Editor’s Note: This feature in the Encounters with Evangelists series was written several weeks ago by Phares Gilchrist about her aunt, who was a missionary in China and Hawaii in the 1900s. We feel it’s fitting to run today as we each face a call by God to minister exactly where He has placed us in this time in history. With borders closed to commercial traffic, it’s nearly impossible to leave our homeland to serve overseas, but God isn’t asking us to stop ministering. Just as Phares’ aunt chose to begin sharing the love of Jesus where she was forced to disembark on a trip back to China, we also have the opportunity to be missionaries exactly where we have been told to pause.
By Phares Gilchrist
Hannah Plowden, my great aunt, was the first missionary I ever knew. Actually, until I was an older teenager, she was the only missionary I knew. She was my mother’s favorite aunt, and at maybe 100 pounds, she was a force. Not loud or presumptuous, in every way the southern lady she was raised to be, Hannah had a fierce independence and tenacious spirit that was demonstrated first as a 16 year old in high school.
In 1910, she entered a national contest with 3,000 boys to compete for most bushels of corn raised on an acre of land. She was the only girl and was 12th in the field. Her yield was 120 bushels. In the South, the average bushel of corn per acre was 100. She was awarded the title “Champion Girl Corn Grower of the World.”
As a result of her success, the South Carolina Legislature voted to award Hannah a full-ride scholarship to Winthrop College, where she majored in English literature. There she met Minnie DeLorme. She introduced Minnie to her older brother, and the two married and started a family. Their first child is my mother, Minnie Beckham Plowden Wood. When Hannah and her friend graduated from Winthrop, only 3 percent of the population obtained a college degree.
From there Hannah graduated from the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and received her master’s degree from the University of North Carolina. While still in college, Hannah heard a speaker at her church, encouraging those in attendance to consider the mission field as a call on their lives. Hannah responded and, in 1921, headed to China. The model of ministry employed was much as it is today. She taught school and used her influence to share Christ and help young Christians grow in their faith. During her 14 years of service in China, she was an evangelist missionary in Sonchaw and later dean of women and head of the English department at Shanghai University.
In 1947, while returning from America after a furlough, she was instructed to disembark in Hawaii. The Chinese Revolution was now in full force, and Christians were being martyred. During this time, she raised enough money to bring three of her former students from China to Hawaii. She became the first missionary appointed by the Southern Baptist Mission Board to the Islands. She organized the Baptist Bible College in Honolulu and was instrumental in the organization of many churches and missions. Upon returning to the mainland in 1957, she became the dean of women for four years at New Orleans Baptist Seminary.
Hannah died in 1985, when I was 30. I had been with her many times, but not as a married adult with children. I would ask her so many things if I could now. She had a clarity of purpose from an early age that is obvious in retrospect. While my mother and grandmother were her biggest fans, I think she was seen as an anomaly to the rest of her family. They didn’t know where to file her extraordinary single-mindedness. Her South Carolina pedigree did not prepare them for a single women traipsing through cornfields, China, and Hawaii.
My grandmother once said that Hannah was a modern day Paul. I see it now. She was a swashbuckler at heart and willing to go where she was needed, to say “yes” when God asked, and to do so with great charm and kindness.