In January of 1827 on a cold Sunday morning in Washington, DC, more than a thousand people assembled in the Capitol to witness one of the most remarkable events ever to take place in the Hall of Representatives. Harriet Livermore, a celebrated female preacher, had been invited to preach to Congress.
The 39-year-old Livermore was a slight woman, “delicate” in appearance, but she was reputed to be a forceful preacher who could make audiences fall to their knees or shout aloud for joy. Ascending into the Speaker’s Chair, she sang a hymn, offered a prayer, and then delivered a sermon for more than an hour and a half on a text from 2 Samuel 23: “He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.” As she beseeched her listeners to repent and to seek salvation, many of them began to weep. “It savored more of inspiration than anything I have ever witnessed!” one woman marveled. “And to enjoy the frame of mind which I think she does, I would relinquish the world. Call this rhapsody if you will, but would to God you had heard her!” More negatively, President John Quincy Adams, who sat on the steps leading up to her feet because he could not find a free chair, condemned her as a religious fanatic. “There is a permanency in this woman’s monomania which seems accountable only from the impulse of vanity and love of fame,” he wrote later. Yet despite his harsh words, Livermore preached to Congress again in 1832, 1838, and 1843, each time to huge crowds.1
Harriet Livermore has virtually disappeared from the pages of history books, but she was only one of more than 100 evangelical women, both white and black, who criss-crossed the country as itinerant preachers in the early decades of the 19th century. Jarena Lee, for example, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, preached to thousands of listeners in the 1830s and 1840s. Besides preaching in the north, she courageously risked her freedom by traveling to Maryland, a slave state, to share the gospel with the enslaved.
Despite their popularity in the 19th century, most of these remarkable women leaders were eventually forgotten. Few Christians today know their names, and most are surprised to learn that there is a long history of evangelical women’s religious leadership that stretches back to early America.
Nor do most modern-day evangelicals know the stories of the ordinary women who historically have sustained their churches with their money, their time, and their prayers. Countless numbers of women have sat in the pews every Sunday and raised their children in the faith, keeping the Christian tradition alive across the centuries. Yet even though there would be no churches today if not for these women, they are virtually invisible in our histories of Christianity.
Why do both historians and the general public know so little about the history of Christian women, including famous leaders like Harriet Livermore? And why is it important to remember their stories?
Women’s Leadership in the African American Church
“African American women have played and are playing a powerful role in the survival of the African American church. . .We have been challenged to examine more carefully the Scriptures to clarify God’s intent regarding male and female roles and distinguish the influence of tradition from Scripture.”
Read more from Alexis D. Abernethy, professor of psychology in Fuller’s Department of Clinical Psychology.
The Fragility of Historical Memory
Part of the reason that we know so little about evangelical women leaders in the past is that until recently, few Christians wanted to remember them. Harriet Livermore’s story is typical. She rose to fame during the 1820s when several new sects allowed and even encouraged women to preach. These sects, including the Methodists, the African Methodists, the Freewill Baptists, and the Christian Connection, were small and countercultural, and they seem to have viewed female preaching as a sign of their distinctiveness, a symbol of their difference from more staid, established Christians. Visionary and anti-intellectual, they claimed that the most important qualification for ministry was a personal experience of God’s grace, not a college education. Although they did not allow women to be ordained, they cited the examples of biblical heroines such as Deborah, Miriam, Huldah, Phoebe, Priscilla, and Mary of Magdala to argue that God could call women as well as men to become leaders and evangelists. Many clergymen praised Livermore as a “Sister in Christ” or a “Mother in Israel.”
These sects defended a woman’s right to preach even though mainstream clergymen quoted the words of Paul, “let your women keep silence in the churches.” Not only were female preachers condemned as “bold,” “wild,” or “eccentric,” but hostile crowds sometimes threatened them with physical harm. Zilpha Elaw, an African Methodist, remembered preaching while a group of angry white men stood at the back of the church “with their hands full of stones.” On another occasion she was taunted by “an unusually stout and ferocious looking man” who circled the pulpit as if he intended to strike her.2 Yet despite this opposition, she and other women refused to stop proclaiming the gospel. They testified that they were willing to sacrifice everything—their good names, their comfort, and even their safety—for the glory of God.
But as small, struggling sects turned into large and powerful denominations, they eventually distanced themselves from their earlier support of female preaching. The Methodists, for example, grew into the single largest Protestant denomination by the 1830s, and they were ambivalent about their radical history. The first Methodists had been uneducated farmers and artisans, but their children and grandchildren were upwardly mobile, and they prided themselves on their respectability. They built imposing churches, founded schools to educate ministers, and discouraged anything that seemed “disorderly.” During the 1830s and 1840s, Methodist female preachers suddenly found they were no longer welcome in the pulpit. In 1830, for example, the Methodist Quarterly Meeting excommunicated Sally Thomson, a popular preacher, on the grounds of “insubordination.”3
As evangelicals increasingly pushed women ministers out of the pulpit, they also excluded them from the pages of church record books and clergymen’s memoirs. Indeed, many evangelicals seem to have been so embarrassed by their early support of female preachers that they deliberately tried to erase them from historical memory. For example, when David Marks published the first edition of his memoir in 1831, he mentioned meeting some of the most popular female preachers of his time, including Susan Humes, Clarissa Danforth, Almira Bullock, Dolly Quimby, and “Sister” Wiard. Yet in 1846, when his wife, Marilla Marks, published a posthumous edition of his memoir, she removed all the references—no matter how small—to the women her husband had once defended. Because she wanted to protect his reputation, she presented a new, sanitized version of his career in which female preachers simply did not exist. From reading the revised edition of his memoirs, one would never know that the Freewill Baptists had ever sanctioned female preaching.4
The same story was repeated later in the 19th and 20th centuries among other groups of Christians. During the 1870s and 1880s, for example, many women who belonged to the Evangelical Free Church and the Church of God became traveling evangelists, but they were eventually forgotten by church authorities who were opposed to women’s ordination. Similarly, many early Fundamentalist women became preachers, but by 1941, when John R. Rice published his infamous treatise against women’s rights, Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers: Significant Questions for Honest Christian Women Settled by the Word of God, they were no longer welcome in the pulpit. Recapitulating the stories of women like Sally Thomson and Harriet Livermore, these women were ignored and forgotten by their churches. As these stories illustrate, historical memory is fragile. We remember only those whom we want to remember.
“We have seen growth of the female population here [at Fuller]. Certainly we want to see more representation on the board, be sure that there’s sensitivity to what women experience on campus, and be thinking about placement for women after their experience here. We know that there are challenges for women to be hired as pastors in churches—what are the ways we can be advocates for them? . . . There were a number of women on the board before me. Women have gone before me, and I’m a part of that. But I have been very respected and felt my voice has been heard throughout my time on the board.”
—Meritt Sawyer, president and executive director for the Paul Carlson Partnership and Fuller Seminary trustee, on the importance of having women voices represented in executive leadership, during FULLER magazine’s inaugural “Story Table.”
+ [Above] Dr. Pearl McNeil was the first female trustee, who joined Fuller’s board in 1973. She was an author, accomplished businesswoman and scholar, and was listed in Who’s Who of American Women and in Who’s Who in American College and University Administration.
Recovering Women’s History
Today we know the stories of these evangelical women because of the painstaking research of women’s historians. Since the rise of women’s history in the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of articles and books have been published about women in American religious history. The scope and quality of this scholarship has been remarkable. In addition to writing about women’s religious leadership, historians have explored women’s beliefs and practices. To give one example, R. Marie Griffith’s sensitive study of the Women’s Aglow movement, God’s Daughters: Evangelical Women and the Power of Submission, explores how evangelical women have brought their faith to bear on their everyday lives.
Yet despite the number of excellent books and articles that have been published, women’s history has not yet gained full acceptance within the fields of either religion or history. While Judith M. Bennett, a historian, has expressed concern about the “ghettoization” of women’s history (it is “a separate but not equal enclave within the historical profession”), Randi R. Warne, a religion scholar, complains that “a two-tiered system has been created which is particularly visible in the academic study of religion: male/mainstream scholarship and the feminist scholarship of the margins.”5 When women’s studies programs and courses were created, many hoped that they would act as a lever for integrating women into the rest of the curriculum. Instead, however, they have often led to the segregation of women as a special, separate topic of inquiry. Only “women’s historians” consistently write and teach about women, while other historians often ignore them.
Many college and seminary students learn about American religious history by reading textbooks, and unfortunately, these books rarely include sustained discussions of women’s religious ideas, beliefs, experiences, or leadership. For example, Catherine L. Albanese’s book, America: Religions and Religion, which is widely used in undergraduate classrooms, ignores much of the recent research on women’s history. Albanese never mentions women’s numerical predominance in churches, and although she describes several female religious leaders, she does not discuss women in many sections where it would have seemed natural—for example, in her discussion of Salem witchcraft, where she could have tried to answer the question of why most “witches” were women, or in her description of black theology, where she could have discussed womanist theology.6 Although these examples are minor, they are only a few of many, and they add up to a disappointing series of narrative exclusions. In The Religious History of America, Edwin Gaustad and Leigh Schmidt have obviously tried to be more comprehensive, and they have admirably listed some of the most important scholarship on women in each chapter’s “suggested readings.” Yet despite the strengths of their book, they still do not give adequate space to such important topics as female reform and the role of religion in the suffrage movement.7 Although numbers are a crude index to a book’s contents, it is worth noting that Gaustad and Schmidt mention only 31 women by name, and Albanese, 30.
Women pastors, preachers, trustees, faculty, and students share stories from their long road to equality. Listen to Meritt Sawyer and others in their own words at our inaugural Story Table.
Given the extraordinary levels of female participation in churches throughout American history, the choice to ignore women’s history is perplexing. Inspired by the invention of computers, historians in the 1970s began analyzing enormous amounts of historical data about church membership, and over the past 35 years, they have repeatedly found that women have almost always outnumbered men in the pews. Far from being “outsiders,” women were consummate “insiders” who worked closely with male ministers to strengthen their religious communities. In the First Congregational Church of New Haven, Connecticut, for example, women made up the majority of new members from the 1680s to the 1980s.8
American religious historians rarely reflect on their choice to exclude women from their narratives, but most do not seem hostile to women’s history as much as they are dismissive of it, treating it as a separate topic that they can safely ignore. Like Thomas Carlyle, who argued that “history is the biography of great men,” many still seem to assume that women did not “make” history. Since women could not own their own property or attend college until the middle of the 19th century, nor could they vote or hold political office until the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, many historians have written as if only men—especially elite, white men—had the political, economic, or religious power to bring about change.
It is surprising—and disappointing—that this male-centered, top-down understanding of history remains so tenacious in the academy. Since the 1960s and 1970s, many historians have tried to broaden our understanding of who “makes” history. Rather than focusing solely on great individuals, they have emphasized the collective power of groups, and they have shown that when large numbers of people make similar decisions about their lives, they set events in motion that have far-reaching consequences. History is not only made by visionary leaders who hope to change the world, but by ordinary men and women who might not be fully aware of how their individual decisions create historical change. For example, when large numbers of women chose to join Methodist rather than Calvinist churches in the early 19th century, they helped to popularize a new theology of free will and Wesleyan perfection.
Religious leaders are important, but they become leaders only when ordinary people share their vision. For example, Billy Graham would not have become one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century if not for the thousands of Christians who embraced his ideas as their own. His agency was largely dependent on theirs. Without understanding the aspirations of both women and men, we cannot explain how and why historical change takes place.
If historians must recover women’s stories in order to write good history, Christians have an even deeper reason to remember women. Christianity is a historical religion that is based on the life of a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, and Christians have always believed that God is revealed in history as well as in Scripture. This means that the lives of all humans, though imperfect, can teach us something about God’s work in the world. When we remember women—whether famous leaders like Harriet Livermore or the ordinary women who devoted their lives to Christ—we can gain a deeper understanding of God’s relationship to the whole of human creation. Women’s stories have revealed many things: the power of faith, the suffering and self-sacrifice that marks the Christian journey, and most of all, God’s transforming grace.
From the “Abstract of the argument” in the seminal 1975 text Man as Male and Female
“A voluminous literature has appeared on the so-called ‘woman question.’ While much of this effort reflects a Christian point of view and all of it bears on issues vital to human life, realistically little has been written from the perspective of Christian dogmatics as such. And what has been written is, too often, but a reaffirmation (sans its less palatable features) of the traditional approach. Moreover, what is genuinely new is sometimes lost in the larger discussions as to which dogmatic theology is given. In this study, I have sought to gather together in a single essay what has been said by the theologians about Man as male and female, both that which reflects the traditional view and that which seeks to go beyond it. . . .
I take the position that the ‘woman question’ is a ‘man/woman’ question which has its roots, theologically speaking, in the doctrine of the imago dei. While I do not reject the classical view of the image as having to do with Man’s unique powers of self-transcendence by which he exercises dominion over creation as God’s vicegerent, I do insist that Man’s creation in the divine image is so related to his creation as male and female that the latter may be looked upon as an exposition of the former. His sexuality is not simply a mechanism for procreation which Man has in common with the animal world; it is rather a part of what it means to be like the Creator. As God is a fellowship in himself (Trinity) so Man is a fellowship in himself, and the fundamental form of this fellowship, so far as Man is concerned, is that of male and female. This view of Man’s being, I argue, implies a partnership in life; and the proper understanding of the account of woman’s creation from and for the man is in every way compatible with such a theology of sexual partnership. . . .
I therefore reject a hierarchical model of the man/woman relationship in favor of a model of partnership. According to the creation ordinance, man and woman are properly related when they accept each other as equals whose difference is mutually complementary in all spheres of life and human endeavor.”
+ Paul Jewett, 1920–1991, was a theologian and professor of systematic theology at Fuller, and an avid champion for the ordination of women—making him a controversial figure in evangelicalism.