Heading into Africa Needed a Woman’s Touch: The Ministry of Mary Slessor


Greetings, everyone. Today we return to our blog series on the History of Missions. Today we are focusing on Mary Slessor (1848-1915), a Scottish woman and missionary pioneer. She came from a horrible home with an alcoholic father who frequently kicked her out of the house (Tucker, 170). She grew up working and earning a wage to help support her family, but found fulfillment in church life away from her familial responsibilities (Tucker, 170). She spent time fighting against street gangs in Scotland in her early adult life before heading to the Calabar Mission in present-day Nigeria (Tucker, 171).

She embarked on her missionary journey in 1876, working in the established missionary center at Duke Town; but she quickly grew dissatisfied with the “cushy” setting (Tucker, 171). Ruth Tucker describes that Slessor rubbed the established missionary families the wrong way because she “admittedly had climbed every tree worth climbing between Duke Town and Old Town” (Tucker, 171). Eschewing a “soft” African missionary setting, Slessor felt called to embrace a more radical role by going into the interior of Africa, but was repeatedly stricken with malaria and had to return to her home country in order to recuperate. She returned to Africa, but this time she was stationed in Old Town, which was much further inland. “She was free to work by herself and to maintain her own lifestyle-living in a mud hut and eating local produce which allowed her to send most of her mission salary to her family back home” (Tucker, 171).

She began a new role as an itinerant evangelist and fought against the local customs of witchcraft and also the fear of twin-births, which often led to the murder of the babies and an exile for the mother (Tucker, 172). She ended up adopting seven children from such rescue efforts, and even took one back home with her on another recovery furlough (Tucker, 172). Her visit home was extended because she lost a sister and her mother grew very ill. Not long after getting back to Africa, her mother and another sister died, which actually freed her from any lingering attachments back home (Tucker, 172). These events led her to head further inland, even into places that had been hitherto closed-off to missionaries, including Okoyong. This village had the reputation of frequently killing missionaries, but Slessor insisted that such an endeavor simply needed a woman’s touch, since women were less likely to come across as threatening to the tribes (Tucker, 172).

In Okoyong, her role expanded, as she soon became a judge for the area, being “appointed the first vice-council to Okoyong, a government position she held for many years… Her methods were unconventional by British standards… but they were well-suited to African society” (Tucker, 173). Later during her career she became engaged to another missionary, but he became ill and had to leave, which ended their engagement since she would not follow him and leave Africa (Tucker, 173). She moved on to another village after some time, taking her adopted children with her. New missionaries took over her post at Okoyong and followed after her, and also after she died in Africa in 1915 (Tucker, 174). Many new mission societies targeted these African villages in the interior, largely due to Slessor’s resolve and determination to work in such remote places (Tucker, 174-75).

Unfortunately there were not reports of huge numbers converted due to her missionary work. She did not seem to mind, however, since she saw herself as preparing the way for others. Tucker describes, “She organized schools, taught practical skills, and established trade routes, all in preparation for others to follow. In 1903, near the end of her term at Okoyong, the first baptism service was held (with seven of the eleven children baptized being her own), and a church was organized with seven charter members” (Tucker, 174).

Slessor’s legacy therefore ought to be seen in her laying the groundwork for future missions. She led the way into the interior from coastal missions which she perceived as too comfy and not African enough. Thankfully she felt the call to even enter areas which were notoriously hostile to outside missionaries. She risked her life to bring the mission into Okoyong and other remote villages. She rescued children marked for death, adopting them as her own. I think, however, her willingness to eschew markings from her home country allowed her the chance to effectively minister to those in such villages.

Tucker notes, “The image of her as a Victorian lady dressed in high-necked, ankle-length flowing dresses, escorted by tribal warriors through the African rain-forests in a painted canoe, is far removed from the reality of the barefoot, scantily clad, red-haired, working-class woman who lived African-style in a mud hovel, her face at times covered with boils and often without her false teeth” (Tucker, 170). It is also noted that Slessor’s hut was frequently riddled with rats and roaches and she did not really care about her own hygiene (Tucker, 174).

Mary Slessor is thus a picture of dedication to the mission. She kept going back to Africa after heading home due to malaria and other illnesses. She embraced African living and used the African ways of reasoning to grow in fame and renown as a judge. I also like how she didn’t really bat an eye about the perceived lack of converts. In viewing her own work as preparatory for others to step in and continue it, she showed a true dedication to God’s calling in her life. She was not concerned with results, just the process and her own willingness to step out in faith.

I think that she can teach us what it means to be faithful to God’s calling in our lives, even if we don’t always see drastic positive results. I think in the United States today, this often one of the most difficult aspects of ministry and following God.

The Hesitant Missionary: Ida Scudder’s Profound Impact on India


Last week, we continued our series on the History of Missions by examining the ministry and life of Temple Gairdner and his heart for Muslims. This week, we once again find ourselves in India in order to examine the missionary work of Dr. Ida Scudder. Her story is one that fascinates and thoroughly impresses me. She is renowned for her impact on medicine and education, particularly among women, in India in the first half of the twentieth century.

Ida Scudder (1870-1960) was born in India into a missionary family. The Scudder family could boast an amazing statistic regarding their devotion to missions. As Tucker notes, “In four generations, forty-two members of the Scudder family became missionaries, contributing well over one thousand combined years of missionary service” (Tucker, 368). These numbers shocked me, especially the thousand years of combined service. To say that this family has had an impact on overseas missions would be quite an understatement. Ida’s role in the family’s legacy had somewhat of an auspicious beginning. Having grown up on the mission field, she actually did not want missions work for her career.

As Tucker observes, Ida ended up back in India shortly after her high school graduation to care for her mother who had fallen ill. As a result, Ida ended up in charge of a school for girls with sixty-eight girls (Tucker, 368). While she was there, she felt called to minister to young women, particularly young pregnant women. Tucker relates how there was a night with three men seeking help for difficult childbirths, but customs would not allow Ida’s father to help, so the women all died. It was at that point that Ida saw the need and felt her calling (Tucker 368-69). She went back to America to go to medical school, and attended Cornell in 1898 because they began allowing women students (Tucker, 369). She brought a check from a wealthy woman donor in order to start a hospital, but soon saw the need to educate women as well. She had to raise a great deal of money to support both avenues. “While home on furlough, she captivated her largely female audiences by her stories of the hopeless plight of the Indian women, and every meeting brought more money for the project” (Tucker, 370).

Things really took off for Scudder, as she served as a doctor, teacher, and operated an orphanage for homeless children (Tucker, 370). Unfortunately, despite her successes, she struggled with government bureaucracy, with a requirement in 1937 that all medical schools had to be affiliated with the state-run medical school (Tucker, 370). The difficult decision was made that her school, Vellore Medical College, should be the first co-ed medical school in India. Unfortunately, this led to a bit of a scandal, since many of her donors had given to the cause of female education and training (Tucker, 371). These issues aside, Ida Scudder was really quite successful, both as a doctor and as an organizer. She helped start a medical school which trained numerous women and provided them with education which they might not otherwise have been able to access.

Tucker relays a couple of interesting anecdotes regarding Ida Scudder that I wanted to highlight as well. The first speaks to her fame. Tucker notes that someone actually sent a letter simply addressed “Dr. Ida, India,” and it was taken directly to her (Tucker, 371). The second story is that Scudder defeated a teenager (in two sets, winning every game) in a tennis tournament when Scudder was 65 after the teenager complained of “having to play a granny” (Tucker, 371). I wonder what the teenager said after losing to Ida so resoundingly.

Overall, Ida Scudder had a monumental impact upon the country of India. Her family already had quite the legacy, but Ida stands out for her work as a medical doctor, teacher, and innovator of women’s education and women’s health. Her work from 1898 to 1946 in India left quite a mark on the nation. If her tennis game is any indication, I am sure she was someone you would not want to cross. Her medical school was the first college of nursing in India and today “serves over two million patients and trains thousands of doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals each year” (https://www.vellorecmc.org/who-we-are/history/).

I think that one of the most intriguing parts of Ida Scudder’s story is her initial desire to not continue the family tradition. She wanted something else for her life, but God had bigger plans for her. Her work obviously impacted people’s daily lives in numerous ways. If one ponders how Ida might not have even become a missionary at all had her mother not fallen ill, it seems like the illness was quite the fortuitous, if not providential, circumstance. Women’s education and health in India owe a great deal to Ida’s willingness to serve God’s calling on her life.

Serious Missionary: The Ultra-focused Ministry of Amy Carmichael


This week we are starting a new series on the history of Christian missions. In studying such a history, one will see that there are many powerful individuals and ministries. The main source we will rely on is Ruth A. Tucker’s From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions (please see the Recommended Books page on our blog). Today’s post focuses on Amy Carmichael.

Carmichael (1867-1951) was a missionary in India, where she ministered for over fifty-five years. Carmichael “founded Donhavur Fellowship and wrote some thirty-five books, a number of which were translated into more than a dozen languages. One of them, Gold Cord, has had sales of more than a half-million” (Tucker, 2004, 298-99). These facts alone make her a very intriguing person for our blog series. The fact that she had a 55-year ministry is nothing short of amazing, made more powerful when one considers that she never took a furlough (Tucker, 300). Also, the fact that she wrote 35 books with one of them selling 500,000 copies shows her impact came in several different forms.

Her ministry focused on serving children, including “child widows, temple prostitutes, or orphans” (Tucker, 300). Carmichael saw herself as the mother of these children in need. Her ministry flourished, as Tucker notes that “twelve years after she began her ministry she had 130 children under her care” (Tucker, 300). The numerous amount of children under her charge warranted others who likewise were willing to act as parents to them. As a result, Carmichael often urged that her fellow workers were supposed to remain unmarried. She started the Sisters of the Common Life for single women in order to have more women acting as mothers to the numerous children in the ministry (Tucker, 300).

The fact that she was in India for 55 years without a furlough caused Carmichael to likewise deny others’ requests for time off from the ministry (Tucker, 301). She was no doubt intensely focused on their work and thought that time away from the mission would lead to a weakened sense of calling and purpose. In fact, many of her critics accused her of running too tight of a ship and of being a dictator, mostly by those who tried to work with her (Tucker 302). One individual, Stephen Neill, ended up writing about his time working with Carmichael and noted that her authoritarian model was not always helpful, especially if someone came in with new ideas and goals (Tucker, 302-3), which he tried to do.

Overall, we are left with an image of a dedicated, organized woman who spent most of her life serving the children of India. She was gifted with incredible endurance, intelligence, and a deep desire to serve God’s calling in her life. Carmichael’s writing career was rather prolific, directly testifying to her intelligence and communication skills. However, one must also recognize that her dedication often came across to her coworkers as extreme, harsh, and too authoritarian. One has to wonder if she went too far in serving God.

This begs the question of whether or not one can “go too far” in following God. One need only interview people who have “flamed out” of pastoral ministry to find out that regular rest is often necessary in order to continue functioning in the ministries into which God has called a person. Pastors, missionaries, chaplains, nuns, monks, etc. need time to recuperate from their service. Amy Carmichael never took a furlough for over 55 years. Such a model would almost be unheard of on the mission field today. Often, missionaries travel back to their home country to raise support to continue serving in their respective mission fields; however, missionaries also take time to rest and reinvigorate  themselves in order to continue serving God to the best of their physical, mental, and spiritual abilities.

Amy Carmichael was a very devoted missionary who left a lasting impact on all with whom she came into contact. Much of it was positive, but some was also negative. I can’t help but wonder if the negative would have been lessened had she taken time off here and there to rest.

I close by asking those of you in ministry positions and other lay offices what your opinion is of such a model. Do you take regular furloughs/ vacations? Is such a model too “American,” worldly, etc? What level of exhaustion is okay in order to keep serving God’s calling in your life? Can one maintain Carmichael’s ultra-focused ministry model, or was she just particularly gifted by God in order to do so?

Midweek Blog: Phoebe Palmer and the Ocean of God

Phoebe Palmer

This week’s blog continues our series on American Church History. This week we are looking at the life and writings of Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874). She was a well-known Methodist leader who taught that personal, “inward holiness” was what one ought to strive for in his or her faith (Gaustad and Noll, 405). She was a leader of the holiness movement and was very well-known as a speaker. She wrote The Way of Holiness and delivered many public addresses. We will examine The Way of Holiness in today’s blog.

Palmer wrote the book in the third person, describing her own life (Gaustad and Noll, 415). Palmer describes, “And now, realizing that she was engaged in a transaction eternal in its consequences… said, ‘O, Lord, I call heaven and earth to witness that I now lay body, soul, and spirit, with all these redeemed powers, upon thine altar, to be forever Thine! ‘Tis done! Thou has promised to receive me! Thou canst not be unfaithful!'” (Gaustad and Noll, 415-16, emphasis present).

The teaching of internal sanctification comes through Palmer’s writing here. One can see that she views a sacrifice of her entire body, soul, and spirit upon God’s altar. She notes that God promises to receive such a gift and further states that “I am thine–wholly thine!” (416). I wonder when reading Palmer’s own words whether or not many Christians today see faith in a similar manner. I am not necessarily talking about the holiness tradition here. I mean that Palmer’s enthusiasm and trust in God demonstrate just how fervently she believed in her faith. When we go to church, or pray, or serve, or share the Gospel, are we engaging our body, soul, and spirit together? Are we “laying them down upon God’s altar?” Or are we simply doing these things because we think we have to? I know I have been guilty in the past of “going through the motions” in my own faith.

While I do like Palmer’s wording above, I want to focus the rest of the blog on an image she uses. Palmer writes, “She felt in experimental verity that it was not in vain she had believed; her very existence seemed lost and swallowed up in God; she plunged, as it were into an immeasurable ocean of love, light, and power, and realized that she was encompassed with the ‘favor of the Almighty as with a shield; and felt assured, while she continued thus, to rest her entire being on the faithfulness of God'” (416).

There are a few phrases that are key here. The first being that “her very existence seemed lost and swallowed up in God.” Such a statement links up with what many of us would state; that our lives after giving them over to God have been entirely transformed and redeemed. Put another way, we can’t really remember what life was like before we gave ourselves over to God (unless yours is a very recent conversion). I think that is the power of God’s message: that God’s work is so transformative that we begin a new type of God-life in which we exist and cannot remember our old life apart from God.

The second key phrase that I wanted to focus on is that God should be seen as an “ocean of love, light, and power.” I love such a picture. It arrives on the tail of the previous phrase that one is “swallowed up in God.” One can use the image of putting a drop of vinegar into the ocean; i.e that such a small amount does not change the make-up of the ocean itself. It is still salt water despite the addition of a new substance. Going further, the vastness of the ocean (one of the most daunting, intimidating, and fear-inspiring things on earth is the perfect image to use for God. The ocean’s depths and power and magnitude are how one can visualize God’s love, light, and power. God’s love runs so deep that it seems one cannot find the bottom to it. God’s light is as vast as the endless horizon on the surface of the ocean. God’s power is akin to the power of the ocean; which can bring life and also bring terrifying destruction.

Phoebe Palmer’s understanding of holiness and sanctification thus is two-fold. The first requires a submission of one’s body, soul, and spirit. The second is that one must allow him or herself to be swallowed up in God’s ocean of love, light, and power. The continual practice of such a faith can ultimately lead to us being found as true children of God. One can see why Palmer would be so popular and successful as a teacher in the 19th century. Her message of God’s love spoke to people in a turbulent time: on the eve of the Civil War and during many of the slavery debates in the United States. The turbulent nature of this country unfortunately has not yet yielded to peaceful, tranquil times. Palmer’s teaching could still address many issues in our country today. How many of our troubles could be solved if we simply dove in to the ocean of God? No one can know for sure, but it could be a great start.

Midweek Blog: Anne Hutchinson, the “Unnatural Woman”


Last week marked the end of our Augustine series. I really enjoyed going through several of his key works. This week I am starting a new series on American Church History. I have recently (Spring 2015) taught a course on modern American religious history, but this series will cover things and people from the full range of American Church History. I wanted to begin this blog by one of my favorite Puritan figures, Anne Hutchinson.

Hutchinson (1591-1643) and her family followed her pastor John Cotton to Boston. As Mark Noll writes, “Hutchinson began a midweek meeting to discuss Cotton’s sermon of the previous Sunday and also to take up other spiritual concerns” (Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 60). One can see how she would begin to draw attention, and suspicion, toward herself through such actions. Noll actually notes that no one was bothered by Hutchinson until people thought she was preaching antinomianism (against the Law); i.e. that Christians have Christ and therefore have no use for the Law of the Old Testament (Noll, 61). Hutchinson also taught that since Christians have the Holy Spirit, God could communicate directly to them. She ended up getting in trouble for this last point, as she “claimed that the Holy Spirit communicated directly to her, apart from Scripture” (Noll, 62).

She actually ended up moving out of Massachusetts to Rhode Island and then to New York, where she was killed in a Native American attack on the village in which she was living. Prior to all of this, she was actually examined by the Puritan authorities while still in Massachusetts and for today’s blog I want to take a look at that specifically.

Anne Hutchinson responded to the governor John Winthrop’s accusation that she was doing things not “fitting for your sex.” She responded, “The Lord knows that I could not open scripture, he must by his prophetical office open it unto me… I confess I have been more choice and he hath left me to distinguish the voice of my beloved  and the voice of Moses, the voice of John Baptist and the voice of antichrist, for all those voices are spoken of in scripture. Now if you do condemn me for speaking what in my conscience I know to be truth, I must commit myself unto the Lord” (Gaustad and Noll, eds. “The Examination of Anne Hutchinson,” in A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877, 97). She also answered their questions of how she knew that the Holy Spirit was communicating directly with her by saying, “By the voice of his own spirit to my soul” (Gaustad and Noll, 98).

There are few things from Hutchinson’s response that I want to highlight here. First, is that she did not let proscribed gender roles restrict her ministry. She followed God’s calling in her life despite the societal limitations she faced. Secondly, she notes that the Lord has to open scripture up to her. It is clear that God has done so, as Hutchinson’s responses to the various questions during her examination quote scripture from throughout the Bible. She also shows a resilience and commitment to her ministry as she says, “If you condemn me… I must commit myself to the Lord.”

Her resilience is further illustrated when she later responds, “You have power over my body but the Lord Jesus hath power over my body and soul; and assure yourselves this much, you do as much as in you lies to put the Lord Jesus from you, and if you go on in this course you begin, you will bring a curse upon you and your posterity, and the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it” (Gaustad and Noll, 98).

Whoa. Talk about a bold and in-your-face response. She shows commitment to the principle that the Holy Spirit can speak to individual believers, as she says that the “mouth of the Lord hath spoken” the curse she pronounces on her accusers. Hutchinson clearly knows what is at stake. She is ready to accept their punishment, and is ultimately excommunicated and flees to Rhode Island, but I think her attitude about such punishment fits with her ministry. She is not afraid to do what she feels God calling her to do, even though that meant pushing the boundaries of what men and women could and should do within Puritan society. She was holding her meetings even after being told to stop “by the general assembly” (Winthrop’s statement). Therefore we shouldn’t be surprised that she shows such a resilience in the face of condemnation. Other women in Puritan Boston were executed for disobeying the religious body, such as Mary Dyer, so Hutchinson’s resolve should be admired.

One can study people throughout church history and find a number of examples of those who were not afraid to push the church’s boundaries, often facing the penalty of excommunication or even death. Hutchinson joins that group of fearless individuals who follow God’s calling on their lives no matter the cost. It actually reminds me of a few missionaries I know. One person serves in Asia and has been threatened with being arrested if she continues to minister and evangelize those in her country. I imagine that Anne Hutchinson would be proud of this person for following God’s calling no matter the cost. People throughout the world follow God’s calling with the threat of death or injury or imprisonment being a very real and very dreadful possibility. Now, one can argue it’s pretty easy to follow God’s calling in the United States, but history shows that has not always been the case.

Midweek Medieval Blog: Praying for Our Kids to Turn out like Catherine of Siena

I haven’t blogged about medieval Christianity in a few weeks and had a post in that time about the Adrian Peterson saga. However, today’s return to the medieval church is prompted in part by a recent viral blog post that has been making its way around the web. There’s a post from the blog “Teach Me to Braid” that is entitled “If My Child Marries Yours” which describes a mother’s prayer not only for her children but for the mother of their future spouses. While I appreciate the sentiment of praying over all aspects of one’s children, something about this post bothers me. It assumes that one’s children will get married someday, or will want to get married, which sets up a whole host of problems. Many single Christians in their 20s and 30s really struggle with being single and what it means for their identity in God’s Kingdom and the church body. I feel that praying for your child’s future mother-in-law and that she would raise her son or daughter “right” not only perpetuates certain gender roles (the blog post notes that men need to hold their wives when they are scared and women need to say the right things to their husbands when they are worn out and tired), but also ties up your children’s identity in who they will marry. But I digress.

What does this have to do with the medieval Church, you ask? Well today I wanted to take a look at the short but powerful life of Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). She actually committed to a life of celibacy at the age of 7 and at the age of 15 chopped off her long hair to repel interested men (Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006, 134). Throughout her life, she was politically active. She is often credited with convincing Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon and return to Rome, but M. Robert Fawtier is skeptical of just how much credit she deserves for the move (Tucker, Daughters of the Church, 159). She was a mystic and dictated many of her visions. Her other ministry was to the sick and dying in the town of Siena.  There is a story of her being repulsed by wiping the pus from sores of a sick patient. Catherine felt convicted about her reaction to the situation and in order to show her repentance for such an attitude, picked up the bowl of pus and drank it (Tucker, Daughters of the Church, 158). Blech. She is credited with healing the sick, even raising the dead, and interceding for prisoners. Catherine was canonized in 1461 and made a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

I want to bring this blog to a close by examining a passage from her Dialogue, her most famous work, in which she has a conversation with God about her own faith, the reform of the Catholic Church, and the world in general. In one section of the Dialogue, God outlines the requirements for the clergy and leaders of the church. “I demand purity and charity of every soul, a charity that loves me and loves others, and helps others in whatever way it can, serving them in prayer and loving them tenderly. But much more do I demand purity in my ministers, and that they love me and their neighbors, administering the body and blood of my only-begotten Son with burning love and hunger for the salvation of souls, for the glory and praise of my name” (Catherine of Siena, Dialogue 113, in Oden, ed. In Her Words, 200). These requirements therefore show the importance of being one of God’s ministers, and God goes on to describe to Catherine the abuses present in the church. She, in turn, later prays for the Church and for God to “be merciful to the world and to the Holy Church. I am asking you to grant what you are making me ask… make your holy Church blossom again with the fragrant flowers of good holy shepherds whose perfume will dispel the stench of the putrid evil flowers” (Catherine, Dialogue, 134). Church reform is therefore a big part of her life’s work.

Catherine of Siena embodies wisdom, intercession, and prayer in addition to her political activism. From an early age, she shunned the typical life of marriage in favor of celibacy, and her ministry impacted many. She had a hand in leading the Pope back to Rome, she worked for the reform of the Church, and she ministered to the sick. While it “took her family some time to come to terms” with her decision to be celibate (Lane, 134), her brief life impacted the world in a great way. I wonder if instead of praying for our children’s future spouses (and their mothers), we should pray for our children to strive to impact the world like Catherine of Siena.

I welcome your comments on this issue. Is it wrong to pray for you children’s future in-laws? How can parents effectively pray for their children’s lives? What are you own prayer practices?

Midweek Medieval Blog: Hildegard of Bingen


I haven’t blogged in awhile, but I wanted to start a new series examining various people and historical events from the Medieval era of the Church. This series will hopefully be updated weekly and provide just a glance into a historical figure or theological movement from the Medieval Church. Today’s post is about Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). She led a religious community of women in Bingen (modern Germany). She was a noted preacher, speaker, and writer.

One of the more interesting aspects of her life was her tendency to admit only higher class women. She received some criticism for that largely because of the lowly status of the disciples, but Hildegard observed that “God created a layered society with a higher order and a lower order and that the lower order should not rise above the higher order” (F. Donald Logan, A History of the Church in the Middle Ages London: Routledge, 2002, 176). While this might upset readers today, particularly in Western societies, Logan notes that it was common for religious orders to cater one specific class of citizens.

She repeatedly experienced visions, which were written down in her work Scivias through her secretary-monk. Pope Eugenius III read her work and encouraged her to continue as a writer (Logan, 175). She had a wide audience among men and women seeking her spiritual guidance, advice, and even intercession before God (Logan, 177). There were other works attributed to her, but scholars have questioned their authenticity.

She was often seen as controversial and, at one point, found herself in hot water after she allowed an excommunicated man to be buried in the monastery’s cemetery (Logan, 178). This led to her community being placed under restrictions including no communion, singing, and only simplistic liturgies. This restriction, known as an interdict, was eventually lifted after the archbishop of Cologne intervened on behalf of the community (Logan, 178).

Her life was one of visions, teaching, writing, and preaching. Logan sums up her legacy as follows: “The Scivas stands in a commanding place in medieval religious literature and its author in the first rank of remarkable women of any age” (182). Hildegard of Bingen was someone who furthered religious communities, disseminated religious teaching, and left a legacy as a Christian author.

Women in Church History, Part 5: Amanda Smith, a Former Slave Turned Preacher

I wanted to bring this series on women in church history to a close by discussing one of my favorite figures from American church history, Amanda Smith. She was a slave from Maryland who eventually became an itinerant preacher. She was converted in 1868  at Green Street Church after hearing a preacher emphasize that “it was not her work but God working in her that constituted sanctification” (Amy Oden, ed. In Her Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought. Nashville:Abingdon, 1994, 309). She thus became part of the Holiness Movement. Her role as preacher was of course noticeable: not only a former slave preaching to people all over the country, North and South, but a woman preacher (Ruth A. Tucker, Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987, 270).
I love the image this conjures up: in the wake of the Civil War and just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation, there is a woman who is a former slave preaching and teaching people in both the North and the South. Tucker notes, “In 1870, when the African Methodist Episcopal Church held its first general conference south of the Mason-Dixon line in Nashville, Amanda was determined to attend. Since women were not permitted to be delegates, she was looked on with suspicion” (Tucker, Daughters, 270). Interestingly, people thought she was there trying to get women’s ordination passed, but she later noted that she was never concerned about being ordained because God had ordained her for ministry (Tucker, Daughters, 271).
I have shared before on this blog that I began my seminary studies while attending a church that did not allow women to teach anyone over age 13. Initially I saw nothing wrong with this thinking, but when I learned about women in church history who had struggled against similar (and often worse) hierarchies I began to consider this teaching in a new light. However, Amanda Smith’s example really shows how God should be the ultimate authority for who should teach and preach. While I began to see this principle in my study of history, my fellow students really embodied this for me. I saw several friends of mine graduate from seminary ahead of me and begin to enter the pastoral job market (a scary time for all involved). I watched as some of these women peers particularly struggled to find openings and churches. I knew very early on in my seminary studies that I was not called to be a pastor, but I remember thinking at this time that I would have an easier time getting a pastoral position simply because I am male. To me that made no sense at all. Some of these women had such a heart for people, ministry, teaching, and preaching. They would have made much better pastors than I would have. Yet, they struggled to find opportunities. Thankfully many of them eventually did find churches which allowed them to follow God’s calling and make an impact on their communities.
Amanda Smith’s example is one that shows that God is ultimately in control of the church and the church’s impact on the world. After facing opposition at the 1870 conference, Smith continued to preach throughout “America, Britain, India, and Western Africa. Never ordained, Smith was a well-known spokeswoman for the holiness movement, gaining an international reputation. She founded the Amanda Smith Orphan’s Home for Colored Children in Chicago in 1895, and spend much of the rest of her life working for the welfare of African American Children” (Oden, In Her Words, 308). Clearly God was going to use Smith regardless of whether or not she was ordained. Her impact for the church was not just experienced at a conference which was hesitant to allow her to attend, but throughout the world. I wonder how many people grew up with a strong Christian faith as a result of her ministry in Chicago among children. God had bigger plans for her than simply attending conferences or being ordained for a particular church. Today’s church must remember ultimately that God chooses who will impact the world, not some hiring board or church committee. Amanda Smith is just one of many examples of women in church history who impacted the world in spite of others questioning her role as a woman.

Women in Church History Part 4: Julian of Norwich and Christ our Mother


I wanted to post about Julian of Norwich after a suggestion on a comment thread. She has always stood out to me because in my introductory Church History course I learned how she “lived in a small cell built into the wall” of the church (Ruth A. Tucker and Walter A. Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan, 1987, 152). Her willingness to live like that struck me the first time I was taught about this period. Going to a Protestant seminary, you often heard many people decrying the monastics for their “removal from every day life.” Frequently someone would ask, “How is it living the Gospel if you remove yourself from society?” That is a different conversation for another time.

Back to Julian. She had 16 visions after an illness and wrote them down in a document later known as Revelations of Divine Love (Tucker, 152). Reading through this text one is struck by some of the more poignant metaphors and descriptions of God, Christ, and the Trinity. For example she writes, “He [Christ] is our Mother, brother, and savior” (Revelations, ch. 58). Calling Christ our mother in the fourteenth century seems to be pretty progressive. She describes that Christ “is our Mother of mercy” (ch. 58).

Julian’s description of Christ as our mother provides readers, especially today, with an expanded understanding of the Trinity. If we have elements of both Father and Mother in our trinitarian thought, then we might be able to see past much of the patriarchal traditions of the church. God is father of creation, God is mother of mercy and love. Putting aside a discussion of parental gender roles, many people see mothers as nurturing and loving. If we parlay these characteristics to God and Christ, we therefore might be able to live out a desirable faith, one that loves and nurtures others instead of one that simply preaches doctrine. The church today needs more of a nurturing and loving character. While some people might immediately dismiss her teaching of Christ as our mother simply because “she can’t say that about Christ,” they might miss the richness and applicability of such thinking.

I want to close by noting a small example of how Julian’s teaching can be applied today. I have been a part of several different church bodies over the last 15 years. I have seen churches royally botch how they treat individuals. One such instance was in a past church in which women were relegated to only being able to teach/ instruct children until they were 13. After that, the only teaching that these kids could receive had to come from men. Unfortunately, some women really struggled with their roles in this church simply because they didn’t feel they were called to ministering to kids (usually one of the only ministry roles afforded them other than singing in the choir). Similarly, every Sunday the sermons would use non-inclusive language (as did many of the songs). I heard a few people speak about how the very language of the sermons and songs made them feel less included as well (Can I apply this to me? Am I allowed? Is he using “men” for all people, or really just for men?). Imagine how the women in that congregation would have felt if one Sunday (OTHER THAN MOTHER’S DAY) the pastor said, “Today I want to talk about how Christ can serve as our mother.” If nothing else, Julian of Norwich teaches us today that language matters. Pastors and teachers need to expand their metaphors, remembering that our language can and does ostracize others.

Do ascetics that wall themselves up live out the gospel and have as big of an impact on the world versus those who don’t? Well, I think it’s pretty clear that Julian of Norwich did and does.

Women in Church History, Part 3: The Complex Picture of Saint Olga of Kiev


I wanted to get back into my “women in church history” series as well as blog about the ongoing situation in the Ukraine. The situation there is quite complicated, with the native Russians and pro-Moscow groups in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine opposed to the more Europe-friendly Western half of the country. I did some research about the origins of the country and Christianity in the region, and I found a story about Olga of Kiev in a couple of books: Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez-McRobbie (Quirk Books, 2013) and How the Barbarian Invasions Shaped the Modern World by Thomas J. Craughwell (Fair Winds Press, 2008).

She was a queen of Kievan Rus, a Viking settlement, during the 10th century C.E. Her story is quite interesting for those of you unfamiliar with it (as I was just a few days ago). Her husband was killed by a Slavic tribe (the Derevlians) leader who then immediately sent envoys to convince her to marry him. She accepted it but had her servants dig a large trench and in the morning when they returned for her, had the envoys pushed into the pit and buried alive. She then hosted the most noble of the Derevlians in Kiev, urging them to use the bath house after their journey. She promptly ordered the bathhouse locked and burned to the ground with them inside. Finally she visited the Derevlians and had them drink the point of drunkenness, after which her men slaughtered over 5,000 of the drunken soldiers.

So how did this woman become a saint? Well, she actually converted to Christianity during a trip to Constantinople in 955 (Barbarian Invasions, 237). The violent story above (it is uncertain how much of it is actually true and how much of it is Viking legend) occurred before her conversion. She was baptized (a fun story in and of itself) and afterward, she attempted to bring Christianity to what is modern day Ukraine and Western Russia. Her efforts failed largely, but her grandson Vladamir helped to bring about Olga’s vision, bringing Christianity to the region. Olga’s desire for Christianity in Kievan Rus, although unfulfilled in her own lifetime, was realized just two generations later. Christianity in this area was Byzantine, “aligned with Europe rather than Asia,” and seen as an “heir to the legacy of ancient Greece and Imperial Rome” (Barbarian Invasions, 248).

Olga’s missionary efforts in Kievan Rus largely were to “unify her people” and to “strengthen their ties to the wealthy and powerful Byzantine Empire” (Barbarian Invasions, 247). She became a saint for her efforts in both the Catholic and Orthodox faiths. I think the message of Olga’s later life as a Christian seeking to unite her subjects has ample messages to the current crisis in the Ukraine. While I am not trying to advocate that the Ukraine should unite and side entirely with Europe, I do think that unity could serve the people well. It seems as though the numerous groups in the country disagree with foreign policy and internal government. The fractured identity of the Ukranian people is one of the causes being thrown around by the media. What if the whole of the country united as Ukranian instead of “Native Russians” versus “Western-leaning Ukrainians?” The legacy of St. Olga of Kiev, a very savvy ruler and a woman of faith, might just be applicable to the modern day crisis.