Elizabeth James Morris Downes

Elizabeth James Morris Downes (1886–1968)

Elizabeth James Morris Downes was a leader among Virginia's Baptist women for much of the twentieth century. Downes rose to prominence in 1910 when she became superintendent for the Eastern Shore's chapters of the Women's Missionary Union (WMU), a position she held until she became president of the the state organization in 1931. Though her presidency of the WMU of Virginia took place during the Great Depression, the association continued to fund missions and created the Interracial Department to improve African American education. Her term as president ended in 1934. Downes then became state chair of the Margaret Fund, which provided scholarship aid to children of Baptist missionaries, from 1935 until her retirement in 1950. MORE...

 

Downes was born in Richmond on June 18, 1886, and was the daughter of James Albert Morris and Sallie Josie Valentine Morris (whose first name is sometimes given as Elizabeth). Her father, a devout Baptist, owned and operated a successful wholesale food and catering business and later sold mineral water. Musically gifted, Morris studied voice and piano and became a popular soloist in Richmond churches. After attending private school, she entered the Woman's College of Richmond but in 1903, before receiving a degree, moved to Cape Charles to take a position as a tutor. There, Morris founded and directed the Cape Charles Choral Club and later became president of the Northampton Woman's Club. Her music brought her to the attention of Albert Simkins Downes, a widowed railroad yardmaster, and they were married in Richmond on October 18, 1905. They had no children.

At Cape Charles Baptist Church, where Downes sang in the choir and taught Sunday school, she joined the Woman's Missionary Union and rose quickly to prominence in its ranks. Organized by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1888, the WMU promoted the work of home and foreign missions. It was one of the few aspects of church work in which laywomen could hold leadership responsibilities. In 1910 Downes was appointed superintendent of all the chapters on the Eastern Shore and for the next twenty-one years directed the work of what grew from seventeen to twenty-nine local units. Under her leadership the WMU in the churches of the Accomack Baptist Association expanded continuously. Downes's strong organizational abilities, good communication skills, and motivating leadership style helped to make her, in time, virtually synonymous with the advocacy of mission work among Eastern Shore Baptists.

In 1931 Downes resigned her Eastern Shore position to become president of the Woman's Missionary Union of Virginia. Though she served during the financially lean years of the Great Depression, under her administration substantial offerings to missions continued—more than $280,000 in 1932 and almost $250,000 the following year. Downes initiated successful new offering procedures and helped to lay the foundation for the Interracial Department, through which white Baptist women worked with their counterparts in black churches to improve education. After resigning from the presidency in 1934, she served beginning in 1935 as state chair of the Margaret Fund, which provided scholarship aid to children of Baptist missionaries. Her retirement in 1950 concluded forty years of church work beyond the level of her local congregation.

Downes's husband died on February 4, 1943. On February 23, 1949, she married Gordon Bloxom, a widowed Accomack County farmer and member of a prominent Baptist family. She moved to Mappsville, joined Bethel Baptist Church, and taught in its Sunday school until the mid-1960s. Elizabeth Bloxom died at her Mappsville home on November 7, 1968, and was buried in the cemetery at Modest Town Baptist Church, in Accomack County.

Time Line

  • June 18, 1886 - Elizabeth James Morris is born in Richmond, and is the daughter of James Albert Morris ad Sallie Josie Valentine Morris.
  • 1903 - Elizabeth James Morris moves to Cape Charles to take a position as a tutor. There she founds and directs the Cape Charles Choral Club and later becomes the president of the Northampton Woman's Club.
  • October 18, 1905 - Elizabeth James Morris and Albert Simkins Downes marry in Richmond.
  • 1910 - Elizabeth James Morris Downes is appointed superintendent of all the chapters of the Women's Missionary Union on the Eastern Shore.
  • 1931 - Elizabeth James Morris Downes resigns her position as superintendent of the Eastern Shore chapters of the Women's Missionary Union to become president of the Woman's Missionary Union of Virginia.
  • 1934 - Elizabeth James Morris Downes resigns as president of the Woman's Missionary Union of Virginia.
  • 1935 - Elizabeth James Morris Downes begins to serve as state chair of the Margaret Fund, which provides scholarship aid to children of Baptist missionaries.
  • February 4, 1943 - Albert Simkins Downes, husband of Elizabeth James Morris Downes, dies.
  • February 23, 1949 - Elizabeth James Morris Downes marries Gordon Bloxom. Downes moves to Mappsville, where she teaches Sunday school at the Bethel Baptist Church until the mid-1960s.
  • 1950 - Elizabeth James Morris Downes Bloxom retires after forty years of church work beyond the level of her local congregation.
  • November 7, 1968 - Elizabeth James Morris Downes Bloxom dies at her Mappsville home and is buried in the cemetery at Modest Town Baptist Church, in Accomack County.
Further Reading
Kierner, Cynthia A., Jennifer R. Loux, and Megan Taylor Shockley. Changing History: Virginia Women Through Four Centuries. Richmond: Library of Virginia, 2013.
Mariner, Kirk. Revival's Children: A Religious History of Virginia's Eastern Shore. Salisbury, Maryland: Peninsula Press, 1979.
Mather, Juliette. Light Three Candles: History of Women's Missionary Union of Virginia, 1874–1973. Richmond: Women's Missionary Union of Virginia, Baptist General Association of Virginia, [1973].
White, Blanche Sydnor. History of the Baptists on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, 1776–1959. Baltimore, Maryland: J. H. Furst Company, 1959.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Mariner, K., & the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Elizabeth James Morris Downes (1886–1968). (2014, August 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Downes_Elizabeth_James_Morris_1886-1968.

  • MLA Citation:

    Mariner, Kirk and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Elizabeth James Morris Downes (1886–1968)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 6 Aug. 2014. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: May 30, 2013 | Last modified: August 6, 2014


Contributed by Kirk Mariner and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography