Elliott J. Sheeks: Unconventional Woman

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Elliott J. Deboe was 18 and on the cusp of womanhood when she heard Louisa Woosley preach in a Kentucky revival. Woosley, a Cumberland Presbyterian, was opening doors for women to preach in the South, and Elliott Deboe took it all in. Four years earlier she had heard —for the first time—a woman pray aloud in public. No one was preaching! Though she little realized it then, she, too, would one day step behind the pulpit to proclaim the gospel.

 

Elliott Deboe was the oldest of nine children born to Kentucky farmers. At age 11 she joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, though the quality of her Christian experience varied. She married Edwin H. Sheeks, a businessman many years her senior, and traveled with him for two years before they came to Memphis, joined an affluent church, and settled down to a fashionable life.

 

In Memphis, the Sheekses came under the influence of Robert Lee Harris, a holiness evangelist. While reading Wesley’s sermon “Sin in Believers,” Elliott was convicted of her need for sanctifying grace, sought it, and testified to receiving it at prayer in her bedroom. The Sheekses became charter members of the New Testament Church of Christ (NTCC), a holiness body that Harris inaugurated in Milan, Tennessee, in 1894.

 

Harris soon died of tuberculosis. His church might have withered away, but extraordinary laypeople—primarily women—assumed pastoral roles. His widow, Mary Lee Harris, was an active evangelist within a year. Milan businessman Balie Mitchum and his wife, Donie, became lay preachers. And Elliott Sheeks yielded to a growing sense of divine purpose and preached her first sermon while assisting Mrs. Harris in a revival in Monette, Arkansas. A swelling network of churches led to a general council where Mrs. Harris, Mrs. Sheeks, and George Hammond were ordained to the ministry in 1899.

 

Mrs. Harris’s primary focus was Texas, where she planted churches, married cowboy Henry Cagle, and organized the Texas Council. Mrs. Sheeks assisted the Mitchums in Tennessee and planted churches in Arkansas, the two states where most of the Eastern Council churches were located by 1905. Mrs. E. A. Masterman was her song evangelist many times as she itinerated from her home base in Memphis.

 

Mrs. Sheeks was often pastor of more than one church. In 1904 she headed congregations in Tennessee (Hillville, Luray, and Beech Bluff) and Arkansas (Stony Point), preached 182 sermons, and “traveled 7,600 miles in gospel work.” She noted, “The churches of which I am pastor are all in good spiritual condition. There are good Sunday Schools and the prayer meetings run winter and summer.” She agreed with a decision taken that year to merge the NTCC with another group to form the Holiness Church of Christ.

 

Her résumé was impressive. To the roles of evangelist and pastor she added Eastern Council secretary (1899–1908) and fraternal delegate to the First General Assembly of the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene (1907) in Chicago. A few days later, her glowing report of that assembly to the Eastern Council ended in her motion, passed unanimously, to unite with the Pentecostal Nazarenes. That decision, and one by the Texas Council, set a course for the merger at Pilot Point, Texas, where the process creating today’s Church of the Nazarene was completed.

 

Elliott J. Sheeks served as Arkansas District secretary until 1915. Her persistent advocacy led to a home for unwed mothers in Texarkana as a joint project of the Arkansas and Dallas districts. In 1915 she and Edwin moved to Texas, where she earned a theology degree at Peniel University. She followed Haldor Lillenas as pastor of the Peniel congregation and served as Dallas District secretary until 1923.

 

In 1925 she became professor of religion at Bresee College in Hutchinson, Kansas, teaching in the classroom and supervising a correspondence course. Her interests centered on missions, church history, and general Bible courses. Elliott retired when the school merged into Bethany-Peniel College in 1939.

 

Edwin Sheeks died in 1935. Elliott J. Sheeks died 11 years later and was buried in Marion, Kentucky. Years later, her students from Bresee College remembered her great spirit—the spirit of a pioneer woman in ministry.

 

Stan Ingersol is manager of the Nazarene archives at the International Headquarters of the Church of the Nazarene.

 

Ingersol, S. (September, 1999). Unconventional woman:The ministry of Elliott J. Sheeks. Holiness Today, 30–31.

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