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Discovering the Late 19th Century Arguments for Women’s Preaching and Ministry

For all of my life, I have been a part of a US Presbyterian denomination which does not ordain women to the ministry. The extent to which women are allowed to teach men in church settings, lead in formal worship, or serve in non-ordained diaconal roles varies a good deal congregation by congregation. Nevertheless, across the board, preaching in regular services and serving as an elder is possible only for men. This fact, of course, does not mean that women do not play key recognized roles in the churches. For instance, an indomitable and tireless deaconess and other venerable women headed up a thriving ESL program in the church where I was a volunteer instructor during college. My home congregation at the time prioritized formal “ministry groups,” in which women of all ages were visible and appreciated leaders whose work was regularly highlighted on Sunday mornings. Thanks to the presence and visibility of women like these, I always knew who I could turn to with any pastoral questions that might specifically require a woman’s listening ear. At the evangelical Presbyterian college I was attending, one of the theology professors had a “women can be theologians” speech he regularly delivered with considerable zeal in all his entry level doctrine classes. There was never any question about women’s ability or legitimacy in theological study. Rather, we were encouraged to do so, and several of my female peers entered seminary upon graduation. In light of these experiences, I never extensively considered the denomination’s decision not to ordain women—a position that was formally reiterated the year after I finished my undergraduate degree.

It was not simply the fact that many venues for Christian service were wide open to women in my churches, however, that led to my failure to probe the issue. Just as much in play was a rather poor understanding of US religious history with regard to women’s work in the churches. In the course of my formal and informal theological education, I acquired a vague suspicion regarding those who argued for women’s preaching and ordination. This position, questionable as a recent development in Christian history, I associated with a tendency to ignore any biblical dictates at will and a self-interest lacking in piety or commitment to Jesus. As a history student, I should never have let this very uncharitable and sweeping generalization creep into my thinking about such a complicated theological question. Nevertheless, it has taken my first year of doctoral study at a Methodist seminary to force me to refocus my historical vision in this area, specifically on turn-of-the-20th-century arguments for women’s preaching. I hope that what I will present here will be illuminating for other Protestants in traditions like my own, where teaching against women serving as preachers or ministers is not always accompanied by a historical acknowledgment of the longstanding—and intensely pious—affirmative side of this debate.

Late 19th Century Christianity, Social Activism, and the Holy Spirit

After the US Civil War of the 1860s, and following closely on the heels of earlier Christian enthusiasm for the abolition of slavery, came a sweeping interest in Christian social reforms of all kinds: organizing Sunday schools for children, reforming city slums, establishing hospitals and orphanages, building domestic and foreign missions boards, and advocating for temperance and bans on the sale of alcohol. Over that same period, many strands of US Protestantism became increasingly interested in the doctrine of sanctification in what became known as the “Higher Life” movement. Increasing optimism about the potential for Christians to live without sin, as well as a sense of the duty incumbent on all serious Christians to seek this blessing of sanctification, was tied into a growing interest in the role of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life—the person of the Trinity thought to bestow this “second blessing.” The dual emphasis on the urgent need to gain this blessing, along with the enthusiasm about the empowerment for mission and service that came with its reception, made for a highly optimistic and activist era of US Christianity.

It was at this historical moment, with its heightened sense of Christian social and missional responsibility charged with enthusiasm about the Spirit’s benefits, that strong arguments for the legitimacy of women’s preaching and ministry emerged. Because there are so many voices of women and of men who wrote in favor of these things, here I have pulled out a couple outstanding ones. I focus specifically on their orientation toward Christian mission and evangelism and their use of biblical texts, since these two areas featured in my aforementioned “sweeping generalization.” These particular areas may also be of interest for those reading from other traditional Protestant denominations.

The writers I have chosen span about a fifty-year period, but they are all representative of the holiness strain of Christianity and its interest in Holy Spirit-inspired social activism. The earliest writer I consider is Catherine Booth, English co-founder of what became the Salvation Army. Though a defender of women’s preaching for much of her life, she wrote her formal tract Female Ministry; or, Women’s Right to Preach the Gospel in 1859 to defend the preaching of Phoebe Palmer, who was on tour in England at the time.[1] The second writer is Francis Willard, whose concerns as the founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union are seen throughout her apology for women’s preaching, Women in the Pulpit (1888). Writing not long after Willard, A. J. Gordon, chair of the American Baptist Missionary Union and founder of what today is Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, wrote in strong support of women’s preaching in “The Ministry of Women,” published in the Missionary Review of the World in 1894.[2] Finally, I also consider Fannie McDowell Hunter’s tract of 1905, Women Preachers. Hunter initially was part of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, eventually joining the New Testament Church of Christ, which became a part of the Church of the Nazarene.[3]

Aside from their attention to narrow points of biblical exegesis, what is striking about all of these writers’ arguments is their starting place. They began from a position of seeing women’s Christian public speaking and work being carried out effectively. Subsequently, they turned to address others’ concerns about specific biblical verses—counterarguments which some of these authors experienced as disingenuous attacks trying to undermine women’s evangelism and social activism.

Catherine Booth

Catherine Booth’s tract of 1859 was primarily a response to those who said “female ministry is forbidden in the Word of God.” She acknowledged this claim as “the most serious objection,” to which she would give “immediate and cheerful acquiescence” were the case proven to her. Given her understanding of prophecy in the New Testament, however, she remained unconvinced. She argued that the prophecy men and women were described as doing in I Corinthians 11 could be defined as speaking for “edification, exhortation, and comfort of believers” and for conversion of unbelievers, a definition she identified in I Corinthians 14:3. In addition, Peter’s use of Joel 2 in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 2), which predicts that women as well as men will prophesy in the latter days, was another indication that women were to prophesy, an activity Booth equated with teaching. The injunction of I Corinthians 14 that women be silent in the churches, she argued, referred to only a “pertinacious, inquisitive, domineering, dogmatical kind of speaking.”[4] Just as this passage prohibited only a certain kind of speaking, the prohibition of I Timothy 2:12 only kept women from a certain kind of teaching—a domineering or usurping kind. Since she favored a translation of this verse that said “I suffer not a woman to teach by usurping authority over a man,” Booth concluded that “this prohibition has no bearing whatever on the religious exercises of women led and taught of the Spirit of God.”[5]

Booth also accused those who would interpret these isolated passages literally of being inconsistent. To be logical, she thought, pastors who would not let women speak should also make sure to let each congregation member offer a word during services, as I Corinthians 14 also delineates. “Until, therefore, learned divines make a personal application of the rest of the chapter,” Booth concluded, “they must excuse us declining to do so of the 24th verse; and we challenge them to show any breach of the Divine law in one case more than the other.”[6]

After responding to the passages that were pointed against her position, Booth went on to make her positive case. The New Testament seemed favorable to women’s public evangelism, given Anna’s proclamations about Jesus’s identity after Jesus’s circumcision in the gospel of Luke, or Mary Magdalene’s and the other women’s proclamation of Jesus’s resurrection to the male apostles.[7]  Neither was there any “intimation of his [Jesus’s] reproving the Samaritan woman for her public proclamation of him to her countrymen.”[8] Given women’s attendance at the cross and tomb, Booth argued that the scriptures convey no idea that, for these women, “privacy was their proper sphere.”[9] Since the apostle Paul pointed to “the fruits of his labours as evidence of his Divine commission (I Cor. 9:20),” Booth found that the conversions brought about by women preachers were just as much a validation of their ministry. For instance, the work of a Mrs. Smith, whose ministry in South Africa had been highlighted at a Columbia missions conference in 1824, was so effective that Christian converts throughout the Cape of Good Hope colony would cite her name as their spiritual mentor.[10]

Francis Willard

In her articulation of the argument in 1888, Francis Willard was even more forceful about her opponents’ inconsistency that Booth had been. These other people, Willard insisted, had no qualms about going to the law to settle disputes, to strike back when struck, to allow women to braid their hair, and to refrain from lending when those in need requested aid—all actions that went against a literal interpretation of scripture.[11] Although these same theologians thought that Adam’s rule over his wife, spoken in the curses falling on humanity in Genesis 3, indicated a God-ordained state of women’s submission, conveniently they never found the declaration of Cain’s rule over Abel to teach eternal subjection of younger brothers to older ones.[12]  True to her temperance zeal, she was especially incensed by the insistence of some ministers to use fermented wine in the Eucharist, while they found the Bible’s description of the use of unleavened bread to indicate no eternal precedent.[13] While the fact that Christ had only male apostles was taken to mean that women could not be church leaders, the fact that an apostle was chosen by lot was not taken to imply a permanent regulation about how to select ministers.[14] Thanks to such inconsistencies, Willard concluded that “the plain wayfaring woman cannot help concluding that exegesis, thus conducted, is one of the most time-serving and man-made of all sciences.” For her part, she held to the “old texts,” but would “interpret them less narrowly,” a method that paralleled the fact that “Onesimus and Canaan are no longer quoted as the slave-holders’ mainstay.”[15]

But again, as in the case of Booth, Willard found existing women’s work to speak for itself on this question. One of the several men who wrote prefaces to Willard’s book brought up the case of a missionary woman named Miss Colby, who was working in Japan. In one of Colby’s reports, she said:

If I followed my own inclination, I would spend every moment in work for women; but I have been shown by the Holy Spirit, through the work that I have been forced into, that missionary work for the world must inseparably entwine the women’s work with the men’s and equally the men’s work with the women’s. My public talks and lectures were simply my woman’s meetings enlarged.[16]

Willard later noted that women missionaries, recruited for their strategic ability to enter women-only spaces like harems, would have been able to baptize their many converts had they been permitted to.[17] In short, Willard thought the Spirit’s evident blessing on women’s existing work validated their activities, a method of reasoning she based on Peter’s decision to baptize Cornelius and other Gentiles because he witnessed the Spirit visibly descend upon them.[18]

A. J. Gordon

Unlike Booth’s and Willard’s arguments above, A. J. Gordon built his case for women’s preaching in 1894 on the theological basis of his premillennialist eschatology. For Gordon, the church throughout all of history, not just the church of the book of Acts, is to be characterized by mission work, healing, and prophecy. Not only did Gordon insist that all these practices persisted as church activities, but he also saw these elements—mission and the ongoing exceptional power of the Spirit—as inseparably going together. Any theological constructions that taught the cessation of these elements of the 1st century church were inadmissible. For instance, Gordon pointed out that William Carey’s opponents had told him that the Great Commission pertained only to the early church since it went along with the gift of tongues (which presumably had ceased). Likewise, theologians of Gordon’s day denied the present possibility of divine healing and prophecy because of the passing of the age of miracles. For Gordon, these ideas did not give “due recognition of the Holy Spirit’s perpetual presence in the church—a presence which implies the equal perpetuity of His gifts and endowments.”[19]

It was his strong interest in the continuation of these 1st century activities that fed into Gordon’s views on women’s preaching. He considered Joel 2, which declares that men and women both will prophesy, to be “the Magna Charta of the Christian Church.”[20] Since prophecy continued, since prophecy was more about exhortation of the church than prediction of the future, and since New Testament women were prophets, Gordon concluded that there was no barrier to women preaching in public. With this perspective, Gordon was able to respond to the scriptural objections of his opponents. He argued that I Timothy 2 described how men and women were each to take part in public prayer—men were to do so lifting their hands, and women were to do so modestly, without domineering. Women must surely have been allowed to teach, because Priscilla’s teaching of Apollos was biblically applauded.[21] Injunctions from I Corinthians 14 for women’s silence merely prohibited women from interrupting during the teaching sessions. The command could not have enjoined general silence given women’s role in public prophecy described a few chapters earlier.[22]

Looking at the existing work of women in mission, Gordon concluded that “we cannot refrain from questioning whether the spiritual intuition of the Church has not been far in advance of its exegesis in dealing with this subject.”[23] Peter, even though he was the one preaching the new dispensation of the Spirit at Pentecost, had to have a “vision of the sheet descending from heaven” to truly believe in Gentile inclusion. Likewise,

It has required another vision of a multitude of missionary women, let down by the Holy Spirit among the heathen, and publishing the Gospel to every tribe and kindred and people, to convince us that in that same body, ‘there can be no male and female.’[24]

To any readers fearing that he was making unwarranted extrapolations from scripture, Gordon said that this allowance for women preachers was quite in line with “the foreordained pattern,” since there were women praying with the men in the upper room. To any reader who said missionary preaching was allowed to women “because of its informal and colloquial character,” while presumably preaching in North America was forbidden, Gordon countered that in that case, missionary preaching “comes much nearer the preaching enjoined in the great commission than does the reading of a theological disquisition from the pulpit on a Sunday morning.”[25]

Fannie McDowell Hunter

In 1905, continuing Gordon’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit, Fannie MacDowell Hunter put forward her arguments about women’s preaching in light of biblical texts about prophets and prophecy. She argued first using the biblical precedents of women prophets—Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and Anna. Hunter proposed, as Gordon had done, that since New Testament prophecy was mainly about exhortation rather than prediction, and since women preached and prophesied in the New Testament, there was no call to hinder women’s preaching today. When Peter cited Joel 2 at Pentecost, the prediction “was not fulfilled unless the ‘daughters’ and ‘hand-maidens’ prophesied, i.e., spoke to ‘men edification, and exhortation, and to comfort.’”[26] Bible translators, though calling various men in the New Testament “ministers” and “deacons,” were wrong to translate the same word merely as “servant” when it was used of Phoebe in Romans 16.[27] She lamented her opponents’ use of I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2, saying “this teaching has silenced many a talented woman so she would not even witness to the saving power of Jesus, much less present herself to God to go forth bearing the precious seeds of Gospel Truth for the salvation of the lost.”[28] Regarding I Corinthians 14, she noted that the command for women to keep silence made sense from a missionary’s perspective. Missionaries who taught in places where women did not receive an education often found that their teaching was interrupted with women’s questioning.[29] Therefore, the scriptural passage likely tried to keep this in check. I Timothy 2 simply described how women and men were to pray in public, and the text prohibited women from usurping authority, not from holding it in general.[30]

As we have seen, however, a key feature of Hunter’s argument was the witness of the preaching of women she already saw going on around her. “Joel’s prediction,” she insisted, “was not exhausted on the day of Pentecost but was to continue to be fulfilled throughout the entire Christian dispensation.”[31] She pointed to John Wesley’s approval of Sarah Mallett as a “traveling preacher,” and went on to list many other women like Susannah Wesley, Catherine Booth, Phoebe Palmer, Amanda Smith, Mary Bosanquit, a female Chinese convert of Mrs. Howard Taylor, and Maggie Van Cott. The final example was her own testimony, which culminated in an experience of Spirit baptism that was accompanied by “an intense desire” to obey the dictates of Isaiah 52:7, which describes the beautiful feet of those who travel to tell the gospel.[32] She would “not reason against nor resist God’s call to preach ‘good tidings of good’ and to ‘publish salvation.’”[33] Though she preferred playing her guitar and singing as means of evangelism, she would also preach. For instance, she described that while on a train trip to California, when “a party began playing a game of cards, I commenced singing salvation songs with guitar accompaniment and God used it to break up the game.” She frequently used this tactic throughout the trip, finding that “opportunity was afforded me also to give them gospel messages.”[34]

Looking across these turn-of-the-century arguments, we can see how these cases for women’s preaching were tied to prior commitments to public evangelism and missionary work—tasks to which both women and men were called. In the case of Gordon and Hunter, their arguments were also supported by their belief in the continued relevance of the category of prophecy. In light of their commitments, the writers we have examined here entered wholeheartedly into scriptural reasoning. Simply put, they found the affirmative biblical cases to override the passages opposing them. Their argumentation, with its “all-hands-on-deck” commitment to evangelism and serious belief in the continued relevance of New Testament prophecy, also provides strong counterexamples to my own former “sweeping generalization” about how claims in favor of women’s preaching were constructed. I would encourage all those who want to be historically balanced in their own thinking about women’s preaching and church leadership to consult these and other late 19th century Christian writers.

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Morgan Crago

Morgan Crago

Locked ballot box used in Carson, North Dakota on October 30, 1940. Photo courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (USDA)
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