Laura Belle Barnard: A Light to the Nations

One could make the case that the two things you don’t want to be in the Lord’s work is single or the first of something, such as the pioneer in a new field of work, study, or ministry. As I’ve written elsewhere, unmarried people face a unique set of challenges in ministry employment and even in meaningful church membership in many churches. Those reasons need not be recited here.

However, being both single and the first is no small feat. This is especially true for those who go to the mission field, an often lonely and spiritually barren place. Yet in 1935, a twenty-eight-year-old, unmarried woman from rural Georgia boarded a freighter in New York City and traveled more than 10,000 miles to a land that she’d never seen to do a work never done in modern times by a Free Will Baptist.

Miss Laura Belle Barnard’s story is told best in her autobiography, Touching the Untouchables (1985). But in the three decades since that work’s publication, a new generation have been born and called into the Lord’s work. And because all generations need faithful models, we do well to revisit her story as we seek to be a light in dark times.

Beginnings and Background

Born on February 13, 1907, Barnard came into a different world. Many modern technologies and conveniences such as the television and Model T were unheard of in this time, and even indoor plumbing and electricity weren’t yet in rural areas. In addition, Barnard’s birth occurred many years before the formation of the National Association of Free Will Baptists (1935) and a thriving international missions program.

Barnard was raised in the Glennville Free Will Baptist Church in Glennville, Georgia. Though missionaries visited the church, and some of the members had even gone out as missionaries, she “never heard that God had a plan and purpose for the world.”[1] The fact that the Great Commission was a call for global evangelization to the local church was foreign to her. However, through the church’s ministry, Barnard did indeed come to know Christ and to begin sensing a burden to do something about the millions who didn’t know Him.

Later, after a short stent at South Georgia Teachers College (now known as Georgia Southern University) and a season back home working odd jobs in various places, Barnard enrolled at Columbia Bible College (now known as Columbia International University) to receive a formal Christian higher education. She did not initially know that this would prove to be her formative training for the mission field. However, it became evident when, soon after graduation in 1932, she accepted a call to serve God wherever He would send her.

The next few years were rather extraordinary when one remembers Barnard’s ecclesial context. “My own denomination,” Barnard wrote, “had no formally organized foreign missions board; indeed, they were not sponsoring any missionary.”[2] Furthermore, other mission boards were becoming liberal as far as she could tell. Moreover, she was a young, single woman trying to serve God abroad during a global depression. Thus, no doors were readily open to her.

However, the opportunity to work for a missionary rest home in Kotagiri, South India eventually came to her attention. Though she initially felt that this was infeasible, doors began opening and she pursued the opportunity. The influences of I. J. Blackwelder, the first secretary of foreign missions for the Eastern General Conference of Free Will Baptists, and J.R. Davidson, the then-pastor of her home church, helped Barnard to share her ministry call at the Eastern General Conference at their annual session in Greenville, North Carolina in 1935. During that meeting, she was technically commissioned as their first missionary.

Though one Free Will Baptist historian, Jack Williams, views this appointment more as the “rebirth” of Free Will Baptist missions, Barnard was nonetheless a pioneer as the first Free Will Baptist missionary in modern times. Later in the same year, the eastern and western Free Will Baptists would unite. Though Barnard’s call and commissioning, as well as the beginning of her support, began before the National Association was formally organized, this new body adopted her ministry.[3] Historian Bill Davidson writes, “With $150 from the treasury and an additional $85 from a freewill offering, Laura Belle left her Georgia roots, crossed the Atlantic, and set foot on South India’s soil.”[4]

Ministry and Mission

Once in India, Barnard began learning the local dialect of Tamil, as well as Indian culture in order to facilitate her ministry. Her work in India occurred primarily in two phases: 1935-40, and 1945-57. After her first term, she returned to the States. She spent several years as a secretary and professor of missions at the newly established Free Will Baptist Bible College, as well as a teacher in the Georgia public school system. Delayed from returning to India due to World War II, she invested herself in the lives of students.

Barnard returned to the field in 1945 and, until 1957, ministered in Kotagiri and other surrounding South Indian villages, working primarily with the untouchables, the lowest of the low in terms of the ancient Hindu caste system. This group had not only been overlooked by society but also by previous missionaries.

During this second period of service, Barnard helped in the formation of two schools and four churches, and she engaged in numerous life-changing ministries. Sunday schools were a particularly important ministry that she helped establish. She was an evangelist, a teacher, and a pillar for the budding Free Will Baptist church movement. The lives of countless children were especially impacted by her love, wisdom, and organizational giftedness, including her own foster child Santham. She was the “god-mother” for many Kotas and people in the surrounding areas.[5]

Other key workers would join Barnard through the years, some for brief assignments or for specific projects, and others who would eventually pioneer other ministries elsewhere in India. These workers include the Woolseys (1947), the Cronks (1948), Zalene Lloyd (1948), Volena Wilson (1951), and the Hannas (1952). Barnard was simultaneously a pioneer and partner for these fellow workers. Her writings reveal her awareness of having followed in the footsteps of Dr. Jeremiah Phillips, a Free Will Baptist missionary to India in the 1800s.[6] Yet she fostered a passion for missions generally, and India specifically, among modern Free Will Baptists. Early editions of Contact, a National Association publication for fifty-one years, provided Barnard’s supporters and admirers in the States a window into her tireless and fruitful ministry.

After returning to the states in 1957, Barnard would complete her master’s degree and serve as professor of Bible and missions at Free Will Baptist Bible College until her retirement in 1972. There she shaped the lives of countless pastors, missionaries, and students of many kinds. Even today many of her students remember her teaching with great appreciation. More than one has called her the best teacher they had during their entire education. Her powerful missiological insights can still be found today in The Biblical Basis of Missions, published by and still available through Randall House publications.[7]

Even in “retirement,” Barnard continued to display the determined mindset that propelled her past the obstacles that nearly kept her from the missions field years earlier.[8] She was very involved in ministry in her hometown during the latter years of her life, establishing a humanitarian work among Mexican migrant workers, for which the Glennville Chamber of Commerce recognized her. She also helped establish a cross-cultural church plant. Both of these ministries are still in existence today.

Impact and Influence

It’s no overstatement to say that Barnard inspired a generation of Free Will Baptist missionaries, though her influence went beyond her own denomination. Through the years, she worked with other evangelical leaders and entities when possible. Her influence also spans at least two continents, leaving a lasting legacy both in South India (her original church in Kotagiri remains today), in her hometown, and wherever the feet of her students pass.

Anyone who closely studies Barnard’s life must indeed marvel at how she even made it to India in the first place, given the many financial, social, cultural, and spiritual obstacles that presented themselves. Of course, her God was much bigger than all those things. He Himself is the pioneer of our salvation. Placing a young, single woman from the American South (and the first among her denomination) in India was no challenge for Him.

Indeed, Barnard’s own commitment is worthy of admiration. She was immersed in the Scriptures, as all of her writings powerfully reveal.[9] She had a keen sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and a single-minded focus on God’s great work. Though cancer claimed her life on March 9, 1992, her life had already been well spent for her King.[10]

____________________

[1] Laura Belle Barnard with Georgia B. Hill, Touching the Untouchables (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1985), 40.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] William F. Davidson, The Free Will Baptists in History (Nashville: Randall House, 2001), 298.

[4] “Touching the Untouchables: Laura Belle Barnard,” Free Will Baptist International Missions; http://fwbgo.com/about/history/laura-belle-barnard/; accessed 16 February 2017; Internet.

[5] “Native Indian Pastor Addresses Words of Welcome to Secretaries,” Contact, May, 1954: 12.

[6] This awareness is best exemplified in Barnard’s first book, His Name Among All Nations (Nashville: Board of Foreign Missions, 1946). Free Will Baptists first ministered in India in 1835, but organized denominational missions activity ceased after the 1911 merger with the Northern Baptists.

[7] Originally published in 1973, this slender but substantial volume was reprinted in 2011.

[8] In a private conversation, Geraldine Waid, a good friend of Barnard, remarked that the word determined immediately came to mind when she thought of her late friend. Waid’s own account of Barnard’s ministry can be found in Viewpoints: Georgia Baptist History, vol. 22 (Jan 2010): 53-67. Conversation on February 27, 2017.

[9] Barnard tells of a trip to a village in which a Hindu tailor worked. Upon telling him of Christ’s offer of salvation, the tailor replied that he would pray to both his god and her god to ensure that he prayed to the right one. So grieved by this encounter, Barnard perceptively observed: “Surely, Satan binds the people with their fears. And, after all, God made us to live in families and to abide by the way of life that holds a society together. We cannot force spiritual things. It is spiritual or divine surgery when God cuts an individual loose from family and tribal groups and transplants that one into the community of the redeemed. We ourselves cannot supply compensations for all that is lost, nor can we offer the needed healing after surgery. It is entirely the work of the Spirit of God, and we must be careful not to presume to do what only He can do” (Touching the Untouchables, 33).

[10] A special thanks goes to Mrs. Geraldine Waide, Rev. Sherwood Lee, and Rev. Charles Barnard for this insight into Mrs. Barnard’s life and ministry. Also, I benefited from Dr. J. Matthew Pinson’s entry on Barnard in the New Georgia Encyclopedia. J. Matthew Pinson, “Laura Belle Barnard (1907-1992),” New Georgia Encyclopedia, February 18, 2005; http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/arts-culture/laura-belle-barnard-1907-1992; accessed March 15, 2017; Internet.

Author: Jackson Watts

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