Freedom to speak, freedom to serve

IN THE EARLIEST DAYS of the Stone-Campbell Movement, women fulfilled important pastoral roles: caring for the sick and the poor, preparing food during extended worship meetings, and bringing up and training Christian children. The early years of the movement coincided with the early years of the American republic, and women were encouraged to be “republican mothers.” Assumed to have superior virtue, they were charged to pass that virtue on to their children. The result? Good Christian citizens to populate the new republic.  

Where did the bread go?

Women moved out of these private roles into public ones first as educators. Jane Campbell McKeever (1800–1871), younger sister of Alexander Campbell, founded Pleasant Hill Female Seminary near West Middletown, Pennsylvania, as early as the 1830s. Alexander had very moderate views on slavery, but Jane did not share them. She was a firm abolitionist, and she and her husband even ran a station of the Underground Railroad on their farm. (Her students sometimes wondered why the bread they baked one day was gone the next morning.) In 1854 she publicly disagreed with her famous brother and wrote a fierce indictment of slavery in the abolitionist North-Western Christian Magazine.

Women were also involved in active evangelism, organizing congregations, and, in the absence of male preachers, baptizing believers on the American and Canadian frontiers. Mary Graft, Mary Morrison, and Mary Ogle of Pennsylvania and Mary Stogdill of Ontario are not remembered well today, but they were torchbearers who brought the gospel to isolated places, and their ministry was welcome.

The Civil War brought many changes to American society. Some of them affected women’s calls to ministry. In the wake of the war, women found they had acquired new skills of management and leadership. In addition, they were receiving a better education, much of it on par with that received by young men of the day. Many found their voices by participating in temperance, suffrage, and other social reform movements. These skills transferred naturally to the pulpit. 

Passion for preaching

Clara Hale Babcock (1850–1924) is considered to be the first woman ordained to preach by the Disciples of Christ in 1888 or 1889, followed by Jessie Coleman Monser (1891), Bertha Mason Fuller (1891), and Sarah (“Sadie”) McCoy Crank (1892). These women were remarkably effective evangelists. Clara Babcock baptized more than 1,500 people during her ministry. Sadie Crank baptized even more and organized over 50 rural congregations. They all had a voice in the temperance movement as well.

Probably the most passionate temperance advocate of all was Carry Nation (1846–1911). A popular lay preacher and lecturer for the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), she gained notoriety for smashing illegal saloons with her hatchet. (See “Did you know?,” inside front cover.)

The newspapers that caricatured Nation in cartoons did not call as much attention to the fact that near the end of her life she operated a shelter for battered women in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Her relationship with the Disciples of Christ was sometimes tense because of her unorthodox methods and uncompromising advocacy for women’s rights.

Another outlet for women’s energies was missionary work. Caroline Neville Pearre (1831–1910) founded the Christian Women’s Board of Missions (CWBM) when she saw the vital work of domestic and foreign missions languishing in the Disciples of Christ. In 1874 she set up the first women’s missionary society at her home church in Iowa City and soon began encouraging and supporting other women to do the same. 

That same year representatives of these societies came together to form the national CWBM, with the blessing of the Disciples’s American Christian Missionary Society (ACMS). ACMS secretary Thomas Munnell famously replied to Pearre’s request for permission to convene: “This is a flame of the Lord’s kindling, and no man can extinguish it.” 

The CWBM was very successful in fund-raising and supporting mission projects. In 1919 it helped form the United Christian Missionary Society. Because the CWBM provided the bulk of the funds and the members, it was able to insist on equal representation on the society’s committees—a privilege many women in other Protestant groups were fighting for in this era.

But segregated times led to a racially segregated missionary society. Sarah Lue Bostick (1868–1948), while probably never officially ordained, was an early African American woman preacher in the Disciples of Christ and an active organizer and fund-raiser in the separate black CWBM, setting up chapters in several African American congregations. 

Bostick’s leadership and that of other female African American Disciples provided major support for the Southern Christian Institute in Edwards, Mississippi, and for mission work in Liberia. This segregated group of the CWBM helped establish Jarvis Christian Institute in Hawkins, Texas (see “The story of a school,” p. 28). 

Women ministers

Any examination of the role of women in the movement must at some point confront the movement’s central motivation: a return to New Testament Christianity around which all Christian groups could come together. This meant reading the Scriptures as a blueprint to be followed to the letter. 

Alexander Campbell was thus opposed to women ministers, writing in the Millennial Harbinger that he followed Paul in 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:1–15, where the apostle admonished women to be silent in the church, not to usurp male authority, and to talk privately to their husbands if they had questions or comments. 

Many Stone-Campbell churches still debate what Paul’s words mean to Christians today. Was he speaking to Christians in a specific time, place, and culture, or were his words binding for all time? The Disciples of Christ, the most mainline stream,

generally accepts that Paul was speaking to a particular situation and that it is important to utilize the gifts of all Christians, regardless of gender, race, class, or other circumstance.

The other two Stone-Campbell streams, the Churches of Christ and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, held more closely to a literal interpretation of Paul’s instruction and resisted accepting women in the more public forms of ministry. 

But that is changing, and it is common in the twenty-first century to find women youth ministers, family ministers, music ministers, education ministers, and even occasionally, pulpit ministers. The role of women continues to be debated, and there are many gradations of acceptance of their public ministry. 

Decision for Christ

Uncovering the experiences of women as the Stone-Campbell Movement spread around the globe also presents challenges. Most stories told in the West reflect the perspectives of missionaries, not converts. But even so, they tell a significant tale. 

In 1920s India, British missionary Anne Piggot traveled between Church of Christ mission stations to work with Bible women and to preach the gospel. One convert, Jaswa, visited Piggot several times under the cover of darkness before finally declaring her desire to be a Christian. 

Jaswa’s family repeatedly tried to dissuade her from pursuing her new faith. They said they would cut her up, bury her in the house, and tell the neighbors that she had gone to live with relatives. Jaswa was terrified. But when she received a vision of two men in shining white robes asking her to return to the Christians, she decided to go back. Later, the transformed Jaswa rescued a girl of the despised “sweeper caste” who had fallen into a rushing river.

India was not the only place where conversion threatened social order. One of the first Japanese converts, Ino Fusakawa, whitened her teeth after her conversion, a departure from the usual practice of married Japanese women blackening their teeth (perhaps to make them unattractive). Neighbors questioned her morals, but missionaries pressured her to do it as a means of embracing her new Christian faith. 

Bible women

Before the Second World War, Bible women (so called because they taught the Bible) represented the most numerous female evangelists. These missionaries taught other women (and sometimes men), served as church staff, distributed books and tracts, and visited women in isolated regions. Hundreds served in India, Japan, and Korea in particular. They gained a foothold for women in church affairs, and they contributed significantly to the movement’s losing its Western character. 

For example, in 1916, Japanese Christian Kei Nakamura served as a Bible woman in a church of the Yotsuya Japan Mission. Her ministry spanned all aspects of church life. She conducted meetings, visited women in their homes, taught a class of girls at the Bible school sponsored by the mission, participated in worship, and served as the pastor’s assistant. 

After World War II, missions took a new direction. The ministries of Bible women were replaced by the growing Christian Women’s Fellowship—organized in 1949 by Jesse Mary Trout of Ontario, also vice president of the United Christian Missionary Society. Trout had been a missionary to Japan before World War II and to Japanese Americans in internment camps during the war. Her hope, and that of other woman leaders, was that women would become part of a world structure that encouraged an international sense of community and sisterhood. 

One of the most unique of these sisterhoods was the Fellowship of the Least Coin, pioneered by Carmen Armonio of Manila in 1956. This ecumenical organization quickly spread to over 60 countries and still exists today. It encourages all women to pray for peace, justice, and reconciliation and to give of the “least coin” in their currency to support projects throughout the world. 

Jorgelina Lozada (1906–1995), a native of Argentina and the first ordained female pastor in Latin America, was a leader in ecumenical cooperation and the fight for social justice. She began preaching in 1930 at Villa Mitre Christian Church in Buenos Aires, soon one of the largest churches in Argentina. In 1951 she publicly wore a suit that she had made from sacks to demonstrate to poor women in her congregation “what could be done with just a little.” 

Some women developed unique ministries to grow the church and spread the gospel. Mama Beyeke of the Disciples Mission in Congo trained Congolese singers and formed a traveling choir that evangelized through song. Beyeke composed songs with African musical instruments that replaced the translated Western Christian hymns that had predominated in African worship. The “Mama Beyeke Chorale” even traveled as far as the United States (in 1987).  

Send the sister 

Mary Thompson became the first missionary from the Australian Churches of Christ when she left Melbourne for India in 1891. An American missionary couple had written to the Australian churches saying, “If a brother is not ready, and a sister is, send her out, for we greatly need help.” The first missionary society formed in Australia had two women among its eight members. 

Australian women entered the pulpit in 1931 when a local church in Hawthorne, Queensland, chose Violet Maud Callanan as their pastor. The local leadership had the freedom to make their own decisions, and they concluded that the calling of a woman to public ministry was valid because of their belief in the mutual ministry of all believers. 

Callanan had completed a qualifying certificate at the College of the Bible in Victoria. But her position remained tenuous. She even dressed in a habit and veil in her early career, possibly trying to adhere to strict boundaries of female behavior even while transcending them. 

Despite the lack of institutional barriers to women’s ordination, Callanan was the only female pastoral minister for over 25 years in Australia. The percentage of women in ministry in the entire movement even in the twenty-first century remains low (23 percent among Disciples and only a handful in the other streams). Many still seek the freedom to speak. CH

By Sara Harwell and Loretta Long Hunnicutt

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #106 in 2013]

Sara Harwell is vice president and chief archivist at the Disciples of Christ Historical Society. Loretta Long Hunnicutt is professor of history at Pepperdine University and the author of The Life of Selina Campbell: A Fellow Soldier in the Cause of Restoration and many articles.
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