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The Witness of Women


Luke 23:54 -24:11


The service which the women of Streetsville UCW render bereaved people following the funeral of their loved one is an important service. After the funeral at Lee’s, next door, the Streetsville women offer tea and coffee, sandwiches and dessert to the people who are saddened at their loss, tired out from weeks of waiting for the very thing they didn’t want to happen, weary from the car-trip which brought them from another part of Ontario, more weary yet as they anticipate the long trip home. It is good that the women here provide the service that they do.

The women who were nearest and dearest Jesus sought to render a different service. They took spices to the tomb on Easter morning. The Israelite people, unlike the Egyptians, did not embalm human remains. The women wanted one tomb in particular to exude something besides a stench.

Then the women were stunned to find that Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t there. Have you ever pondered what would have happened if Jesus had not been raised from the dead? It’s not the case that those who had been “taken” with him would have continued to meet with each other and remember him. In the wake of his death they realized that in being “taken” with him they had been “taken in”. The small band of disciples would not have struggled on as one more Messianic sect within Judaism; it wouldn’t even have remained a sect. Peter had gone back fishing. The two men on the road to Emmaus were lamenting their childish gullibility.

Yet you and I, gentiles no less, are worshipping today in the name of Jesus Christ. The reason for our doing so today can be pushed back all the way to the women who were first at the tomb on Easter morning out of love for the master, and who, out of the master’s love for them, were first to behold him raised.

Three things need to be noted carefully here. In the first place, the women were summoned and commissioned for a task. God does not disclose the truth of the resurrection (by including us in the reality of the resurrection) merely in order to disclose truth; nor to satisfy armchair curiosity. God discloses the truth of the resurrection in order to enlist people for a task.

In the second place, those who were first summoned and commissioned were women! In Israel (all of these Easter-morning women were Jewish) no woman could be a witness in a court of law. A woman’s testimony was inadmissible, worthless. And now it is women who are entrusted with the most crucial testimony the world can ever hear.

In the third place, the New Testament insists that a visitation from the risen One himself was essential to one’s being an apostle. Paul was near-frantic to have the leaders of the early church recognize him as an apostle. When he thought they might not he cried out, “Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” The same Lord appeared to some women. Those women qualify as apostles. John Calvin, a giant whom I esteem, was nevertheless rather sexist. Knowing that the appearance of the risen Lord to the women qualified women as apostles (and therefore as ministers) Calvin, with bad conscience, I trust, wrote, “God temporarily suspended the order of apostles.” No! God did not temporarily suspend anything. God fashioned the order of apostles to include women. If women have qualified as apostles from day one of the church, then the dispute, centuries old, as to whether women should be ordained is a dispute better left behind. If a woman can be an apostle, how could a woman not be recognized a minister?

In truth, while the Christian church has formally put down women and attempted to minimize their service, Christian women themselves have always known better and ventured more; suffered for their venturesomeness, to be sure, yet also been used of God in ways that should leave us both agape and adoring.

Today we are going to look at several women from whom we have much to learn.

I: — The first is Barbara Heck, known as the mother of Methodism in the new world. (Streetsville congregation, we must remember, was originally Methodist.) Whenever you hear the name, Barbara Heck, think of initiative, leadership, persistence and patience; think of small beginnings, small as mustard seed, which remained mustard seed-sized for a long time yet which found Barbara Heck undiscouraged and deflected.

Barbara von Ruckle was born in 1734 in County Limerick, Ireland. Her German ancestors had been in Ireland since the late 1600s when French soldiers under King Louis XIV had pillaged the Protestant regions of south Germany. The south German Protestants had scattered, one group moving to Ireland.

At age 18 Barbara publicly confessed her faith in Jesus Christ. Six years later (1758) John Wesley visited Ireland. (As a matter of fact he was to travel to the emerald isle 22 times in the course of his ministry.) Barbara was an exception to the people he found in the German-speaking communities. For Wesley was to note in his journal that the people of German ancestry had been without German-speaking pastors for 50 years. Wesley maintained that it was the absence of pastors that had rendered the people demoralized, irreligious, and drunk. Wesley himself, however, spoke German; he discovered that these people resonated with the Methodist expression of the gospel. Two years later Barbara von Ruckle married Paul Hescht. The surname was Anglicized to “Heck”, and together they left for America, settling in New York City.

Once in NYC Barbara was alarmed at the spiritual carelessness she saw about her, especially in the extended family (cousins, in-laws, and more distant relatives) who had emigrated with her to the new world. She pleaded with her cousin to preach. He maintained he couldn’t inasmuch as he had neither church nor congregation. “Preach in your own home and I will gather a congregation”, she replied. The mustard seed beginning consisted of four people: Barbara and her husband, plus a labourer and a black female servant. The congregation grew. A church-building was needed. Barbara herself designed it, the first Methodist church-building in the new world. A larger building became necessary. Its dimensions were 60 feet by 42 feet (the size of the Streetsville sanctuary). Two hundred and fifty people pledged to pay for it. Hundreds packed it every Sunday. The seats had no backs (never mind cushions!); the gallery was reached by means of a ladder. Then the American War of Independence broke out. Barbara and her husband remained loyal to the British crown. They were set upon by revolutionaries and hounded mercilessly. In 1778 they moved to Canada, settling near what is now Brockville. Compared to NYC Upper Canada was a wilderness. Nevertheless Barbara was undaunted. She began her mustard seed sowing all over again. It took her seven years to gather enough people to form the first Methodist class in Canada. The people she had gathered ministered to each other out of their own resources for five years; only then — that is, twelve years after she had begun her work in Canada — did a circuit-riding saddlebag preacher arrive to help them.

When Barbara was 70 years old (1804) one of her three sons found her sitting in her chair, her German bible open on her lap. This was no surprise, since she had never been able to speak English well, German having remained her natural idiom. Neither was her son surprised to see that the mother of new world Methodism had gone home.

II: — If Barbara Heck speaks to us of initiative, the Quaker women speak to us of missionary commitment and cheerful crossbearing. The suffering these women endured for the sake of the gospel beggars description.

Quakers were 17th century Christians who repudiated empty formalism, mindless repetition in worship, and priestly magic among the clergy. (One instance of the latter, for instance, was the notion that the mere application of baptismal water altered the recipient’s status before God. Quakers protested against such magic by not baptizing anyone.) While these Christians called themselves The Society of Friends, they were dubbed “Quakers” by those who ridiculed them for quaking under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, said he was concerned “to give women their place and stir them up to take it.” He publicized his concern in a pamphlet, “An Encouragement to All the Women’s Meetings in the World”. Quakers, while a very small Christian group, plainly thought big.

George Fox was a 22-year old shoemaker/preacher when his message pierced the heart of Elizabeth Hooton. She was 49 years old, and had languished for years in a Baptist congregation in England which she described as dead and utterly compromised with the world. Elizabeth found spiritual vitality in a Quaker fellowship. Her vocation impelled her to speak. She did, and for this was imprisoned four times in quick succession. Her crime in every case was that she had urged people to repent.

Mary Fisher was another woman who came to faith in Jesus Christ through the ministry of George Fox. When Mary Fisher began preaching (a scandalous thing for a woman to do!) she too was imprisoned. Her stated crime was that she had spoken to a priest. (She had: her parish minister.) The next 16 months found her in a fetid jail, but at the same time being schooled in the way of discipleship by other imprisoned Quakers. When she was released the mayor of a near-by city had her and other Quaker women stripped to the waist as a public humiliation, and then flogged.

In 1655 Mary, accompanied by another Quaker (a woman with five children) embarked for America. Upon landing in New England they found the authorities hostile. A hundred of their books were burned. The two women were stripped, searched for signs of witchcraft, and imprisoned. They would have starved had not the jailer been bribed. Authorities eventually released them and immediately deported them to England.

Two years later Mary Fisher believed herself called of God to commend the gospel to the Sultan of Turkey. Upon arriving in Smyrna she asked at the British Consul how she could contact the Sultan. The British Consul told her that her mission was foolhardy, and put her on a ship for England. She managed to persuade the ship’s captain that she was neither deranged nor silly. He put her ashore at the next port.

Mary travelled 600 miles overland to find Sultan Mohammed IV, together with his army of 20,000. She told him she had a message from “The Great God”. Next day he received her with all the graciousness and protocol accorded an ambassador. She laid before him what God had laid on her heart, and it was translated into Arabic. Whereupon she set sail for England. Eventually Mary Fisher married and returned to America, settling down not in New England this time but in Charleston, South Carolina, where her remains are buried.

In the meantime Elizabeth Hooton, fully aware of how Quaker women had suffered in the Boston area, nevertheless travelled to America in 1661. She was 63 years old. Her preaching met with terrible recrimination. She was beaten, taken 10 miles into the woods, and abandoned at night. Still, she was able to make her way to the Atlantic coast where she caught a ship to England. In England she told the king how Quaker women were being received in the Thirteen Colonies. The king then signed a warrant giving her the right to buy land in Massachusetts, as well as the right to build a home to harbour Quakers.

Armed with the king’s warrant, Elizabeth returned to Massachusetts only to be imprisoned again, and flogged. She was tied to a horse-drawn cart and dragged through eleven towns. Abandoned in the woods once more, again she made her way back to England, where she lived quietly for two years.

Then George Fox, the Quaker leader, called for volunteers for Christian service in the West Indies. Immediately Elizabeth stepped forward, feeling 74 years young. She did get to the West Indies with the Quaker mission, even though she died one week after landing in Jamaica.

Whenever I think of the Quaker women I think first of women whose heart-knowledge of the gospel was oceans deep. Then I think of women for whom the gospel burned so brightly (that is, women in whom Jesus Christ himself throbbed so tellingly) that no sacrifice was too great, no suffering too intense, no pain too protracted in order to have others know the same Lord, be informed by the same truth, and live ever after in the same light.

There is nothing wrong in quaking with the Spirit.

III: — Eva Burrows was born in Australia, 1929, the 8th of 9 children. Her parents were Salvation Army clergy. Her childhood years passed without any notable gospel-penetration registering with her. When she went to Brisbane University, however, a medical student invited her to a bible study, and she was never the same again. In the study-group she found intelligent people who approached scripture intelligently and didn’t find it boring. Next summer, at a Varsity Christian Fellowship camp, she owned the claim of Jesus Christ upon her. She has always maintained that her conversion and her vocation to the ministry were simultaneous. She has always maintained as well that her vocation included a call to forego marriage, certain that God had work for her which married life could not accommodate.

Upon ordination Eva was posted to Rhodesia, to a Salvation Army facility there which included a hospital, an outpatient clinic, primary and secondary schools, a teacher-training college and a seminary. She would be here for 17 years as teacher, preacher and administrator. Concerning her years in the African continent she said, “I didn’t see myself as bossing the Africans. I never had that white supremacy idea…. I made a lot of mistakes, as any young person does; but I never made the mistake of thinking I knew it all as far as the Africans were concerned.”

On her first furlough from the mission field she completed a master’s degree at Sidney University in the area of African education. Longmans, the well-known textbook publisher, regularly consulted her when it was planning textbooks for African students. The Rhodesian government continually sought her advice on the training of teachers.

Holidays were spent in South Africa, a nation notorious for its policy of apartheid. Defiant and courageous, Eva lined up in the “blacks” line; when told to move over to the “whites only” line, she walked away, staging her own boycott. While Rhodesia didn’t have an official apartheid policy, there was de facto racial discrimination. Defiant and courageous still, she insisted on taking black students with her into settings that were the unspoken domain of whites.

Eva Burrows’s 17 years in Africa concluded when she was appointed for five years to an administrative position at The Salvation Army’s international seminary in London, England. This was followed by a brief appointment as head of all Salvation Army social services for women throughout the world. These 15 months were a whirlwind, in which she appeared to step on more than few slow-moving toes as she sought to adapt facilities to changing needs. For instance, the prevalence of abortion having reduced the need for homes for unwed mothers, Eva insisted that buildings and staffs be used for women who were victims of domestic violence.

Next was an appointment to Sri Lanka as head of Salvation Army work in that country. Immediately she was faced with a cultural and political complexity that she had never seen before. There were two principal cultural groups (Sinhalese and Tamils), as well as four principal religious groups (Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians). Undaunted, she applied herself to learning yet another language.

In 1979 Eva was assigned to Scotland. Here she learned what many people have known for a long time: Glasgow is the roughest city in Europe. In Glasgow she did extraordinary work on behalf of what was known as “gutter women”. (The incidence of alcoholism among women in Scotland, it must be remembered, is 14 times the incidence of alcoholism among women in England.) It was while working among these women that she commented that in everyone there is still a spark that love can light up.

When she was posted next to south Australia she was appalled at the extent and consequences of unemployment among young adults. She developed “Employment 2000”, a factory-based programme which taught job-skills and fostered that level of self-confidence needed for survival in the labour force. For her work here the prime minister awarded her the Order of Australia.

In 1986 Eva Burrows became the General of The Salvation Army world-wide. With her forthrightness and her forcefulness she continues to impress people as Margaret Thatcher in a blue uniform. At her insistence, for example, leper colonies in the countries of central Africa have been turned into AIDS hostels. (In Zambia, a country in central Africa, one person in ten has AIDS.) Her greatest thrill the year she became international chief was her renewed contact with fellow-Salvationists in China.

Needing only five hours sleep per night, Eva Burrows works a long day, yet manages to relax with literature, classical music and the theatre.

Having the global perception on church and world that her varied life has given her, she comments pithily, “I think that a lot of Christians in the affluent countries want a religion that costs them very little.” Her top priority remains evangelism. “We must work all the time”, she adds, “we must work all the time for redemption and reconciliation.”

Yes, our risen Lord did appear to women. He speaks to women still. And still he calls them to an initiative and leadership exemplified in Barbara Heck; to a service which may entail the sacrifice exemplified in the Quaker women; to a flexibility, adaptability and global perspective exemplified in Eva Burrows.

There is one last thing we must note. Eva Burrows reminds us that God does call some Christians to a ministry which entails the renunciation of marriage. There are kingdom-services which only the single person can render. Among the women to whom the risen One appeared on Easter morning some were married and some were single; but all alike were summoned to his service. All alike still are.


                                                                                                   Victor A. Shepherd
January 1992

Barbara Heck (Hescht): 1734-1804 Texts: Luke 23:54-24:11
Galatians 3:28
Elizabeth Hooton: 1598-1672 Colossians 1:24
Mary Fisher: 1623-1698
Eva Burrows: 1929-