Montgomery, Helen Barrett (1861–1934)
Montgomery, Helen Barrett (1861–1934)
American civic reformer, foreign mission worker, and philanthropist who was the first woman to translate the Greek New Testament into contemporary English. Born Nellie Barrett on July 31, 1861, in Kingsville, Ohio; died on October 19, 1934, in Summit, New Jersey; daughter of Adoniram Judson Barrett (a teacher, school principal, and Baptist minister) and Emily (Barrows) Barrett (a teacher); attended Livingston Park Seminary; Wellesley College, B.A., 1884; Brown University, M.A.; married William A. Montgomery (a businessman), on September 6, 1887; children: Edith.
Taught at the Rochester (New York) Free Academy (1884–85); taught at the Wellesley Preparatory School, Philadelphia (1885–87); organized a large Bible study class for women (1888), which she taught for 44 years; was licensed to preach by Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester (1892); became first president of Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Rochester; was president of New York State Federation of Women's Clubs (1896–97); elected to Rochester school board (1899); worked to open University of Rochester to female students; elected president of Northern Baptist Convention (1921); delegate to Baptist World Alliance, Stockholm Congress (1923). Member: Women's Political Equality Leagueof Rochester; Rochester School Board; Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Rochester; New York State Federation of Women's Clubs; American Baptist Foreign Mission Society; National Federation of Women's Boards of Foreign Missions; Northern Baptist Convention. Awards: honorary doctorate degrees from Denison University, Franklin College, and Wellesley College.
Christus Redemptor (1906); Western Women in Eastern Lands (1910); The King's Highway (1915); The Bible and Missions; Prayer and Missions; From Jerusalem to Jerusalem; The Centenary Translation of the New Testament (1924).
Helen Barrett Montgomery, the first woman president of the Northern Baptist Convention, the first president of the Women's American Baptist Foreign Mission Society, and the first woman to translate the Greek New Testament into contemporary English, was born in Kingsville, Ohio, on July 31, 1861. She was the oldest of three children of Emily Barrows Barrett , a teacher, and Adoniram Judson Barrett, a teacher and school principal and later pastor of the Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, New York. It was her father who instilled in her a love for education as well as a deep devotion to church service. She enjoyed a happy, uneventful childhood, much of it on the grounds of an academy on Lowville, New York, where her father was principal. Montgomery studied Latin in high school and in 1880 entered Wellesley College, where she studied Greek and majored in education. After receiving a B.A. from Wellesley in 1884 (she would later earn a master's degree from Brown University), she taught at the Rochester Free Academy for a year, and from 1885 to 1887 taught at the Wellesley Preparatory School in Philadelphia. In September 1887 she married William Montgomery, a businessman who formed a successful company that produced automobile starters. He, too, was dedicated to church service, and was by all accounts supportive of his wife's activities; in 1913, he noted that, upon their marriage, "I realized that she had ability and training to do what I could never do. I resolved … never to interfere with any call that might come to her in the line of her work."
Following her marriage, Montgomery organized a large Bible study class for women at her father's church, which she subsequently taught for 44 years. In 1892, she was licensed to preach by the Lake Avenue Baptist Church, and although she was never ordained she frequently served as substitute pastor there. She became the first president of the Women's Educational and Industrial Union of Rochester in 1893. The union was a strong supporter of a municipal re-form movement, and also of a restructuring of the Rochester school board; Montgomery was elected the first female member of the board in 1899. She served for ten years, during which time many new programs were instituted, including a dental clinic and the nation's first factory school.
Helen Montgomery also served as president of the New York State Federation of Women's Clubs in 1896 and 1897. She worked with her friend Susan B. Anthony to raise funds to open the University of Rochester to female students, and joined the Women's Political Equality League of Rochester. In 1904, she began to take on speaking engagements across the country, largely on the educational work of missions. She was developing an increasing interest in Christian mission work, and eventually undertook a world tour to speak on the subject. Montgomery was president of the Woman's American Baptist Foreign Mission Society from 1914 to 1924. With Martha Hillard MacLeish and Lucy Peabody , in 1915 she was a co-founder of the World Wide Guild, an organization that grew to include chapters in Baptist churches throughout the United States, and also served as president of the National Federation of Women's Boards of Foreign Missions for the 1917–18 term. In 1921, she was elected president of the Northern Baptist Convention. She was the organization's first woman president, and, as such, the first woman to be elected to a position of such prominence in any major Christian denomination.
Montgomery also wrote extensively, publishing Christus Redemptor, a study of missions in the Pacific Islands, in 1906, and Western Women in Eastern Lands, an examination of the impact of women missionaries, in 1910. At the request of the Federation of Women's Boards of Foreign Missions, in 1913 she took a trip around the world to collect personal impressions of foreign missions. The result was published in 1915 as The King's Highway, which sold over 160,000 copies. In addition to her books on mission work, which also included The Bible and Missions, Prayer and Missions, and From Jerusalem to Jerusalem, Montgomery published The Centenary Translation of the New Testament (1924), a translation of the Greek New Testament into contemporary English. This, the first such translation by a woman, is considered perhaps her most important contribution to church work, and had undergone 15 printings by 1959.
Helen Barrett Montgomery's health began to decline following her husband's death in 1930. She died at her daughter's home in New Jersey on October 19, 1934, at age 73. She and her husband had given regularly and generously to various causes, including their church, and Montgomery's will contained $455,000 in bequests to over 80 causes, including churches, hospitals, missions, and colleges. Her obituary in The Christian Century noted, "With her passing there closed one of the most interesting as well as one of the most influential careers in recent American church annals."
Deen, Edith. Great Women of the Christian Faith. NY: Harper & Row, 1959.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.
Ellen Dennis French , freelance writer, Murrieta, California