Evangelicalism’s Strong History of Women in Ministry

Women in public Christian ministry is a historic distinctive of evangelicalism. It is historic because evangelical women have been fulfilling their callings in public ministry from the founding generation of evangelicalism to the present day and in every period in between. It is a distinctive because no other large branch of the Christian family has demonstrated as long and deep a commitment to affirming the public ministries of women – not theologically liberal traditions, not Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodox traditions, not Anglicanism or other mainline Protestant traditions. I am defining “public ministry” as Christian service to adult believers – including men – that takes one or more of the following forms: preaching, teaching, pastoring, administering the sacraments and giving spiritual oversight.

Evangelicalism is a Christian movement that began in the 1730s. A strong argument could be made that John Wesley is the founder of the evangelical tradition, but if that is too contentious a point, one may at least say that he holds a place of prominence among the handful of key leaders from the founding generation of the movement. As a young man, Wesley’s churchmanship was marked by a strong sense of propriety – indeed, one might say by a rather fastidious understanding of ecclesiastical respectability. After his evangelical conversion, however, he learned to curb this natural tendency as his commitment to the Bible and to the gospel took precedence over such personal preferences. His sense of what was proper meant that he naturally disliked the idea of women preaching – an entirely conventional aversion in his day. His contemporary, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), who was not an evangelical (or indeed a particularly devout man), famously quipped, “Sir, a woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.” Wesley’s initial instinct, therefore, was to lay down the rule “The Methodists do not allow women Preachers.”

Calvinist evangelicals have the distinction of having a denomination that is named after a female founder.

Nevertheless, Wesley found that his evangelical commitment to the gospel led him to abandon this position just as he had abandoned his prejudice against field preaching. The priority of the gospel led him on to accepting the preaching ministries of gifted women. Although I do not wish to misrepresent Wesley as some sort of feminist, it is fascinating to note that he affirmed the ministries of these women in explicitly egalitarian language as of the exact same order as that of the men who had not received Anglican ordination whose public ministries he was also affirming. He wrote to one of his women preachers, Sarah Crosby: “I think the strength of the cause rest there, on your having an extraordinary call. So I am persuaded has every one of our lay Preachers: Otherwise, I could not countenance his preaching at all.” Incidentally, the Calvinist, George Whitefield, also affirmed Crosby’s public ministry.

DENOMINATIONAL FOUNDER

Indeed, the first Calvinist denomination to arise from the evangelical revival was led by a woman, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791). Like Wesley, it was Lady Huntingdon’s intention to keep her movement in the Anglican camp, but she also ended up founding a new denomination. The denomination still exists today and still has as its official name “the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.” It is a member of the Evangelical Alliance. Calvinist evangelicals have the distinction of having a denomination that is named after a female founder. Had she not had an evangelical conversion and an ongoing evangelical identity, of course, Lady Huntingdon would never have had such a public ministry of church leadership.

Throughout their history, when evangelicals have cared more about the Bible and the gospel than they did about being perceived as respectable by the wider society, these commitments have often led them to affirm women in public ministry. When however, a preoccupation with social respectability has entered in, women have been repeatedly pushed out. After Wesley’s death, Wesleyan Methodism quickly went in the direction of pursuing public ministers that could be viewed as the equal of those in the Church of England. Traditions such as emotionally charged camp meetings and female preachers were thus suppressed. This in turn provoked Methodist renewal movements that wished to pursue evangelical distinctives even if they were deemed countercultural.

Nineteenth-century evangelicals were also often leading movements to gain greater equality for women in society and public life in general. Oberlin, founded as an evangelical college in 1833, was the first American institution of higher education to accept women students. The first woman to receive a bachelor’s degree in America graduated from Oberlin in 1841. Oberlin could also boast that it had America’s greatest evangelist of his generation on its faculty, and later as its president. The Presbyterian minister Charles Finney (1792-1875) was an advocate for greater roles for women both in society and in public church ministry. Jonathan Blanchard (1811-1892) and Finney cooperated with one another as evangelical social reformers. When Blanchard founded Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois, in 1860, it became the first college in America to have an entirely unisex curriculum, with all course and programs being open to the women students as well. By way of contrast, Harvard University did not admit women students on a coeducational basis until 1943, and only then due to pragmatic pressures caused by World War II.

FRANCES TOWNSLEY, EVANGELICAL PREACHER

One of these early students at Wheaton College was Frances E. Townsley (1849-c.1913), who began her studies in 1867. As far as I can tell, no scholar has ever even referred to Townsley in print, let alone told her story. Townsley had a dramatic evangelical conversion experience that enabled her to point with confidence to the very hour at which she was saved. She knew that God wanted to use her, and she came to Wheaton as preparation for that work. Once at Wheaton, Townsley put herself forward for church membership at College Church. She had, however, also come to reject infant baptism in favor of believer’s baptism. Jonathan Blanchard tried to talk her out of this view, but he quickly discovered that she was a formidable opponent in theological debate and gave up. She thereby became the first person to become a member at College Church while asserting this position. The practice that College Church maintains to this day of accepting as full members those with baptistic convictions comes directly from the pioneering efforts of Townsley. Moreover, there were women faculty members at Wheaton even in its first decade. Townsley was particularly influenced by Helen S. Norton, who taught her Latin. Townsley gave a paper at Wheaton College’s Aelionian Society that was so moving that it prompted Blanchard not only to weep openly, but also to give her a semester of free tuition!

Townsley became a school teacher after her Wheaton days, but she subsequently received a call to ministry. She had already been teaching men in an adult Sunday school class for years. Her first Sunday morning sermon was at Lincoln Park Congregational Church, Chicago. She then began to preach regularly in Congregational and Baptist churches. One minister, who subsequently came to endorse her ministry, approached their first meeting with suspicion and hostility. He protested that men who desire to preach first went to college. Recalling that almost no colleges accepted women at this time, he was considerably disconcerted to learn that she had already fulfilled that requirement. He next protested that the men study courses directly related to the work of public ministry such as theology and homiletics. The astounding reply was that so had she. Again, Wheaton was probably the only college in America at that time where a woman could take a homiletics class. He then proceeded to test the mettle of her theological education by asking if she had read Walker’s The Philosophy of the Plan of Salvation, the leading evangelical work in the field of apologetics at the time. She was able to reply that not only had she read it, but she had been taught by the author (who was a member of the Wheaton faculty) personally, and that he had written to her to confirm and endorse her call to ministry!

In the mid-1870s, Townsley became a full-time preacher and evangelist. Numerous people were converted through her preaching. She specialized in reviving dying churches. This led on to serving as interim pastor for a succession of Baptist churches in need of a minister. In the late 1880s, she was called to be the settled pastor of the Fairfield Baptist Church in Nebraska. She refused to administer Communion, however, as she was not ordained. Townsley observed that Baptist men who were aspiring to ministry but had not yet been ordained often presumed to officiate at the Lord’s Supper at that time, but she “was a stickler for church order.” Her Baptist church therefore unanimously voted that she should be ordained. Following Baptist custom at that time, she was examined as a candidate for ordination by a council that included the ministers and other representatives from no less than 14 Baptist churches from the surrounding area – far larger and more representative council than was the norm. This Baptist council again voted unanimously that she was a suitable candidate for ordination. This decision was praised in the National Baptist newspaper (published in Philadelphia), which added, “There is not a pulpit in the land she would not grace.”

EARLY OPENNESS TO WOMEN PREACHERS

Janette Hassey, in her pioneering work No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry Around the Turn of the Century, has documented in numerous ways the remarkable openness to women in public ministry in conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism in the late 19th and early 20th century. Hassey demonstrates, for example, that women were trained for public ministry by the theologically conservative Bible colleges. Moreover, women faculty members at these institutions taught Bible and theology. The flagship of them all, Moody Bible Institute, was even founded by a woman, Emma Dryer, who became, in effect, its first dean. D.L. Moody (1837-1899) supported Frances E. Willard (1839-1898) in her efforts to secure votes for women, and he so believed in her public Christian ministry that he invited her to join him in his itinerant work as a fellow preacher. Willard wrote her own defense of women ministers, Woman in the Pulpit, 1888. Official Moody Bible Institute publications proudly boasted about women graduates who went off to ordained ministry and to full-time, senior pastorates.

A similar story can be told about Northwestern Bible School, an institution run by W. B. Riley (1861-1947), a towering fundamentalist leader in Minnesota. In 1923, Indianapolis Bible Institute had a faculty that was entirely comprised of women. Occasionally people wonder if Wheaton College “now” allows women to teach in the Bible department, not realizing that the first full-time Bible teacher that Wheaton ever employed was a woman, Edith C. Torrey, who taught Bible at Wheaton from 1919 to 1958. Similarly – again, just to give a random example as many other such cases could be named – the Baptist Esther Sabel taught Bible at Bethel Seminary 1924-1958. Once again, this is a reflection of an evangelical distinctive: These institutions were the ones that were the most uncompromising in their affirmation of the inerrancy of Scripture and the power of the gospel to convert sinners. By way of contrast, Harvard Divinity School, a bastion of theological liberalism, did not even admit women students until 1955, let alone women faculty members.

Many of the most prominent male leaders of evangelicalism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were vocal champions of women in public ministry. Fredrik Franson (1852-1908), a pioneering Swedish minister in America, for example, defended this practice in a work he wrote in the late 19th  century, Prophesying Daughters. A denomination arising from the Swedish community, the Evangelical Free Church of America, not only welcomed women into public ministry but also went out of its way to make this explicit by using gender-inclusive statements in its constitution. For example, the rules for ordination that the Evangelical Free Church adopted in 1925 stated: “A candidate for ordination shall request a reference from the church which he or she is a member.” This denomination was so resolutely evangelical, of course, that it incorporated the word into its very name. A prominent Baptist minister, A.J. Gordon (1836-1895), whose name is perpetuated through Gordon College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, was an advocate of both votes for women and women ministers. The latter cause he articulated in the book, The Ministry of Women, 1894.

PROGRESSIVE ON WOMEN’S RIGHTS

My own introduction to this theme came through researching the public ministry of Christabel Pankhurst (1880-1958) in fundamentalist circles in Britain, Canada and America. Parkhurst led the campaign for votes for women in Britain. She was so militant that she was jailed and eventually went into exile in France. She was a strong advocate of civil disobedience in service to the cause of women’s rights, including the destruction of property. Nevertheless, once votes for women were achieved, she spent the rest of her life as a high profile evangelical preacher and teacher, while telling her fundamentalist followers that she was still as committed as ever to gender equality. How could fundamentalism have accepted such an in-your-face, militant feminist? I wondered. The answer, I discovered, was that many conservative evangelical and fundamentalist leaders were more committed to gender equality than was society in general in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth.

It is well known that evangelical women have often engaged in public ministry on the mission field. It has frequently been claimed that over half of missionaries have been women, many of them single. Jeffery Cox, for example, in a study of Punjab and Northwest India, tabulated that in 1931 there were 188 male missionaries, 141 married female missionaries, and 293 single female missionaries serving in that region. Evangelical women missionaries have fulfilled all the duties of ministers: They have evangelized, preached, taught, pastored, administered the sacraments, planted churches and given oversight to churches and other ministers. The Scottish Presbyterian Mary Slessor (1848-1915) preached, taught and led churches and church services as part of her work in what is today Nigeria. She even officiated at weddings. To the argument that the African people “were not likely to be helped by a woman,” she replied, “In measuring the woman’s power, you have evidently forgotten to take into account the woman’s God.” An African American example figure is Eliza Davis George (1879-1980). She served as a Southern Baptist missionary to Liberia. When her denomination insisted that she retire at the standard age of 65, she struck out on her own. By the 1960s, she was overseeing her own denomination of 27 churches, the Eliza George Baptist Association.

It is worth underlining the fact that this historical commitment of many evangelicals to women in ministry was profoundly countercultural. The public ministries of women in 19th-century England, for example, should be contrasted with the starkly private and unequal place that they had in society in general at that time. Women were not allowed to go to university or to vote in political elections. Women could not be lawyers. Indeed, virtually the only traditional profession open to them was the Christian ministry. If you wanted to hear a woman speak in public, you would not go to the universities or the courts or to the House of Parliament but rather to an evangelical church. If a woman wanted to vote, she could do so as a member of a Baptist church, but not as a citizen of the nation. Moreover, the largest portion of the Christian world that was open to women in ministry was the evangelical movement. By contrast, well into the 20th century, women could never preach in Anglican churches. The first woman priest in the Church of England was not ordained until 1994 – more than 100  years on from when Frances Townsley had been ordained as an evangelical Baptist minister with all the rights and privileges thereof.

CONTEMPORARY EVANGELICAL RETREAT

Nevertheless, the story I have been telling so far might not seem to fit with the evangelicalism that you have experienced. While there have always been evangelicals who have rejected women in public ministry, something has changed in more recent decades that has made many evangelicals believe that this more restrictive position is the only evangelical one. What has happened in the last 60 years that has inclined so many conservative evangelicals toward assuming that those who affirm women in public ministry are departing from assuming commitment to Scripture?

First, it is well established in studies of American culture generally that the 1950s was a decade in which there were strong social and cultural pressures to restrict the roles of women. The decades prior to World War II were ones that could make space for women who wanted to achieve in a wide variety of areas. Likewise, World War II itself led to women working in numerous occupations. Men came back from the war, however, wanting to set up what they deemed to be an “ideal” domestic life – one with a full-time housewife. Postwar prosperity allowed for this vision to be realized for many. The “baby boom” synchronized a whole generation of married women as mothers of young children. A general cultural mood was created in which women belonged in the private sphere. The churches were also subjected to this social pressure. Moreover, fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism were by then well-established movements. It was no longer good enough to train people for ministry at Bible schools, but theological seminaries were now desirable, and like the older mainline and liberal seminaries that they aspired to imitate, evangelical seminaries would often exclude women. Many longed for the evangelical Christian ministry to be seen as just as much a respectable profession as the mainline ministry, and women were deemed to undercut this professional image. The fact that, once again, cultural pressures and issues of respectability were at work is confirmed, for example, by the fact that women in ministry also went into sharp decline in the Church of the Nazarene even though that denomination continued to affirm that there was no biblical or theological impediment to such ministries.

Second, evangelicals in general have rightly been appalled by one version of feminism that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, which took positions in direct opposition to historic evangelical teaching on issues such as sexuality and the sanctity of life and marriage. For many evangelicals, the word “feminism” and the very notion of “women’s rights” became so associated with this version of it, that it was rejected in toto. This has led to amnesia about the historic ways that evangelicalism itself has championed the rights of women. For example, the evangelical writer Elisabeth Elliot stated in 1990, “For years I have noted with growing disquiet the pollution of many Christians’ minds by the doctrine of feminism. I believe it is a far more dangerous pollution than most have realized.” This is arguably an evangelical reaction to one form of feminism rather than all forms – or possibly a reaction against all forms because of alarm at one form. Indeed, Christabel Pankhurst was one of the most prominent feminist leaders of her generation. Far from being perceived as polluting Christian minds, however, Pankhurst was strongly supported by Elisabeth Elliot’s fundamentalist father, Philip E. Howard Jr., and great-uncle, Charles G. Trumbull. At the invitation of Howard patriarchs, Elisabeth Elliot, when she was a girl, even heard Christabel Pankhurst preach in her own childhood home church, Moorestown Bible Protestant Church, in Moorestown, New Jersey.

Likewise, Pankhurst taught for an entire week at Philpott Tabernacle, Hamilton, Ontario, the base church of the Associated Gospel Churches, a denomination that now has a statement saying that women are not allowed to teach. Not unlike Elliot, James Dobson became very concerned in the late 1960s and the 1970s about cultural trends that were undermining the traditional family, leading to his founding of Focus on the Family in 1977. An enemy he has identified in this struggle is “feminist ideology.” Nevertheless, Dobson’s own spiritual heritage is part of the historic evangelical affirmation of women in ministry: Both a great-grandmother and a grandmother of his were ordained ministers in the Church of the Nazarene. Therefore, it is deeply misguided to imagine, as many conservative Protestants do today, that recognition of women in ministry is a product of the anti-evangelical camp in, to use Dobson’s parlance, the “culture wars” of recent decades. L. E. Maxwell (1895-1984), founder and president of the Prairie Bible Institute in Alberta, Canada, raised some eyebrows when he wrote a book in favor of women in public ministry in 1982. When it was republished after his death, the foreword explained this seemingly surprising liberal stance from such an old-guard conservative evangelical by arguing that Maxwell was “a man ahead of his times.” It would be truer to say, however, that he was one of the last living links to the old acceptance of women in public ministry from the fundamentalist Bible school culture of the first half of the twentieth century.

Third and finally, there has been a significant shift since the 19th century in how the biblical evidence is weighed. Evangelicalism has always contained two hermeneutical traditions on this subject: one that affirms and one that restricts women in public ministry. While numerous scriptural passages are seen as germane by both sides in this discussion, each side has had a couple key passages that have been viewed as the most decisive. Evangelicals who have been opposed to women in public ministry have always located their biblical case primarily in two passages: 1 Timothy 2: 11-14 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-36. Throughout history, evangelicals who have affirmed women in public ministry have argued that those verses did not express a general prohibition against all women at all times engaging in public ministry because, if they did, that would mean that they were incompatible with the evidence of other passages of Scripture. In other words, their interpretation of these passages as not offering a general prohibition has been guided by an evangelical commitment to the inerrancy and unity of Scripture. Central to this argument have been those passages that speak to female prophets and women prophesying. Most of all, Acts 2: 17-18 was frequently cited as demonstrating that, far from being unbiblical, women in public ministry was actually a positive sign of the work of the Holy Spirit as God’s plan is reaching its glorious culmination in these last days:

“And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”

This Pentecostal outpouring is the promise of the Father that gave Fredrik Franson his title, Prophesying Daughters. It is the text that launched the “pope of fundamentalism,” John Roach Straton, into his biblical defense of women preachers. And so one could go on and on.

ROOM FOR DEBATE

I believe that the rise of the Pentecostal movement in the 20th century caused noncharismatic evangelicals to shy away from contemporary applications of all texts about prophets and prophesying. An older noncharismatic evangelical hermeneutic stretching back through the Puritans to the Reformed wing of the Protestant Reformation was quite willing to apply verses about prophesying to preaching. Even those who did not believe that verses regarding prophesying could be directly applied to preaching still often reasoned that if women were used by God to prophesy – that is to speak authoritatively his Word in his name – then there can be no bar on their preaching which is, if anything, a less authoritative form of ministry. These texts about women prophesying, however, now became quarantined as not directly applicable at all. For some, evangelical hermeneutics narrowed so that, in practice, only the epistles of Paul could be used to establish normative practice in church life. The book of Acts was deemed merely descriptive, not prescriptive. Even Paul’s clear affirmation in 1 Corinthians that women are free to prophesy to the whole congregation assembled for worship became irrelevant to contemporary church life. (Incidentally, this has arguably also caused evangelicals who affirm women in public ministry to place much more weight on another historic key passage for their position that seems suitably prescriptive and Pauline, Galatians 3:28.)

Nevertheless, for some, what had been a biblical conversation with many texts that affirmed women in public ministry was transformed into one in which 1 Timothy 2 was seen as the trump card of the germane evidence of Scripture on the matter. I am not arguing that a reading of Scripture that excludes women from public ministry is merely the result of these reactionary factors: A restrictive position had been articulated prior to these influences, and it has been advanced since then by scholars and ministers whose work cannot be dismissed as the product of such forces. I am merely arguing that it is wrong to assume that restricting women from public ministry is the only conclusion that a robust and unclouded commitment to submission to Scripture has rendered. In fact, throughout the history of evangelicalism, there have been Christians whose belief in the full authority of Scripture has been resolute and unwavering who have conscientiously read the biblical evidence as affirming women in public ministry.

Timothy Larsen teaches Christian thought at Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. His most recent book is The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (2014). Taken from Women, Ministry and the Gospel by Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen. Copyright 2007 by Mark Husbands and Timothy Larsen. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

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