Fannie Heck was born in 1862 in Virginia. She grew up in North Carolina with a mother who was passionate about missions, and from an early age, Fannie shared her zeal. Fannie felt a particularly deep concern for the poor, which developed into a passion for social work as she grew. As an adult, Fannie as president of North Carolina’s Women’s Central Committee of Missions was present for WMU’s first meeting in 1888.
Four years later, in 1892, WMU president Mattie Macintosh stepped down from her position. Heck, a gifted speaker, writer, and leader, was nominated as her successor. Though she was only 29 at the time, her deep faith and strong leadership skills made her a prime candidate. She was elected to office, and WMU looked with excitement toward the work God would do through its new president.
The excitement, however, was short lived. The first of what would be many unexpected twists in Fannie’s life came 2 years into her term. In 1894, Fannie’s father passed away, leaving Fannie devastated. Not long after his death, Fannie became extremely ill. The combination of grief and sickness put an incredible strain on her, and for the sake of her health, Fannie resigned.
WMU was grieved to lose the leadership of such a dynamic woman, and the women were thrilled when she was able to return to the presidency in 1896. Though happy to be back in the ministry she loved, Fannie returned to the role still recovering from her loss. Changed by the impact of grief and pain, she knew that God alone could provide her with the strength to lead WMU.
CONFLICT WITH ANNIE
Fannie was a determined woman, focused, and full of huge ideas. She was incredibly gifted and passionate about social work. Fannie felt compelled to engage women in ministry in their communities. Her advocacy of social and community action was so impactful that it became a core component of WMU’s mission. She would later be remembered as “the predominate personality in the life of WMU.”
Fannie’s drive made her an excellent leader, but her strong personality caused conflict between her and fellow WMU leader Annie Armstrong. At the root of their conflict was a differing view of the presidential role. Annie believed the president should be a figurehead, someone to preside over meetings and represent the organization, deferring the leadership decisions to her as the corresponding secretary (now executive director). Fannie strongly disagreed with Annie’s interpretation of the presidency.
She believed the president should be actively involved in the hands-on elements of WMU leadership and decision making. Ultimately both women desired to see WMU thrive, but their differing perspectives made working together increasingly difficult. As they continued to clash, Fannie became miserable in her role. In 1899, she refused reelection, once again stepping down from the presidency.
For Fannie, the resignation felt like defeat. It was a second unexpected turn, leaving her hurt and away from the ministry she loved. Though difficulty seemed to win, God was not yet finished with Fannie.
For the next several years, Fannie stayed in the background. She served quietly, and the Lord strengthened her faith. When Annie and WMU president Lillie Barker both resigned in 1906, Fannie’s name was again brought before the women. She was unanimously elected to the role of president. The work Fannie never expected to do again was given back to her, and she gave thanks to the God who had brought her broken dreams back to life.
FRESH IDEAS AND EXCITEMENT
As soon as she was elected, Fannie jumped into action. The struggles of the past had made her resilient, and she was ready to tackle any challenge. No recording secretary was elected in 1906, making Fannie the only leader of WMU. She wasted no time getting to work, and her efforts ushered the organization into a season of production and growth.
Under Fannie’s leadership, the first WMU magazine was written and produced, the first WMU hymnal was compiled, the WMU Training School was launched (paving the way for women to one day attend seminary), state WMU offices began to employ staff members, and WMU began the development of programs specifically geared toward children and young woman. In 1908, Edith Crane was elected as the corresponding secretary, and together she and Fannie brought fresh ideas and excitement to WMU.
With Edith sharing in the leadership responsibilities, Fannie was able to dedicate herself to equipping WMU for the future. Fannie was a visionary and was able to pinpoint what WMU needed to continue growing long term. Fannie desired for WMU to continue long after her leadership, and she wanted to do everything she could to ensure its viability.
Fannie authored many books, spoke to hundreds of people, and led the 25th anniversary celebration of WMU. She found great delight in leading WMU and was amazed by the goodness God had bestowed on her. She led WMU fearlessly until 1914, when she was struck with a sudden and horribly painful illness. Her sickness is believed to have been cancer, and it progressed rapidly. Fannie was bedridden for months and spent weeks in the hospital until she begged to spend her last days at home. Her wish was granted, and she spent her final days in her own bed. She went to be with the Lord on August 25, 1915.
Fannie’s life was not all easy or glamorous. Her story is full of grief, loss, illness, and a painful ministry experience. But through it all, the Lord sustained her. He used her circumstances to build her into an incredible person with an amazingly deep faith. Fannie’s story proves that disappointment, no matter how deep, is not a death sentence because we serve a God who can resurrect all things. God did this for Fannie. He took a position that had once caused her deep pain and transformed it into something that brought her great joy and made a huge impact on the world. The Lord can restore anything and bring good out of all things. Fannie believed this. Will you?
Interested in learning more about Ann and other women leaders? Register now for the Christian Women’s Leadership Center course Women Leaders from the Past. This 30-day, self-directed course begins April 1.
If you’d like to read more about Fannie’s story of resilience in the face of grief, loss and illness, order Out of Exile: Fannie Heck & the Rest of the Story by Rosalie Hall Hunt.
This article was written by Selah Ulmer, a recent seminary graduate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It was originally published at wmu.com.