What price do women pay in following God’s call to ordained ministry? For Louise Woosley in 1889, her ordination in Nolin Presbytery cost her the support of her father, her colleagues, and many in the larger Cumberland Presbyterian Church, Memphis, Tennessee, of which the presbytery was a part.
As her own denomination would not support her, the now Reverend Woosley began preaching wherever she was able to do so: in churches, schools, even open fields. In an excellent article, “From Preacher in the Field to Mother in the Church: Reverend Louisa M. Woosley,” author Nannette Sawyer quotes Rev. Woosley as reporting, “At the close of one of my meetings, the Methodist Church received forty additions.”1
Dismissed because of her gender and robbed of her vote by instruction from the Kentucky Synod, which oversaw Nolin Presbytery, she still found support in her ordaining body. Nolin Presbytery stood beside her and regularly invited her to preach or pray and to have voice at presbytery meetings. Twenty-five years after her ordination, she was finally reinstated, but forty two more years would pass before the northern Presbyterians would ordain a woman (1956) and eight more after that (1964) before the southern church would.
Ministry is never easy. And as Reformed women were struggling to fulfill their callings and exercise their gifts, so were many of their counterparts in the Anabaptist Arminian movement. On top of the usual opposition faced by all the faithful, regardless of gender, in this fallen world, bounded as it is by evil (chronic illness, the failings of spouses, the death or apostasy of children), they had to confront additional opposition from those who believed God exclusively gifts and calls males to leadership in ministry. Psalm 34:19a (Heb. v. 20a) is not selective when it observes, “Abundant are the adversities of the righteous.”
Readers might wonder, why devote an entire issue to women who lived one to two hundred and fifty years ago? How are their accounts of any use to us? If current postmodern thinking has contributed anything to the present age’s regard for the uses of history, it is precisely to go back and salvage stories from the past from which to glean wisdom to help us write the story of the present. What kind of records do modern Christians need to retrieve to give us the tools for the composition of our lives along the lines of Christ’s great master script? We at CBE believe these mothers of the faith supply such helpful data.
The other danger, besides dismissal as too ancient to be helpful, is to reject such women as too holy to be useful to contemporary sinful humanity. When we read their classic Christian books, we are inspired, yes. We honor their names, of course. But, we might do so with a different kind of dismissal, believing that their holy exhortations derive from an antiquated age for which we are nostalgic, an eighteenth and nineteenth century when Christian faith was universally practiced and these saintly women led perfect lives lived within perfect families in a kind of Currier and Ives stained-glass chapel window secondary world, all crystalline clear and bright with sunshine. And that is why, we conclude, it being such an easier time for believers than is ours, that they were able to achieve so much for God. The facts, however, are entirely opposite. Some of these women lived much more difficult and far less supported lives than many of us do today. What makes them great is that they stayed steadily committed to fulfilling their calling and used their gifts with a single-minded purpose to serve Christ and bring in God’s reign. Though a thousand fell at their side, they soldiered on. That is why we honor them, and the nearly insurmountable opposition in their lives contextualizes what we can learn from them. True inspiration is a byproduct of perseverance.
Further, those who may mistakenly contend that women’s gifting and calling to leadership began in the 1950s and ’60s, when post–World War II culture encouraged the possibility, would do well to discover that hundreds of years ago God was calling normal women in often extremely trying circumstances to do the extraordinary—to touch those of their age with a lasting fire that still touches ours. They are exemplary; they are inspiring, not because they were perfect, but because they were faithful.
The first such woman is Jessie Penn-Lewis, author of the bold The Magna Charta of Woman from 1919, introduced to us by our CBE president, Mimi Haddad. Next, Paul Chilcote explores the relationship between biblical equality and spirituality in Methodist women leaders of the 1700s. David Dean follows with an eye-opening exploration of the lives of the women who helped found and lead the Adventist movement. Next, Kathryn Hendershot recounts the courageous and sacrificial life of Mabel Lossing Jones. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen reviews Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine O. Pohl’s Living on the Boundaries, and I review Speaking the Truth in Love, a biography of CBE cofounder Roger Nicole. Methodist certified lay speaker Cherry Gorton contributes a poem to complete the issue.
As I did, you too may very well come away from this issue counseling yourself, “Look, the lives of these people were as tough, or even tougher, than mine, but they persevered and did something significant for Christ. I think, with God’s empowerment, I can do that too.”
- Nannette Sawyer, “From Preacher in the Field to Mother in the Church: Reverend Louisa M. Woosley,” On Behalf of Women (Summer 2004), 2. Online: http://www.pcusa.org/womensministries/ordination/woosley.htm.