Women In Church History

by James Smith III | July 22, 2015

It will be my privilege to offer a pre-conference workshop at CBE's LA Conference on Friday, July 24 titled, "Women in Church History." This introductory session will explore the names, lives, thoughts, and contexts of notable Christian women across the centuries as well as provide a select chronological bibliography spanning the past one hundred and fifty years. 

As you offer support in prayer for the upcoming communion in Los Angeles, consider four reasons why I believe the study of women in church history is valuable.

God's Word

Scripture directs us to the value of history. Everything and everyone has a history. Preparation to better understand these realities, and engage them as resources, is a major asset in becoming a wise servant and culture creator. Biblically, we're directed to value the old and new (Matt. 13:52), emulate faithful ones across time (Psalms 101:6), and examine life's panorama—holding on to what is good (I Thess. 5:21). The legacy of these historic Christian women illustrates God's redemptive grace.

Personal Roots

Above my desk rests the "Three Cornelia" family picture. My great-grandmother, Cornelia Meyst Vandersluis (1848-1924), a Dutch Reformed immigrant to Minnesota, was a mother to fourteen children and left behind a Bible with inspiring notes. Cornelia Vandersluis Rand (1879-1974), the only grandparent I ever knew, was a school teacher and Episcopal layperson who opened her home to church planting after moving from Nevada to San Diego. My mother, Cornelia Beatrice Rand Smith (1910-1999), studied music at three colleges, taught and could play anything on the pianoand following a painful divorce, found deeper life in Christ (with my two preschool brothers) at a Baptist church. My parents were true partners, "discipled" by these godly women, and I was blessed as a result. I feel honored to be in this family line of strong women. The amazing stories of these women of character inspired a lifelong respect for women's giftedness. So rooted in gratitude, I teach with the conviction of experience!

Studied Preparation

During my college days, I was moved by Robert Boyd Munger's classic devotional booklet, My HeartChrist's Home. Bob had envisioned "cleaning house" and welcoming Christ into five life rooms and a closet. Then, at Bethel Seminary, I met Teresa of Avila, who four centuries earlier, had envisioned the human soul as a crystal globe resembling an Interior Castle (1577), with seven successive layers (or mansion-courts) of meeting our Lord in deeper prayer. 

This was profound theology--and she was the "spiritual sister" of the three Cornelias! With this new knowledge, doors opened for me to discover a "larger family picture" in church history. Moreover, Bob and Teresa illustrated an inclusive vision: for both man and woman, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, historic and contemporary. 

During my Harvard years, the discoveries continued. My teachers included Margaret R. Miles (first woman tenured at Harvard Divinity), Eleanor McLaughlin (Andover-Newton, Episcopal priest) and Clarissa Atkinson. I read volumes by Nancy Hardesty, Barbara HacHaffie, and Ruth Tucker which appeared in the 1980s. Prior to these, the search for outstanding women in the Christian tradition was guided (as Alvera Mickelsen and her husband, my Bethel teacher, Berkeley would attest) by Edith Deen's Great Women of the Christian Faith (1959). 

Going beyond the church's story of "great men" to include "great women" brought newfound intellectual integrity. It also informed my pastoral ministry in the small, century-old, Boston church where the leadership securing its survival—and stimulating a season of new growth—was largely female.

Spreading the News

For many years, I've offered a "Women in the Christian Tradition" course as a Bethel Seminary professor on San Diego and St. Paul campuses. It has been a privilege to both teach and learn, engaging this "cloud of woman witnesses."

Along the way, published essays have appeared on Edith Deen, Catherine of Siena, Henrietta Mears, Dorothy Carey, and others. One article on Johanna Anderson, my grandmother's grade school teacher in Minnesota who became a pioneer BGC/Converge missionary in late 19th century Burma, was particularly close to my heart. 

Perhaps most important to the cause was a work on an Irish writer of that era. For me, as the 21st century dawned, it was increasingly wearisome to hear (from some saints and unbelievers alike) that interest in Christian women in leadership was merely a spinoff of the recent, secular Women's Movement. So, I returned to the sources, and ultimately found that Deen was aided in her research by a book written one hundred years earlier—Julia Kavanagh's Women of Christianity, Exemplary for Acts of Piety and Charity (1852). In almost four hundred pages, she chronicled women ranging, in time, spiritual gift, and vocation from Dorcas in the Acts of the Apostles to English prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry. The narrative was eventually republished (with my foreword) in 2006, and remains a classic source of informationand line of historic defense of women's contributions to the church. 

And in 1989, it was a privilege to be an early signer of the "Men, Women, and Biblical Equality" statement. Those convictions have long informed my teaching, pastoral ministries in Boston, Minneapolis, and San Diego, and everyday life relationships. 

So, please join us in LA as we dive into the rich history of women's contributions to the Christian church. My wife, Linda and I hope to see you at the LA Conference!