by Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff
Author’s Statement Added on 3/27/2021
This article was clarified on 3/27/2021 at the request of the author, myself Ashley B. Dreff. In attempts to be more intentionally inclusive of Black Methodist women, I was unintentionally exclusive of Black Methodist denominational histories. I embodied the white Methodism that I was attempting to dismantle. For this, I take full responsibility and offer my clarifications and sincerest apologies. Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth were members of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion denominations, respectively. These denominations left the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early nineteenth-century because of the white supremacy and racist biblical interpretations of white Methodist clergy and lay persons. Their legacies live on in those denominations today. It was wrong of me to explicitly name “United Methodism” without also naming African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion. In true Wesleyan spirit, I will seek to continue to strive for perfection when it comes to detailing and honoring our pasts.
“O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God.” — Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, 1849
From the pulpit to the podium, from the preaching circuit to the campaign trail, Methodist women have broken barrier upon barrier, ensuring not only their successes but the successes of future generations. The handful of women highlighted in these next few paragraphs skim the surface of those who have changed the religious and political landscapes, primarily in the United States. There are countless others whose stories have yet to be told or uncovered. But as we celebrate Women’s History month, let us acknowledge the persistence of these women.
Jarena Lee, member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, felt a call to preach twice in her life. When she informed Bishop Allen after experiencing her first call, he told her that the church Discipline, “did not call for women preachers.” Jarena was actually relieved by this information as it removed the social burden from her of becoming a public figure in a time when women were demeaned for daring to step out of their so-called “proper place.” She wrote, “This I was glad to hear, because it removed the fear of the cross.” However, her call to ministry came again.
In her journal she recollects her second call, a call which came eight years later. She was listening to Rev. Richard Williams preach at Mother Bethel on Jonah 2:9, and, as she records, “he seemed to have lost the spirit.” In this moment, she writes, “I sprang, as by altogether supernatural impulse, to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken.” The words that proceed from her mouth describe her relationship to the text and her denial of her call to preach eight years prior. Upon recollection of her testimony she writes, “During the exhortation, God made manifest [God’s] power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labour according to my ability, and the grace given unto me, in the vineyard of the good husbandman.” She felt God’s power residing in her, leading her to this moment. When she was finished exhorting, she recalls, “I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop [Allen] rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that he now as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present. These remarks greatly strengthened me, so that my fears of having given an offense, and made myself liable as an offender, subsided, giving place to a sweet serenity, a holy joy of a peculiar kind, untasted in my bosom until then.” Despite being told originally that she wasn’t allowed to preach, Jarena listened to and embodied the Spirit of God for nevertheless, Jarena preached.
When asked about the history of women preaching within the Methodist tradition or within the Christian tradition, I always turn to the story of Jarena Lee. She was a free Black woman living at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. She feels a call to preach but knows deep down that embodying that call is dangerous for it would place her as a social outcast, as someone who dares to believe that they have the authority to speak on behalf of God in a public setting. She is relieved when she’s told by her Bishop that she isn’t allowed to preach. But the Spirit doesn’t leave her. For eight years she resists this call until she can no longer do so. And when she lives into that call, she is actually supported by the very Bishop who had previously told her it was improper.
Jarena’s story is a rare one. It was quite rare to have male religious authorities actually support women preaching.
This story, in my eyes, relates to the story of other Methodist women (and non-Methodist women) who have been told that they are not qualified to be leaders, who have been ridiculed for dreaming big dreams, who have been told to sit down and shut-up. For how often, even in 2021, are women told that they are not good enough to be leaders? That they’re too assertive, too ambitious, or too shy and home-like? That their sex is not becoming of a preacher? That they are not pretty enough to occupy a pulpit or that they are too pretty to occupy a pulpit? That their very presence (i.e. their bodies) is too distracting for persons to focus on God? How often are women told that they are to be submissive to their husbands, because that’s what Scripture dictates. Or does it?
For millennia, women have been intentionally written out of the Christian narrative. Their submissive roles have been assigned to them by the leaders of society and by those who write history—not by biblical mandates. Their theologies, stories, missions, calls, and contributions have been pushed aside, deemed improper, unauthoritative, unimportant. But women have continued on. They kept writing, kept preaching, kept calling others to God. They maintained missions, wrote declarations, gave speeches. They occupied pulpits, legislatures, and homes.
In more recent memory, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a proud United Methodist, was speaking against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to become Attorney General. In response to her speech, Senator Mitch McConnell, who was at the time Senate Majority Leader, invoked a rule to silence Sen. Warren saying, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech . . . . She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Jarena, too, was warned, given an explanation, and nevertheless she, too, persisted for nevertheless, she preached.
Countless Methodist women have had this experience when called to preach, and they, too, have persisted in their ministries, whether those ministries are in the pulpit, the mission field, the episcopacy, or the political arena.
Susanna Wesley, the mother of Methodism, was told to be silent, to stop leading. While her husband, Samuel, was on a trip to London, Samuel left their parish in the hands of Rev. Inman. Finding his sermons lacking sustenance, Susanna began hosting Sunday afternoon gatherings in her home where songs were sung, psalms read, and Susanna preached. Word got out about Susanna’s so-called inappropriate religious meetings, and she wrote a letter to Samuel to try to get ahead of the news. In his reply, he asked her to cease the meetings. She responded, “If after all this you think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity for doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, she felt called to preach in her husband’s absence and wanted to ensure that if she stopped that he would be held responsible for impeding the Spirit of God, not her. Nevertheless, Susanna preached.
The spirit of God manifesting itself in and through women continued into the nineteenth-century. An enslaved woman had an immense religious experience at a Methodist camp meeting that resulted in her taking the name, Sojourner Truth, and aligning herself with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion tradition. After escaping slavery, she joined the woman’s suffrage lecture circuit where she gave one of the most memorable speeches of her time. In Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner calls out the different ways that white women and Black women were treated. She criticized the way that men repeatedly go out of their way to help white women but Black women are left to their own accord. Despite this egregious misogynoir, Sojourner’s point in the speech is to address the inconsistencies that men made about women not deserving equal rights before the law because Jesus was a man. She says, “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” She continues, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.” In these few lines, Sojourner Truth connects the stories of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Eve, the alleged-first sinner. She connects the two most powerful women in the Scriptures. She uses these references to show that no matter what, women in the nineteenth century, would persist, and in their persistence the world might once again be made right.
Anna Howard Shaw felt a call to preach while a teenager. Her family threatened to disown her is she dared live into that call. But she couldn’t resist. She enrolled in Boston School of Theology, the only woman of her class. The men who studied alongside her were given free room and board and a guaranteed appointment. Anna was not. She had to pay for her apartment, find her own food, and hope that she would be paid in cash, not compliments (or insults) for her preaching. In her autobiography, she recalls overcoming the fear of starvation for the sake of her call to ministry. Anna went on to also earn a medical degree and to be president of the National American for Woman Suffrage Association. She is one of the first women ordained in the Methodist tradition. After graduating Boston School of Theology, the Methodist Episcopal Church refused her ordination, based solely on her gender. She transferred to the Methodist Protestant tradition where her ordination was granted in 1880. Despite being treated so differently from her male peers, Anna preached.
These women’s persistence paved the way for others. One hundred years after Anna, in 1980, Marjorie Matthews was the first woman elected Bishop in The United Methodist Church and in a mainline Protestant denomination. In later interviews, Bishop Matthews recalled the obstacles that she had to overcome, not as a Bishop, but as a female preacher: “They would tell people in my church they were going to hell for having a woman minister.” But, nevertheless, she preached.
Lifting as she climbed, Bishop Matthews broke the stained-glass ceiling for others like Leontine T. Kelly, the first Black woman elected Bishop. Bishop Kelly recalled a story from her baptism when the Bishop who baptized her said, ““How I wish you were a boy, so that my mantle could fall on you.” In 1983, the then Rev. Kelly was endorsed as a candidate for the episcopacy, but was not nominated for this role by her home jurisdiction, the Southeast. It was the Western Jurisdiction that had the courage to break barriers, electing Bishop Leontine Kelly as the second woman and first woman of color to serve as bishop. Bishop Kelly lived into the notion that the work of the Spirit, the call of God, knows no barriers, those of gender or of jurisdiction.
Methodist women in the political sphere have also moved mountains and broken ceilings. In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton, another proud United Methodist, was the first woman nominated to run for President of the United States as the candidate of a major political party. On her campaign trail, she often quoted John Wesley and credited her Methodist upbringing with the phrase, “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” In her work as Senator and as Secretary of State, Clinton centered the care of women and girls around the globe, again living into a Methodist mandate and Methodist emphasis. Her groundbreaking nomination paved the way for other women to seek and hold this high-office, women like, now, Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to hold an office this high in the United States (but certainly not the last!). Like others before them, Kamala and Hillary faced undue pressure and high expectations. They were judged prior to opening their mouths based solely on their gender, and in Kamala’s case, the color of their skin. They knew going into debates or speeches that every word and movement would be judged not for its merits (or lack thereof) but because a woman dare say it. Women approaching the political stage or the pulpit face the same stigma, the same high standard, the same pre-conceived notions. They have to intentionally, and gracefully, claim their space. This is perhaps no more apparent than when, after repeated interruptions, Kamala dared tell, then, Vice President Mike Pence, “I’m Speaking.”
“I’m speaking.” Those two small words spoke volumes. With them, Kamala claimed her place, her space on the podium. She insisted that she be heard. Kamala spoke these words with a smile on her face and with a steady, assertive sense of place. It should be noted that these words of hers came in stark contrast to the invective rife on both sides during the presidential debate, overtly enacting white privilege as a white male speaking to another while male while on a public stage. Nevertheless, Kamala spoke her truth.
Many things strike me as I reflect on these women, Methodist and non. But one thing that certainly sticks out is their ambition. Susanna, Jarena, Sojourner, Leontine, Hillary, Elizabeth, and Kamala all faced obstacles in their lives particularly when it came to their speaking in public. They were told to sit down, to shut-up, to assume their “proper place.” But they didn’t. They were called. They preached. They persisted. And now it’s our turn to pick up where they left off and to continue to find our own places and spaces to persist and say, “I’m speaking.”
Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. She is the author of Nevertheless: American Methodists and Women’s Rights (2020) and Entangled: A History of Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (2018). Dreff earned her PhD from Drew Theological School’s Graduate Division of Religion, specializing in both Methodist/Wesleyan Studies and Women’s/Gender Studies. She earned an M.A. from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, specializing in American Religious History. She has previously worked as staff at the General Commission on Archives and History (2012-2014) and the Connectional Table of The United Methodist Church (2014-2016). She was the Director of United Methodist Studies and Assistant Professor Christian History at Hood Theological Seminary (Salisbury, NC), an AME Zion Seminary, from 2017-2019 and was the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies and Assistant Professor of Religion at High Point University (High Point, NC) from 2019-2020. Dreff is a lay member of the Arkansas Annual Conference and the daughter of two ordained United Methodist ministers. Her Methodist lineage dates beyond this, back to the early 19th century when her great-great-great grandfathers were Methodist circuit-riders.