Francis Asbury and Women Preachers
Women Preachers of 18th-Century Methodism
Francis Asbury and Women Preachers Sources
Much of this post will come from three main sources. The first is the brilliant and well-written book by Dr. Paul Chilcote titled, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of Early Methodism. The Chilcote book is mentioned in the second source for this post, an article titled Francis Asbury and Women Preachers. The third source is the book, Black Country, the opening book of The Asbury Triptych Series. In Black Country, several of these Methodist women preachers are featured, especially when their ministries intersect with a fairly young, Francis Asbury.
Historical Women Preachers
As early as the seventh century A.D. women preachers in the Christian church had emerged to share the good news of the Gospel. One of these women preachers from the seventh-century was Saint Hilda, Abbess of Whitby. In the year 659 A.D., Saint Hilda founded a monastery for both men and women. During the fourteenth-century, the women followers of John Wyclif and the Lollard movement became the first critics of the failing church. During the Puritan movement as women began to experience again, the gift of prophecy, their efforts easily transformed into expounding for the benefit of the community of faith. Dr. Chilcote penned it very well, “Women have proclaimed the good news they discovered in Christ since the earliest periods of the church’s history. The women preachers of early Methodism hardly represented a new phenomenon in the life of the Christian community…”
Early Methodism and Women Preachers
According to the article, Francis Asbury and Women Preachers: “For John Wesley, the lessons learned from women in leadership began in the most unlikely place. Within the confines of the strict and orderly environment of his father’s ministry, the Epworth rectory, John Wesley gained his first brush with female leadership and women preaching through the example of his mother, Susana Wesley.” The article continues: “Susana Wesley is the forerunner of women preachers in John Wesley’s Methodist movement. This fact was not lost by John Wesley. In his discussions at the time of her death, he acknowledged that she in a unique way was a preacher and priestess of the family.” Susana’s preaching and teaching were not limited to her household. Her public efforts are well documented. Her ministerial efforts were well known by the citizens of Epworth, many of which attended preaching and teaching when her husband was away on preaching engagements. Again from the article: “Eventually, she began to conduct evening prayers for her family on Sundays. This effort grew to a point where the activities resembled a religious service, eventually becoming a form of public worship for the local people of Epworth.” At one point, several hundred people attended her weekly efforts.
The Women Preachers of Francis Asbury’s Day
The obvious question raised is, what women preachers would Francis Asbury have likely interacted with in his ministry? There are several women preachers and teachers who at the time of their interaction with Francis Asbury, (around 1765), were seeking approval from John Wesley to preach. Wesley still had not given full approval. Although, he already had taken a bold step by giving full approval to male lay ministers who felt called to preach, Wesley still was hesitating on this final approval for women who felt called to preach. He believed that some had a call of God to preach, his study of the scriptures and the success of his mother’s efforts convinced him of this. But his early efforts to reconcile with the Anglican Church kept him at this time from giving full approval for women to preach.
So who were these early Methodist women preachers? One of the better- known women preachers of this very early period was Sarah Crosby. In the book, Black Country, the scene sets in the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne. Francis Asbury and Scottish itinerant Alexander Mather have arrived to attend a love feast. This is the first extended trip for Francis. At this love feast, Francis Asbury is shocked to find Miss Sarah Crosby sharing her personal testimony to the group. The wise Alexander Mather senses that Francis is uneasy with this development. He wisely counsels the young preacher to accept the fact that God will send by whom he chooses. Their discussion about Deborah of the Old Testament helps Francis to begin to see things differently.
Several other women, co-workers with Sarah Crosby, are depicted in this scene. These women have long worshiped and worked with Sarah in London. Some with her in the town of Derby. Their efforts in Derbyshire met with much success. The women are Sarah Ryan, Mary Bosanquet, Mrs. Dobinson, Mary Clark and Ann Tripp. Each of these women also worked together with an outreach to the poor and destitute on the streets of London in Leytonstone. In an earlier effort, Sarah Ryan, and Sarah Crosby established a similar outreach at Moorfields in London. John Wesley and the faithful at the Foundry Church in London called the effort Little Bethel.
John Wesley’s Extraordinary Call
As John Wesley began to figure out that the evangelical movement he started was never going to reconcile with the Anglican Church, he began to move into the direction of approving women to preach. The decade of 1771 to 1781 became the time for this transition. One of the most successful attempts at accommodating women to preach came from Sarah Crosby’s associate, Mary Bosanquet. In a letter to John Wesley, Miss Bosanquet makes a sound argument in favor of this desired request. She argues that based on scripture, it is clear that in extraordinary times, women were called of God to preach. One of the convincing pleas comes from Mary’s citation of 1 Corinthians, 11:5, where the Apostle Paul admonishes the necessity of women prophesying with their heads covered.
“My dear sister,
I think the strength of the cause rests there, on your having an extraordinary call. So I am persuaded… St. Paul’s ordinary rule was, ‘I permit not a woman to speak in the congregation,’ yet in extraordinary cases he made a few exceptions; at Corinth in particular.”
Londonderry, June 13, 1771