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Lives, Issues of Women Evangelists Explored by Historian, Author

Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2009-03-31

The issues faced by women evangelists in the 19th and 20th centuries are much like those faced by their modern-day counterparts, historian Priscilla Pope-Levison told Samford University students Tuesday, March 31.

"Cultural expectations for women, child care, negotiating work outside the home with one's spouse, tending to domestic matters, biblical interpretation, denominational support or approbation, are quite contemporary," said Dr. Pope-Levison.

The author of Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists, Pope-Levison spoke as this year's Marie NeSmith Fowler lecturer at the school.

The history of women evangelists began before the Revolutionary War, and since then they have traversed America in their work, said the author, whose book chronicles the lives of 18 such women.

Certain commonalities, such as a rural background and lack of formal education, apply to many. The latter, she said, may have been due to economic status, or, as in the case of African-American women, lack of access to schooling. Even women who could pursue studies sometimes encountered suspicion in their churches about the dangers of too much education.

Of the women profiled in her book, all but one--Roman Catholic Martha Moore Avery-- are Protestant, and most of those gravitated toward denominations that stressed preaching, biblical authority, conversion and the witness of the Holy Spirit.

Because their evangelistic work was often opposed by denominational leaders, the female preachers cast a net wider than just one denomination.

"Long before the ecumenical movement came to the fore in the early 20th century, their audiences were a pot potpourri of denominations," said Pope-Levison, professor of theology and assistant director of women's studies at Seattle Pacific University.

For some 20th century evangelists, a more radical option was to begin a new denomination, as was the case of Ida Robinson, who believed God called her to found the Mount Sinai Holy Church in America, which exists today.

While most preferred to be evangelists rather than ministers of churches with weekly duties, most did acquire official permission of some type, be it a letter of recommendation from a denominational leader, a license to preach, or, more rarely, ordination with full rights and privileges of their brother ministers.

Aimee Semple McPherson held credentials of one type or another by Assemblies of God, Methodist and Baptist denominations before founding her own International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, said Pope-Levison.

Family life for most early women evangelists would have been considered ordinary, with marriage, childbirth and child rearing, said Pope-Levison, an ordained United Methodist minister who is married and the mother of two teenagers.

"In the midst of their normal routine, they began to experience a divine call to evangelistic work," said Pope-Levison, noting that it was a persistent and insistent call that they felt they must obey.

Especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when women were expected to find occupation and satisfaction at home, they had to handle their husband's reaction, which might range from total opposition to complete support.

Many of the women often agonized over leaving their children to pursue their evangelistic work. Some mothers who had children die after they were called to their work, she said, interpreted the event as evidence that God had taken the child who stood in the way of the mother's divine call.

Often the objects of curiosity and criticism, the women frequently cited Biblical references of such women as Deborah and Esther in the Old Testament and Mary and others in the New Testament.

They also referenced personal experience, saying that this "job" was not one for which they had applied, but one for which God had "hired" them," said Pope-Levison.

"They, like me and like many of your in this room, tried their best to follow what they perceived to be God's call on their life in the midst of daily, human existence," she said.

The Fowler lecture series is sponsored by Samford's Christian Women's Leadership Program (CWLP). It honors the late Mrs. Fowler of Hartselle, a Samford graduate who was one of the first female pharmacists and pharmacy owners in Alabama.

The CWLP was established in 2000 through a partnership between Samford and the Woman's Missionary Union. The mission of the program is to engage Christian women in learning experiences and leadership development.

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