Wesley and Women Preachers


What did Wesley think of women preachers?  Actually, the Methodists were one of the first to employ women preachers.

Wesley

John Wesley (1703-1791), the founder of the Methodist Church, “is one of the prominent male advocates for women preachers.”[1]  According to Eunjoo Mary Kim, Professor of Homiletics at Iliff School of Theology “from the beginning of the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century, women were pioneers in the establishment and the expansion of Methodism.” [2]

Because of the rapid expansion of the Methodist movement, Wesley found a necessity to employ lay preachers as well as exceptional women preachers – such as Sarah Crosby, Cross Hall, Ann Ford and Mary Bosanquet.[3]

mary-fletcher

Mary Bosanquet Fletcher

John Wesley responded to a letter from a hopeful female preacher, Mary Bosanquet that he had been persuaded to admit God’s call of women to preach.[4]  Mary Bosanquet Fletcher (1739-1815) was an English deaconess in the early Methodist movement.  She married John Fletcher and was a close friend of John Wesley.  Her correspondence with Wesley survives.  I was fascinated to find Wesley’s correspondence with both Mary Bosanquet and Sarah Crosby persevered and available on line.  I discovered several Methodist historians who have researched these letters and made the information available to the general public.

Mary Bosanquet was born in Essex England in 1739.  Her interest in the Christian faith began at the early age of six.  She was taught by a maid in her home who was a Methodist.  Young Mary took Wesley’s admonition to “give all you can.”  She used “her own financial resources and her time to provide for persons in need.” [5] Mary quickly became a Methodist class leader and then a preacher.  In 1763, she and another woman named Sarah Ryan took charge of a large house in Leytonstone, England.  This home became “a sanctuary for the most destitute and friendless people in London. The house became a school, orphanage, hospital, and half-way house all-in-one. Thus she became one of John Wesley’s most faithful co-workers.”[6]

Mary’s letters record the reaction of the townspeople, “People threw dirt at our People as they left on Sundays,” she wrote, “and they would put their face to the window and howl like wild beasts.”[7]  Despite the obstacles the work continued to grow.  In her letters Mary recalls how she travelled “far afield to speak at meetings, in the open air or more usually to meet classes.”[8]

In 1781, Mary married Rev. John Fletcher, a clergy in the Church of England who sympathized with the Methodist movement and who was considered by some to be John Wesley’s designated successor.  John Fletcher died four years after they were married, leaving Mary a widow.

Mary struggled with her calling to be a preacher.  Wesley is recorded as to have encouraged her, “seeing the great effectiveness she had in their work.”[9] Wesley wrote to Mary, saying she had “an extraordinary call” to be a lay-preacher.[10]  Mary Bosanquet wrote Wesley a letter in which she argued against the literal interpretation of Paul’s admonition against women speaking publicly in the church.[11]

Sarah Crosby

Sarah Crosby

Sarah Crosby (1729-1804) was born in Leeds, England.  According to eighteenth century historian Andrew Winckles, an account of her life, along with extracts from her voluminous diaries was published in a highly edited form in the Methodist Magazine in 1806.[12]  Like many of the women of early Methodism Sarah was drawn to religion early in life.  She married and became a class leader in the Methodist movement where she was influenced by several women including Mary Bonsaquet Fletcher.

In 1761 Sarah Crosby first experienced the call to preach when, while leading a class meeting in Derby, nearly two hundred people showed up instead of the usual thirty.[13]  Unsure about the propriety of speaking to such a large crowd but realizing that she could not speak to each individual personally, Crosby recounts in a letter that she “gave out an hymn, and prayed, and told them part of what the Lord had done for myself, persuading them to flee from all sin.”[14]

Sarah wrote John Wesley following this incident and asked for his advice.  Wesley responded in a return letter as follows:  I think you have not gone too far. You could not well do less. I apprehend all you can do more is, when you meet again, to tell them simply, ‘You lay me under a great difficulty. The Methodists do not allow of women preachers; neither do I take upon me any such character.  But I will just nakedly tell you what is in my heart.’… I do not see that you have broken any law. Go on calmly and steadily. If you have time, you may read to them the Notes on any chapter before you speak a few words, or one of the most awakening sermons, as other women have done long ago.[15]

Despite the admonition of Methodists “not allowing” women to preach, Wesley does not discourage Sarah Crosby, and Sarah apparently continues to respond to God’s call on her life to preach despite the restrictions regarding her gender.  Sarah Crosby continued to travel and preach throughout England the rest of her life.

If these women fulfilled their call by God to preach in 18th Century England despite significant cultural resistance, how much more should preachers today use their voices to proclaim the kingdom of God to the world!

Photo taken at The New Room (John Wesley’s Chapel) Bristol, England.

Submission from SMU Perkins School of Theology Dissertation: Credible Witnesses by Jan Jokinen Davis March 2015.

[1] Eunjoo Mary Kim, Women Preaching: Theology and Practice through the Ages,(Eugene, OR:  Pilgrim Press, 2004), p. 86.

2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. p. 87

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donald Prout, Mary Bosanquet Early Methodist Woman Preacher (edited by Chris Field, September 2008), accessed July 2014,  http://chrisfieldblog.com/2008/09/01/mary-bosanquet-early-methodist-woman-preacher.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Andrew Winckles, ed, An Account of Sarah Crosby – The Grace of God Manifest in the Life of Sarah                        Crosby  (18th Century Religion, Literature and Culture Explorations of Cultural Intersections, 2014), accessed July 2014, http://ww.18thcenturyculture.com.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

Published by

janjokinendavis

Follower of Christ, United Methodist Pastor, Preacher, DMin Student

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