5 (Dead) Women Every Egalitarian Should Know

Gail Wallace

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Abney Park Egalitarian William and Catherine Booth

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” Hebrews 12:1

Remember the line of the song “Wonderful World” that says, “don’t know much about history?” The accusation is sometimes made that the egalitarian movement is the result of modern feminism “infiltrating” the church. But church history tells a different story. These five women made significant contributions to the Christian egalitarian movement during the Post-Reformation period, long before Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique came on the scene:

Margaret Fell Fox (1614-1702)

Fox was a founder of the Society of Friends along with her husband, and is considered one of the Valiant Sixty early Quaker preachers and missionaries. In 1664 she was arrested for failing to take an oath and allowing Quaker Meetings to be held in her home. She defended herself by saying that “as long as the Lord blessed her with a home, she would worship him in it”. She was sentenced to life imprisonment and forfeiture of her property, and remained in prison until 1668, during which time she wrote religious pamphlets and epistles. Her most famous work is “Women’s Speaking Justified“, a scripture-based argument for women in ministry, the major text on women’s religious leadership in the 17th century.

Susanna Wesley (1669-1742)

The mother of Charles and John Wesley, Susanna often preached at services in her home during the absences of her husband from his parish. In a description of these meetings Tucker and Liefeld note that “Susanna could not prevent the spontaneous growth. . . to the point where she could say: ‘Last Sunday I believe we had above two hundred.  And yet many went away, for want of room to stand.'” While her husband was initially resentful, he came to appreciate and support the unique gifts God had given her. History records that people responded to Susanna’s sermons and calls to salvation more than to those of Samuel Wesley or the replacement who followed him. Her son John referred to her as “a preacher of righteousness”. Read more here.

Sojourner Truth (c. 1797-1883)  

Born Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner was an African-American slave who escaped in adulthood and became a gifted itinerant preacher, abolitionist and women’s rights activist. In 1843 she changed her name, telling friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Truth preached the gospel message boldly, and was known for her outspokenness on issues of social justice; abolition and women’s rights were common themes. Her best-known speech “Ain’t I a Woman?“, was delivered in 1851 at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, causing her to become one of the most celebrated and controversial itinerant preachers of her era. Watch a short video clip on Sojourner’s advocacy for women’s equality.

Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874) 

Phoebe Palmer was the most influential woman in the American Methodist movement during the 19th century. Her ministry began with women’s prayer meetings in her home, which soon grew to include men.  According to Christianity Today, “word of these successful prayer meetings inspired similar gatherings around the country, bringing Christians of many denominations together to pray…At her instigation, missions began, camp meetings evangelized, and an estimated 25,000 Americans converted”. Her teaching was instrumental in the rise of denominations like The Church of the Nazarene, The Salvation Army, The Church of God and The Pentecostal-Holiness Church. More here and here.

Catherine Booth (1829-1890)

Booth is known as the Mother of The Salvation Army which she founded with her husband, William. In 1859 she wrote, Female Ministry: Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel, an apologetic defending the right of women to preach. The pamphlet spelled out three reasons for her convictions: 1) women are neither naturally nor morally inferior to men, 2) there is no scriptural reason to deny them a public ministry, and 3) what the Bible urged, the Holy Spirit had ordained and blessed and so must be justified. She believed that “the ‘unjustifiable application’ of Paul’s advice, ‘Let your women keep silence in the Churches,’ had resulted in more loss to the Church, evil to the world, and dishonor to God, than any of [its] errors”. Read more here.

What does this snapshot of history have to do with us today?

As Tucker and Leifeld note:

“Above all else, it places the current trends of the church in historical perspective…While the feminist movement has had a significant impact on the more liberal churches that have in recent decades granted full equality to women in ministry, it has not necessarily been the motivating force behind the Evangelical women who have sought ordination and leadership positions. Women in Evangelical churches have a long heritage of seeking (and sometimes obtaining) meaningful positions in the church for the purpose of serving God more effectively” (p. 17).

So the next time someone makes the statement that egalitarians are pawns of the feminist movement, ask if they’ve heard of Margaret Fox, Susanna Wesley, Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer, or Catherine Booth. If the answer is no, maybe you can help them brush up on their church history before continuing the conversation.

Reference: “Daughters of the Church” by Tucker and Liefeld. Zondervan, 1987.
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Photo: Abney Park Cemetery, where William and Catherine Booth are buried.

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24 Comments

  • Catherine Booth has been a hero of mine for many years now. Thank you for this encouraging article!

  • Hi Gail (thanks to Mark Neale on Facebook), an interesting list, a couple I’d never heard of. I personally would add Eve to the list – when God asked her what she had done she told the truth and unflinchingly sided against the devil, ‘the serpent deceived me and I ate.’ God then promised that through her seed a saviour would come – not Adam’s, after all, in Adam all die…

    You may like my book ‘The Truth About Eve,’ completely free to read online (no registration, etc), or receive as a hard copy. Keep up the good work! 🙂

    • Hello, Martyn. Thanks for stopping by! I’ll definitely take a look at the book.

  • What a lovely, straightforward and clear post. It saddens me that even today people have the value and place of women muddled, keep up the good work.

    • Thanks so much, Mark! Straightforward and clear is what I was going for – I think it’s helpful when we can share this bits and pieces with others in conversation. And appreciate your sadness – it is truly grievous how the church is limiting God’s work in the world in this way.

    • Marg, I bought it on Tim Peck’s recommendation after he mentioned in his post. I thought it would be a good reference to have on hand – didn’t expect it to be so engaging! It’s very thorough and I think you would enjoy it.

  • This is excellent!
    I appreciate all the links you’ve included as well.
    I’m taking a course called “Women in Christian History” and “Daughters of the Church” is our primary text.

    Thank you for the work you’ve put into this, Gail.

    • You’re very welcome, Anne. You should write us a post on a different era! It was so hard to limit the list to just 5, which was quite encouraging.

  • I love these women and have loved them for years: Margaret Fox who was willing to lay down her life; Susannah Wesley who wasn’t ‘too busy’ for God even though she had umpteen children – imagine the hormones and no Evening Primrose Oil capsules; Sojourner Truth who had such a sense of ‘self’ and God at work, seemingly unintimidateable; Phoebe Palmer – Revivalist; Catherine Booth who I often think is my favourite until I read about another great woman whom the Lord used to the maximum!

    I love Daughters of the Church – it has so much good sense! Thanks for reminding me of these great and godly women, Gail. They’re not perfect but then, who is! I love’m and appreciate their willingness to go before us, unsung and unheralded.

    • Bev, I didn’t realize when I started researching for the post that Margaret Fox was imprisoned for four whole years! And Susannah Wesley – I could barely handle three kids, can’t imagine ten (I know she had more but believe only ten lived.) Of these women I think Sojourner Truth was the bravest, though. Black, a slave, and a woman during those times – it’s unthinkable, really.

  • Even during the Reformation, there were some women doing really cool things. Argula von Grumbach and Katharina Schutz Zell are a few of my favourites. Von Grumbach wrote pamphlets and single-handedly took on the theological faculty at Ingolstadt in 1523 for expelling a Lutheran student, and Zell was the wife of Matthis Zell, one of Strasbourg’s reformers, and a formidable reformer in her own right. She wrote pamphlets, she preached, and she spearheaded relief efforts for poor immigrants to Strasbourg after the failure of the Peasants’ War.

    • Christina, here’s a blogger’s true confession: I didn’t realize Halloween was also Reformation Day, or I would have added these women in as key advocates for women during the Reformation. But the post was already written, so it was too late. Thanks for sharing this!

      • No worries. I love the women you picked too! I’m just a bit of a women and the Reformation geek (just started a PhD in that area)

  • Who would I add to the list? Well, clearly, Gail Wallace & Kate Wallace. 🙂 Thanks for all you’re doing to raise consciousness in this area. You’re influencing me to constructively think about this issue.

    • Haha! Thanks, Heather. The truth is that there are hundreds of women who have been active in ministry leadership since the time of Jesus, right? Just as in other areas of history, we need to bring them back into focus. You should put “Daughters of the Church” on your Christmas list – it is really engaging! Can hardly put it down.

      • Christmas list…nothing…I’m not gonna wait that long…I’m ordering it now! 🙂

        Yes…even today there are so many silent heroes serving our churches in this area…it would be fascinating to start collecting stories about everyday individuals impacting this movement.

        • Henrietta was the one I had in mind too! Because it wasn’t just Foho, it was changing Sunday school to grade level classes so kids learned at their own levels, launching missionaries, and preaching. Real, good, preaching.

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