Grace Note Reflections on the Christian Life
The Power of History
Finding a Role Model From a Century Ago
By Priscilla Pope-Levison | Illustration by Rachel Sumpter
Nearly 20 years ago, I came across the name Iva Durham Vennard while searching for material on women for an introductory lecture about American evangelism. Scads of resources on male evangelists, like Charles Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham, I could find. Information on women evangelists I could not, at least during the mid-1990s, when I began my research.
No sooner had I begun looking into Vennard that I found myself enthralled because of intersections between her life and mine. Methodists from birth, participants in egalitarian marriages (she nearly a century ago), mothers, teachers, fierce advocates for women in ministry — both of us. Why had no one ever introduced me to Vennard in my Methodist confirmation class or Methodist college or Methodist seminary? Why was I, a Methodist minister, teaching at a Methodist seminary at the time, still unaware of this Methodist foremother, who was a pioneer in training scores of women evangelists, missionaries, and ministers long before the Methodist Church ordained women or Methodist seminaries welcomed them?
I was further intrigued when I discovered the love story of her courtship with Thomas Vennard, who wrote a letter in the early 1900s in which he pledged to be her “background of support” if she would marry him. The hook dug even deeper when I read his words, “I may be the janitor of an institution of which you are principal founder and controlling head.” His comment turned out to be prophetic. True to his word, Thomas sacrificed his successful architectural career in the Chicago Loop in order to oversee, at minimal cost, building renovations at a religious training school she founded, Chicago Evangelistic Institute. Hooked completely, I headed full-tilt into research on American women evangelists.
Twenty years later, Iva Durham Vennard remains the epitome for me of a pioneering woman in ministry. When God’s call to ministry came to her unexpectedly as a student at Wellesley College, she committed herself to prayer for discernment and consulted the minister who had been present at her conversion. When she accepted the call, she devoted herself entirely to religious work, and founded a religious training school in St. Louis in 1902.
When opposition from clergymen arose against her school and against her for being, in the words of one opponent, “a dangerous and powerful woman,” she tried relentlessly to dialogue with them, listen to their critiques, and invite them toparticipate in the school. When she could not overcome those arrayed against her, she did not give up. Instead, with her young son and her husband, she moved 300 miles away to Chicago and started over, founding Chicago Evangelistic Institute, which later became Vennard College. Thanks to Vennard’s tenacity, many men and women in the Wesleyan tradition received biblical and theological training to be ministers, evangelists, missionaries, musicians, Bible teachers, and deaconesses.
Although they may not have the name recognition of Graham or Sunday, Vennard and others like her invested their lives in training a generation of believers whose faith reverberates for us today.
Before heading to seminary in 1980 to follow God’s call on my life to ministry, I hoped for an older woman to be a mentor, a role model. I had never even seen a woman preach. My home church only had male ministers throughout my childhood and high school years. When I discovered Vennard’s story, unfortunately long after I was ordained, I began to look to her story for courage and sustenance. She braved a church and society more deeply mired in patriarchy than my own, and she now inspires me to persevere in my own ministry and to support all women whom God has called into ministry.
B.T. Roberts, founder of the Free Methodist Church, assumed the same stance, stating, “No person evidently called of God to the gospel ministry, and duly qualified for it, should be refused ordination on account of race, condition, or sex.” Such is the proud legacy of the Wesleyan tradition.
Priscilla Pope-Levison is professor of theology at Seattle Pacific University and author of Building the Old-Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (NYU Press, 2013), from which a portion of this column is adapted.