The Unlikely Friendship of Annie Armstrong and Nannie Helen Burroughs
Picture for a moment the most beautiful tapestry you can imagine. Fill your mind with the pictures and designs woven into the cloth; see the vibrant colors, intriguing patterns, and layered textures. Isn’t it beautiful? There is something truly striking about a collection of unique designs woven together into one grand picture; diverse and yet unified by the cloth, all come together into one breathtaking display.
Picture your tapestry again. This time slowly narrow your focus to one specific area, giving your attention to one particular color or texture. Do you see the details and intricacies of it, the beauty of this small point? Now zoom out just a little bit, and see how this one area is connected to the rest of the tapestry. Each piece makes a distinct and vital impact on the overall picture.
The same is true of God’s tapestry of His work in the world. Everything is connected. As we zoom in to examine moments in history and our lives, we see God’s work in every detail connecting with other stories and perfectly fitting in His overall, grand picture of redemption. Through this tapestry, accounts of God’s work long ago become part of our journeys, reminding us of His faithfulness and propelling us to join in His kingdom work. One such story is the unlikely friendship between Annie Armstrong and Nannie Helen Burroughs.
United by a Shared Desire
In 1897, Annie Armstrong, the recording secretary (now executive director) of WMU, auxiliary to the Southern Baptist Convention, met with Nannie Helen Burroughs, an up-and-coming leader in the National Baptist Convention (NBC). Annie was an integral part of WMU’s beginning and is remembered as one of the most successful and influential leaders in Baptist history. Nannie and other NBC leaders hoped to establish a women’s auxiliary similar to WMU within their convention and were seeking advice from WMU’s brilliant innovator.
By the time Nannie and the NBC leaders met with Annie, Annie’s tenure at WMU was well underway—she was leading the organization in providing missions education to hundreds of churches and supporting missionaries all around the world. During this meeting, the group created a development plan, and 3 years later the Women’s Convention (WC) of the NBC was officially established.
What the meeting also did was form a friendship between these two women. While today this seems unremarkable, in 1897 it was exceptional. At the turn of the century, the Civil War was still recent history, racism and other forms of discrimination were the expected norm, and women did not yet have the right to vote. Annie was White and Nannie was Black, and the conventions they represented were segregated. Annie was almost 50 and nearing the end of her public ministry. Nannie was a mere 20 years old and just beginning to step into the remarkable plans God had for her life. Despite all these differences, they shared a desire that overshadowed their many differences: to equip women for ministry and to see the gospel transform the world. This desire drew them together and ushered in a friendship that would defy societal norms.
The foundation for this friendship had been laid years before these women meeting. Before she was called to lead WMU, Annie was actively involved in her community. Always one to cross barriers, she formed one of the first interracial home mission societies, a partnership between both Black and White Baltimore churches. She was confident the most effective way to impact the community was by working together. Annie was convinced of the importance of interracial partnership and took steps to pursue it.
For Nannie, interracial cooperation was personal. The child of a former enslaved couple, she understood firsthand the struggles her community faced and the sting of injustice that was felt. From an early age, Nannie dreamed of opening a school for African American women. Through her tenacity and perseverance, that dream became a reality when she opened The National Training School for Women and Girls in 1909. Nannie made it her life mission to fight for African American women’s rights, a mission rooted in her experience with racism and sexism.
Built on similar passions, the unlikely bond between Annie and Nannie quickly grew, planting seeds of reconciliation and partnership. While at a glance the turn of the twentieth century is seen as discriminatory and harsh, a closer look reveals beautiful threads of God’s redemption woven throughout. Through Annie’s and Nannie’s efforts, WMU and the WC worked together to financially support African American female missionaries. Annie spoke multiple times at WC meetings, and Nannie at WMU meetings. Through God’s work in these two leaders, White and Black women came together to worship in a time when legally they could not even use the same restroom.
Because of Annie and Nannie, hundreds of believers saw an example of mutual support between people of different races while everything in their society screamed it was better to be separated. God used Annie and Nannie to build a bridge that miraculously spanned the huge racial gap their culture promoted.
In 1933, Nannie gave a speech titled “How White and Colored Women can Cooperate in Building a Christian Civilization.” In this speech, she declared, “If the two races in the South ever join hands to wipe out ignorance, to remove misunderstanding, to glorify the things of the [Holy] Spirit, we will discover new and powerful leaders and will build here a civilization that will be Christian to the core.” Nannie experienced firsthand the power of partnership rooted in the gospel over racial barriers and tensions, and she knew this power could change the world.
Woven into God’s Picture of Reconciliation
Envision your tapestry again. Return to that small section, the color or pattern. Where else in the tapestry do you see the same color or pattern? How is this small section connected to the overall picture?
Annie and Nannie’s story is not just a story to admire. It is a thread in God’s grand picture of racial reconciliation—and we are being woven into the same picture with that same color of thread.
From the beginning, God has been redeeming the brokenness between races. He did this with the Gentiles and the Jews in the early church. He did this with Annie and Nannie and the organizations they represented in the early 1900s. Now, in 2021, He is doing it again.
We live in a time of uncertainty—a time of unrest, racial tension, misunderstanding, and deep hurt. Though our circumstances are different from Annie’s and Nannie’s, the core questions remain the same: are we willing to move toward each other? Will we lay aside arguments, make an effort to hear each other, and choose to love one another above ourselves, despite political disagreements? Will we join together to demonstrate the power of the gospel of reconciliation to a broken world?
We have an opportunity to be woven into God’s picture of reconciliation spanning the course of history, a picture so radically different from the world that it draws people to Jesus. We, too, can join hands to wipe out ignorance, remove misunderstanding, and glory in the things of the Holy Spirit together, all part of the same tapestry, all part of God’s glorious work. God is weaving us into this picture. So let’s not miss it.
Selah Ulmer is a graduate of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is a freelance writer in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Missions Mosaic. To subscribe to this monthly women’s missions lifestyle magazine, visit wmustore.com.