A Method for Empowering Women

Amanda Berry Smith, pioneer of the Wesleyan holiness tradition

19 in a series for Women’s History Month

Women’s history is, to a significant degree, the history of a people endowed with significant gifts seeking opportunities for their exercise. In the 18th and 19th centuries the development and spread of Methodism, in its various manifestations, afforded these opportunities to many women.

A list of the 66 designated leaders of the London Methodist Society – a “society” being the group of Christians of Methodist convictions in a town or city – included 49 women. Wesley implored Elizabeth Fox, a leader in the Oxford Society, to delay a move to another town to avoid leaving her group without its “head.” Wesley was apparently reluctant to issue a blanket sanction of women’s preaching, in part to maintain a distinction between the Methodists and the Quakers who permitted women’s preaching on principle. Nevertheless, he encouraged Sarah Crosby (1729-1804) to continue her leadership of large prayer meetings, which involved public addresses, albeit suggesting that she “keep as far from what is called preaching as you can.” On the strength of this encouragement, she travelled widely in England and Scotland for 20 years, calling men as well as women to a revival of Christian faith. Wesley more explicitly approved the preaching of Mary Bosanquet (1739-1815), on the grounds of her “extraordinary call.” Bosanquet also carried on a long-standing compassionate ministry as the director of a house in Leytonstone that was part school, part orphanage, part hospital, and part sanctuary for the destitute, which she administered for some 30 years.

In North America, Barbara Heck (1734-1804) became the “mother of American Methodism” by exhorting the preacher Philip Embury to do his duty by their immigrant group, and by taking an active part in organizing the first Methodist society in New York. When political events drove the Hecks to Canada, Barbara Heck became the founder of the first Methodist group in that territory as well.

The need for evangelism in the New World afforded further opportunities for women to make use of their considerable gifts. Jarena Lee (1783-1849), recognized as the first woman to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, pursued her clear call to preach the gospel as an itinerant, after convincing Bishop Richard Allen with a demonstration of her ability. She travelled extensively in the Eastern and Midwestern US beginning in 1819, and while she encountered hostility and obstacles, she also attracted wide audiences of men as well as women, white as well as black. Julia A.J. Foote’s (1823-1900) call to evangelical preaching ministry did not enjoy the same authorization from her denomination; the consequence was that she embarked on an independent preaching career, which led her through upstate New York, across the Alleghenies into Ohio and Michigan, and the holiness revivals in the Midwest in the 1870s. Ultimately she became the first woman ordained a deacon and the second woman to hold the office of elder in the A.M.E. Zion church. Both Lee and Foote authored autobiographies, contributing to the distinctive genre of spiritual autobiography in American letters.

The holiness movement that developed out of Methodism likewise owed much to its early women preachers, and became a door to religious activity as evangelists for many others. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) is recognized as one of the founders of the Holiness movement. In 1840 she organized and hosted “Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness” in her home in New York, which included both clergy and laypeople, men as well as women. This activity first led to her own experience of sanctification, and later to a traveling ministry, along with the publication of a text, The Way of Holiness, that lay the theological foundation for the holiness movement. Her insistence that public witness was indispensable to retaining holiness, which characterized the movement as a whole, provided an incentive for increasing women’s public speaking within the movement. Palmer’s younger contemporary Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915) recorded having attended Palmer’s Tuesday meetings in her autobiography, and receiving a call to preach in 1869. Smith traveled and preached extensively at camp meetings and revivals across four continents, serving as a missionary in India and later Liberia, as well as in the British Isles and North America; she also augmented her preaching ministry by founding an orphanage and school for African-American children in Harvey, Illinois in 1899. Smith’s preaching fueled the holiness revival begun by Palmer.

The opening for women’s leadership and the expression of women’s faith and gifts that Methodism provided arose from a theology that acknowledged the significance of personal experience as one avenue to knowledge of God’s will. By crediting experience, discernment, and a perception of the movement of the Holy Spirit in immediate circumstances, it became possible to weigh this evidence in balance with isolated texts of Scripture that seemed to prohibit women’s preaching or authoritative participation in church life, to come to new conclusions, and to challenge scholastic objections. These women’s practice then further generated persuasive experience of women’s callings in their listeners.

These Method-ical pioneers created the precedents that paved the way for the much later, more general acceptance of women’s ordination in mainline Protestantism.

Read More . . .

Jenny Lloyd, “Revivalist Women Preachers in 1860s Britain”

Janie S. Noble, A Calling to Fulfill: Women in 19th Century American Methodism”, a paper for the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies, August 2007
A bit more of a paper on Wesley’s legacy, with notes on women’s preaching from Wesley

Victor Shepherd, “Women Preachers in Early-Day Methodism”

on Jarena Lee

online text of Julia A.J. Foote’s A Brand Plucked from the Fire

online text of Jarena Lee’s Religious experience and journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, giving an account of her call to preach the gospel, revised and corrected from the original manuscript written by herself (1836)

online text of Phoebe Palmer’s The Way of Holiness


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