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What do Early Women Preachers show us?

History shows that women's preaching is not an influence of 1960s feminists. Women's preaching started long before that, based on each denomination's understanding of the scriptures.

The Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) gave both women and men the prerogative to speak during a Quaker meeting from the beginning of their movement in the 1650s. They believed God was everywhere and anyone could preach; they rejected the established church and the need for ordained clergy. It was 1689 before the government permitted them to become a recognized denomination.

The Salvation Army was founded by a husband and wife team, William and Catherine Booth. It had women and men in roles as a lieutenant, captain, major, and the highest role, that of General, from the day it started in 1865. The Salvation Army came to Canada in 1882.

The first ordained woman to work in Canada was Fidelia Woolley Gillette (1827-1905), who served a Universalist congregation in Bloomfield, Ontario, in 1888. Gillette was raised in the United States, where she obtained a license to preach in 1873 and where she was ordained in 1877. The Unitarians and Universalists of the 1880s were one of the few Christian denominations that accepted women in ministry. The Universalists believed that the Bible says through Christ every single human soul shall be saved and eventually every knee shall bow. The Unitarians believed in one God, rather than a Triune God. Both disagreed with the theologies of original sin and predestination of some to salvation and some to hell. After they merged in 1961, their views broadened from their Christian roots to gain insight from other world religions.

Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) began in the 1870s and accepted women in leadership roles from an early time. Women had a variety of roles in the church and became known as "ministering sisters".

Janet Douglas,_Janet_Douglas_(1863-1946)

God had blessed the preaching of Janet Douglas and by 1886, when she was 22, she had many followers. Born in Ontario, Canada, she was raised in Michigan. In 1884, the Indiana-Ohio-Michigan conference of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ gave Janet Douglas a permit to labour as an evangelist. She was the first female Mennonite evangelist and pastor in North America. However, she was not ordained. That fall, she founded a city mission in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the first city mission of the Mennonite Brethren in Christ denomination. In 1885, Janet Douglas went to Ontario and preached at travelling revivals. In the 1880s, she established two Mennonite Brethren in Christ congregations in Dornoch and Kilsyth, Ontario. She planted new congregations, raised funds for their building, and was the lead pastor.

In 1889 Janet Douglas married James Hall and they lived in California, Alberta, and Ontario. Over time, her public ministry decreased as the Mennonite Brethren in Christ shifted theologically away from its holiness roots and towards a fundamental theology that opposed women pastors. The grave marker for Janet Douglas Hall does not recognize her ministerial status, since her denomination (now known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) changed its theology in a direction that did not favour women in church leadership.

In 1934, the First Baptist Church of Elm Mott invited Mrs. Lewis Ball of Houston to preach: "She being a great inspiration and an outstanding soul winner." Beth Alllison Barr, a Baptist herself, tells about how Baptists used to have no problem with female preachers. In her landmark book "The Making of Biblical Womanhood", Barr relates the story of Mrs Lewis Ball.

Ethel Ruff, 1942

Ethel Ruff in 1942 became the first woman to earn an M. Div. from Bethel Seminary, a Christian evangelical school. She preached at churches throughout the Baptist General Conference. She was supported by men Martin Erikson, who asked her to write a monthly column for the denomination's magazine. Moody Bible Radio, an evangelical Christian network, invited her to preach regularly on their network.

Bethel's current Statement on Women and Men is to cultivate a climate affirming women to ministry and ordination, and helping their graduates navigate the challenge when their gifts and calling do not coincide with their home denomination or church community.

In 1963 the Southern Baptist denomination ordained Addie Davis, and in 1974 it affirmed women's role in ministry. Baptists have a history of encouraging religious freedom and separation of church and state. Local autonomous governance historically allowed both women and men to be pastors.

But over the last fifty years, patriarchy has had a resurgence in Christian circles. In 1987 the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was co-founded by Wayne Grudem, who said, “A woman who serves as a pastor, preaching to both men and women, is disobeying the word of God." Since then, groups such as PromiseKeepers and Focus on the Family have advocated for limitations on women, promoting their views with books, devotionals, articles, radio shows, and movies.

In 2023, after two years of study, the Southern Baptist Convention denomination continued to expel churches that called or ordained female pastors. That included Saddleback, their second-largest congregation, led by the well-known evangelical Christian author Rick Warren.

After decades of preaching, Rick Warren looked at the Bible and realized it permits women to teach.

The Bible changed Warren's mind on women in leadership. Warren changed his mind citing the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18), the prophet Anna teaches men and women about Jesus (Luke 2:36-38). and the resurrected Jesus told Mary Magdalene to preach to the male apostles (John 20:17). In fact, Jesus also told other women to preach to the male apostles (Matthew 28:7-10). The Bible shows gender equality. Rick Warren issued a public apology for his fifty years of preaching and writing that women were prohibited from being pastors or preachers. He said he had not studied the passages used to restrict women and apologized for his ignorance.

Is it enough? Has he used his substantial platform to affirm women and men in ministry? Has he issued a new edition of "The Purpose-Driven Life"? Has he unpublished the dozen or so books that propagate his former views? He took the stand months before retiring from his position as senior pastor at Saddleback. He appears to be stepping away from discussions about women in ministry. However, I am happy that he has announced he agrees with the thousands of women and men of bygone years who have supported women called to ministry.

If only Christians would

  • look at the women of the Bible who preached, taught, and led churches.

  • listened to the female clergy that have preached in every century since Jesus rose

  • pay attention to the male allies who have encouraged women to obey God's call when God calls them to teach, preach, advise, or pastor.

  • observe Moses and the Prophets (many of them female prophets)

Those who put limits on others based on gender remind me of the rich man who was dressed in fine linen and lived in luxury but when he died he was tormented and begged for relief:

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ Luke 16:25-29

The Bible shows women leaders (like Deborah, Phoebe, Lydia), women teaching men ( like the Samaritan woman at the well and Mary Magdalene at the resurrection), and preaching as evangelists (Priscilla and Junia). Jesus himself calls all believers to be salt and light and asks women and men to go out into the world to spread the word.

Early women preachers show us that churches and parishioners accepted women preachers despite the predominantly patriarchal culture of the day. The debate is less about the world affecting the church and more about how Christians differ in their understanding of the equality presented in the Bible. Remembering these women preachers of history shows us the early Biblical interpretation that God values women and men equally and gifts them with a variety of roles.


Elaine Ricker Kelly empowers women at home, church and society by advocating for equality for all people based on the Bible. She was an investment and insurance advisor for thirty years and has three grown daughters. Elaine R. Kelly lives near Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, with her husband and enjoys hiking, tennis, music, history and culture.

Books by Elaine Ricker Kelly:

Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold  - biblical fiction offering hope and healing to anyone who feels forgotten, belittled, or out of place.

The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role - a non-fiction book of 104 flashcards with an objective, memorable look at the rationale for diverse views on gender roles.

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