Women participated significantly in the modern mission movement, serving as leaders in what was perhaps the greatest missionary impulse the world has ever known.
Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) was called the “Mother of the Holiness Movement.” She was one of the most prominent women in the Methodist tradition in the 19th century. She was also a sought-after speaker during the revival meetings that swept the US, Canada, Great Britain, and Europe.
Palmer began her ministry in her home, hosting the original meetings for the promotion of holiness with her husband. Palmer viewed her home meetings as representative of Pentecost and therefore a model of heaven. These small inter-denominational meetings served as a prototype for worldwide holiness revivals.
Palmer’s leadership was perhaps the first model for women in ministry within the holiness revival camp.
Palmer also carried a tremendous burden for the poor. She led a dynamic inner-city ministry and worked as a leader in The New York Female Assistance Society for the Relief and Religious Instruction of the Poor. Venturing into the poorest neighborhoods of New York City, Palmer spread the gospel door-to-door. She also ministered to prisoners in the famous “The Tombs” prison.
Perhaps her greatest achievement was her establishment of the Five Points Mission which put a roof over the heads of twenty families and provided them with a Bible education and schooling.
Palmer was also the chief editor of a circulation entitled “Guide to Holiness,” which had thirty thousand subscribers.
Though Palmer had a traditional view of women in ministry, she was very untraditional by example. She and her husband, a respected physician, traveled together as an evangelistic team in the US and abroad.
Palmer led over twenty-five thousand souls to Christ. She said in defense of her ministry, “God has called me to stand before the people, and proclaim His truth… and so truly has He set His seal upon it… that even Satan does not seem to question that my call is divine.”
Catherine Booth (1829-1890) was the cofounder of the Salvation Army with her husband. She was also a powerful and famous preacher, and a tenacious inner-city missionary. Though she suffered from various physical illnesses, Catherine committed her life to serving the destitute of London’s East End.
Catherine was deeply supportive of the public ministry of women. She was outraged when Phoebe Palmer’s speaking tour in England was criticized because Palmer spoke to audiences of both women and men.
Catherine wrote a remarkable defense of women’s biblical call to preach: “Female Ministry or, Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel.”
In defense of her own preaching ministry, Catherine said she felt more at home on the platform than in the kitchen. When her husband became ill, Catherine assumed his circuit preaching duties.
Significantly, the founding deed of the Salvation Army protects women’s right to preach and lead.
Booth was bold in exhorting women to use their time and talents for Christ’s kingdom. She said, “It will be a happy day for England when Christian ladies transfer their attention from poodles and terriers to the destitute and starving children.”
Amanda Berry Smith
Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915) was born into slavery in the US. She was deeply influenced by the revivals during the Second Great Awakening and believed God had called her to preach. She was faithful to that call, preaching in both Southern and Northern states following the Civil War. Eventually, she also evangelized in India, England, and Africa.
Like all women preachers, Amanda faced gender prejudice. Her own denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, forbid the ordination of women.
Amanda said that the “thought of ordination had never once entered my mind, for I had received my ordination from Him Who said, Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that you might go and bring forth fruit.”
Opposition to her ministry also came from white Christians. But despite her detractors, Amanda led many to Christ and inspired women to use their spiritual gifts. She is viewed as one of the most prominent Christian leaders of her day.
The Golden Era of Missions
The 1800s are known as the “Golden Era of Missions.” Women served in unprecedented numbers, co-founding mission organizations, funding missions, and serving in all positions of leadership. In fact, women served in locations that their male counterparts had never even ventured.
Charlotte “Lottie” Moon
Charlotte “Lottie” Moon (1840-1912) ministered for forty years among the people of northern China.
Born the daughter of a wealthy Virginian plantation owner, Lottie chose missionary life over the comforts of her heritage. Lottie excelled in school and in 1861, she became one of the first Southern women to receive a master’s degree from Hollins College. In 1873, having turned down an offer for marriage, Lottie sailed to China to join her sister as a missionary.
She quickly learned the Chinese customs and language and was known to wear Chinese dress. She eventually journeyed to Pingtu, a region where no other female missionary had ever worked.
Moon led her ministry in Pingtu single-handedly. She was a beloved pastor to her small congregation, affectionately referred to as the “Foreign Lady with the Big Love Heart.”
Moon served Pingtu through famines, revolutions, and plagues. She often wrote home pleading for financial support. She received enough money to send three additional women into the mission field and thus, the Northern China Woman’s Missionary Union was born.
In the midst of severe famine and a starving congregation, Lottie herself stopped eating. She eventually died of starvation.
She once wrote that she wished she had a thousand lives to give, that she might give them all to the people of China.
Born in Northern Ireland, Amy Carmichael (1868-1951) authored many books and was one the best-known missionaries of the modern era.
Carmichael lived and worked in India for more than fifty years. She devoted her life to serving Indian children and was particularly involved in rescuing young women and girls from temple prostitution. It is said that Carmichael rescued over two thousand children from sexual slavery.
Amy established a home and school for the children she rescued and by 1952, her school contained nine hundred children and workers.
Her work was actually very dangerous. When she learned that a particular girl was scheduled to be brought to the temple and consecrated as a prostitute, Carmichael and her sisters would rescue the child first.
Pandita (1858-1922) founded the Mukti Mission in India. The Mukti mission was interdenominational, serving needy women and children. It is often celebrated as the best example of Christianity in action. The mission housed eight hundred abandoned babies, the blind, physically disabled, unwed mothers, and sick.
In addition to establishing the Mukti mission, Pandita spent fifteen years translating the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Marathi—a local dialect. According to one of her biographers, there has yet to be another production of the Bible from translation to printing and binding that is entirely the work of women.
Poverty overtook her family when Pandita was young. After her parents died, she wandered the countryside, homeless. During her travels, Pandita attended revival meetings and learned of Christ who showed no favoritism, knew no castes, and preferred neither male nor female.
In 1883, Pandita addressed the Education Committee of India in an effort to combat the prejudice against women in the national education system.
Pandita traveled to America where she wrote her famous work, “The High Caste Hindu Woman.” Pandita exposed the desperate plight of women in India, particularly the epidemic of child brides and girl prostitutes and lack of education available to females. She remains one of the most highly celebrated women in her country today.
Frances Willard (1839-1898) was the president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), the largest and most successful 19th century women’s organization. The WCTU was comprised of an army of females, two million members, who had an outreach ministry to blue collar workers of many trades.
An outspoken advocate of female suffrage, Willard believed that God intended Christian women to advance the well-being of their families through their political voice.
Willard combated prostitution, exposed the need for laws against rape, fought the abusive “rule of thumb,” and called for fashion designers to eliminate the pencil-thin waist lines that were deforming women’s bodies. Willard encouraged women’s participation in physical fitness (the bloomer’s bicycle).
Willard was made president of Northwestern Ladies College, which was later to become Northwestern University. All her life, Willard was an advocate of women in ministry. She encouraged women to pursue ministry not limited to work with other women, as she herself often felt confined to.
Sojourner Truth, born Isabella, (1797-1887) was an abolitionist, suffragist, preacher, and social reformer. Born a slave, Isabella always remembered hearing her mother cry long into the night as she mourned the loss of her children who had been sold. Isabella was also sold away from her parents and married to a slave at the age of seventeen.
After giving birth to five children, Isabella decided to run away, convinced that God affirmed freedom for slaves. Eventually, she changed her name from Isabella to Sojourner Truth.
Truth felt a call to preach the gospel. Though she had no training or education, she preached her way from Connecticut to Massachusetts. In fact, so fiery were her sermons that farmers would lay aside their work to enjoy her skillful preaching.
The great abolitionists, Frederick Douglas and William Loyd Garrision, discovered Truth’s talent as a public speaker. They persuaded her to speak on behalf of the American Antislavery Society. Not only did Truth electrify crowds with her poignant wisdom and impeccable allegory, but she eventually published her account of life as a slave.
Many of the abolitionists became advocates for women’s suffrage. Sojourner was a popular speaker for women’s rights. When she rose to speak, her stature was imposing and her voice was powerful and rich—none dared to interrupt.
During a suffragist convention in Ohio, Truth gave what was perhaps her most famous lecture on women’s rights, and her words ring immortal:
“I born my children and seen most of them sold to slavery, and when I cried out with a mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard—and ar’n’t I a woman?… Den dat little man in black dar, he say women can’t have as much rights as man, cause Christ weren’t a women. Whar did your Christ come from? As she stood there with outstretched arms and eyes of fire. Raising her voice still louder, she repeated, “Whar did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with him.”
Lest you think this formally uneducated woman was not theologically astute, this same reasoning is used by Karl Barth who argued that there is a subtle judgment on men in the birth of Christ, who was conceived without their agency.
In 1864, Truth met Abraham Lincoln. She was commissioned to work on behalf of the Freedman’s Hospital, where she was obliged to ride the street cars. Anticipating the catalyst of the civil rights movement years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Truth challenged the Jim Crow laws which segregated the street cars by race.
Truth’s funeral procession was attended by a thousand people—abolitionists, suffragists, and friends who recalled Truth’s incredible work.
We celebrate the lives of these women evangelists and reformers, praising God for their gifts and faithful leadership that changed the world. Being created in God’s image and born of the Spirit endows each of us with spiritual gifts for great gospel adventures. And these gifts, we are told by Paul (Romans 12:5-8; 1 Corinthians 12: 7-11; Ephesians 3:11-13), are never delineated along gender lines.
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: Early Evangelical Women