Women Ministers in the Holiness Movement: Where Have They All Gone?

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The Holiness Movement began with a woman, some of us historians say. That woman was Phoebe Palmer (1807-74).


Phoebe (FEE-be) Palmer was an American Methodist laywoman who for nearly 40 years taught that God’s grace makes possible the full sanctification of Christian believers.


She traveled thousands of miles throughout the United States, Canada, and the British Isles with her message. She also wrote a dozen books, edited the magazine The Guide to Holiness, and held a weekly holiness meeting in her home. Some of the most famous religious leaders of the day attended.

In her spare time she helped start rescue missions, took orphans into her home, and delivered food, clothes, and medicine to the poor.


Palmer did all this when women across North America and in Britain were expected to focus their energy on the home. They were to be good wives and mothers. They were to look after their husbands, teach their children religious and moral values, and keep the family circle protected from the dangerous outside world where only men ventured.


Palmer parked her apron because she believed God had called her to a ministry of promoting holiness.


It wasn’t easy. Men often opposed her. One male reviewer of her first book suggested she deep to washing dishes and leave writing to men. At one of her meetings some ministers circulated pamphlets questioning a woman’s right to speak in church.


In response to her critics, Palmer wrote a defense of a woman’s right to minister. This book, The Promise of the Father (1859), soon became an inspiration to women in many denominations. Palmer’s own successful ministry (though she was never licensed or ordained by any church) became a model for other women who sensed God’s call to work in ways usually reserved for men.


Amanda Berry Smith. One of the many women stirred by Palmer’s example was Mrs. Amanda Smith (1837-1915). Smith was an African-American born a slave in Maryland. She eventually gained her freedom and in 1869 says she was called to preach. Before long she had become a popular preacher at holiness camp meetings.


Ten years later she went to India as a missionary, then to Liberia, an African country colonized mostly by ex-slaves from the United States. She also did evangelistic work in England, Ireland, and Scotland.


After Palmer’s death, and during the last years of Amanda Smith’s life, the holiness revival they both helped generate began to produce many new, independent churches.


Women played an important part in founding almost all of them. These holiness churches taught that the sanctifying Holy Spirit is no respecter of gender and gives gifts for service to women and men equally. They appealed, as had Phoebe Palmer in The Promise of the Father, to the prophecy of Joel quoted by Peter on the Day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy . . . Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18).


They also appealed to Gal. 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”


In most holiness churches women performed every ministry men did. They were pastors, evangelists, missionaries, and teachers. In some churches women were the founders and main leaders.


Mary Harris Cagle. This was the case with the New Testament Church of Christ, founded in 1894 in Tennessee. Mary Cagle (1864-1955), and her husband started the church, but he died a few months later. Mary, convinced of a definite call from God, continued the work. She expanded it through Tennessee, Arkansas, and into Texas. Everywhere she went, she attracted other gifted women into the ministry of the church. In some areas most New Testament Churches of Christ were pastured by women.


Many holiness groups like Cagle’s were eventually swept up into a movement that merged small associations into larger denominations like the Church of the Nazarene. The work of union, and the early impressive growth of these denominations, depended heavily on the ministry of women.


Olive M. Winchester. Some women served as teachers in holiness schools the denominations started. One of these was Olive Winchester (1880-1947).

She was never a pastor, but she had a hand in training dozens of pastors. A cum laude graduate of Radcliffe College (the women’s division of Harvard University), she was the first woman admitted to theological studies at Glasgow University in Scotland and the first to earn a bachelor of divinity degree there. She later earned a master’s degree and a doctor of theology degree. Winchester taught theology for over 30 years at holiness colleges.


Susan Norris Fitkin. A Canadian who began her ministry as a Quaker, Fitkin (1870-1951) served as both pastor and evangelist. But it was as a promoter of missions that she had her greatest influence.


Becoming a Nazarene in 1907, Fitkin was ordained a minister and elected president of the Nazarene Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. She headed the society until 1948. Under her it began to produce missionary books, organize children and youth programs, and raise thousands of dollars for churches and hospitals around the world.



Women Ministers Today


In holiness churches now, the daughters of Phoebe, Amanda, Mary, Olive, and Susan are alive and well, although there are fewer of them than in the early days.


Diane Cunningham Leclerc. For three and a half years Leclerc has pastured the Church of the Nazarene in Berwick, Maine. She began after graduating from Nazarene Theological Seminary.


Though the congregation had never had a woman pastor before, it decided to call her. But the process of getting there was grueling.


“I sent letters to every district superintendent in the country,” she said.

Twenty of the 80 responded.


“Some were form letters. I didn’t bother with those. I picked out the ones that seemed the most receptive and met with them face-to-face at NTS. Some were merely polite and told me more by their actions than by their words that they wouldn’t or maybe couldn’t risk hiring a female. Some were so enthusiastic: the district superintendents of Maine, Minnesota, and West Virginia North.”

Leclerc has recently resigned to pursue doctoral studies in theology.


Susie Stanley. An ordained minister in the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.), Dr. Stanley teaches church history and women’s studies at Western Evangelical Seminary, Portland, Oreg.


She was recruited by the seminary for her expertise in history as well as to serve as a model for women sensing a call to ministry. She does this through her classes, preaching, writing, and organizing conferences for women ministers.


More recently she has been doing this in her role as president of the Wesleyan Theological Society, an association of religion scholars in the holiness movement. She’s the second female president in the society’s nearly 30-year history. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop was the first to hold this annual post, in 1973.

Although gifted women like these continue the long tradition of women holiness ministers, they represent a dwindling minority.


For example, when the Church of the Nazarene started, women made up 13 percent of all ordained ministers. In the late ‘30s and ‘40s, studies of random districts suggest, this percentage hit its peak. On some districts, over 30 percent of the ministers were women.


Today in the Church of the Nazarene, less than 5 percent are women. Only about 1 percent of our U.S. churches have women pastors.


The reason? Dr. Stan Ingersol, director of the Nazarene Archives and author of a biography of Mary Harris Cagle, says it is because holiness churches have tried so hard to blend in with the evangelical “mainstream,” which has tended to oppose women in ministry.


Holiness churches, he says, have placed less emphasis on their distinctive identity as champions of God-called women and more emphasis on their similarities to other evangelical churches.


Dr. Susie Stanley says it is a case of holiness churches being influenced too much by the world.


“I call it the ‘stained-glass ceiling,’” she said. “Just as the ‘glass ceiling’ is an invisible barrier that affects women in the secular world, the stained glass ceiling is in place in holiness movements, which prevents women from ministry.” It may also be that holiness churches have been influenced by fundamentalism. Many fundamentalists would argue that the woman’s place is in the home. But if Phoebe Palmer had believed this, there might not have been a holiness movement.


What can we do to produce more female ministers?


The key seems to lie with the male leaders of holiness churches. Those who have power and influence must be bold in owning the great heritage of women ministers. They must intentionally fight the influences that have weakened that heritage, and provide opportunities to women who have heard the call that God is pleased to bestow on His daughters as well as His sons.


“It really depends on the district superintendent, especially in our organizational structure,” Leclerc said. “I was part of a women’s strategy meeting at Nazarene Theological Seminary. We concluded and then stressed to the superintendents that unless the women are given opportunities we won’t have women pastoring.


Raser, H. (March-May 1994) Women Ministers in the Holiness Movement—Where Have They All Gone?: There Were More 50 years Ago than There Are Today. Illustrated Bible Life, 59-62.


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