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Women as Christian Evangelists: An Often Hidden History

by Elliott Wright

Portrait of Frances Willard.
Frances Willard's Methodist roots led her to found the Women's Christian Temperance Union.
Image by: Courtesy
Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune.
In October 1904, with just $1.50, Mary McLeod Bethune founded the Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls - known today as Bethune Cookman College.
Image by: Carl Van Vechten. Courtesy

Evanston, Illinois, August 1, 2009--A number of Protestant women celebrated for their social ministries across the past two centuries understood themselves to be primarily evangelists, although they were rarely allowed to preach.

The group includes notable Methodists such as:

  • Frances Willard, best known for founding the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU)
  • Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune Cookman College
  • Dorothy Ripley, daughter of one of the earliest Methodist preachers in England.

United Methodists today need to understand the zeal and capacity of these women if they are going to fully utilize the leadership capacity of women in the church today, according to a church historian, a professor at the Duke Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.

"I am not saying that women do evangelism better, but these women from the past remind us that evangelism goes beyond preaching as proclamation," the Rev. Dr. Laceye Warner told a workshop at the 2009 United Methodist School of Congregational Development, meeting July 29-August 2 in an Evanston, Illinois, hotel less than two blocks from the home of Frances Willard.

Using Willard, Bethune, and Ripley as examples, Dr. Warner described the limitations that most would-be women evangelists faced in the past and still face in some parts of the church. She also discussed women of other denominations, including:

  • the Quaker Grimke sisters in the mid-19th century United States
  • Julia Foote, a late 19th century member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
  • Helen Barrett Montgomery, a Baptist.

Dr. Bethune, who lived into the 1950s, was one of the best known Methodists of all time. She was originally a Presbyterian but joined the Methodists when the denomination agreed to assist her in founding a school for African American girls in Florida. "We think of her as an educator, but Mary McLeod Bethune was an evangelist. The curriculum at her school clearly showed it." Bethune-Cookman is today co-educational.

Frances Willard was a powerful force in the second half of the 19th century in the US. She was an advocate for voting rights for women and organized the movement that would lead to federal prohibition of alcohol. While opposing strong drink, Dr. Warner indicated, the women of the WTCU were also preaching the love of God.

Dr. Warner said that while these women are today remembered for social and educational ministries, they understood themselves to be evangelists. They proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ in the only ways open to them, but it was also clear that God had called them to preach.

For the most part, as Dr. Warner unfolded the story, formal theological education was unavailable to these and other women. They taught themselves primarily through Bible study and then, as they could, proclaimed the gospel in deeds and words when they could.

"They often were plagued by doubt and anxieties about their faith and salvation," but they persevered. "They knew that spirituality was not just between 'Jesus and me' but had to take account of needs in communities." These women evangelists also knew that sin lurked in social systems as well as personal lives.

In a seminar setting that invited questions and discussion, Dr. Warner pointed to rough spots in the lives of the women she was discussing. She told of the occasion in which Dorothy Ripley traveled from England to the US and demanded to see President Thomas Jefferson to inform him she had come to preach against slavery in the new United States.

She also told of the instance in which Julia Foote proved to AME Bishop Allen that she could out-preach some men. And of Frances Willard threatening to urge 75 percent of The Methodist Church membership--the women--to leave and start a Women's Church.

Professor Warner said that study of the women evangelists of the past could teach the contemporary church several important lessons, including:

  • Evangelism is not always a discrete activity; the community of faith is itself evangelistic.
  • The Bible is necessary in preparation for evangelism, both Old and New Testaments.
  • Proclamation in word and social advocacy are evangelistic and both are founded in Jesus Christ.
  • Sin is not just individual pride but also affects systems.

Dr. Warner's workshop drew on a research project that was adapted into a book, Saving Women: Retrieving Evangelistic Theology and Practice, published in 2007 by the Baylor University Press.

Go to School of Congregational Development for more news and features.

Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.

Contact: Elliott Wright, Telephone: 212-870-3921, General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10115



Date posted: Aug 01, 2009