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The Golden Age for Women Preachers

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, I had the privilege of preaching in the church where the Reverend LaDonna Osborne is the pastor. With a twinkle in her eye she told me about her grandson, who hears her preach every Sunday. On Christmas he visited a Baptist church to see his cousins participate in a Christmas pageant. After the program the pastor stood up to make his closing remarks.

“What’s he doing?” whispered the four-year-old.

“Preaching,” answered his mother in hushed tones.

“No, he isn’t,” came the loud whisper, “men don’t preach!”

Culture shock! I had mine not at four but at twenty, when I came to America for the first time to attend Wheaton College. I was told by fellow-students: “Women don’t preach!”

Born and reared in China, except for two furloughs in Norway, I was used to hearing women preach. My parents were with the Norwegian branch of the China Inland Mission, which (until World War II and the Communist take-over of China immediately following) had 1300 missionaries evangelizing and planting churches in the hinterland cities of China. Two-thirds of the 1300 were women. But even the one-third —who later became wives — had to fulfill two years of language study before marriage, so they too could preach and teach in Chinese. Hudson Taylor had started this custom soon after the mission was founded in 1865. Cities that needed to be evangelized might be staffed with a married couple, or with two single women. Either way, that city got two full-fledged commissioned workers who would train a Chinese pastor to shepherd the flock.

Our CIM founder, Hudson Taylor, wrote in an 1888 report: “I am manning my stations with ladies.” This background explains my culture shock on my first arrival in the USA. But since that time, I have discovered the “Golden Age” when women were sent as missionary church planters and preached even in American fundamentalist pulpits.

Turn-of-the-Century Fundamentalists Train Missionary Women

One of the responses to theological liberalism was the movement known as Fundamentalism. Its educational wing had as its goal the evangelizing of America and the world. Hence the Bible institutes (such as Moody, founded in 1889) trained women for missionary service. Janette Hassey reports, “At the turn of the century, Moody women openly served as pastors, evangelists, pulpit supply preachers, Bible teachers, and even in the ordained ministry.” Moody graduate (class of 1897) Grace Saxe taught Bible courses for those converted at evangelistic campaigns. In 1907 over 1500 persons attended. Later Saxe assisted Billy Sunday as a Bible teacher for ten years. In 1909 another woman, J. Ellen Foster, wrote an article on “Work for Women” where she argued that Christian ministry, not the joys of motherhood, constitute a woman’s highest call. Later on, MOODY MONTHLY listed Lottie Osborn Sheidler as the first woman to graduate from the Pastor’s Course in 1929. But despite this history, in 1979 the Moody administration stated: “Our policy has been and is that we do not endorse or encourage the ordination of women nor do we admit women to our Pastoral Training Major.”1

Another Bible institute was founded by A.B. Simpson in 1883 as the Missionary Training College for Home and Foreign Missions. As early as 1888 the prize for excellence in “Homiletic Exercises” went to a woman. “Simpson included women on the executive board committee, employed them as Bible professors, and supported female evangelists and branch officers (the early Christian and Missionary Alliance equivalent to a local minister).... Simpson primarily emphasized overseas missions for which he vigorously recruited women.... Nyack required women to practice preaching in chapel along with the men,” writes Hassey.2 In 1916 a couple from Nyack founded St. Paul Bible College, Minnesota, where faculty women taught Bible and female students were involved in church planting.

Meanwhile in 1894 in Boston, A.J. Gordon published his famous “The Ministry of Women.” He believed that a Spirit-filled life, not gender, qualified a person for ministry. Gordon looked for uneducated laity, especially women, for missionary service. In 1889 he started Boston Missionary Training School. Yearbooks tell the story of alumnae who became preachers and pastors. Maria Gordon shared her husband’s views and argued that false interpretation of biblical texts had kept women silent in the past, and now it was time “for the real business of women’s lives—prophesying—to take precedence over housekeeping.”3

Soon after A.J. Gordon’s death, William B. Foley, founder of the World’s Christian Fundamentals Association, moved from Chicago to Minneapolis where he started Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School in 1902. Described as “the most aggressive of the Fundamentalist Bible schools... Northwestern employed women preachers in its Extension Department while alumnae preached, pastored, and evangelized (around the world) with official school recognition.... The public service of these alumnae, many in full charge of a local congregation, embodied Riley’s concept of women’s freedom to speak. By 1930, however, the shift toward a hardening on that issue by other leaders at Northwestern surfaced.”4 By that time, the Fundamentalists had lost the battle for the control of the mainline denominations, and withdrew to form distinctive subcultures. “In that process of narrowing, opportunities for women also tightened.”5

Holiness, Pentecostal and Free Churches Train Missionary Women

During the years of open doors for women’s public ministry, there was also a unique cooperation between the churches. For instance, Catherine Booth of the Salvation Army preached twice at Moody Church in 1913. Booth felt her own call to preach when she heard Holiness preacher Phoebe Palmer on Palmer’s evangelistic tour of England. Palmer has been called the “Mother of the Holiness Movement” which gave birth to a number of denominations: Church of the Nazarene, Church of God (Anderson, IN), Salvation Army, Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Holiness Church, and Church of God (Cleveland, TN).6 In the United States, B.T. Roberts was converted under Palmer’s ministry and founded the Free Methodists. (He wrote ORDAINING WOMEN in 1891, emphasizing the parallels between slavery and oppression of women.) All these churches sent out missionaries around the world.

A missionary atmosphere characterized these new denominations in their ecumenical interaction. “At interdenominational Bible institutes and conferences, many turn-of-the-century Evangelicals rubbed shoulders with groups like the Salvation Army, Evangelicals among Quakers, and the United Brethren, whose theology promoted an egalitarian concept of women in ministry,” writes Hassey. “In addition, the interaction of holiness churches and even some Pentecostal groups... influenced views towards women. For example Moody Bible Institute opposed Aimee Semple McPherson’s doctrine of healing but not her right to preach or pastor.... Proponents of female preachers like Moody, Gordon, Simpson and Franson also emphasized a second work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian to provide power for witness and mission.”7

Swedish-born Fredrik Franson was converted in the U.S. and studied Moody’s revival campaigns before launching his own in 1877. He organized the first four Evangelical Free churches. “Franson’s close association with D.L. Moody, the Salvation Army and A.B. Simpson’s C&MA partly explains his outlook on women preachers,” Hassey states. “Early Evangelical Free Church of America records list names of nearly fifty ordained women evangelists and pastors. In addition, women initially were ordained for overseas mission work.... That a church once so supportive of women preachers and pastors now might possibly exclude them is somewhat ironic. As with women at Moody Bible Institute or in Christian and Missionary Alliance churches, women in the Free Church could publicly minister in the 1880’s in ways labeled unacceptable or unbiblical by the l980’s.”8

Franson, founder of The Evangelical Alliance Mission, wrote this about single Christian women in China in 1904: “They tend to work at their mission stations just as well as do other missionaries, particularly when they have a married Chinese co-worker.... One of the advantages ... is that the national pastor develops more rapidly than he would under... men.9

Turn-of-the-Century Women’s Missionary Societies

In the older mainline churches, when women were not given a share in decision making, they organized their own mission sending agencies. Thus they were able to send out single women, a practice formerly frowned upon. One man’s viewpoint is seen in the following description of Miss Macomber’s departure for Burma: “Almost all the heroines who have gone forth ... to dot heathen soil with their lonely graves, have been attended by some stronger arm than that of a weak defenseless woman.... But Miss Macomber went out attended by no such companion... With no heart to keep time with the wild beatings of her own, she crossed the deep, dark ocean, and on soil never trodden by the feet of Christian men, erected the banner of the cross.”10

In 1861 there was one missionary society with one single woman missionary on the field. By 1882 the few existing societies had sent out “and supported 694 unmarried missionaries, maintained hundreds of national workers, erected residences, schools and hospitals, and made women a major force in world mission,” writes Pierce Beaver. By 1900 there were forty-one women’s boards, and by 1909 there were 4710 unmarried women in the field, 1948 of them from the U.S. The number of boards reached a peak of forty-four in 1910. Yet today there are none! One reason given by Beaver is the decrease in single women. Also, “there is a growing disposition on the part of those who volunteer to seek short-term service.... North American single women missionaries numbered 4824 in 1925.” In 1966 there were 4828, a larger number of them short-term. Beaver suggests one cause of the decrease in single women missionaries is the social pressure for girls to marry young — which was greater in 1966 than in the 20’s and 30’s. He bemoans the fact that, when women’s missionary societies are incorporated in the denominational structures, “a woman’s peculiar gifts are lost in the direction of world mission... the power of her heart as well as intellect... her impatience with bureaucratic procrastination and endless discussion ... her readiness in faith and hope to take a risk.” The result is decline in missionary dynamism and zeal in the churches.11

Conclusion

Beaver also associates the lack of interest in world mission with the secularization of society, a problem shared by old and new churches. Selfish individualism is rampant in the home and church. Perhaps the greatest idol in conservative circles is the family. Saving the respectability of the family is often looked on as more important than saving the world for Christ. Radio programs and seminars on the family are far more numerous than church events focusing on mission. The result is that wives and mothers who go to the mission field often bring this excess baggage with them. But it’s possible to combine motherhood and ministry, by letting the kids become part of our total lives. It’s not either/or, but both. Yet many women I have met overseas look on themselves as primarily “keepers at home” and supporters of their husband’s ministry, rather than taking ownership of the call of God on their lives to preach the Gospel. And single women are often assigned as support personnel, so the men can minister.

What we need is another “Golden Age for Women” with Christian women released to preach the Gospel. This release must start in the sending churches because if the church that supports a woman says it’s a sin for her to preach, she’ll be silent. But if the church says it’s a sin to be silent, she’ll preach the Gospel of Jesus!

Notes

  1. Janette Hassey, No Time for Silence {Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1566), p.31,43.
  2. Ibid, p. 16-17.
  3. Ibid, p. 20-22.
  4. Ibid, p. 23-25.
  5. Ibid, p. 137.
  6. Nancy A. Hardesty, Great Women of Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker House, 1980), p. 88.
  7. Hassey, op. cit., p. 125-126.
  8. Ibid, p. 85,88, 94.
  9. Edvard Torjesen, A Study of Fredrik Franson (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1985), p. 615.
  10. R. Pierce Beaver, All Loves Excelling (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmans, 1968), p. 61.
  11. Ibid, P. 137,107,86,199,201.

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