The momentous contribution of women evangelists to American life, past and present, is only now emerging from dusty archives shelves, where their sermons, diaries, papers, and autobiographies were boxed away. These women have been notably absent from the history of American evangelism, which conventionally moves in a single-gender trajectory: Jonathan Edwards—Charles Finney—Dwight Moody—Billy Sunday—Billy Graham. A decade ago, when preparing for an introductory lecture on American evangelism, I was inundated by resources on these men. With my simple question—were there any women?—the first stirrings toward a nearly forgotten history began to transpire. To summarize briefly the enormous impact of women evangelists, we will consider four arenas: institutions, social outreach, political impact, and audience numbers.
Institutions: they provided for the education and nurture of converts as well as future generations by founding denominations, educational institutions from grade school to university, and a host of churches from New York to California.
Social outreach: they often incorporated humanitarianism along with evangelism. Sojourner Truth solicited aid for freed slaves living in squalid camps in the nation’s capital city. Phoebe Palmer began Five Points Mission, one of America’s first urban mission centers, in a New York City slum. Within two months after Aimee Semple McPherson’s Angelus Temple Free Dining Hall opened in 1931, its workers had already fed more than 80,000 hungry people, and the Angelus Temple Commissary, opened in 1927, was crucial to the survival of many in Los Angeles during the Depression. In terms of race relations, women evangelists wielded influence by holding integrated meetings, like Jarena Lee, whose audiences in the 1820’s included “white and colored,” “slaves and the holders,” and “Indians.” This practice continued into the twentieth century with Aimee Semple McPherson’s and Kathryn Kuhlman’s integrated services.
Political impact: they influenced the nation’s leaders as well as the populace. Harriet Livermore preached in Congress several times between 1827 and 1843 about the predicament of Native Americans. Sojourner Truth generated a petition and presented it to President Ulysses S. Grant requesting that a colony for freed slaves be established in the western United States. Jennie Fowler Willing’s speech on women and temperance in 1874 prompted many who heard it to consider forming a national temperance organization. Through her periodical, Woman’s Chains, Alma White supported the platform of the National Woman’s Party, including the Equal Rights Amendment.
Audience numbers: They preached to audiences often numbering in the thousands. During her 1889 Oakland revival, Maria Woodworth-Etter repeatedly packed to capacity her 8000-seat tent. Aimee Semple McPherson’s church in Los Angeles had a 5300-seat auditorium, which filled up three times for Sunday services. Uldine Utley preached in Madison Square Garden to a crowd of 14,000. Numbers are impossible to gauge for Kathryn Kuhlman’s radio program, “Heart-to-Heart,” which was regularly broadcast for over 40 years, or her long-running CBS television program.
Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists, by Priscilla Pope-Levison, uncovers this nearly forgotten history, as does this website.