John Wesley stood at the intersection of Acts 1:8 and Galatians 3:28 and found himself conflicted by the direction his movement should take regarding women in leadership. Officially, he asked women not to preach or lead men. Unofficially, however, he encouraged them to organize class meetings, teach in those meetings and conduct evangelism. Raised by a strong and outspoken mother, Wesley was never able to embrace a complete ban of women from the pulpit. In his explanatory notes on 1 Corinthians 14:54, he would say that women ought not preach except by “an extraordinary impulse of the Holy Spirit.’’[i] Nonetheless, Methodist women found it difficult to be constrained. And rightfully so! And women in this tradition should continue to be difficult to restrain.
So, here is a brief introduction to 10 women, both from within and outside the Methodist tradition. What they initiated, challenged, and accomplished is an ongoing inspiration to divinely anointed women and men—especially those involved in church planting as teammates or point leaders.
1. Margaret Fell (1614-1702)
Fell opened her home to many traveling evangelists, including George Fox, whom she later married and joined as a partner in developing the Quaker tradition.[ii] Because she would not take the “oath of obedience” to the King of England, Fell was imprisoned twice.
2. Barbara Heck (1734-1804)
Heck was the designer of John Street Methodist Church in New York and a planter who established congregations in both New York and Canada.[iii]
3. Hannah More (1745-1833)
More was far ahead of her time in her social activism on behalf of girls. She was also a playwright who taught Methodism and started new schools for the education of girls.[iv]
4. Sarah Mallett (1764-1846)
In 1787, Mallett was allowed to preach, one of a select few Methodist women at the time, as long as she preached the Methodist doctrines and held to the common disciplines of Methodist preachers.
5. Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874)
Palmer is known as the Mother of the Holiness movement, having started a prayer gathering in her home that spawned gatherings like it around the country. Palmer was also the founder of New York’s Five Points Mission.
6. Helenor Alter Davisson (1823-1876)
Davisson became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the Methodist Protestant Church in America in 1866. Together with her father, the Reverend John Alter, she traveled by horseback as a circuit rider through Indiana, planting a Methodist Protestant congregation in Alter’s Grove and a second congregation in the Barkley Township, making her the first woman to be ordained in the American Methodist Church and also the first woman to plant a church.
7. Catherine Booth (1829-1890)
Booth was the co-founder of the Salvation Army, along with her husband William. The Salvation Army is a worldwide church and charity with a recognized reputation for social concerns unlike no other church in the world.
8. Aimee Semple McPherson (1890-1944)
McPherson was the founder of the Foursquare Church, officially named the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. It is a dynamic evangelistic movement, which understands Jesus’ identity as fourfold: Jesus the Savior, Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Baptizer with the Holy Spirit, and Jesus the Soon-Coming King.
9. Myrtle Dorthea Beall (1894-1979)
Beall started Bethesda Temple in Detroit, a pentecostal church which thrived in the early part of the 20th century. She is known by many as the mother of the Latter Day Rain movement. Today, it stands as one of the largest churches in the suburban Metro-Detroit area.
10. Mother Teresa (1910-1997)
Mother Teresa began a social justice movement that spanned the globe, leaving four-thousand sisters as her legacy upon death, along with hundreds of others who served as monks, Fathers, lay missionaries and volunteers.[v]
Feel inspired? You should. Want to inspire others? You can.
[i] Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on Bible Study Tools
[ii]From “The Life of Margaret Fell.” (Information found at USHistory.org) Based on Margaret Fox of Swarthmoor Hall by Helen G. Crosfield, Headley Brothers, Bishopsgate, E.C. (1913)
[iii]”The History of Barbara Heck” on the Victoria United Church website.
[iv]Eric Metaxes, Seven Women: And the Secret of their Greatness. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2015. p 67.
[v] Metaxes, p. 188.
I would like to get more reflections on women in the UMC.
This is a very disappointing and short-sighted list. Where are the social reformers and artists such as Dorothy Day, Frances Perkins, Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers-Williams, Maya Angelou? Where are the theologians and historians such as Georgia Harkness, Diana Butler Bass, Barbara Brown Taylor? It’s shocking to include someone such as Aimee Semple McPherson, whose personal life came under great question, without including some of the trailblazing clergywomen who paved the way for today’s female pastors such as Dr. Amy Butler of historic Riverside Church in New York City. A most incomplete and skewed list!
I think it is a great list. Any list will be controversial–the inspiring presidents, the greatest ball players, or whatever. Actually the article is about women to inspire us, and will be influenced by whatever is our ideology. From Cynthia Astle’s list I would be greatly disappointed to see women like Diana Butler Bass, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Any Butler included. They may inspire progressives but I question whether they will be well known 100 years from now. I am particularly pleased to see Helenor Davisson on Carolyn Moore’s list. She is an example of someone who had no personal ambition and did not see herself as blazing trails. She simply loved Jesus, and followed God’s calling. A person does not need to be mentioned in big headlines to be inspiring. I am pleased to see Mrytle Beall and Aimee Semple McPherson on Moore’s list. True, McPherson has a cloud over her head, but one needs to be acquainted with the whole Pentecostal movement to realize the importance of some of the women who were Pentecostal. If Amy Butler builds a great church, fine, but I suspect she will be one of many who spoke out strongly for her convictions but have not (at least yet) moved the masses. Beall and McPherson have influenced millions. True gender equality is evidenced within Pentecostalism much more than in mainline Protestantism. The one name I might have included on Moore’s list that she did not mention (especially if we want Methodists and persons of color) is that of Amanda Smith. She too simply followed God’s calling and overcame barriers of race, gender, education, and economic status to win tens of thousands to Christ.
Where is Susannah Wesley’s name — should be near the top!
Thanks for giving these women credit for their service to God and the Church?