“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” Hebrews 12:1
Remember the line of the song “Wonderful World” that says, “don’t know much about history?” The accusation is sometimes made that the egalitarian movement is the result of modern feminism “infiltrating” the church. But church history tells a different story. These five women made significant contributions to the Christian egalitarian movement during the Post-Reformation period, long before Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique came on the scene:
Margaret Fell Fox (1614-1702)
Fox was a founder of the Society of Friends along with her husband, and is considered one of the Valiant Sixty early Quaker preachers and missionaries. In 1664 she was arrested for failing to take an oath and allowing Quaker Meetings to be held in her home. She defended herself by saying that “as long as the Lord blessed her with a home, she would worship him in it”. She was sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of her property, and remained in prison until 1668, during which time she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles. Her most famous work is “Women’s Speaking Justified“, a scripture-based argument for women in ministry, the major text on women’s religious leadership in the 17th century.
Susanna Wesley (1669-1742)
The mother of Charles and John Wesley, Susanna often preached at services in her home during the absences of her husband from his parish. In a description of these meetings Tucker and Liefeld note that “Susanna could not prevent the spontaneous growth. . . to the point where she could say: ‘Last Sunday I believe we had above two hundred. And yet many went away, for want of room to stand.'” While her husband was initially resentful, he came to appreciate and support the unique gifts God had given her. History records that people responded to Susanna’s sermons and calls to salvation more than to those of Samuel Wesley or the replacement who followed him. Her son John referred to her as “a preacher of righteousness”. Read more here.
Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883)
Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner was an African-American slave who escaped in adulthood and became a gifted itinerant preacher, abolitionist and women’s rights activist. In 1843 she changed her name, telling friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Truth preached the gospel message boldly, and was known for her outspokenness on issues of social justice; abolition and women’s rights were common themes. Her best-known speech “Ain’t I a Woman?“, was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, causing her to become one of the most celebrated and controversial itinerant preachers of her era. Watch a short video clip on Sojourner’s advocacy for women’s equality.
Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874)
Phoebe Palmer was the most influential woman in the American Methodist movement during the 19th century. Her ministry began with women’s prayer meetings in her home, which soon grew to include men. According to Christianity Today, “word of these successful prayer meetings inspired similar gatherings around the country, bringing Christians of many denominations together to pray…At her instigation, missions began, camp meetings evangelized, and an estimated 25,000 Americans converted”. Her teaching was instrumental in the rise of denominations like The Church of the Nazarene, The Salvation Army, The Church of God and The Pentecostal-Holiness Church. More here and here.
Catherine Booth (1829-1890)
Booth is known as the Mother of The Salvation Army which she founded with her husband, William. In 1859 she wrote, Female Ministry: Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel, an apologetic defending the right of women to preach. The pamphlet spelled out three reasons for her convictions: 1) women are neither naturally nor morally inferior to men, 2) there is no scriptural reason to deny them a public ministry, and 3) what the Bible urged, the Holy Spirit had ordained and blessed and so must be justified. She believed that “the ‘unjustifiable application’ of Paul’s advice, ‘Let your women keep silence in the Churches,’ had resulted in more loss to the Church, evil to the world, and dishonor to God, than any of [its] errors”. Read more here.
What does this snapshot of history have to do with us today?
As Tucker and Leifeld note:
“Above all else, it places the current trends of the church in historical perspective…While the feminist movement has had a significant impact on the more liberal churches that have in recent decades granted full equality to women in ministry, it has not necessarily been the motivating force behind the Evangelical women who have sought ordination and leadership positions. Women in Evangelical churches have a long heritage of seeking (and sometimes obtaining) meaningful positions in the church for the purpose of serving God more effectively” (p. 17).
So the next time someone makes the statement that egalitarians are pawns of the feminist movement, ask if they’ve heard of Margaret Fox, Susanna Wesley, Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer, or Catherine Booth. If the answer is no, maybe you can help them brush up on their church history before continuing the conversation.
Reference: “Daughters of the Church” by Tucker and Liefeld. Zondervan, 1987.
Photo: Abney Park Cemetery, where William and Catherine Booth are buried.