Posts Tagged ‘women preachers’

Louisa Woosley portrait- Internet ArchiveLouisa Woosley knelt by her ailing daughter’s bed and prayed. She felt that her daughter’s illness was her fault. God had clearly given Louisa a call to the ministry and she had disobeyed the call. Louisa asked for God’s forgiveness and promised the Lord that if He would restore her daughter to health she would answer the call.

God did restore her daughter to health and now Louisa was in a dilemma. How could she deliver on her promise? This was 1882 and America was clearly a patriarchal society. Women were not supposed to preach in public. Though Louisa had read through her Bible twice and underlined all of the passages where women served God, she still thought that it would be impossible for her to answer God’s call to the ministry as a woman.

So torn was Louisa that she entered a dark depression and was confined to her bedroom for six months. She deteriorated to the point where she was even unable to sit up in bed on her own. Finally, she realized that she must commit her whole life to God and answer His call no matter what. She determined to enter the Gospel ministry.

Immediately her health improved.

On January 1, 1887 the elders of her church invited Louisa to preach when the regular minister was gone. Her preaching was well received and Louisa began to preach whenever she was asked.

How did Louisa rise above her fears and doubts and become the trailblazer for women to follow in ministry?

Louisa Mariah Layman was born on March 24, 1862 in Kentucky. She was brought up in a Baptist household and committed her life to the Savior when she was twelve years old. It was soon after this that Louisa received her call from God. She thought that maybe she misunderstood because she did not know any women preachers at that time. Believing that women were forbidden to speak in public she decided to answer the call in a way that she believed was Biblical, by becoming a pastor’s wife.

She married a Christian, Charles G. Woosley in 1879 in the hopes that he would have the call to the pastorate. Instead Charles became a farmer. He was a good man but had no desire to work in full time ministry. Louisa struggled as she realized that she was not going to be able to fulfill her call through Charles.

A few years later, in 1882, Louisa studied the Scriptures looking for what God had to say about women in ministry. She came to the conclusion that God does not play favorites. There were too many women named in the Bible who selflessly served God for there to be any doubt now. God did call women to the ministry.

Imagine the turmoil for this woman in the 1800’s as she thought about actually obeying God by preaching in public. She was certain of God’s call, but how she agonized as she went through the idea of being the first woman that she knew of to be called to the preaching ministry! No wonder she suffered through so much turmoil. She wanted to be absolutely certain. Her first thought was to please God. And so after her daughter was restored and she herself was graciously healed, Louisa had the courage to rise above her doubts and go forth in obedience to God.

Louisa knew that she would face obstacles but by this time she also knew that God was with her and would help her through them. It was an amazing answer to her doubts when she was first asked to preach. God showed her that He meant business when her preaching was accepted by others.

From there Louisa went on as a pioneer for women in ministry. In just a few years Louisa preached 912 sermons resulting in over 2000 conversions to Jesus Christ. How can anyone deny that women should preach? The most important thing for any person is to get right with God. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). What more fruit does any Christian want to bear than bringing others out of the kingdom of darkness into the Kingdom of Light? Many thousands are thankful for the faithful work of women evangelists.

Louisa’s work opened the doors for other female ministers. Perhaps during her trials in her
early marriage she might have questioned what God was doing. All of us can look back and see what God was teaching us through trials. Louisa had her sincere doubts before God showed her that He was truly calling her. And so she was able to truthfully give an answer later when men questioned her about whether or not women should preach. Louisa had sought God’s will by doing the right things. She went to God’s Word first. She prayed. At first she listened to men and she tried to do what she thought the ordained ministers wanted. In the end, she simply obeyed God.

With heartfelt words and an honest, compelling testimony, Louisa convinced the men who were questioning her about whether or not women should preach. Many men changed their minds in face of the evidence – Louisa’s unshakeable faith and the many thousands who were accepting Christ.

This all happened in the late 1800’s. Today women still face opposition from those who insistshall women preach? that only men may preach. But what is preaching? Is it not a call to sinners to repent and put their faith in Christ? Are women disciples supposed to obey Christ too? Are they not supposed to call their loved ones to repentance and faith in Christ?

As Louisa saw in the Scriptures, women are part of God’s plan for the salvation of His world. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3;28). The man or woman who puts their faith in Christ and has new peace with God is grateful for the one who shared the Gospel with them. It does not matter if that person was a woman or a man. A soul is now redeemed. God’s Word is true whether spoken by a male or a female.

Louisa obeyed God’s calling. This was incredibly courageous for a woman in the nineteenth century. Only the conviction that she was in God’s will could keep her going. Like Peter and John before her she had to obey God rather than men. She lived through ridicule and persecution as many saints did before her but she knew after the miracles God had performed for her that she was in God’s will. All alone as a pioneer Louisa trusted God that she was chosen by Him to be His servant and she joyfully served God for the rest of her life.

How grateful we can all be that Louisa did not remain in fear but chose to follow God believing, ““God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.  ‘These all have to learn that it is, ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord.’”





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“It is impossible for me to describe the ecstasy that filled my soul. Better felt than can be expressed, are the raptures of a pardoned sinner. I believe the angelic host participated in my joys at that season, for they saw a prodigal return, and Jesus spoke of their gladness at such a sight. Oh! how charming was the name of Jesus to my ear, my eye, my heart.”          Harriet Livermore

Unlike many of the nineteenth century female evangelists and preachers that we readHarriet_Livermore about who were born into poverty or even slavery (Jarena Lee for example), Harriet Livermore was born into wealth and status. For seven generations her family had garnered an impressive political and military heritage. Harriet’s father was a U.S. District Attorney appointed by George Washington, a justice on the New Hampshire Supreme Court, and a member of the U.S. Congress for three terms.

Harriet’s mother died when she was only five years old and so she attended boarding schools until she was in her teen years. During the time that her father was in Congress, Harriet enjoyed being a part of the elite Washington social set. She was attractive and very eligible as the daughter of one of New England’s oldest families.

Harriet met the man of her dreams while she was attending Atkinson Academy. Both families opposed the union. A few years later, during the War of 1812, her beau died. It was after this that Harriet decided to become a preacher.

Harriet had experienced conversion in 1811. She then attended several different churches – Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Quaker, Methodist, and Congregational – but each one seemed lacking in something that she was seeking. Finally Harriet encountered the Freewill Baptists, whose emphasis on the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit allowed for women to speak in public. Harriet spoke in public with men present several times but encountered much criticism from friends. She stopped attending the Freewill Baptist meetings for a while but then realized that she wanted to dedicate her life to Christ full time. She insisted on baptism by immersion even though it was winter. On January 2, 1823, a hole was cut into some ice and Harriet was plunged into the freezing waters.

She sought the Lord’s will for her life, “Lord, what wouldst Thou have me to do?” She said that it came into her mind “with much sweetness to go and visit the Christian churches, exhorting the children of God to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made them free…”

Harriet began to visit churches all throughout New England. In the span of one three-month period she visited twenty-three churches and homes, exhorting at meetings. Within several years she was traveling further and further away and staying longer in some places.

H.Livermore bookHarriet wrote several books including: A Narration of Religious Experience (1826); Scriptural Evidence in favor of Female Testimony in Meetings for the Worship of God (1824); Thoughts on Important Subjects  (1864); and A Testimony for the Times (1843).

On January 8, 1827, with President John Quincy Adams in attendance, Harriet preached to Congress. One observer at the time said that the Hall, lobby, and Gallery of Congress were all filled to capacity. There were people standing outside because there was no room within. “She was judged to be an extremely eloquent speaker, as well as an extraordinarily fine singer, whose singing greatly augmented her message.” Harriet spoke in front of Congress three more times between 1832 and 1843.

One might get the idea that Harriet was a strident feminist. Actually, in her own words in a book that she wrote, Harriet explained her position. While she firmly believed that women should and indeed ought to exhort in public, her ideas of a woman’s place in ministry were similar to Conservatives today.

Harriet began by saying that the following was her own opinion and she did not wish to bind the consciences of women who differed from her. She went on:

“The scriptures are silent respecting the ordination of females. I conclude it belongs only to the male sex. The title of evangelist, or minister, I do not find in the department of Anna, Priscilla, Phoebe, or any other Christian women, left in Bible record. The administration of gospel ordinances, Baptism and the Lord’s supper, uniting persons in marriage, I believe are confined to the male sex; and to me it exhibits an anti-Christian spirit for a female to wish or believe them resting on her. I do not believe the spirit of truth will influence a woman to ask for ordination, and the connected duties, &c. &c.”

However: “The gift of illustrating scripture in public religious assemblies, may be conferred upon devoted female saints….”
Harriet went on to say that the spiritual gifts are for males and females alike.

While she believed that women could speak in public, she was cautious about women getting into the pulpit because there was so much prejudice against female preaching that the testimony of the gospel would be lost on deaf ears.

Harriet became a strong advocate of Indian rights during the time that many Native Americans were being confined to reservations. During the 1830’s while Jeremiah Evarts (1781-1831) was urging President John Quincy Adams to provide financial assistance to help the Cherokee nation, Harriet visited the Choctaw nation. Those familiar with this sad time in American history when the United States cruelly treated Native Americans will remember that the “Indian Removal Act” pushed natives further and further west without aid. Many died. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Fort Leavenworth thwarted Harriet’s plans because of his fear that she wanted to treat the Indians with equality. Harriet’s dream of bringing comfort and conversion to the Indians was ended.

This did not stop Harriet in her goal to serve Christ. She turned her attention to the Jews. Between 1836 and 1858, she made at least four trips to the Holy Land. She focused especially on Jerusalem. At this time she had a slim income and she depended on the support of friends during her journeys. She had even pawned some of her silver teaspoons to pay for her livelihood.

Though born in affluence, Harriet died in poverty, alone, at the age of eighty, in an almshouse in Philadelphia. She described herself as a stranger and a pilgrim on earth. She was buried as she requested in an unmarked grave. Thankfully, her story can still be read today and this remarkable woman’s testimony is an encouragement to women.

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Those who trust in the Lord are as Mount Zion, which cannot be moved but abides forever. Psalm 125:1.


Last week we began the story of Zilpha Elaw, an early nineteenth-century black female evangelist. Zilpha had married in 1810, had a daughter the following year, and was widowed in 1823 at age 32. We now pick up our story at that point.

Zilpha Elaw continued to work to support herself after both her husband and her sister died. She had long ago received a call from God to go out and preach the Gospel. She kept putting it off because she did not feel worthy to do so. She was uneducated compared to other ministers who had been to seminary. Zilpha was also worried about the fact that she was black. She prayed to God, “Lord! Send by whom thou wilt send, only send not by me; for thou knowest that I am ignorant; how can I be a mouth for God! — a poor, coloured female; and thou knowest we have many things to endure which others do not.”

IICor.3-5Zilpha had not yet learned the lesson from 2Corinthians 3:5 (“Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”). God answered her objection, “What is that to thee? Follow thou me.”

Placing her child with some relatives, Zilpha began her journey of preaching salvation to lost souls. She would travel to many states including the slaveholding states in the South. Here she ran the risk of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. The Lord protected her; she preached to both black and white folks. Some wealthy white people put her under their wings, caring for her even when she got ill.

Many people came to the Lord because of her preaching and at least one person was healed. Though Zilpha was worried that being black and a female would be detrimental, those factors are actually what attracted people to come and hear her. Some came out of curiosity; a few even came to mock her, but most were genuinely convicted and came back to hear her preach again. More than a few women would weep and beg her to pray for them at the meetings. Some of these women would become life-long friends.

Zilpha encountered many obstacles throughout her ministry. Besides young men who would come to the meetings specifically to hassle her, there were other church members and church leaders who opposed her because of her gender or color. Often these turned out to be people who were jealous of the reception that she got wherever she went. Sometimes after they heard her preach, they would repent of their attitude, ask her forgiveness and encourage her to continue on.

One example of this was a Presbyterian minister, Rev. Mr. House, who declared that he would have her stopped when she came to his city of Hartford. While in that city, Zilpha visited a very sick man and prayed for him. He immediately got so much better that his attending physician declared that he would like to go and hear Zilpha preach. After hearing her, the physician visited Rev. House and told him all that he had witnessed. Rev. House changed his mind about stopping Zilpha exclaiming, “Well, if God has sent her, I bid her God’s speed.” A revival broke out in Hartford among the people of every denomination.

Zilpha also encountered those who were skeptical of traditional, Evangelical Christian beliefs. Universalism was taking hold in the Northeastern United States at this time. The Universalists not only believed that everyone would be saved, thereby denigrating the cross of Christ, but they behaved as Deists, denigrating the immanent power of our Sovereign God. Many of these people came to hear her preach and she was able to exhort them in the whole Gospel including repentance for sin and genuine faith in a crucified Redeemer. She preached that mankind was lost and in need of a Savior. She warned them to flee from the wrath to come. Some did turn and believe.

By the nineteenth century the different denominations had separated themselves from each other. There was a group of women however who held monthly union prayer meetings Eph. 4  4-6together. This brought them into closer contact with each other as well as allowed them to share Christian love free from bigotry. Zilpha loved these meetings and was delighted to hear Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists sharing the Gospel truth as one. She said, “The Christian church should manifest one fold and one shepherd; one body and spirit; one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism; and one God and father of all who is above all, and through all, and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Of course, Zilpha missed her daughter. Eventually her daughter married and had two sons. Zilpha was very close to her daughter and grandsons.

Zilpha had received a vision some years before this promising her that she would travel to London. Zilpha was never sure how this could come about, and she argued the matter with the Lord in prayer, pleading her ignorance, her sex, her color, and her inability to minister the Gospel in a country “so polished and enlightened, so furnished with Bibles, so blessed with ministers, so studded with temples; but the Lord said, ‘say not, I cannot speak; for thou shalt go to all to whom I send thee, and what I command thee, thou shalt speak’.” (Jeremiah 1:7).

The Lord opened the way for her in 1840. She went home for a short time and spent some time with her daughter and two grandsons. The parting was tearful when it was time for her to leave for New York. From there she traveled to Philadelphia, then went by ship to London. Zilpha preached over one thousand sermons over a five-year period in England. She lived on the edge of poverty and endured “a thousand privations, hardships, targetfires, vexatious anxieties and deep afflictions, to which my previous life was an utter stranger.” She was occasionally ill, even near death, but the Lord sustained her.

While in England, Zilpha published her memoirs. Nearing the end of her life, she exhorts all her readers to stand fast in their faith. “Dear brethren, the time is short, it is ominous, and it is perilous; be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” Truly, Zilpha Elaw practiced what she preached. She is a model for us of a courageous woman who put aside all of her own feelings and wants and made herself totally available to God.

There is a hint near the end of her memoirs that she wants to return to the United States, but we don’t know whether or not she did. There is up to now no further information about her life after 1845. We can be sure that she is in Heaven rejoicing with all of the other saints including many that she had the privilege to lead to Christ.

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“Go preach the Gospel!”

These are the words that Jarena Lee distinctly heard one day a few years after she was saved and “sanctified”.

It is not my purpose to discuss theology at this time. Jarena Lee held to a view of sanctification that was Wesleyan Methodist. Many have debated John Wesley’s view of “perfectionism”, but at the very least, Christians are called to live “in the world” but not be “of the world”. This takes a commitment on the part of believers and reliance on the Holy Spirit to do the sanctifying work. Some believe that sanctification comes all at once as a “second blessing” and others believe that there may be an initial blessing from the Holy Spirit as He causes the Christian to realize that, though saved, she still sins and needs more help. Thus begins a process of “progress sanctification”.

In any event, Jarena knew that she was called to a purpose that involved more than justJerenaLee.2 her own personal comfort. The Holy Spirit gives gifts to men and women alike. All are called to exercise those gifts to build up the Kingdom of Christ. How are women to exercise their gifts? In the early nineteenth century as well as today there are many who restrict women to using their gifts at home only. For example, women may teach their children at home, but women may not exercise the gift of teaching in public. Some say they may never exercise the gift of preaching because that is for men only.

Again, this is a discussion that I would like to continue at another time. I invite you, readers, to jump in here with your thoughts. What gifts does the Holy Spirit give to women? When may they use them?

Recall that the last posting, “Jarena Lee – Part 1”, I recounted the story of the first time Jarena approached Rev. Richard Allen and told him about her call to preach. He turned her away. He told her about a woman who was given permission to lead prayer meetings and to “exhort” under a licensed preacher, but that women should not preach.

At first, Jarena was a bit relieved to hear this. Later she acknowledged though that it was her own fear of following her call that made her glad to hear Rev. Allen’s reply. However she found that not heeding her call made her lose her burning desire to tell others of Jesus Christ.

Jarena married, had children, and was widowed over the space of six years. She had occasions to speak to others about their souls, warning them to flee from the wrath to come. She still longed to preach the Gospel but was obedient to God in her present calling of wife and mother.

After eight years had gone by since the first time she applied to Rev. Allen, she received a fresh impression in her mind “as a fire shut up in my bones” to go and preach. She approached the now Bishop Richard Allen and simply asked for permission to hold prayer meetings. He granted that to her. This she did for some time.

Jarena’s account of her first opportunity to preach in public was given in Part 1. This was the story of her impromptu preaching from the book of Jonah. She was not sure of how she would be received, but actually she was well received and began her public ministry.

It was important to Jarena that her call was truly of God. She did not want it to be of her own desire or to be a temptation from Satan. She recognized the devil could “transform himself into an angel of light for the purpose of deception.” The first time Jarena heard her call she was very careful to make sure it was from the Lord. She immediately “went into a secret place, and called upon the Lord to know if he had called me to preach, and whether I was deceived or not; when there appeared to my view the form and figure of a pulpit, with a Bible lying thereon, the back of which was presented to me as plainly as if it had been a literal fact.” In other words, Jarena had a vision. That night she had a vivid dream. She took a text and preached in her sleep. This convinced her of her call and she approached Rev. Allen for that first time.

When she began her public ministry, Jarena defended her right to preach on three grounds. First was God’s direct call to her (recounted above). Secondly, she could point to the results. There was no doubt about the support she received from men and women. And third, there were the Scriptures.

Along with other black and white women who wanted to serve by using their call to preach, Jarena pointed to many Scriptures in support of her ministry. Here in her own words is her defense:

“If a man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? seeing he died for her also.”

“Did not Mary first preach the risen Saviour, and is not the doctrine of the resurrection the very climax of Christianity — hangs not all our hope on this, as argued by St. Paul? Then did not Mary, a woman, preach the gospel? for she preached the resurrection of the crucified Son of God.

But some will say, that Mary did not expound the Scripture, therefore, she did not preach, in the proper sense of the term. To this I reply, it may be that the term preach, in those primitive times, did not mean exactly what it is now made to mean; perhaps it was a great deal more simple then, than it is now: — if it were not, the unlearned fishermen could not have preached the gospel at all, as they had no learning.”

Some might reply that only men are inspired to preach the gospel. Jarena replied, “If then, to preach the gospel, by the gift of heaven, comes by inspiration solely, is God straitened; must he take the man exclusively? May he not, did he not, and can he not inspire a female to preach the simple story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and accompany it too, with power to the sinners’ heart. As for me, I am fully persuaded that the Lord called me to labour according to what I have received, in his vineyard. If he has not, how could he consistently bear testimony in favour of my poor labours, in awakening and converting sinners?”

How indeed?

sisters:19thcenturyJarena’s story is one of a series of four women (including Maria W. Stewart) that I want to explore over the coming weeks. Was Jarena’s call real, or only the product of a vivid imagination? If a woman’s call to preach is real, how should we deal with it? This is not as easy as it sounds, for we must define “preach” and also “where” a woman may “preach”. Is the call to share the Gospel with others for all Christians?

More in the weeks to come.

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