Perhaps the most influential woman associated with the Welsh and Keswick revivals in Great Britain at the turn of the Twentieth Century,1 Jessie Penn-Lewis overcame a shy disposition, a victory she credited to the power of the crucified Christ. Preaching throughout Great Britain, Scandinavia, India, Russia, and North America, Penn-Lewis taught the Bible’s affirmation of women in public ministry. Penn-Lewis believed the movement of the Holy Spirit, poured out on women and men throughout history, is always in harmony with Scripture. A prolific writer, Penn-Lewis wrote more than thirty books; many were translated into over one-hundred languages and dialects. Her journal, The Overcomer, remains in print today. Acknowledging the power of Christ to abolish the ‘old Adam’ and the hierarchy of men over women, Penn-Lewis wrote The Magna Charta of Women, a defense of women’s public ministry.
Penn-Lewis, the granddaughter of a Calvin Methodist minister, was born in Neath, South Wales in 1861. Her mother was active in the Temperance movement. After Jessie’s marriage, she and her husband William joined Holy Trinity Church in Richmond, Surrey.
Encouraged by the holiness preaching and teaching she encountered there,2 Penn-Lewis acknowledged her own spiritual ineffectiveness and prayed for greater empowering by the Holy Spirit. Shortly thereafter she embarked on an influential ministry, drawing crowds in the thousands, and addressing audiences around the world.
Early in her ministry Penn-Lewis was invited to Russia where she addressed gatherings of youth, German workers, and Russian nobility. She challenged her audience to end class barriers because all believers are now one in Christ.
In 1898 Penn-Lewis addressed the First Scandinavian YWCA Conference with the message “God’s Army of Women who Publish the Tidings.” Many of the women attending had endured suppression resulting from gender bias, and Penn-Lewis’ message was a welcome encouragement.
I did not know then that our sisters were yet in the battle of strong prejudice against the handmaidens’ prophesying. Strong prejudice based upon a misunderstanding of Paul’s word of rebuke to the chatterers of his day, the women who would persist in taking questions at the wrong time and in the wrong place; while in the same letter he gives instructions to the women who did prophesy and preach, how they should dress when so engaged. 3
Asked to speak at a Workers Conference held at Moody Bible Institute, Penn-Lewis traveled to the United States in 1900. “People stood in the doorways, and along the passages” as she spoke to faculty and students on the meaning of the cross and the Spirit of God.4
In 1903 Penn-Lewis was called to serve in India, and there she also beckoned Christian leaders to embrace the power of the cross of Christ. While in India, Penn-Lewis completed The Word of the Cross, perhaps her most influential book. The Foreign and British Bible Society requested 100,000 copies,5 reportedly the first gospel booklet to reach Tibet. Oswald Chambers wrote to Penn-Lewis, “Your book teaches clearly and grandly what the Spirit witnesses to in the Bible and in our hearts…”6
Keswick & Llandrindod Wells Conventions
Jessie Penn-Lewis was active in the Keswick Conventions held in England, Scotland and Wales,7 and in 1902 she was among those who preached at the first Llandrindod Wells Conventions.
The Llandrindod Wells Convention of 1927 was her last public appearance, remembered with these words:
When Mrs. Penn-Lewis arrived at Llandrindod, we saw how weak and frail she was… I was distressed to see her looking more like an invalid than one come to undertake a service… but when I led the congregation in the chorus, “There is power in the Blood of the Lamb,” I saw her stirring! She pulled herself together, and in her characteristic way threw off her cloak and walked up to the platform… “We are made nigh by the Blood, we have access to God by the Blood, we are redeemed by that precious Blood, we enter into the Holiest by the Blood” …She spoke with wonderful power, holding the whole congregation in intense interest… for over an hour… We shall never forget that visit…8
Overt prejudice prevailed against the ministry of women at the Scottish Keswick of 1901, and thus Penn-Lewis was engaged to address only the ladies’ meetings. However, just before beginning her message, Penn-Lewis was asked to preach at the men’s meeting because their scheduled speaker failed to arrive. So powerful was her sermon that whenever Penn-Lewis attended the Scottish Conventions in the years that followed, there was never any mention of limiting women’s ministry!
The man who initially convened the Scottish conventions wrote to Penn-Lewis in appreciation:
I am your son in this service. You have seen what I did not see, and believed for what I did not think to be possible, and have cheered and helped me when all was dark and blank… It was like the “mighty ordination of the pierced hands.”…It is difficult to explain the influence of your teaching on my mind, but somehow it is teaching that teaches, and I find that few do that now. 9
After hearing Penn-Lewis preach at the Scottish convention, the man most opposed to women preaching admitted that he had not believed it was possible that God would use women as God had used her. Penn-Lewis reminded him that “God never does use a woman like that, or a man either! God only uses the new creation.”10
Spiritual Conflict And The Attack On Women In Ministry
Penn-Lewis dealt extensively with the topic of evil and spiritual conflict. She believed God had given her the task of exposing Satan’s attack on revival and the instruments of revival—many of whom were women. In collaboration with Evan Roberts, Penn-Lewis organized her understanding of spiritual conflict into a classic work entitled Warfare on the Saints, printed in 1897. She wrote:
Revival is the hour… of God, and of the devil, for the descent of the Divine power brings the accompanying onslaught of evil supernatural powers. It means movement in the spiritual realm… the insidious creeping on of the powers of darkness, unrecognized, and yielded to by the people of God through ignorance…11
As revival accelerated Penn-Lewis was careful to note the counter-acceleration of evil. She identified many tactics Satan uses to discourage revival. Two frequently leveled against women in ministry include an ignorance of theology and Scripture, and shallow exegesis, leading to deception.12
The Magna Charta Of Women
All her life Penn-Lewis struggled to obey Scripture and God’s call to ministry. Compelled to articulate the harmony between Scripture, the Holy Spirit’s movement in revival, and the public preaching of women, while also exposing Satan’s attack on women, she wrote The Magna Charta of Women. In it, she declared:
I saw that God had given me a specific commission to proclaim the message of the Cross… God miraculously opened doors before me… the one objection was that I was a woman. There was no quarrel with the message, there was no denial of the divine seal, there was no getting away from the evidence of the results. But none of these did away with the fact that I was a woman… Whilst God opened doors for me in some quarters, others were fast closed to the message I bore purely and only because I was a woman… I knew only too well… the Apostle Paul’s writings… but I was certain… if we only knew the exact original meaning of those passages, they were bound to be in harmony with the working of the Holy Spirit in the 19th century. 13
The Magna Charta of Women was a summary of Katherine Bushnell’s more technical treatment of the difficult biblical passages on women in God’s Word to Women.14 While simplifying Bushnell’s work, Penn-Lewis raised several of her own concerns, especially her desire to reconcile the Pauline passages with her own experiences of the Holy Spirit.15
Penn-Lewis suggested that while the secular world continues to liberate women, the church increasingly restricts them. Ultimately, she wrote, women will question the goodness of God and the validity of a theological system that leads to such gender inequities.
It cannot be that the women of today are to be liberated for full share in the work of the world and at the same time have restrictions placed upon them in the work of God… In this matter the Bible itself is challenged… It has consequently become imperative that Christian women themselves should now search into the question and explain themselves and their true status from these Scriptures, so that it may be seen that the Bible is not an antiquated Book, out of harmony with the present times.16
The day has come, asserted Penn-Lewis, for women to do their own exegetical work17 in order to restore women’s confidence both in Scripture and in God. In the introduction to The Magna Charta of Women, Penn-Lewis wrote:
…It will be a cause of unspeakable thankfulness to multitudes of Christian women when they know the truth, for the dark shadow of Paul’s (supposed) relegation of them to perpetual subordination on account
of Eve’s deception has clouded their spiritual sense of the justice of God and their apprehension of the fullness of the gospel message. Christian men, too, who have known the truth in their inner consciousness will rejoice in the light now given.18
In the church, the mystical assembly of Christ’s Body hierarchies of Jew and Greek, bond and free, and male and female, were slain on the cross. (Eph 2:11-19).19 Thus The Magna Charta of Women warned that gender bias eventually quenches the Spirit by disobeying what she called “the laws of the Spirit.”
With a profound emphasis on Christ’s work at Calvary, Penn-Lewis asked whether the cross removed the stain of sin and the Fall:
Is it honoring the blood of Christ to believe that God bids a redeemed woman always enter His presence with a reminder of Eve’s “fall” upon her head, or is she to point to the atoning blood and to the Cross of Calvary where the old creation life was slain and stand in God’s presence under her new Federal Head—the Last Adam, the Lord from heaven? And stand also towards her fellow members of Christ’s Body in the carrying out of the will of the Head in testimony and service for God?20
Language like “let your women keep silent” was simply Paul quoting the (trouble-making) Judaizers, reasoned both Penn-Lewis and Bushnell. For how can God tell women to be silent in one part of Corinthians (1 Cor 14:34), while just a few chapters before, telling them how to dress when prophesying (1 Cor 11:5)?
…For it is obvious that the Apostle would not speak at one moment of the “spiritual” status of the “Body,” and each member as a channel of the Spirit and in the next moment lapse to the dealing with one section of it [women] on the status of the Fall!21
Penn-Lewis concluded The Magna Charta of Women with an exhortation to see that the Word of God is in harmony with the Spirit’s leading in the life of a Christian.
A woman who is called to preach is likewise called to an understanding of the Word which will agree with the inward voice. It is the Word and the Spirit by which we must be led…22
Penn-Lewis argued that the Spirit of God was no respecter of persons, either within the early church or in the revivals of the late 19th century.
.. .God’s purpose for redeemed women, as well as redeemed men, was unmistakably expressed in the prophecy of Joel foretelling the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost… And so it has been all down the centuries ever since.23
Penn-Lewis called the church to embrace the power of the crucified Christ, where distinctions of class, race and gender died with Christ on the cross. Believing that Christ’s work on Calvary accomplished “more than we can think or imagine,” Penn-Lewis ministered in many countries in the face of enormous opposition. Her challenge remains: In Christ we are a new creation, and the old has passed away. As in the day of Pentecost, so now let all Christian women learn that God’s call is consistent with God’s Word.
- David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730’s to the 1980’s. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker 1989), p. 175.
- J.C. Metcalfe, In the Mould of the Cross. (Dorset England: Overcomer Publications 1947), p. 16.
- Mary Gerrard, Mrs. Penn-Lewis. (Leicester, UK: Alfred Tracey Ltd, 1947), p. 73.
- Ibid., p. 186.
- Metcalfe, p. 65.
- Gerrard, p. 220.
- Bebbington, p. 175.
- Gerrard, pp. 300-303.
- Ibid., pp. 196-197.
- Ibid., pp. 266-267.
- Jessie Penn-Lewis, War on the Saints. (Leicester, UK: Excelsior Press, 7th ed), p. 282-283.
- Ibid., p. 282-283 and Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Magna Charta of Women. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), p. 58-60, 101-102.
- Gerrard, pp. 267-268.
- Katherine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women. (Piedmont, California: Published via reprint, ed. Ray Munson, Box 52, North Collins, NY 1976).
- Gerrard, p. 267.
- Jessie Penn-Lewis, The Magna Charta of Women. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), pp. 10-11.
- Ibid., p. 16.
- Ibid., p. 16.
- Ibid., p. 99.
- Ibid., pp. 99-100.
- Ibid., p. 100.
- Gerrard, p. 268.
- Penn-Lewis, The Magna Charta of Women. (Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Fellowship, 1975), p. 102.