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Published Date: March 24, 2016

Published Date: March 24, 2016

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Women’s History Month: Early Evangelical Women

When I am invited to speak at a Christian college, I make an effort to learn something about the school, particularly about the founders and graduates. Over time, I’ve discovered an impressive history of women graduates who were trained by these early evangelical Bible institutes, today’s Christian colleges and universities, in the 1800s. These female graduates went on to become leaders in mission fields all over the world with the full support of their schools.

College archives are bursting with letters and journals produced by these female graduates. These audacious women were not interesting in becoming Miss Captivating in order to attract Mr. Wild at Heart, because they had their own wild hearts. They were wild about Jesus. And their institutions were proud of their initiative and courage in serving Christ.

Why did these institutes eagerly celebrate the gospel service of their female graduates?

Missiologist Dana Robert notes:

By the end of the final years of the twentieth century, more than half of all Christians were to be found outside the region that had been the historical heartland of Christianity for nearly 1500 years. New centers of Christian strength and vitality were now to be found where missionary initiatives were focused in widely scattered places in the Americas, Africa, and Asia.[1]

These gains were the direct result of the emphasis evangelicals placed on evangelism, that not only compelled them to release the gifts of women and slaves, but as a result, women were a driving force behind what we now call the Golden Era of missions. Ultimately, women outnumbered men on the mission field two to one, and they frequently served under the most challenging conditions. These women were mostly single, and because of this they were frequently considered unsuitable candidates for traditional mission organizations. So, they formed their own organizations. They funded their work; and they occupied all levels of service and leadership. And, their missionary endeavors differed from their male colleagues in that they often tackled social issues that were oppressive to women and children. Redressing injustice was, for many of these women inseparable from their evangelistic efforts. They believed they “had a special calling or sanction to aid the helpless and the oppressed.”[2]

Compelled by the words of Christ in Mark 16:15, these women went into “all the world to proclaim the good news to the whole creation” in word and deed.

I have a few elderly friends who are personally acquainted with some of these events. These women grew up in evangelical homes and attended evangelical churches their entire lives. Two were graduates of Wheaton College and all of them remember hearing the female evangelist team, Stockton and Gould, preach in evangelical churches and institutions in the greater Chicago area.

Stockton and Gould

Rita Gould and Amy Lee Stockton were a powerful ministry team. They evangelized and ministered to the people of Chicago. Gould, a vocalist, opened their meetings with music and Stockton preached. Stockton’s preaching gained her an international reputation and access to prominent evangelical platforms.

In 1913, Stockton became the first woman to enroll in Northern Baptist Seminary. She graduated and went on to become a leading US evangelist. More concerned with biblical correctness than political correctness, Amy Lee Stockton typified the priorities of evangelicals. It is even said that she preached at Moody Bible Institute.

Emma Dryer (18351925)

In 1870, the evangelist D.L. Moody was introduced to Emma Dryer—a prominent leader, preacher, and teacher in the inner city of Chicago, especially among young people. Emma was also a leader in the YWCA. After the devastating fire of 1871, she worked tirelessly among homeless women and children.

In respect for her successful ministry, Moody invited her to relocate her Bible discipleship classes to his church in Northfield.

There, Dryer trained women for gospel work. Her students became inner-city missionaries, serving the poor, caring for the ill, distributing Bibles, and opening schools throughout Chicago.

For the next sixteen years, Emma continued to train women (whom she called “Bible Readers”), while praying and advocating for Moody to open a Bible institute.

In 1883, perhaps in exasperation, Dryer opened and ran her own “institute,” which eventually merged with Moody’s Evangelistic Society to form the Moody Bible Institute. In 1925, Moody Bible Institute offered a pastor’s course and women enrolled. And three years later, Moody graduates, males and females, filled pulpits around the world and reached one quarter of a million people.[3]

Reverend Ethel Ruff

The Baptist General Conference ordained their first woman in 1943—the Reverend Ethel Ruff. Ethel preached at Baptist General Conference churches throughout the Great Lakes area and also on the Moody Radio Show (WMBI). Ruff had the full support of the Baptist General Conference and Moody Bible Institute.

Esther Sabel

Esther Sabel was a Bible professor at Bethel Seminary. Sabel wanted to be a missionary in China, but was rejected because they believed she was in poor health. Denied an opportunity to give her life abroad, Esther became a Greek scholar and taught Bible until she retired at sixty-five. According to my friends who attended Bethel when she was a professor, no one ever complained about her teaching Bible because she was female.

Fuller Theological Seminary

In 1948, Helen Dunsmoore Clark McGregor became the first woman to enroll in theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. Upon admittance, she signed a statement refusing ordination and did not attend classes in homiletics. In 1952, she became the first woman graduate. By 1966, however, women could and did enroll in all classes offered by Fuller.

In 1952, Dr. Rebecca Price joined the faculty to teach Christian education. By 1956, eight women had enrolled in the master’s degree in Christian education. And in 1973, Pearl McNeil became the first female trustee. She was also the first woman of color to serve on the board.

And, making up for lost time, Fuller’s faculty now supports some of the most outstanding female scholars in their field, women like Marianne Meye Thompson, Judy Balswick, Carolyn Gordon, Margaret Schueter, Nancy Murphy, and many more.[4]

These early evangelical women contributed to one of the greatest expansions of Christian faith in all of history. They were the theological conservatives of their day, and their zeal for God was inspired by Scripture. And yet somehow, they appear too radical for many of today’s evangelicals.

“Radical,” arising from the Latin radix means “to return to the root.” These early pioneers recovered a truly biblical worldview with respect to both ethnicity and gender. The early evangelicals truly believed that the cross made all things new. They were convinced that it is not gender, ethnicity, class, or education, but life in Christ that empowers and equips Christians for service.

The most extensive biblical assessment of gender was advanced by Katharine Bushnell.

Katharine Bushnell (1856–1946)

Katharine Bushnell worked as a medical doctor, scholar, missionary, and activist. She was a prominent advocate for freeing women from sexual slavery in the US and also in India.

After twenty years of fighting to dismantle sexual slavery, Bushnell and her colleagues concluded that women would continue to be marginalized and abused around the world unless Christians believed that God valued women just as much as men. Bushnell spent years learning Greek and Hebrew, researching every passage in Scripture that addressed gender. In 1919, she published her findings in a book entitled, God’s Word to Women.

Bushnell’s research examined the whole of Scripture and concluded that women are equal to men in being and function. Bushnell determined that both Adam and Eve were equally created in God’s image[5] and both were equally called to be fruitful and exercise a shared dominion in Eden (Gen 1:26-28).[6] Bushnell showed that Eve was not the source of sin,[7] and that God does not curse women because of Eve.[8] Rather, it was Satan, not God, who inspired the domination of men over women.[9]

Bushnell insisted that God extends leadership to those who do what is right in his sight, regardless of their gender, birth order, nationality, or class.[10]

Bushnell & Paul

In assessing the teachings of Paul, Bushnell determined that the apostle affirmed the authority and leadership of women, provided that their leadership was neither domineering nor abusive (1 Tim. 2:12), that those who teach must advance the truth (1 Tim. 2:11–12; Acts 18:26; Rom. 16:1–5, 7, 12–13, 15), and that when women pray and prophesy, they are not disruptive (1 Cor. 11:5; 1 Cor. 14:34).

Ultimately, Bushnell located her understanding of women’s ontological value not in the Fall, but in Christ’s completed work on Calvary. She believed that women’s social and spiritual status ought to be determined in the same manner as men’s social and spiritual status—by atonement in Jesus Christ. Bushnell wrote, “[We] cannot, for women, put the ‘new wine’ of the Gospel into the old wine-skins of ‘condemnation.’”[11]


Gender was a primary issue for the early evangelicals. They believed that conversion was the sharpest line a life can cross, a line that propels all converted souls into Christian service, proclaiming the gospel in word and deed. They were convinced that the cross creates a new humanity, where one’s materiality no longer determines one’s value or sphere of service. These early evangelicals developed a whole new worldview, one with the cross at the center and level ground for all those redeemed by grace.


[1] Dana L. Robert, American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice, (Macon: GA: Mercer University Press, 2005), ix.
[2]Diana Magnuson, “Swedish Baptist Women in America, 1850-1914: the ‘High Calling’ of Serving Christ in the Life of the Church,” The Baptist Pietist Clarion, March 2009, Vol 8, No. 1, p. 19.
[3] No Time for Silence, by J. Hassey, Published by Christians for biblical Equality, p. 38.
[4] George Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, 10.
[7] Ibid, 39ff.
[8] Ibid, 39, 48.
[9] Ibid, 75.
[10] Ibid, 68, 75.
[11] Ibid. 

Other articles in this series:
Women’s History Month: Early Church Women and Desert Mothers

Women’s History Month: Mystics and Monastics
Women’s History Month: Women in the Modern Mission Movement