Unnamed Women of the Bible

Questions for the post: Are there unnamed women in your church? Are their ministries made known? Are names made known? Furthermore, is there a silencing of the ministry of women in the history of the church in your pulpit and in your Bible/education classes? Put together, while many today decry the unnamed women of the Bible, is there a vibrant and viable presence of women in your church? Are we continuing the “unnaming” by a “silencing”?

From CBE’s newsletter. There’s an issue here. It is not that there are both unnamed men and unnamed women in the Bible, but that there are too many unnamed women. And this tradition has continued, and JoAnn Shade addresses it with grace and generosity; her piece is called “Have You Ever Seen a Lassie?”

Major JoAnn Shade (DM, Ashland Theological Seminary) has served as a Salvation Army officer in the USA since 1978. She is a trained counselor, mother of three, and author of Heartwork of Hope: A Directed Journal and Seasons: A Woman’s Calling to Ministry.

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The Salvation Army in New York City recently celebrated the 125th anniversary of the opening of the work in that great city. It was quite a party and gave witness to the faithfulness of God in powerful ways. But it raised again an issue that has troubled me for a number of years: Why do we continue to refer to the seven brave women who came with Railton as the “seven hallelujah lassies”? Okay, in a pinch it may be a poetic phrase, but this is 2010, and whatever that word may have implied in 1880, my vivid imagination can only draw on my early childhood experience of Lassie, the adorable collie who kept getting lost.

These “lassies” are seven women who left their homes, their families, and everything that was familiar to cross the ocean in hopes of spreading the gospel. They are seven women who have names. Except that it’s difficult to find them. Sixty minutes on the internet could not locate their names. They are unnamed in Soldier Saint, a biography of George Scott Railton, who accompanied them to New York, nor are they named in Red-Hot and Righteous, Diane Winston’s work on the urban religion of The Salvation Army. Edward McKinley names one in Marching to Glory—Emma Westbrook—and describes the group as “stalwart women with great heart but little ability”(15). It finally took an email to the archives in London to find them. So for the record, in recognition of their personhood, the women who came to US shores in 1880 were Alice Coleman, Rachel Evans, Emma Elizabeth Florence Morris, Elizabeth Pearson, Clara Price, Annie Shaw, and Emma Westbrook.

It could be presumed that the lack of naming of these women has been simply a historical oversight, but if so, there have been too many historical oversights in the course of the history of our faith, beginning with the Scriptures. Jephthah’s daughter (Judg. 11), the woman who was a concubine (Judg. 19), the woman at the well (John 4), the woman taken in adultery (John 8), the woman with an issue of blood (Matt. 9), and the woman in Simon’s house (Mark 14), are only a few of the many unnamed women in the Bible.

Yet unnamed women are not confined to the pages of history. There are unnamed women in our contemporary world as well: the female babies aborted daily in China simply because of their gender, the women being sold into prostitution and sexual slavery, and yes, the prostitutes on the street corners and the women who have been bumped off the welfare rolls in our own communities.

Yet these women do have names. While they may not have been considered noteworthy enough to be recorded in the Scripture, each woman has a name. Even women who are forced to abort their daughters give them a name. And sex slaves, prostitutes, and poor women all have names as well. As such, their names are known to the God of the universe, the shepherd who cares for his sheep. As the chorus writer reminds us:

He cannot forget me, though trials beset me,
Forever his promise shall stand,
He cannot forget me, though trials beset me,
My name’s on the palm of his hand.
(SASB 125)

While I may not be able to change the historical records of The Salvation Army, I can remember that George did not come alone to the shores of the US, but was accompanied by Alice, Rachel, Emma, Elizabeth, Clara, Annie, and Emma. I can honor the memory of the unnamed women in the Scriptures by telling their stories. And I can respect my brothers and sisters enough to speak their names, whether in the pew or the soup-line, as those who are created in the image of God and held close to his heart. For the gift of a name bestows both identity and regard upon another, and I can choose to live in such a way that the names of God’s children are cherished and preserved.

O concubine of Ephraim,
No name is ever wholly forgotten.

Your mother’s lips brushed identity upon being.
A fragile vase, auctioned to the highest bidder,
Stripped naked of dignity.
Yet your name whispers gently.
I know you.
(see Judg. 19)

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