The history of the SBC includes thousands of missionaries, pastors, workers, and others who often get lost to history. My goal is to highlight a few of those people in order that we can be encouraged and inspired by their lives and sacrifice.
Milledge Theron Rankin was born on July 28, 1894, in Newberry, South Carolina as the fourth child and third son of his parents. His father was Milledge Whitfield Rankin, a Baptist preacher who served small and medium-sized churches through a long ministry in South Carolina. Like most ministers of that time, MW Rankin made a modest living for a family with six kids. The highest salary he ever received was one thousand dollars a year. Theron publicly confessed his faith in Christ and became a church member before he even reached his teens.
After graduating high school Theron entered Furman University in 1912 but had to drop out after a year due to physical and financial problems. With some help, he entered Wake Forest College in 1915 and began working as a student pastor in rural churches among other odd jobs he held down. After graduation in 1918, he declined a church pastorate to go to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and earn his Master of Theology degree.
At the seminary, his life calling became more clear as he decided to be a missionary. Southern Seminary promoted missions and featured missionaries in chapel and that time helped solidify God’s calling on his life. Not coincidentally, he also met and fell in love with Valeria Greene while at Southern, whose parents were missionaries in China. Theron and Valeria soon found out that they both committed to missions at the same chapel service, unknown to each other. She graduated and returned to China before him and they were married in 1922 after he arrived.
He quickly gave himself to the tasks at hand and God blessed his mission work. His reports often say things like “walked 9 miles today to visit a village,” or “I’m the first foreign person in this village.” He routinely shared in places that had never heard the gospel before. As his ministry grew his family did as well with two daughters.
In 1935 Rankin was elected the Secretary of the Orient for the Foreign Mission Board, which meant that he helped to supervise the work of Southern Baptists in that part of the world. Rankin began extensive trips, conferences, and mission projects with the missionaries through South Asia.
Rankin was in Hong Kong in December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. As a foreigner he was not allowed to leave, so he quickly gathered the several Baptist missionaries in the region into an apartment building over the harbor. They hid there for 17 days while enduring constant bombings. Eventually, the whole city had to surrender and the Americans were marched as prisoners to Stanley Internment Camp.
The prisoners were not beaten or tortured, but they were slowly starving to death. The rice contained as many weevils as it did rice, but it was all they had to eat. Even at that they went days without eating and learned to share food with the children and others in camp with them. Even in prison, he was a leader, overseeing food and relations among the whole camp.
The prisoners were released in 1942 and Rankin returned to America a shell of a man. Before long he was out preaching and raising support for missions and rallying support for the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon offering. When Charles Maddry, the executive secretary of the FMB announced his retirement in 1944, Rankin was the obvious choice, except that he didn’t want to go.
A 40-member committee of the FMB Board met to discuss their final nomination, and they had each member write on a slip of paper they name of their nominee. When the votes were tallied there were 40 unanimous votes for Rankin. He took this as a sign from God and took office on Jan 1, 1945. He was the first former missionary to become the executive secretary of the Foreign Mission Board.
After spending time getting to know the work of Southern Baptists around the world Rankin gathered with his closest leaders to pray and plan for the future of the FMB. Their plans were far bigger than Southern Baptists had ever dreamed of before and called for 1,750 missionaries and an annual budget of $10 million dollars. Even in the boom of post-war America this was an incredibly high budget and called for a large increase in-field personnel. Not everyone could see the vision that Rankin had.
After a struggle, the Convention adopted what Rankin called the “Advance Program” with the goal of taking the gospel all over the world. Rankin tirelessly gave himself to this goal, not only traveling to foreign fields but to every large and small church that would have him. Wherever he traveled his message was often the same.
“We cannot claim great faith and then try to prove it with small actions and small giving.”
As he promoted this plan for missions he practiced what he preached. He constantly prayed “Lord save us from small, self-centered thinking and planning.” He longed for a vision from God and the strength to make that plan happen. His favorite word seemed to be “we” as he relentlessly recruited others to help. Where other leaders might have condemned churches for what they weren’t doing, Rankin constantly showed them what they could do through the power of God in them as they worked together.
In February 1951 he received notice that one of the FMB’s missionaries in China had been found dead in a prison camp. The death of Bill Wallace shook him hard, but he never doubted the strength of the gospel to overcome the evil in the world. As doors closed in China other nations began to open up, and he led the Foreign Mission Board to new work in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador, and other places around the world.
In 1953 during a routine checkup, a doctor discovered leukemia and gave him only five or six weeks to live. His strength quickly left him but he continued to lead in the mission work around the world until the last moments of his life. Milledge Theron Rankin passed away on June 27, 1953, at the age of 59 years old.