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Sarah Esther Case (1868–1932)

Sarah Esther Case was the first woman from Arkansas to be called as a foreign missionary by the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. She was also the first woman to hold a full-time connectional appointment in the church hierarchy, serving for fourteen years as secretary of the General Board of Missions.

“Essie” Case was born January 28, 1868, in Izard County, the eldest of the thirteen children of Robert Ridgway Case, a merchant, and Ella Byers Case.

Case inherited an interest in the work of the Methodist church from her grandmothers, Sarah Ridgway Case and Esther Wilson Byers. Both were leaders in the establishment of women’s work at First Methodist Episcopal Church, South, of Batesville (Independence County), and both were charter members of the Woman’s (later Women’s) Foreign Missionary Society when a unit was established at the church in 1884. Case became a charter member at the age of eighteen. She obtained an education beyond that of most girls of her day, attending public schools in Batesville and studying for a time at a private academy in Memphis. Following the death of her fiancé in 1893, she entered the foreign missionary field.

Her first assignment was to teach at a girls’ school in Saltillo, Mexico, where she became fluent in Spanish. Soon, she was promoted to be the principal of a similar school at Guadalajara, and then another one at San Luis Potosi. Eventually, she became principal of the Mary Keener Institute, a large school for girls in Mexico City.

Case probably would have remained at the Mary Keener Institute for many years, but civil war erupted in Mexico in May 1911, following the overthrow of the dictatorial president, Porfirio Díaz. She continued to work at the school until February 1913, when the school building itself was shelled. Soon thereafter, all American missionaries in the area were called home. Within a few months, however, Case felt compelled to travel back to Mexico, alone and at considerable risk to herself, to conclude some business affairs for the school and to make sure that all the students had been returned safely to their homes.

Back in the United States, Case took advantage of the break in her career to obtain a bachelor’s degree, most likely in education, at the George Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee; she later taught for a time at Scarritt College in the city.

In 1918, the General Board of Missions of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, elected her as one of two foreign secretaries for women’s work. Because of her experience and familiarity with the Spanish language, she was assigned to Latin America. When mission work was reorganized four years later, she became the first woman ever selected for a full-time position in the church hierarchy when she was named secretary of the General Board of Missions.

Methodist mission work was cut back in 1926, and Case was put in charge of all women’s work in foreign fields. Her main responsibilities were to visit and inspect mission schools and to provide counseling and advice to the women serving as missionaries. She traveled widely in Latin America, Europe, Africa, and the Orient, adding French to her repertoire and visiting every field where the Methodist Board of Missions was active.

While visiting the Belgian Congo in 1932, Case discovered that she had cancer. She completed the tour and then returned home for surgery. Continuing with her work, she made another trip to Mexico, her first air travel. Returning home once again, she prepared a report for the Board of Missions at their annual meeting in May 1932. Her condition worsened, however, and she died on May 7, 1932, at Batesville and was buried beside her parents in the Oaklawn Cemetery there.

For additional information:
Barnett, Lockie Ball. “History of the Woman’s Missionary Society, First Methodist Episcopal Church, South, Batesville, Arkansas.” Typescript, 1928. United Methodist Archives. Bailey Library. Hendrix College, Conway, Arkansas.

Britton, Nancy. The First Hundred Years: First Methodist Church, Batesville, Arkansas 18361936. Little Rock: August House, 1986.

Craig, Marion Stark, and Robert Andrew Craig. “Sarah Esther Case.” Independence County Chronicle 14 (April 1973): 2–10.

Nancy Britton

Independence County Historical Society

 This entry, originally published in Arkansas Biography: A Collection of Notable Lives, appears in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture in an altered form. Arkansas Biography is available from the University of Arkansas Press.

Last Updated 9/29/2009

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