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Summer 2005 | Volume 28, Number 2 | Features

Turn the Pulpit Loose

SPU Professor Recovers the Lost History of American Women Evangelists

Quick: Name two or three evangelists, past or present. If you’re like those recently polled in an informal survey, you probably first named Billy Graham. Then, after some thought, you may have cited either Luis Palau, Billy Sunday, or D.L. Moody. You most likely did not name a woman.

Evangeline Booth speaks to fellow Salvation Army soldiers in the early 20th century. In addition to evangelizing, the Salvation Army general organized programs for unwed mothers, the homeless, and others. In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson awarded her the Distinguished Service Medal.

Yet women evangelists have a long — albeit unheralded — history in America. Since the early 19th century, women such as Jarena Lee, Martha Moore Avery, Evangeline Booth, Ida Robinson, and a host of others traveled, preached, and served after answering a divine call to save souls for the Lord. “There’s a bit of an irony in these women,” says Priscilla Pope-Levison, Seattle Pacific University professor of theology and assistant director of women’s studies. “I thought they would be more outspoken, more radical, but they really weren’t. They were only radical in their departure from their own domestic realm to enter the public realm and preach.”

In her book, Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Priscilla Pope-Levison profiles 18 women and their considerable impact on America’s religious life. Four founded Christian denominations, including the International Church of the FourSquare Gospel; others founded more than 30 educational institutions; and several planted churches in towns and cities from New York to California. Over the centuries, they preached to millions: Uldine Utley preached to 14,000 people in Madison Square Garden; Maria Woodworth-Etter repeatedly packed her 8,000-seat tent; and Aimee Semple McPherson weekly filled her 5,300-seat auditorium for three Sunday services.

Pope-Levison was assistant professor of the practice of evangelism at Duke Divinity School in 1994 when she began what would be a 10-year project. “I’ve always been interested in women’s topics, so it was just a natural question for me to ask: Were there any women evangelists?” she says. “I began to find names of women here and there.”

Stymied by a dearth of information on the topic, she applied for a Lilly Theological Research Grant to investigate further. In her proposal, she wrote, “Paulus Scharpff’s classic History of Evangelism (Eerdmans, 1964) spans three hundred years and several continents yet mentions but a single woman and a minor group of women. Three decades later, John Mark Terry’s Evangelism: A Concise History (Broadman, 1994) neglects such noteworthy evangelists as Aimee Semple McPherson and Kathryn Kuhlman in his otherwise ambitious trajectory from Jesus to Jimmy Swaggert.” Lilly awarded Pope-Levison a grant, and she began traveling to archives, libraries, and church basements to “meet” these women through whatever documents she could uncover.

Her first stop was the headquarters of the Church of the Nazarene near Kansas City, Missouri. Its archives were “a goldmine,” says Pope-Levison. They housed some of the only original information about Mary Lee Cagel, a holiness evangelist and minister in the New Testament Church of Christ, which later merged with the Church of the Nazarene. Pope-Levison also spent time in Nova Scotia; at the Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky; and in New Jersey on the trail of Ida Robinson, founder of the Mt. Sinai Holy Church of America. Each lead often led to another, and by the time Pope-Levison joined the SPU faculty in 2001, her quest to research six American women evangelists had expanded to 18.

Although the women each had distinct stories, they shared some common traits and challenges. All but one of the women were married. Most had children, and most had little formal education. Most were also from humble beginnings. The 18 women included both Caucasian and African-American women, and all but one were Protestants (Martha Moore Avery was Roman Catholic). And in spite of their individual denominational affiliations, these female evangelists preached to people from an array of church traditions.

Wrote Jarena Lee, an African-American evangelist born in 1783, “Oh, how I long to see the day when Christians will meet on one common platform — Jesus of Nazareth — and cease their bickerings and contentions about nonessentials — when ‘our Church’ shall be less debated, but ‘our Jesus’ shall be all in all.” Two centuries later, Kathryn Kuhlman wrote that although her listeners were Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant, “We worship on the common ground of Calvary.”

The women experienced struggles their male counterparts did not. Unwilling to leave their children behind, women evangelists often saw a decade or more separate the time between their call to ministry and their freedom to follow it. Some even believed the deaths of their children to be God’s insistence that they evangelize and bring souls to faith. Five of Maria Woodworth-Etter’s six children died, and she interpreted this as God freeing her from familial responsibilities.

Whereas men could answer God’s call and find the support of family and society, women often received discouragement from their communities. They encountered the gamut of family reactions — from full support to steadfast opposition. Iva Vennard’s husband gave up his architectural work in order to fully support her ministry; Mary Lee Cagle’s brother warned her that if she ever preached, he would not allow his children to acknowledge her as their aunt. Nonetheless, these women felt God had placed a call on their lives that they could not ignore.

Unlike pastors, who remain in a town or city to serve congregants from birth to death, evangelists aspire to bring listeners to Christ and salvation — and then move on. The female evangelists, however, also focused on social outreach. According to Randy Maddox, professor of theology and Wesleyan studies at Duke Divinity School, the 19th century saw a split between those concerned with salvation and those concerned with social activism. “One of the groups who held those things together were the women,” says Maddox, who taught at SPU from 1998 to 2005. “The women evangelists had a special awareness of how a changed spiritual life impacted other areas.”

Sojourner Truth, a former slave, worked to better the appalling living conditions of freed slaves in Washington, D.C. Aimee Semple McPherson’s free dining hall fed more than 80,000 people by the early years of the Great Depression. Evangeline Booth, fourth general of the Salvation Army, served the poor, the homeless, and the addicted.

Women evangelists also actively influenced politicians and public policy. Jennie Fowler Willing and other women evangelists in the late 19th century saw alcoholism destroy families and lead to spousal abuse. Their early protests peaked with notable figures such as Susan B. Anthony, and later with the U.S. Constitution’s 18th Amendment on the prohibition of alcohol.

Regardless of how they served, women evangelists continued to face opposition. On September 18, 1911, the Indianapolis News reported on an address given by Rev. Charles M. Fillmore to the Ministers’ Association. Fillmore attacked the prevalence of the “Ladies’ Aid Society” and added that the “army of the Lord” had exchanged the “sword” for the “needle.” He closed by saying the “pulpit is the last place in the world for a mollycoddle.”

But in spite of the reverend’s, and others’, opposition, women continued to preach. And some denominations gradually began ordaining women, giving them increased opportunities to answer God’s call — even in a pastorate.

Female evangelists continue the tradition today. Billy Graham has said his daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, is the “best preacher” in the family. By 2004, her “Just Give Me Jesus” revival had stopped in 13 major U.S. cities and three cities overseas, including Seoul, South Korea. Other noted women evangelists include Joyce Meyer, Lucille Swindoll, and 1961 Seattle Pacific graduate Marilyn Meberg.

Now working on a second book about women evangelists between 1890 and 1920, Pope-Levison also teaches her students about these women in her evangelism and Christian-history classes. What the women evangelists accomplished, she tells them, is congruent with SPU’s Free Methodist heritage. “I would like people to know women have been evangelizing for a very long time,” says Pope-Levison. “They were very normal women who had an incredibly profound experience. Something happened that propelled them into evangelism.”

photo courtesy of The salvation army national archives


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