure to support him had injured his poor wife's health (actually, she had been ill since arriving in China). Roberts claimed that he and his wife were destitute and he promised a full disclosure of his recent unpleasantries with the Board, but at the end of his first broadside he did the unthinkable. He appended a brief note that said, "Will 'The Tennessee Baptist' and 'The Southwestern Baptist' please copy?" It was common practice for nineteenth century newspapers to copy material from other papers. However, The Tennessee Baptist and The Southwestern Baptist (Alabama), along with The Western Recorder were among the most widely read Baptist papers in the South. To make matters worse, J. R. Graves had assumed editorial duties of the Tennessee paper in 1848 and his disdain for overly bureaucratic denominationalism, not to mention his Landmarkism, was earning notoriety throughout the south. Before long, both papers had entered the fray and the battle was on.
The Foreign Mission Board hoped that they could part company with Roberts quietly. After all, he had served in China for a number of years at his own expense and the Board had no desire to air their "dirty laundry," especially if it would embarrass everyone connected with Southern Baptist work in China. Roberts, however, had no such scruples. He bemoaned his fate in page after tortuous page of the denominational papers. He also published correspondence between himself and the Board, as well as testimonials from others who swore that Roberts' character was above reproach.
It became obvious that Roberts wanted to turn Southern Baptists against their own Foreign Board. Many believed he had been wronged. One individual wrote The Western Recorder and exclaimed, "... if I had hereto felt no love for him, for his own or the work's sake, I now, at least, would love him for the Christian character in his letters." The writer further stated that many Tennesseans believed the Board had erred in dismissing Roberts. "Indeed," the writer said, "quite a number of us set forth our objections, and most respectfully petition the Board to reconsider the grounds of objection, and, if possible, restore Brother Roberts."
The Board members knew they faced a serious problem. Had they dismissed Roberts too hastily? Had they judged him too harshly? How would they respond to the mounting criticism? Unknown to the public, the Board was receiving so much information on Roberts that they were conducting what amounted to an on-going investigation into his conduct and ministry in China. It is safe to say that they were unprepared for what they would learn about their work in China in general and Roberts in particular.
At first, missionaries rallied around Harriet Baker. Her most outspoken advocate, Matthew Yates, was a veteran missionary with a sterling character and reputation. In January 1851, Yates informed the Board that Roberts did not want Baker living in the same house with him and his wife. One month later he wrote, that Baker had moved to Shanghai because Roberts had "driven her from Canton." Yates characterized Roberts' conduct as "outrageous, unmanly, and unchristian." He further noted that few in China had a kind word for him and many Chinese nationals, men Roberts had know for some 15 years now refused to work with him. "I speak advisedly," said Yates, "when I say our Board is greatly depreciated in China by its connection with Mr. R. This feature is manifested still more clearly since his return, as but few expected he would be sent back."
While Yates may have defended Baker's character during the "Roberts Fiasco," he minced no words regarding her role in China. Yates saw no room for single female school teachers in China. He chided the Board for sending Baker to China without communicating their intentions to the missionaries on the field, but, of course, that may have been because the
Board had no specific plan for Baker. Should she establish a day school or a boarding school? Should she work exclusively with children or with children and adult women? Baker informed Yates that before leaving America she had been instructed to "think and act" independently. Obviously annoyed, Yates grumped to the Board, "I hardly think you intended by your instructions to convey the idea that your missionaries were to be independent of each other." He further argued that a single female could not do a missionary's work without "gross insult," and if they even had a place in the work it was only in boarding schools where they would remain indoors. Even then, he saw little reason to educate Chinese girls when they would only become, "the wives of heathen or of the young men educated by Pedo-Baptist Missions." Other missionaries, including J. Lewis Shuck, the Foreign Board's first appointed missionary, expressed similar misgivings about schools and female education. In 1854, Harriet Baker grew weary of her struggles, resigned her appointment and returned to America.
As the Board pondered its mission philosophy and what to do about single female missionaries, I. J. Roberts made news once again. Having severed his connection from the Boston Board and having "been severed" from the Richmond Board, Roberts offered a new scheme for Chinese mission work. On December 7, 1854, The Southwestern Baptist carried a lengthy article detailing Roberts' ideal scenario for winning China for Christ. The editor noted that Roberts' text was too long to reproduce in toto, and while he neither approved nor disapproved of the plan, he claimed that he had reproduced sufficient text for interested readers to determine the plan's feasibility for themselves.
Roberts' plan was fairly simple. He wanted to create a "Committee of Cooperation" that consisted of all male missionaries. This proposed Committee would be open to anyone who was willing to work cooperatively with the other members of the Committee and Tae Ping Wang, a Chinese Baptist preacher and one of Roberts' most capable native assistants. Specifically, each Committee member would be a Baptist, of course, and each would need a recommendation form their home church or sponsoring missionary society. Each member would have equal standing in the Committee. Further, the Committee would draft its own constitution, subject to annual review and amendment. Finally, the Committee would meet annually in Nanking, China.
Roberts believed that his plan offered missionaries a measure of "individual" freedom. He had served as an independent missionary and with both the "Boston" and "Richmond" Boards. As he saw it, mission Boards restricted missionary freedom, especially in areas like buying and selling real estate and where to establish new works. A local Committee could make such decisions faster and more wisely than a Board several thousand miles away. Hence, he believed the work in China would grow through efficiency.
As functional as his plan may appear, it is obvious that Roberts was still smarting from his dismissal as a Southern Baptist missionary. He claimed that his Committee would remove the stigma of inequality between Boards and missionaries, a stigma that amounted to an employer / employee relationship. "Except we do as the Board wish," he complained, "we shall forfeit our bread at their option: while the members of the Board are at liberty to speak, act and vote as they please!" Speaking of voting, Roberts felt duty bound to offer the rather pungent insight that boards could dismiss missionaries but missionaries could not dismiss their boards. Furthermore, Roberts believed his Committee would promote harmony among the missionaries by eliminating "tattle tale" reports that left the Board only partially informed about what was really happening on the field.
Roberts' "Grand Plan" may have touched a nerve with the Board in Richmond. When the Southern Baptist Convention met in 1855 the Foreign Board decided to publish the findings of their investigation into I. J. Roberts' conduct. The Board reported that in their opinion they had treated Roberts fairly throughout his brief tenure as their missionary. They expressed their displeasure that he had undermined the Board by attacking them in denominational newspapers. They also assured the Convention that Roberts had been given opportunities to explain his actions but that such explanations were seldom satisfying.
The Board's report to the Convention is 2 pages long but the full report is over 20 pages type-written, single spaced. Among other things, the Board noted that, "After mature deliberation, we believe that the interests of the Board, and of the cause of missions have seriously suffered, and will continue to suffer by his (Roberts) remaining as our missionary." The Board noted that Roberts had consistently disregarded their wishes and disrespected other missionaries. The final report quoted extensively from missionary B. H. Whildon who questioned nearly every facet of Roberts' character. He accused Roberts of encouraging deceitful behavior among his native assistants and lying about his work in his reports to the Board. "I feel deeply pained," Whildon said, "when I think of the erroneous impressions which have been made on the minds of those who read Mr. Roberts' statements. Things in Canton are not as I expected to find them; and from what I know of Mr. Roberts' disregard for truth, he has . . . the tendency to excite in my mind suspicion whenever I read his statements." The Board further noted for record that Roberts' difficulties with Harriet Baker were not the sole reason for his dismissal. Rather, Baker's mistreatment was merely the last episode in a drama that had played longer than it should. If anything, the Board admitted that they should have dismissed Roberts when he was on furlough - as Matthew Yates had thought they might.
Roberts began to lose support once word began to leak regarding the Board's complete findings. Southern Baptists did not appreciate his "mishandling" of the truth and their enthusiasm for him waned when they learned that he really had been undermining the Board, its work, and other missionaries. Roberts must have been especially stunned to read the September 29, 1855 edition of The Tennessee Baptist and learn that both J. M. Pendleton and J. R. Graves were repudiating their association with him. "Suppose," said Graves, "that the Board should recall other missionaries, as unworthy or unfit for the work, would we who love missions be warranted on favoring a new mission for each, and at the same time support the Board at Richmond? We think not." Graves pledged to help Roberts if he became destitute but only because he was a suffering brother in Christ.
Despite his rejection from Baptists in the north and south, Roberts was unable to get his life under control. His wife, Virginia, resigned her appointment in 1852 for health reasons and moved back to America, finally settling in St. Louis, Missouri. Roberts remained in China until he finally returned to America in 1866. He lived with a niece in Upper Alton, Illinois (not St. Louis with Mrs. Roberts). On December 28, 1871, I. J. Roberts died of leprosy. He left his estate, including real estate in China, to R. H. Graves, a Southern Baptist missionary in China. The Board was less than amused. They told Graves they would not prohibit him from receiving Roberts' estate but reminded him how difficult it might be to pass the property along to succeeding generations. Finally, and regrettably, the last mention of Virginia Young Roberts indicates that she asked the Foreign Mission Board for a portion of Roberts' estate, seeing that he left her with nothing. The Board undoubtedly understood her plight, but they had no authority to grant her request.
The saga of I. J. Roberts is far more than mission-field melodrama, Southern Baptist style. Roberts' brief stint as a Southern Baptist missionary raised a number of questions regarding how missionaries pursued their calling, how they related to one another as well as others at home, and how they related to the Board. A careful examination of these issues reveals why Roberts ranks among the SBC's most important missionaries.
First, Roberts' shenanigans forced the Foreign Mission Board to create its own distinct identity at an early stage in its history. The Foreign Board had been established in 1845 but beyond that, what would or could it do? How would the Board deal with "unruly" missionaries? Would the Board terminate a problem missionary? How staunchly would the Board defend its "turf and how rigidly would they enforce their rules? Each of these questions hinged on one fundamental issue, namely, the Board's authority. In 1845 no one could say precisely what the Board would do if a missionary dishonored himself/herself, the mission, or the Lord. By 1855, however, every Southern Baptist knew where the Board stood. Thus, I. J. Roberts set precedents for disciplinary procedures and proved once and for all that the Board would indeed terminate a missionary's appointment under extreme circumstances. Further, the Board's dealings with I. J. Roberts settled an issue that every mission-minded denomination in the nineteenth century faced, namely, who directed the work, missionaries on the field or the Board back home? The Foreign Board displayed considerable trust in their missionaries, Roberts notwithstanding, and their missionaries enjoyed great latitude in directing their work, but the Board claimed final say over how the missionaries did their work.
In addition to forcing the Board to define its role in administrating missionary activity, Roberts played an important role in shaping Southern Baptist journalism. Between 1820 and 1920, Americans enjoyed a veritable "Golden Age" of religious journalism. Of course, Southern Baptists did not have their own permanent publishing house until 1891. This was due partially to the American Baptist Publishing Society, as well as numerous outstanding newspapers like The Tennessee Baptist, The Southwestern Baptist, and The Western Recorder, and so on. These papers printed every thing from doctrinal treatises and serial novels, to denominational doings and want ads. At a time when many preachers had few educational opportunities the papers kept them informed and provided a measure of informal Bible training.
In Roberts' case, the newspapers played two different roles. On the one hand, they gave Roberts a platform to air his grievances. The Foreign Board never challenged Roberts' right to use the religious media. They could not. Many missionaries kept the home folks informed missionary doings via the state papers. The Board did not appreciate Roberts' misusing the media - and neither did rank-in-file Southern Baptists once they learned the truth. No the other hand, Roberts' strategy backfired and the media that initially supported him turned to the Board. In other words, the Roberts Fiasco generated support for the Board and thereby helped solidify its hold on the Southern Baptist imagination as THEIR missionary agency. It also helped define the media's role in shaping the emerging denomination.
As for women, I. J. Roberts was instrumental in getting single, female Southern Baptist missionaries on the field. The Board took him seriously when he said that single women had a significant role to play in China. Unfortunately, his mistreatment of Harriet Baker set women, especially single women, back by at least 20 years. The Board would not consider sending another single female to China until Edmonia Moon in 1872 and even then, she immediately went to work with T. P and Martha Crawford in northern China. Edmonia's more celebrated sister, Lottie, began changing the role of Southern Baptist women on the field, but that is another
story. Suffice it to say that single women became a regular feature of Southern Baptist missionary efforts. By 1920, Southern Baptists had appointed some 375 missionaries to China, 113 of whom were single females. When one considers married and single females together, the Board's female appointments to China outnumbered the male appointments by a ratio of 2:1.
If Robert's request for a single female offered new opportunities for women, it also raised the issue of "proper spheres" of service. Matthew Yates and numerous other missionaries made it clear that to their way of thinking, women should have limited roles, if they were permitted roles at all. Harriet Baker and the Moon sisters could teach and that raised an entirely different set of questions about mission methodology. Was it right to create schools (day or boarding) to spread the gospel? Over time, Southern Baptists grew more comfortable with women on the field and evangelizing Chinese children in schools. They also warmed to the idea that women really could reach women. They absorbed Lottie Moon's stirring accounts of her own "country work," a type of direct evangelism where she shared Christ in Chinese villages woman to woman - and sometimes woman to man. Moon carefully reminded her readers that if there were a sufficient number of men on the field, no one need worry that women occasionally stepped over the "gender line" to share the gospel. Any way, Harriet Baker opened the door for missionary teachers and later nurses, even doctors, to answer God's call to serve Him in China - and I. J. Roberts had opened the door for Harriet Baker.
Finally, I. J. Roberts' tenure as a Southern Baptist missionary raised important questions regarding the way missionaries ordered their lives on the field. How did they adjust to their new homes and calling? How did they conduct their daily business? How did they interact with missionaries of other denominations? After all, J. G. Bridgman was a Congregationalist. Was it common practice for Baptists to live with non-Baptists? The answer to that question is, no, it was not. Then again, missionaries were foreigners living in a strange land and they sometimes adapted to their circumstances as a matter of survival. Lottie Moon's correspondence indicates that she interacted with non-Baptists on personal and professional levels. On one occasion she informed Board that missionaries lived according to certain "unwritten rules," one of which was that missionaries would not tell their Boards about another missionary's personal problems. Unfortunately, this is the only "unwritten rule" she shared and one is left to wonder about possible areas where they interacted?
Thus, we end our saga of Issacar Jacox Roberts, perhaps appropriately, with more questions than answers. Controversy marked every facet of his career. Yet, he always had an answer for his critics - or, so he thought. He alienated nearly everyone he ever met except for his staunchest supporters who only had to deal with him once every 10 years or so. His callous insensitivity cost him his marriage and his appointment as a Southern Baptist missionary in China. Even so, he ranks among the SBC's most important missionaries even if it is for the worst reasons.