Women Preachers in the Bible Christian Connexion*

By Lloyd, Jennifer M. | Albion, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Women Preachers in the Bible Christian Connexion*


Lloyd, Jennifer M., Albion


In 1862 Mary O'Bryan Thorne, daughter of the founder of the Bible Christian Connexion and a Bible Christian local preacher, wrote in her diary: "At our East Street anniversary I spoke at 11, and Serena [her daughter] at 2:30 and 6; one was converted in the evening." (1) She regarded this as a routine engagement; something she had been doing since her sixteenth year, and that her daughter had every right to continue. Female traveling preachers (itinerants) were important, perhaps crucial, in establishing the Bible Christians as a separate denomination and their use was never formally abandoned. (2) The persistence of this tradition makes their history an important case study of women preachers' experience in nineteenth-century Britain, showing a trend toward marginalization similar to the experience of many other nineteenth-century women who sought to enter increasingly professionalized occupations open only to men. (3) Even in the early years of the Connexion when the organizational structure was fluid and evolving, women were never on an equal footing with male preachers. With the development of a formal organization in the 1830s their numbers started to drop and the gap between male and female responsibilities widened, with women never assigned the full duties of male ministry. By the 1870s there were no woman itinerants and most Bible Christian women who felt called to preach did so locally without pay. By then there were new opportunities open to the more adventurous, and some became professional evangelists or missionaries, often expected to appeal to or work with other women. Perhaps to take advantage of this group's experience, and uniquely among the Methodist sects, in the 1890s the Bible Christians again recruited women itinerants. One woman succeeded in making a career within the Connexion's formal organization before losing her position in 1907 when the Bible Christians combined with the Free Methodists and the New Connexion to form the United Methodist Church.

The Bible Christian Connexion was neither the first nor the only Protestant sect to allow women to preach. (4) Protestant Christianity, with its emphasis on individual revelation and salvation, always contained the potential for members of marginalized groups to bear witness to their personal experience in public, and to claim that in doing so they were attempting to save the souls of others. (5) Women preached in public in the seventeenth-century Interregnum, most notably among the Quakers, but also in more ephemeral sects. In the early days of eighteenth-century Wesleyan Methodism women like Mary Bosanquet and Sarah Crosby had preached with Wesley's cautious approval, although he did not think they should travel and preferred to see their talents used in the more domestic class meeting. (6) After Wesley's death, as Methodist leadership became more professional and turned more conservative, women's sphere of action was severely restricted. In 1803 the annual Methodist conference limited women who had "an extraordinary call to preach" to addressing "only other women, only in her home circuit or by written invitation from the head of another circuit, and only after gaining the approval of both her superintendent and the quarterly meeting." (7) Similarly, Quaker women of the second generation and beyond generally spoke only to other women in women's meetings. (8)

Yet principles central to the Evangelical revival associated with Wesleyan Methodism made it more difficult for Wesleyans than Old Dissenters to deny women's right to speak in public. Evangelicals were Arminians, rejecting the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and insisting on individual free will and the possibility of redemption for all. Conversion, an acceptance of religion as one's guiding principle in all aspects of life, was the fundamental religious experience, and the emphasis was on evangelism--the conversion of others through preaching. A number of people, including men like Zachariah Taft, a Wesleyan Methodist married to a woman preacher, saw no reason why women should not witness to their conversion in public, and were prepared to argue against the biblical texts that appeared to forbid it. …

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