That Familiar Voice

There are a few songs that I associate with a male voice and some with a female voice such that if a male sings Hosanna I don’t think it is right. The voice gets connected to the song somehow. Preaching is like this for many, many of us. How so? Many think preaching requires a man’s voice because the only voice some have heard is a man’s. For the familiarized, then,when a woman preaches it “just doesn’t sound right.”

Church history has a voice, or a familiar set of voices, and they are mostly male voices. Think about evangelism, as I did two years back most of the year as I was reading famous evangelistic sermons, and we think of Wesley and Whitefield and Edwards and Finney and Moody and Sunday and Billy Graham. I suspect the facts would prove that most of the evangelism done in the history of the American church has been done by women — by moms and grandmothers and sisters and aunts and women who do women’s study and prayer groups and who form women’s associations for missionaries  — but that’s not my point (and I can’t prove it anyway).

The point is this: Priscilla Pope-Levison has a marvelous, splendidly-written and thoroughly-researched book on the powerful influence of female evangelists in the Progressive Era (1890-1920), Building the Old-Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (NYUP, 2014). The point within the point: most of the women she writes about are totally unknown and all but ignored even by the best of American church historians. Their voice is unfamiliar because other names are familiar. As I once put this problem, Junia is Not Alone.” Pope-Levison’s book can help de-familiarize the male voice and re-familiarize us with the female voice. We need both, folks, always.

Pope-Levison’s concern, however, is not simply telling the story of unknown women (she did some of that in her previous book, Turn the Pulpit Loose). In this book she knows the reality of female evangelists and revivalists who travel from one church or venue to another leaving behind a trail of converts who often enough were not trained sufficiently. Instead, her new book Building the Old-Time Religion focuses on the institution building mission of leading women across the spectrum, though Priscilla has a speciality in the Methodist (or Holiness) movement. So, she focuses on four major institutions established by women whose stories are told honestly, candidly and accurately (and not hagiographically), and I begin with some of the names of the female evangelists but there are more and I can only mention a few of the various institutions established.

1. Evangelistic Organizations and the Women: She’s partial to Iva Durham Vennard; others include Martha Lee, Lucy Drake Osborn, Emma Ray, Alma White, Mary Lee Cagle, Evangeline Booth, Mattie Perry, Florence Louise Crawford and Aimee Semple McPherson. These women founded institutions: Apostolic Faith Mission (Crawford), Echo Park Evang Assoc (McPherson), et al.

2. Churches and Denominations: Elizabeth Baker — Elim Tabernacle; Virginia Moss — Beulah Hts Assembly; Alma White — Alma Temple, Zarephath Christian Church. McPherson established the Foursquare Gospel church.

3. Religious Training Schools: Mattie Perry — Elhanan Training Institute; Vennard — Epworth Evang Inst, Chicago Evang Inst/Vennard College; Alma White established several.

4. Rescue Homes and Rescue Missions: Booth and the Salvation Army; Emma Whitemore and Door of Hope; Elizabeth Baker and Faith Mission; Emma Ray and Hick’s Hollow Mission.

One motivating force for female-established institutions was opposition to the giftedness of women; another is that women got involved in teaching women (because that was OK) only for it to mushroom enough to become an institution. All in all, though, women had a colossal impact on the American church in the Progressive Era through their vision, administrative skill, giftedness in teaching and preaching and evangelizing, and through their substantial leadership abilities.

Three dominating conflicts in the churches of the Progressive Era emerge in her study:

The conflict over conversion: sudden or gradual?

The conflict over sanctification: entire or not?

The conflict over gender: to permit females full access or not?

Back to that familiar (male) voice. We need books about women and we need collections of stories about women so preachers and teachers and parents can tell stories about women. He who writes the story controls the glory; if “he” is a male, the story he tells is likely to be about males; it is time for the “he” of the storytelling tell some stories about women. Priscilla Pope-Levison’s book is one place to begin.

Also: C.A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845.

Laceye C. Warner, Saving Women: Retrieving Evangelistic Theology and Practice.

Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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