Fitkin, Susan N. (1870-1951)
Founding president of Nazarene Missions International
Susan Norris Fitkin was born on March 31, 1870, on a farm near Ely, Quebec to Quaker parents involved in the temperance reform movement in Canada. In her youth she attended her parents’ Quaker meeting house, as well as an Anglican church. Later she began attending a church called the Union Chapel, which had a strong evangelical emphasis. She was often ill, and suffered bouts of typhoid fever. During these years she had a sense of real seriousness towards religion, at times even experiencing a sense of calling to mission work through visions and dreams. At an early age she expressed a concern for the spiritual condition of others. Once she witnessed a disturbance among a group of men at her father’s lumber camp. When she asked her mother why the men were so mean, her mother replied that it was because they drank. Susan questioned why they would continue to drink if it made them so mean. Her mother responded that it was because they don’t know Jesus. Susan responded, “Someone should tell them about Him!”
At the age of 20 Susan applied to be sent as a missionary to China, but was refused because of health concerns. Instead, she began holding services for youth in her own town and other surrounding communities as well. In 1892 she met J. Walter Malone, and began attending his school, the Friends’ Bible Institute and Training School in Cleveland. While at school she took every opportunity to preach at a downtown mission church. One night after preaching a message entitled “Will Thou be Healed?” she testified to being miraculously healed from an illness, believed to be cancer. In 1893 she became the pastor of a church in Vermont, where she had previously held a revival. This was followed by another pastorate in that same area of Vermont’s Green Mountain Region.
By 1895, at the urging of a leading New York Quaker, Fitkin returned to evangelism. That fall, she testified to experiencing a sanctifying experience in a revival. This emphasis on a sanctifying, “second work of grace” was significant in her understanding of missions. Throughout her career in missions she would speak of the call to spread holiness teachings and to see others experience this “second work of grace.”
After this sanctification experience, she was partnered for six months with another evangelist, Abram E. Fitkin. The couple married on May 14, 1896. In late 1896, they organized a revival in Hopewell Junction, NY, which led to the start of a new church. This church, made of mostly non-Quakers, became affiliated with the Association of Pentecostal Churches of America (APCA).
In 1899 and 1900, Susan Fitkin used her passion for missionary work and gifts in organizing to help write the constitution for the APCA’s women’s auxiliary. She was soon elected the group’s president and under her leadership from 1900-1907, it grew from 75 to 400 members. In 1907 and 1908 the APCA became part of a union of churches that would eventually be the Church of the Nazarene. During the early years of this new denomination, missionary auxiliaries were demoted to mere local societies. Under Fitkin’s leadership, the local mission societies grew so extensively that in 1915, at the General Assembly of the Church of the Nazarene, the group became recognized as a denomination wide organization and Rev. Susan Fitkin became the first president of the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (which eventually became Nazarene Missions International) . She served in that office until 1948, utilizing her skills as preacher and evangelist in the advocacy of missions, as well as strategizing ways to encourage the support of the global mission of the denomination. During her time as president she traveled widely and wrote about her experiences. Because of the success of their family business Fitkin was able to pay for her own expenses. During the Great Depression she is credited as the key figure in continuing to advance the Nazarene global outreach. Fitkin had started a mission organization with 75 members in 1900 and within three decades led a group of over 25,000 members worldwide.
One of the many important contributions that Fitkin made was in the development of mission education for children and youth. By 1928, the WFMS had 100 local mission societies for teenage girls called Young Women’s Work. There were also over 6,000 children involved in mission work through the Junior Light Bearers program. She was responsible for the funding of numerous Nazarene hospitals and schools around the world, but still emphasized the importance of Jesus that she had seen as her mission since she was a little girl. In her travels she expressed that those impacted by their mission work “should have not only the blessings of our civilization, but also the knowledge of salvation that can come only by knowing and accepting the Redeemer.”(1) Susan Norris Fitkin died in California in 1951. Her biographer, Basil Miller, characterized her as, “the most outstanding woman of the Church of the Nazarene and one of the great missionary leaders of the twentieth century.”(2)
By Jeff Lane
(1) Susan Norris Fitkin, Grace Much More Abounding: A Story of the Triumphs of Redeeming Grace During Two Score Years in the Master’s Service (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, [193-?]), 111.
(2) Basil Miller, Susan N. Fitkin: For God and Missions (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1949), 7.
Fitkin, Susan Norris. Holiness and Missions. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1940.
Fitkin, Susan Norris. Grace Much More Abounding: A Story of the Triumphs of Redeeming Grace during Two Score Years in the Master’s Service. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, [193-?].
_____. Over in Old Mexico. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, [1929?].
_____. Under Tropical Skies. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, [192-?].
_____. Holiness and Missions. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1940. Fitkin, Susan and Emma Word. Nazarene Missions in the Orient. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, [193-?]
Miller, Basil. Susan N. Fitkin: For God and Missions. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1949. York,
Mark A. The Girl Who Wanted to Be a Missionary. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1985.
Parker, J. Fred. Mission to the World: A History of the Missions in the Church of the Nazarene through 1985. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1988.
Perkins, Phyllis. Women in Nazarene Missions: Embracing the Legacy. Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1994.
Maxey, Duane V., How They Entered Canaan (A Collection of Holiness Experience Accounts). Holiness Data Ministry, 1994. [Susan Fitkin’s Account of her holiness experience]
Cooley, Steven D. “The Call of Susan Fitkin.” Herald of Holiness 74, no. 20 (15 October 1985): 9.
Ingersol, Stan. “Mother of Missions: The Evangelistic Vision of Susan Norris Fitkin.” Herald of Holiness 80, no. 1 (January 1991): 44.