The (Un) Equally Yoked Marriage/Divorce of Rev. Maria W. Atkinson

Another installment of my look at Pentecostal women looks at a Church of God missionary named Maria W. Atkinson, who, like several other better known Pentecostal women, was a widowed and divorced woman during the 1920s and 30s when such things were unheard of. It makes you wonder how certain women were able to find that elusive “wiggle” room to get out of marriages that stifled their careers?

Maria Atkinson was born into a Catholic upper-middle class family in Sonora, Mexico, in 1877. The Atkinson wealth came from silver mining. Atkinson seems to have experienced ecstatic experiences early on in her life, as the semi-hagiographic biography of her and her denomination note. At the age of 14, Atkinson experienced a vision of Jesus at Mass. She stayed in that ecstatic state for several hours. Church of God author Charles Conn notes that Atkinson exchanged the “ mariolatry of Romanism for the simple faith of evangelical Protestants.” Conn failed to note that the ecstatic like state that lasts for hours is a time honored trope of many Catholic mystics.

As the Mexican Revolution displaced thousands, Atkinson immigrated north of the border and settled in Douglas, Arizona, where she married Mark Atkinson. Maria’s story of how she became Pentecostal is typical of hundreds, if not thousands of people who have come to the faith by a healing experience. In 1924 she was diagnosed with cancer, her washwoman, Maria Ybarra, talked to her about the possibility of faith healing and Atkinson began attending a local Assemblies of God church in hopes of receiving healing. She reported being healed and thereafter joined the Assemblies of God as a missionary. Mark Atkinson, who may have never converted, refused to follow his wife into missions so she left Arizona and went back to Mexico without him. In 1926, she returned to Mexico as a missionary. She affiliated with the Church of God and established Pentecostal communities in Nogales, Santa Ana, Hermosillo, and Ciudad, Obregon.

Atkinson tended to focus on preparing other missionaries and on training her charges on the proper way to conduct themselves and make themselves respectable. No doubt, her wealthy upbringing instilled in her a sense of propriety she apparently felt was missing among her followers.  In addition to this socialization, Atkinson used her teacher training to teach people to read. Atkinson would become a “pioneer” missionary in the Church of God. There is little in the written records or in the scant academic literature as to why a divorced women would be afforded such honor and praise, but that is the curious thing about women in Pentecostal churches.

Then as now they are necessary since today they comprise at least 50% of the attendees, but they are expected to yield to a series of proscriptions  that fit a particular biblical worldview that just happens to promote the idea of female submission as the ideal. Divorce is not the ideal and at one time it was prohibited and divorced people who re-married were viewed as adulterers, but this view, while still adhered to in the abstract more than the reality is something that Pentecostal churches have never viewed as automatically disqualifying someone from ministry.  The trump card that Atkinson seemed to play, as did McPherson, as have countless others is the selective biblical admonition not to be unequally yolked.  This card, once played, allowed  women like Atkinson to not only divorce their husbands, but leave them behind to continue on with their careers–an impressive feat indeed.

It is difficult to speculate on why Atkinson and later, the more (in)famous Aimee McPherson would risk being viewed as social outcasts for leaving their husbands? In an era before no-fault divorce, before any reform of laws covering divorce, they decided that it was worth the risk. What may be safe to say is that because these two women chose to pursue ministry, it became acceptable to leave behind husbands that were not supportive of their “calling.” In effect, what Pentecostals now and then might have allowed for is for Atkinson and McPherson to get out of their marriages because they were both “unequally yoked” with men who were unconverted or simply uninterested.

The bigger scandal than divorce it seems would be to have stayed married to unrepentant men who were hostile, apathetic, or in Mark Atkinson’s case, simply did not believe that his wife had a role to play outside the role of home-maker and mother. In Maria’s case, stuck between the twin proscriptions of gendered living: marriage to men and marriage to the church–she chose the one that seemed to offer her most opportunities for self-fulfillment and career growth.

Follow Us!
POPULAR AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Joaquin Elias

    Your writings are mostly speculation.

    2 Corinthians 6:14 (KJV)
    14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

    This is not talking about if one finds God and wants to serve him. If Mark was an unbeliever, that’s the road he chose. Maria in her FAITH chose God. And God is Greater than You and I and any Wife or Husband.

    1 Corinthians 7:12-14 (KJV)
    12 But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.
    13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.
    14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.

    Sir: The Word of God (Bible AV KJV) was not only written for Maria W. Atkinson, It was written for Mark also. It was written and is a Testimony for God’s Grace for Humanity, meaning it was written for all of us.

    I knew Maria W. Atkinson and she had a following with lots of saints coming and going to her house, very famous people I met, wanting direction for their lives. I was so impressed the following she had.

    1 Timothy 5:17 (KJV)
    17 Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.

    And she truly did labor in the work of God, That’s why she was so Loved.

    Ecclesiastes 1:9 (KJV)
    9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

    This Love people had towards Maria W. Atkinson is nothing new, Maria W. Atkinson would preach the Word of God to lost souls who were dispirit to have some answers and direction for their lives, just as Apostal Paul or Peter or James ect. ect……..they were greatly loved also, not because they were Great men of God, they were Loved because of the TRUTH they had to receive it. If they did not receive the TRUTH the would not have been Loved, the people would have just passed on by and forget they were even there, and Maria W. Atkinson was the conduit or tool that made the connection. I know I am lengthy here Sir: but you didn’t know my Great Grandmother like I knew her. I believe you are using your intellect instead of your Faith.

    Isaiah 55:6-9 (KJV)
    6 Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:
    7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
    8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.
    9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

    How can the Flesh (Carnal) understand the spirit? They can’t.
    Proverbs 11:30 (KJV)

    Romans 8:3-8 (KJV)
    3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
    4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
    5 For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
    6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
    7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
    8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.

    Now in closing and thank you for tolerating my protecting of the Saints.

    I do not know when my Great Grandmother got married to Mark, but I do have pictures of Maria W. Atkinson and Mark and My Grandmother together in an airport era 1919. Mark worked on many airplanes and he flew them. I have no idea what went between them but there was a lot of obstacles between their lives. I am not trying to MINIMIZE here, but the few things I do know, you did not state in your writings. Just like the the real world, when one of the married couples who were both sinners and never had the enlightenment of the LORD. Starts to go to church and starts to have an relationship with the SAVIOUR and then is converted, the opposite husband or wife, get mad a jealous, and thinks you are crazy, and things start to go bad from that time forward. Its like that in this world. That’s why you brought out the Scripture: 2 Corinthians 6:14 (KJV)
    14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?

    Maybe that’s what happen in this case, nonetheless, when she started to build churches in Mexico there was an epidemic Spanish Flu, and at that time they would not let no one move out of the towns, cities they were at, and this was for many many years. If you have a Chance to read her book its called,
    “No Doubt Here” Great Grandson Joaquin
    30 The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life; and he that winneth souls is wise.