With the coming of 1991, the Nazarene World Mission Society begins its 76th year. Authorized by the General Assembly of 1915 as the missionary auxiliary of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, the society was first known as the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. The organization quickly joined the deaconness movement as one of the two main avenues for women to serve in the church’s ministry to the world.
Much of the inspiration and leadership of the early NWMS sprang from the Rev. Susan Norris Fitkin. Her ability to articulate a missionary vision and to inspire others was rooted in her personal experience as an evangelist and pastor.
Susan Norris was a Canadian, born on March 31, 1870, on a farm near Ely, Que. Her Quaker parents were active in the temperance reform movement, her mother serving once as a delegate to the Women’s Christian Temperance Union convention in Ottawa.
In 1881, the family moved to East Farnham, Que., where Susan’s parents held longstanding membership in a Quaker meeting house. She, too, attended Quaker worship but also visited an Anglican church. Later, she began attending the Union Chapel, an interdenominational church that was strongly evangelical in emphasis. Each strain of piety nourished her spiritual development. Several encounters with life-threatening illnesses, including typhoid fever, heightened her seriousness toward religion. At times, she experienced unusual dreams and saw visions.
In 1890, she offered herself as a missionary to the China Inland Mission but was refused for health reasons. She began conducting services for youth in her community and then, at her mother’s urging, in other communities. Out of this, her career as an evangelist emerged around 1892. Attending a Christian Endeavor meeting in New York City, she met J. Walter Malone, leader in the fast-growing holiness wing of the Society of Friends.
Norris subsequently attended Malone’s school, Friends’ Bible Institute and Training School in Cleveland. While there, she began preaching in revivals. In 1893, she became pastor of a church in Vermont where she had previously held a revival. Another pastorate followed in the Green Mountains. She was by now a “recorded” (official) minister in the Friends Church. In 1895, at the urging of a leading New York Quaker, she returned to evangelism. That fall, she was sanctified in a revival and paired for six months with Abram E. Fitkin. Was someone playing matchmaker? The sources do not say, but Susan Norris and A. E. Fitkin were married by a Quaker minister May 14, 1896.
By that date, the two evangelists filed regular reports of their work in the Christian Witness, a leading holiness journal and organ of the National Holiness Association. In late 1896, they organized an independent congregation of 60 members in Hopewell Junction, NY, at the conclusion of a revival. The new church was mostly non-Quaker in background, so the Fitkins steered it toward affiliation with the Association of Pentecostal Churches of America, the Nazarene parent-body in the East, which they, too, joined.
Until A. E. Fitkin embarked on a new career on Wall Street in 1903, both Susan and Abram remained evangelists serving the APCA. In 1899 and 1900, she helped write a constitution for the APCA’s existing women’s missionary auxiliary, to which she was elected president. Between 1900 and 1907, it grew from about 75 to nearly 400 members.
The church unions of 1907 and 1908 demoted the Eastern group’s missionary auxiliary to the status of mere local societies. Many women—Susan Fitkin chief among them—began raising denominational consciousness for the importance of an organized auxiliary, and that vision was realized in 1915. Rev. Susan Fitkin became NWMS’s first president, serving in that office until 1948 and utilizing her skills as preacher and evangelist in the advocacy of missions. She died in California in 1951.
Ingersol, S. (n.d.). Nazarene Roots; Mother of missions: The evangelistic vision of Susan Norris Fitkin, Herald of Holiness, 44.