As women ministers, evangelists, and preachers began flooding urban, rural, and global mission fields in the 19th century, Christians started to question assumptions about the inferiority of both women and slaves. They did so from a thorough examination of Scripture. These early evangelicals — many of whom were founders of Bible institutes — insisted that gospel values must triumph over cultural values, especially regarding the gifts God has given all people for Kingdom work.
In his book, Let Her Be, Charles Knowles notes that many branches of the evangelical church published their biblical research in support of the shared leadership of women in more than forty-six biblical treatises between 1808 and 1930. These documents signify the emergence of the first wave of feminists — a deeply biblical movement.
Evangelical support for women’s equality grew out of a commitment to biblical authority, evangelism, and social activism that came to characterize or identify the evangelical movement as a whole, beginning in the 1800s. And, it was these early evangelicals — both men and women — who were among the first to provide both a biblical and social voice for gender and ethnic equality.
Evangelical contributions to the biblical basis for equality:
One of the most important contributors to the biblical basis for women’s ministry was Katharine Bushnell (1856–1946), who wrote perhaps the most extensive biblical treatment of gender ever published.
Bushnell worked as a medical doctor, Bible scholar, evangelist, and activist. She was a prominent evangelical missionary and leader within the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).
In the 1860s, Bushnell worked with English activist Josephine Butler to oppose The Contagious Disease Acts, which gave police officers the authority to detain women on suspicion of prostitution and subject them to genital examination for venereal disease. Butler realized that in order for the church to join the struggle to free women from injustice and abuse, Christians must see that God values women just as much as men. On her deathbed, Butler begged Bushnell to show the world that the Bible does not endorse women’s subordination.
Bushnell spent many years learning Greek and Hebrew in order to study passages in Scripture that address gender. She published her findings in God’s Word to Women, completed in 1919. This impressive work remains in print, and is frequently cited by today’s egalitarians.
Bushnell documents the biblical basis for gender equality in the whole of Scripture, particularly the early chapters of Genesis. She begins by comparing Adam and Eve, both of whom were equally created in God’s image and equally called to be fruitful and to exercise dominion in Eden. She refutes the common misunderstanding that Eve was the source of sin and that God curses women because of Eve. Rather, it was Satan, not God, who inspired the domination of men over women. God bestows leadership on those who do what is right in God’s sight, regardless of their gender, birth order, nationality, or class.
In assessing the teachings of Paul, Bushnell determined that the apostle affirmed the authority and leadership of women, provided that their leadership was not domineering or abusive (1 Tim. 2:12); that those who teach must understand and advance the truth concerning the Gospel (1 Tim. 2:11–12, Acts 18:26, Rom. 16:1–5, 7, 12–13, 15), and that when women pray and prophesy in public they are not disruptive, either because of inappropriate clothing or excessive chatter (1 Cor. 11:5, 1 Cor. 14:34).
Ultimately, Bushnell grounds her understanding of women’s status not in the Fall, but in Christ’s completed work on Calvary.
Equality in evangelical institutions:
Moody, Gordon, & Northwestern
At the turn of the twentieth century, evangelicals were committed to both evangelism and social activism. Bible Institutes like Moody, Gordon, and Northwestern trained both men and women for ministry in anticipation of Christ’s imminent return.
These institutes became today’s Christian colleges and universities, which broadened their curriculum to prepare Christian men and women for professional service in many disciplines. In this transition, some evangelical institutions lost touch with their earlier convictions about the biblical basis for women’s ministry, and their commitment to preparing women as ministry leaders.
Moody Bible Institute
In a famous sermon Moody preached in Chicago shortly before the founding of Moody Bible Institute, he said: “I believe we need ‘gap men,’ men who are trained to fill the gap between the common people and the ministers. We are to raise up women and men who will be willing to lay down their lives alongside the laboring.”
The Institute continued to train and educate both men and women, and in 1925, Moody Bible Institute opened a pastor’s program that included women. Female graduates of Moody’s pastor’s program organized Bible conferences and filled revival pulpits around the world. Together with the male graduates, they reached a quarter of a million people by 1928.
These events are well documented in the Moody Bible Institute publication, The Christian Worker, which celebrated the achievements of graduates — both men and women — who preached the gospel to large audiences around the world.
Not everyone realizes that women played key roles in the vision and founding of Moody Bible Institute. Two of these women were Emma Dryer and Frances Willard.
Emma Dryer In 1870, the evangelist D. L. Moody was introduced to a principal at Illinois State Normal University and secretary of the YWCA in Chicago named Emma Dryer. Emma was also involved in preaching and teaching Christian doctrine in inner-city Chicago.
After a fire devastated Chicago in 1871, Emma worked tirelessly among fire-victims, many of whom were homeless women and children. Impressed by her commitment to ministering the gospel to the needy, Moody invited Dryer to offer her discipleship classes at his North Side Tabernacle. These classes were the beginnings of Northfield Seminary for Women.
For the next sixteen years, Emma continued to train women ministers (called Bible Readers), while she also prayed for a Bible Institute, begging Moody to consider opening one. Her Bible Readers cared for the needy and distributed Bible tracts throughout inner-city Chicago.
In 1883, Emma Dryer opened and ran the “May Bible Institute” that offered intensive Bible courses. Her May Institute merged with Moody’s Evangelistic Society to form the Moody Bible Institute for the purposes of training future revival leaders.
Frances Willard Moody was also close friends with Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Comprised of two million women, the WCTU was considered one of the largest and most successful women’s organizations in United States’ history. Its three core commitments were grounded in their Christian faith and their passion to spread the gospel through advancing suffrage (women’s right to vote), temperance (passing laws against alcohol abuse), and abolition (ending slavery).
Willard was a brilliant administrator and visionary. She was also president of Evanston Ladies College, which later merged with the men’s college to form Northwestern University, one of the finest universities in the United States.
Willard was a gifted speaker and a strong advocate of women’s public preaching. Because of her passion for the gospel, Moody invited her to speak at his revival meeting in Boston. Though her support for temperance and suffrage came under criticism, Moody stood by her and encouraged her to continue preaching.
Boston missionary Training Institute
A. J. Gordon, the founder of the Boston Missionary Training Institute which later become Gordon College and also Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary — my alma mater, was one of the most noted preachers of his day. He was an articulate and scholarly advocate of missions, temperance, women’s ministry, and abolition. Gordon was pastor of Clarendon Street Baptist Church in Boston for 24 years, one of the most prestigious Baptist pulpits in the country.
The Boston Missionary Training School was launched in 1887, following Moody’s Boston Revival which featured Frances Willard as a speaker. Like the journalists who followed the work of Salvation Army Women in London’s East end, Boston Globe writers delighted in reporting on the many evangelical missionaries who sailed from Boston’s harbor to dangerous places around the world to face their “certain death” in order to advance the Great Commission. Many of these women were inspired by A. J. Gordon and some were trained by his Bible Institute.
The Boston Missionary Training Institute also prepared many outstanding women leaders. Susan Gray, a faculty member who taught courses on the Bible and Christian Evidences, was an example of one of these leaders. She later married the third president of Moody Bible Institute, James M. Gray, and a building on the Moody campus is named in her honor.
Gordon published his support for women’s public ministry in a concise, but comprehensive essay entitled “Women in Ministry.” In this essay, Gordon based his convictions on Pentecost (Acts 2), which inaugurated the New Covenant where all ethnic groups and also women share equally in Christ’s new community. In the New Covenant, those who were once considered inferior by natural birth attain a new spiritual status through the power of the Holy Spirit. For God’s gifting no longer rests on a “favored few, but upon the many, without regard to race, or age, or sex.”
Northwestern Bible School
Northwestern Bible School (today’s Northwestern College) was founded by William Bell Riley, pastor of Minneapolis’s First Baptist Church — the largest church in the Northern Baptist Convention, where Riley served for more than 40 years. Riley, was perhaps the country’s most outspoken fundamentalist, and as such he founded the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association where he served as president.
Like Moody, Riley also heard Frances Willard preach and was convinced that voices like hers needed to be heard, as this quote from a 1901 sermon on “Woman’s Rights and Political Righteousness” illustrates:
I recall the first time I ever heard Frances Willard speak. She was in a small southern city, where it was regarded a shame for a woman to appear on the platform with men in the assembly. But I confess, that I went from that house convinced that so long as saloons remained to embrute women’s husbands; blight women’s beautiful boys; blast women’s lives; and even blacken women’s souls, that every speech against it would be justified, no matter who made up their assemblies, and would be approved and applauded by that heavenly assembly of saints and angels when in defense of all that is true, a suffering woman feels compelled to break the silence and speak against sin.
In 1902, Riley founded his Bible training school, which opened its doors to many women. Graduates served with important missionary organizations like the China Inland Mission. Newspapers were fond of documenting the evangelistic work of graduates like Irene Murray and Alma Reiber. In 1923, a Wisconsin journal called The Pilot reported that “Reiber and Murray carry with them the highest endorsement of the pastor and people…through these young women God has bestowed…the greatest spiritual blessing…”
Missionaries like Reiber and Murray encountered many challenges such as continuous travel, crushing isolation, and financial woes among people who were unwelcoming, and at times hostile. In celebration of the courage of Northwestern graduations, William Bell Riley, said that “we have made it our business to undertake the hardest and most difficult of fields.” He was referring to many of the women graduates of Northwestern.
Northwestern prepared women to pastor in churches throughout the Midwest. In a 1948 article, Northwestern graduate Minnie Nelson said how she “resurrected dead churches, united divided ones, repaired church property, paid off old church debt, and faced strenuous travel and many speaking engagements.”
Because of the success of their graduations, leaders from Northwestern headed to Southern California to partner with evangelicals in Los Angeles in founding the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA). Like the other Bible Institutes, women graduates from BIOLA were active in revivals and inner-city ministry. Given education and opportunities, women found fertile fields for their ministry gifts, leading many to a relationship with Christ.
The passion for both evangelism and social action that characterized evangelicals in the 1800s drove women’s involvement in ministry leadership. Women missionaries probably had more opportunities to address the physical as well as the spiritual needs of women and their families. It is no surprise that women’s missionary efforts like those of the WCTU advanced a wholistic Christian ethic that reached body and soul for Christ.
While Christians like Josephine Butler, Katharine Bushnell, and Frances Willard encountered powerful opposition, their lives were committed to an even more powerful God who changed the world through their faithful service and Christian leadership. We reflect upon their lives and their scholarship so that we might consider “the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7).