History of Women in Ministry
WOMEN THROUGHOUT HISTORY SERVED AS LEADERS
A BRIEF HISTORY OF SOME WOMEN IN MINISTRY
by Richard M. Riss
The involvement of women in public ministry is as old as the gospel. Historian Richard Riss pays tribute to women whose amazing ministries have transformed lives throughout church history.
LEADERS IN THE EARLY CHURCH
Women have always been active in public ministry. On the pages of the New Testament we find mention of many who filled positions of leadership in the first century church. Acts 2:19 mentions the four virgin daughters of Philip the evangelist as prophetesses who lived in his home at Caesarea, where Paul and his associates visited during his third missionary journey. Priscilla, or Prisca, and her husband Aquilla, were known as fellow-laborers in Christ with the apostle Paul. Their expertise as teachers enabled them to explain the way of God more accurately to Apollos of Alexandria, another important leader of the early church (Acts 18:25-26).
Another associate of Paul’s, Lydia, a seller of purple dye, opened her home for ministry (Acts 16:40), as did many other Christian women in the Roman empire, including the “elect lady” to whom John addressed his second epistle. Close examination of 2 John would suggest that she was functioning in a pastoral capacity, as would also have been the case for Lydia (Acts 16:40)(Acts 16:40), Nympha (Colossians 4:15), and Chloe (I Corinthians 1:11). Phoebe was a leader of the Church at Cenchrea. In Romans 16:1,2, Paul commanded the members of the church at Rome to receive her as such, and to help her in whatever manner she requested. Paul also mentions that Andronicus and Junia were outstanding among the apostles (Romans 16:7), and there is little doubt that Junia was a feminine name. Both John Chrysostom and Jerome made reference to her as a woman apostle, and no commentator referred to her as a man until the late thirteenth century.
MARTYRS FOR THEIR FAITH
As Christianity spread, women along with their male contemporaries, lived their faith “even unto death,” and through heroic deeds of love, helped build the foundations of God’s Kingdom in their countries. In the early fourth century, Catherine of Alexandria defended the faith at Alexandria before philosophers and courtiers, before she was tortured to death by Maxentius, the son of the Roman Emperor, Maximian. At about the same time, Dorothy of Caesarea in Cappadocia was martyred (A.D. 313). As she was being led to her execution, Theophilus, a lawyer, taunted her, asking her for a basket of flowers and fruit. Soon afterward, a child came to her with a basket laden with roses and apples. She sent this to Theophilus, who as a result of this incident became a Christian and later gave his own life as a martyr.
Macrina the Younger (A.D.328-380) was founder of a religious community for women in the eastern church. With her brothers, Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, she was a pioneer in the monastic life. She healed, prophesied, and actively spread the faith. John Chrysostom wrote of her that “she was a great organizer, and independent thinker, and as well educated as Basil himself.” After the death of her mother, she reared and educated her younger brother Peter, who became Bishop of Sebaste.
Marcella (325-410) was an important teacher in the early church who was highly esteemed by Jerome. She was in the front lines in interacting with heretics and bringing them to a better understanding of Christian truth. Her palace on the Aventine Hill became a center of Christian influence. At one point, when a dispute arose in Rome concerning the meaning of the Scriptures, Jerome asked Marcella to settle it. Her Church of the Household was not only a house of study and prayer, but a center for deeds of Christian charity and sacrifice. It was here that another woman, Fabiola, received inspiration to establish the first hospitals in Rome. Marcella later established on the outskirts of Rome the first religious retreat for women.
It was also at Marcella’s Church of the Household that Paula (347-404) and her daughter, Eustochium, first made their decision to assist Jerome in his Latin translation of the Bible. They went to Bethlehem in order to aid him in this work, revising and correcting his translations and making new Latin translations from the Hebrew and Greek texts. In turn, Jerome dedicated some of his books to them. Paula founded three convents and a monastery in Bethlehem, where Biblical manuscripts were copied. This became a model for what soon became the universal practice at monasteries for many centuries.
Genevieve (422-500) lived in Paris when Attila and his Huns invaded France in 451. She assured the inhabitants of Paris that God would protect them if they would pray. While the men prepared for battle, she persuaded the women to pray for hours in the church. Then, after Attila destroyed Orleans, he decided not to touch Paris. At a later time, she was said to have averted a famine in Paris and the surrounding cities by distributing miraculous gifts of bread.
Bridget, also known as Bride (455-523), inspired the convent system that made an indelible impact upon life in Ireland. After settling in Kildare, she built for herself and her female friends a house for refuge and devotion. As other houses were founded through her missionary efforts, she became known as the “mother abbess” of all of Ireland.
Theodora I (500-548), wife of the emperor Justinian, was an important and influential Christian. A woman of outstanding intellect and learning, she was a moral reformer. Justinian, as Christian Emperor, was, for all practical purposes, head of the Church of his generation, and his wife, as Empress, shared his power to select church leaders. The inscription “Theodora Episcopa” or “Theodora, Bishop (fem.)” in a mosaic at the Basilica of Sts. Prudentia and Praexedis in Rome, may have been a reference to the Empress.
Hilda (614-680) was appointed by Aidan as abbess of the convent at Hartlepool in County Durham in 649. Ten years later, she founded a double monastery for men and women at Whitby in Yorkshire, which became world famous as a school of theology and literature. Five of her disciples became bishops and a sixth, Caedmon, became the earliest known English poet.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was a German abbess, and writer known throughout all of Europe. Skilled in subjects as diverse as theology, medicine and politics, she did not hesitate to rebuke the sins of the greatest men of her time in both Church and state. She exerted a wide influence among many people, including the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and various kings, prelates, and saints. Many miracles were attributed to her during her lifetime.
Clare (1193-1253) was co-founder, with Francis of Assisi, of the Poor Clares, a mendicant order which spread rapidly through Italy and into France, Germany, and Spain. In 1249, when she was lame, her convent was attacked by a group of Saracens. She told the sisters to carry her to the door of the monastery, then addressed the Saracens and prayed aloud that God would “deliver the defenseless children whom I have nourished with Thy love.” She heard a voice answer “I will always have them in my keeping,” and turning to the sisters, she said, “Fear not.” At this moment, the Saracens scrambled down the walls of the cloister, recoiling from her valiant words. Clare’s care for the poor was a tremendous inspiration to Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a princess who, in the last years of her short life, led a life of rigorous self-sacrifice and service to the poor and sick.
Some other significant women of the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries included Hechthild of Magdeburg, Gertrude the Great, Angela of Foligno, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Sienna, Catherine of Sweden, Margery Kempe, Julian of Norwich, Joan of Arc, Catherine of Genoa, Isabella of Castile, and Maragaret Beaufort.
During the Reformation, a member of the Bavarian nobility, Argula von Grumback (1492-1563), challenged the Rector and all of the faculty of the University of Ingolstadt to a debate in which she would defend the principles of the Protestant Reformation. She offered to base this debate upon a translation of the Bible published prior to the outbreak of the Reformation. She was permitted to present her position in 1523 in Nuremberg before the heads of the Empire. Martin Luther wrote of her, “that most noble woman, Argula von Stauffer, is there making a valiant fight with great spirit, boldness of speech and knowledge of Christ.” Her extensive education and fine critical abilities enabled her to become a force to be reckoned with. She conducted church meetings in her home and officiated at funerals.
Two other important leaders of the Protestant Reformation were Margaret of Navarre (1492-1549) and her daughter, Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572), the grandmother and mother of King Henry IV of France, who issued the Edict of Nantes, granting religious toleration to the French Protestants for almost a century. Jeanne d’Albret held services of the new Reformed faith in her palace apartment. A friend of John Calvin, she also used her palace as an institute for Reformation study.
LEADERS IN DENOMINATIONAL MOVEMENTS
During the Puritan era, Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643), became influential in Boston, and opened her home to large classes of women. It is estimated that as many as eighty overflowed to the doorsteps of her house, at a time when Boston had a population of roughly 1,000 people. These meetings grew rapidly, and soon men, also, began to attend. Among her loyal followers was Henry Vane, who served for a short time as governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Within two years of her arrival from England, she had the strongest following of any leader in the entire colony. Her large following, coupled with her strong exegetical and homiletical skills, deep Christian commitment and insightful understanding of spiritual truths, may have incurred the jealousy of several New England ministers, who became uncomfortable enough with her successes that she was accused of heresy and banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638.
Margaret Fell (1614-1702), the mother of Quakerism, was an English peeress and wife of Judge Thomas Fell, member of the Long Parliament and Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster. Her home became a place of refuge and renewal for the persecuted Quakers for almost fifty years. She was arrested for holding Quaker meetings in her home, Swarthmoor Hall, and imprisoned for four years. After her release from prison, she visited Quakers in jails and traveled on horseback with her daughters and servants to remote farms and villages as an itinerant preacher. Many people sought wisdom and advice from her, including Thomas Salthouse, and, of course, George Fox, who married her a number of years after the death of her husband. Because she had his blessing in her preaching ministry, she wrote many tracts and letters on the subject of women in ministry.
Madame Guyon (1648-1717) was French woman who was imprisoned on several occasions for long periods of time because of her beliefs, but she was never known to complain about this. An author of forty books, including a twenty-volume commentary of the Bible, she had a wide following, particularly in France and Switzerland. Among those profoundly influenced by her ministry was Archbishop Francois Fenelon.
The founder of the first Methodist congregation in America was Barbara Heck (1734-1804).
In England, Lady Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791), founder of the Calvinistic Methodist denomination during the Evangelical Awakening, functioned as a bishop by virtue of her right as a peeress to appoint Anglican clergymen as household chaplains and assign their duties, and to purchase presentation rights to chapels, enabling her to decide who would conduct services and preach. Among the many chaplains whom she appointed and continued to finance for many decades was George Whitefield. In 1779, after sixty chapels were already functioning under her auspices, this practice was disallowed by a consistory court of London. Therefore, in order to continue to function, she was able, under the Toleration Act, to register her chapels as dissenting places of worship, known as “The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion.”
Lady Selina frequently invited members of the aristocracy to her home to hear the preaching of the Wesleys, Whitefield, Isaac Watts, Philip Doddridge, Benjamin Ingham, John Fletcher, John Berridge, William Romaine, Henry Venn, and others. She founded Trevecca House on property adjoining the home of Howel Harris. A seminary for the training of ministers for all denominations, its first president was John Fletcher. Joseph Benson eventually became headmaster on John Wesley’s recommendation. George Whitefield preached the inaugural sermon when it opened in 1768.
NOTABLE AMERICAN PREACHERS
In America, two important preachers during the first years of the Second Awakening (1800-1808) were Deborah Pierce of Paris, N.Y. and Martha Howell of Utica. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), “The Mother of the Holiness Movement” began her ministry in 1835 with her Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness, which continued for 39 years in New York City, where she lived with her husband, who was a physician. Hundreds of Methodist preachers, including at least five bishops, were profoundly affected by her ministry. The success of Phoebe Palmer’s informal meetings encouraged other women to conduct the same type of ministry, and dozens of them sprang up throughout North America. These meetings brought together Christians of many denominations under the leadership of women, particularly among Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Baptists, and Quakers.
In 1858, Walter Palmer, Phoebe’s husband, purchased the periodical GUIDE TO HOLINESS, which under her able editorship, grew in circulation from 13,000 to 30,000 subscribers. She traveled widely with her husband, conducting evangelistic meetings during the summer months. In the fall of 1857, she and her husband traveled to Hamilton, Ontario, where they attracted crowds of several thousand people when an afternoon prayer meeting became a ten-day revival meeting during which four hundred people were converted to Christ. They experienced similar successes in New York City and in England, where they preached for four years to packed houses at Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Birmingham, and dozens of other places. It is estimated that within her lifetime, Phoebe Palmer brought over 25,000 people to faith in Christ.
Catherine Booth (1829-1890), with her husband, William Booth, founded the Christian Revival Association in 1865 and the Salvation Army in 1878. The Booths regarded the active participation of women to be vital to Christianity. Before 1865, when they were still Methodists, Catherine began preaching. Soon after her pulpit debut, her husband became ill, and his slow recovery paved the way for her own preaching ministry. For a time, he was so ill that she had to take over his entire preaching circuit. She eventually became one of the most famous female preachers of England, and her last sermon was delivered to an audience of 50,000 people.
Hannah Whitall Smith, author of THE CHRISTIAN’S SECRET OF A HAPPY LIFE (1875) catalyzed the development of the Holiness movement in Britain and throughout Europe. Her activities in England led to the Keswick Convention in 1874.
LEADERS OF THE PENTECOSTAL MOVEMENT
Carrie Judd Montgomery was a healing evangelist of considerable prominence beginning in 1879, and became a founding member, along with A. B. Simpson, of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in 1887. She later became a part of the Pentecostal revival and was ordained a minister by the Assemblies of God in 1917, continuing in ministry until 1946.
Maria B. Woodworth-Etter was also involved in the Holiness movement before she rose to prominence as an early Pentecostal leader. In 1884, she was licensed to preach by the Churches of God general conference, founded by John Winebrenner in 1825. Within a few months of this time her meetings were already beginning to receive national press coverage, and in the late 1880s she started twelve churches, added 1,000 members, erected six church buildings, and started several Sunday Schools. Her work at this time resulted in the licensing of twelve preachers. The revivals that she held at this time were accompanied with unusual manifestations of God’s power, many healings, and mass conversions. During the early Pentecostal movement, Woodworth-Etter was in continual demand, becoming a featured speaker at the Worldwide Pentecostal Camp Meeting at Arroyo Seco, California, in April 1913. She founded the Woodworth-Etter Tabernacle in western Indianapolis in 1918, which she pastored until her death in 1924.
Beginning in 1906 and 1907, Florence L. Crawford, Mabel Smith, Ivey Campbell, and Rachel A. Sizelove were some of the first women to spread the blessings of the early Pentecostal revival through their separate itinerant ministries. Florence Crawford planted and pastored several churches in the Pacific Northwest, founding and becoming general overseer of the Apostolic Faith Church based in Portland, Oregon, which later became part of the Open Bible Standard Denomination.
Other pioneers of the Pentecostal movement in the U.S. included Mrs. Scott Ladd, who opened a Pentecostal mission in Des Moines in 1907, the Duncan sisters, who had opened the Rochester Bible Training School at Elim Faith Home, “Mother” Barnes of St. Louis, Missouri, who, with her son-in-law, B. F. Lawrence, held tent meetings in southern Illinois in the spring of 1908, and Marie Burgess, who preached in Chicago, Toledo, Detroit, and New York City, where she founded Glad Tidings Hall, which soon became an important center for the spread of the Pentecostal revival. Another early Pentecostal pioneer in New York was Miss Maud Williams (Haycroft).
CANADIAN AND EUROPEAN PIONEERS OF PENTECOSTALISM
In Canada, some early pioneers of the Pentecostal movement included Ellen Hebden in Toronto, Ella M.Goff in Winnipeg, Alice B. Garrigus in Newfoundland, the Davis sisters in the Maritime provinces, Mrs. C. E. Baker in Montreal, and Zelma Argue throughout all of the Canadian provinces. Aimee Semple McPherson of Ingersoll, Ontario, began a preaching ministry in 1915 which began in Toronto and took her along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, and across the United States in 1918. She eventually founded Angelus Temple in 1923, where she continued as senior pastor until her death in 1944.
An outstanding authoress and minister at the turn of the century was Jesse Penn-Lewis who was directly involved with the revival in Wales. Evan Roberts, the chief evangelist of the Welsh revival joined Mrs. Lewis in penning some of her writings on the overcoming life. Mrs. Lewis had a wide public ministry. Perhaps the most popular book she wrote was WAR ON THE SAINTS, a book on spiritual warfare.
AN OUTSTANDING HEALING MINISTRY
Kathryn Kuhlman’s ministry began in the summer of 1923. After her ordination by the Evangelical Church Alliance in Joliet, Illinois, she established the Denver Revival Tabernacle in 1935, which she pastored for three years. In the mid-1940s, she went to Franklin, Pennsylvania, where she began to thrive as a preacher and radio evangelist. Many people were healed with notable miracles at her meetings beginning in 1947, and she gained a reputation as one of the world’s outstanding healing evangelists, carrying on as a leading figure during the charismatic movement until her death in 1976.
PASTORS OF THE CHARISMATIC MOVEMENT
A few of the women working as Pentecostal pastors during the charismatic movement of the 1960s and 1970s included Charlotte Baker, Myrtle D. Beall, Helen Beard, Aimee Cortese, Sue Curran, B. Maureen Gaglardi, Anne Giminez, Ione Glaeser, Hattie Hammond, Alpha A. Henson, Marilyn Hickey, Violet Kitely, Janet Kreis, Freda Lindsay, Fuchsia T. Pickett, Iverna Tompkins, and Rachel Titus. A sampling of a few of the other women who were vital during the time of the charismatic movement as speakers, authors, or evangelists, would include Eleanor and Roberta Armstrong, Rita Bennett, Edith Blumhofer, Hazel Bonawitz, Roxanne Brant, Mary Ann Brown, Shirley Carpenter, Jean Darnall, Josephine Massynberde Ford, Katie Fortune, Shirlee Green, Nina Harris, Sue Malachuk, Daisy Osborn, Dorothy Ranaghan, Agnes Sanford, Gwen Shaw, Bernice Smith, Ruth Carter Stapleton, Jean Stone, Joni Eareckson Tada, and Corrie Ten Boom. Mother Teresa was also an outstanding woman who ministered in the helps ministry to the poor of India.
The women mentioned here are, of course, a mere sampling of important figures who have been mightily used of God in every conceivable capacity of leadership in the church throughout history