The Birth of Female Methodist Preaching

History is filled with stories that can help us see outside ourselves, as the aspects of another person’s life can bring clarity to our own. The story I would like to introduce you to today is from the life of Sarah Crosby who was active in the early Methodist movement. Crosby encountered God in an intimate way called by some, perfect love. She served in several Methodist communities, leading small discipleship groups (class and band meetings), and doing ministry alongside other Methodist women.

As a respected leader in the Methodist community, she was asked to travel to Derby to lead a class meeting On February 1, 1761, she writes in her journal that she met with twenty-seven people in a class meeting. Then, one week later she writes,

“In the evening I expected to meet about thirty persons in class; but to my great surprise there came nearly two hundred; I found an [awe-filled], loving sense of the Lord’s presence;… I was not sure whether it was right for me to exhort in so public a manner, and yet I saw it impracticable to meet all these people by way of speaking particularly to each individual, I therefore gave out a hymn and prayed, and told them part of what the Lord had done for myself, persuading them to flee from all sin.” (Crosby, Holy Women, 42.)

With that bold move, female Methodist preaching was born.

She then writes a letter to Wesley recounting what had happened, and wondering if she had transgressed. But she must not have wondered too seriously, because—before she receives a response from Wesley—she writes in her journal five days later:

“In the evening I exhorted near two hundred people to forsake their sins, and showed them the willingness of Christ to save. They flock as doves to the windows, though as yet we have no preacher…. My soul was comforted in speaking to the people, as my Lord has removed all my scruples respecting the propriety of my acting thus publicly.” (Crosby, Holy Women, 43.)

Wesley’s letter is dated the next day and reads: “I think you have not gone too far; you could not well do less.” (Wesley, Holy Women, 43.) Wesley, in relationship with gifted and called women, made room for their ministry in the Methodist community.

Wesley was already pushing the boundaries in response to the revival that was going on in England, and before long, the Methodist women were traveling and exhorting just like the men. Sarah Crosby’s journal records the many miles she traveled as a preacher.

I found much of Sarah Crosby’s story in a collection of spiritual narratives called Biographical Sketches of the Lives and Public Ministry of Various Holy Women. This collection provided numerous spiritual accounts to fuel my research question about early Methodist spirituality, but what broke my heart was the reason for the collection itself. This collection, first published in 1825, is a two-volume narrative argument for the legitimacy of female preachers. Each narrative is carefully selected to represent the spiritual maturity of the woman, and then tells the story of her ministry in the Methodist community.

But why did this argument exist if there were two volumes worth of stories from recent history? Well, because the Methodist church had entered the cycle of history when women were being pushed out. In 1802, the Irish Methodist Church had passed a ban on women continuing to preach and other Methodists were following suit. Wesley had died in 1791, and he was no longer there to fight for women in the pulpit.

In the introduction to the collection of stories, editor Zachariah Taft argues historically and biblically for the right for women to preach. The cornerstone of Mr. Taft’s argument is the holy character of the female preachers. He writes:

“If they did wrong in calling sinners to repentance, is it not strange, that the persons who live nearest to God, and are most like him, should be most guilty here?” (Taft, Introduction)

We see here from Taft and from Mrs. Crosby’s journal, that the women answering the call to preach in Early Methodism were not doing so out of rebellion or creating disorder in the church. They were attuned to God, and as they exercised their call, they rejoiced at being in the centre of His plan for their life. The men around them took note, and made space for their voices.

The story of Sarah Crosby first preaching is an historical example of how when the Holy Spirit is moving, new and creative possibilities emerge. Although women today face different challenges, Sarah Crosby and her fellow preachers help us to reflect on how those in leadership now can make way for anyone upon whom the Holy Spirit is calling.

 

Amy Caswell Bratton