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Women Preachers in Early-Day Methodism


Women Preachers in Early-Day Methodism

Samuel Johnson’s remark is as arrogant as it is cruel. He compared women who preach to dogs who walk on their hind legs. While neither does it very well, it’s surprising to see it done at all. Plainly it never occurred to Johnson that the women gathered around the event of the world’s redemption were exemplary, last at the cross and first at the tomb out of limitless love and loyalty for their Lord. Was it not a woman, Mary Magdalene, who first recognized the risen Jesus as he called her by name and commissioned her a witness on his behalf?

No less a philosopher than Aristotle had said that a woman is halfway between a male and an animal. Jesus, on the other hand, had dignified women every day in the course of his earthly ministry. In his Spirit the daughters of Phillip had “prophesied” in the congregation at Caesarea. And women, we know from Paul’s greetings at the conclusion of his letter to the Roman Christians, had been leaders of the house-churches in the capital city of the Roman Empire.

In 7th century England Hilda, abbess of Whitby, had come to prominence as founder and leader of a community for both men and women. In 14th century England the gospel-movement centred in Wycliffe had seen women preaching throughout the English countryside. In 17th century England the more radical developments within Puritanism (e.g., the Quakers) had seen women preach.

Not everyone rejoiced at such occurrences. John Vickers, Anglican clergyman, fumed in the later 1700s that “impudent housewives”, lacking intelligence, attempted to compensate for their deficiency by being talkative, quick-witted, and possessed of good memories (all of which he thought were natural to women.) Such women, Vickers hissed, were none the less both immodest and ignorant of scripture.

John Wesley hadn’t been one to trumpet the appearance of the woman preacher. Still, he couldn’t deny that his mother had conducted worship for villagers when her clergyman-husband had been in London attending parliament. When Anglican officialdom suggested that Samuel rebuke his “uppity: wife, Susannah said she would not capitulate to his opinion or recommendation; only a direct order would induce her to desist. Her husband, observing the fruits of her ministry, backed off.

Following his own spiritual awakening in 1738, Wesley set about organising the Methodist “Societies”, a society composing all Christians of Methodist persuasion in any one town or city. The “class” consisted of the same folk, now divided into groups of twelve according to geographic proximity. The “band” was smaller still, only four or five people eager to be transformed utterly by God’s work of sanctification or holiness. Women quickly arose as the “sparkplugs” of all three. When Elizabeth Fox, a leader in the Oxford Society, was about to move to another town, Wesley implored her to stay, since “…the enemy [could not] devise so likely a means of destroying the work which is just beginning among them as the taking away of their head.”

By April 1742, the London Society listed 66 leaders, 49 of them women. These women were highly visible as leaders, less visible but no less essential in their ministry of hospitality as they accommodated itinerant preachers travelling ceaselessly.

Treasuring the leadership women provided in early Methodism, yet nervous of seeming scandal, Wesley sought to distinguish Methodism from Quakerism, for instance, on the grounds that Quakers encouraged their women to preach. “Preaching” was defined narrowly as exegesis and exposition of a scriptural passage. In 1748 Wesley was still denying that Phillip’s four daughters, the women who worked with Paul in the gospel, and the prophesying of the women who fulfilled Joel’s prophecy at Pentecost were actually preaching. He never denied, however, that women were exercising by far the larger part of Methodism’s diaconal ministry (concrete caring for the sick and imprisoned.) In other words, the current that Wesley resisted formally he enhanced informally.

Not infrequently a woman led a “class” consisting of men only. When Dorothy Downes wondered about both the propriety of her doing this and its credibility, Wesley urged her on: “It is an act of friendship and brotherly love.” When others remarked that women were to be seen rather than heard, he retorted, “Is this doing honour to the sex? No; it is the deepest unkindness; it is horrid cruelty.” Then he fortified the women directly: “Yield not to that vile bondage any longer. You, as well as men, are rational creatures, made in the image of God.”

At this point women prayed in public. “Such a prayer I never heard before”, he said of one, “odd and unconnected and made of disjointed fragments, yet like a flame of fire.” From praying they moved to “exhorting”, exhortation being a declaration of Christian truth, personal testimony concerning one’s experience of it, and invitation to hearers to own it. From exhorting it was a small step to “preaching.”

Years earlier, when Wesley had been challenged about “field preaching” and his deployment of lay preachers, he had pleaded an “extraordinary call.” Soon he was describing the revival itself as “extraordinary”, a novum calling for “extraordinary means” of many sorts. His understanding of “extraordinary” came to include women preachers. At this point he abandoned all earlier inhibitions, counselling them to go all the way and preach as he advised them to “take a text.” If their natural reticence or lack of confidence found them hesitating, he urge them, “Speak, therefore, as you can, and by-and-by you shall speak as you would.”

These women were as resilient as spring steel. Sarah Crosby, Methodism’s first woman preacher, itinerated for 20 years. Elizabeth Tonkin began preaching at nineteen, married, and continued to “offer the people Christ” for the next two decades while she mothered eleven children. Margaret Davidson, Ireland’s first woman preacher, spoke as often, and travelled as much, as her blindness allowed. Mary Bosanquet never relented despite the abuse the suffered at the hands of the church: “All that I have suffered from the world in the way of reproach and slander is little in comparison with what I have suffered from some professors of religion, as well as even ministers of the gospel.”

Everything changed with Wesley’s death. Jealous males could no longer be suppressed. The women preachers, now silenced in Methodism, fled to other denominations. The major issue at the 1803 conference was, “Should women be permitted to preach among the Methodists?” Once again, as church history illustrates repeatedly, the institution feared the Spirit’s freedom.

While the church talks constantly about the world’s need of the gospel, it’s plain the church needs to hear it no less urgently. For only as the church hears the gospel will the apostle be spared seeing in the church what he dreaded seeing in Galatia (5:1); namely, those whom Christ had freed from slavery being betrayed into bondage by the church.

Victor Shepherd       March 2000