In Saving Women, Laceye Warner retrieves the holistic theology and practice of evangelism found in seven women evangelists from the late-17th through early-20th centuries. She also brings to the surface the role of mystical experience in the call and ongoing ministry of these women. Warner offers these thoroughly researched accounts in a manner that is both winsome and prophetic, drawing the reader to consider in our own day and time how to retrieve the theological depth, spiritual power and fruitfulness that was so evident in these women’s ministries.
The women that Warner profiles are Dorothy Ripley, Sarah and Angelina Grimke, Julia Foote, Francis Willard, Helen Barrett Montgomery and Mary McCleod Bethune. While all of these women are notable for their integration of proclamation with social action, Warner especially focuses on the abolition efforts and racial reconciliation emphases of the women, and women’s rights and education. The role of suffering and personal trauma and how these experiences shaped the evangelists’ theology are highlighted.
Another theme of significant interest is the ecumenism of the women, which was sometimes cast in terms of their inability to be completely at home in the Methodist tradition. For example Dorothy Ripley’s father was a Methodist minister, and although she shared certain affinities with Methodism, she desired to be affiliated with the Quakers. Unable to be fully received by the Quakers due to some of her kataphatic spiritual experiences, Dorothy ultimately remained non-denominational.
Not fitting in with their traditions because their experience of God and experience of call was somehow “larger” than the norm for women in their time, and because they were more concerned with social issues than was considered appropriate for ladies, these women connect with a deeply significant issue in the Methodist church today: the severe drop in numbers of young clergy because they are unable to fit with the constrictions of our denomination. This is particularly true of young adults who are drawn to develop alternative forms of church in emerging culture. Warner’s book offers a rich historical resource for such leaders, helping them to reflect upon their vocation in light of the tradition of non-conformist, missional women.
The role of mystical experience in the lives of these evangelists is also significant today in Methodism, where we struggle to reclaim vitality in so many churches that are declining or dead. As Anne Taves demonstrates in Fits, Trances and Visions, the history of mystical experience among Methodists has been for the most part repressed in our official history, so much so that many Methodists do not know that dreams, visions, healings, and other religious experiences are a vital part of Methodist heritage. Indeed most of the great revivalists and evangelists in Methodism had such experiences, which were often the context for their call and vision for mission. Warner’s book helps bring to light some of these narratives of religious experience, contextualizing them in the realities of life for each of the women who are featured.
The courage of the uncanonized saints in Warner’s book is truly inspiring. These women did not hesitate to enter the foulest prisons, hospitals and neighborhoods to bring the good news and the healing ministry of Jesus. They were so bold as to confront political leaders, endure incarceration, be publicly mocked, slandered, and in other ways treated with contempt. They traveled alone, internationally in some cases, usually paying their own way. They preached, taught men, wrote books, composed hymns, and in many other ways defied the sinful systems of patriarchy in the church and world, in order to be faithful to their evangelistic call. These women lived a daily martyrdom, laying down their lives for the sake of the gospel. They put their hand to the plow and did not look back.
Saving Women makes a vital contribution to the history, theory and practice of evangelism, mysticism in the Wesleyan tradition, and feminist theology. It is a book that is both inspiring and rigorous.
Elaine A. Heath is McCreless assistant professor of evangelism and director of the Center for the Advanced Study and Practice of Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
Three United Methodist congregations: In one, youth appear in worship for confirmation and on “youth Sunday”; they are more often found at the foosball table in the youth room. In a second, the youth are regularly in worship, but remain out of sight, sitting in the upper reaches of the church balcony, at furthest distance from the liturgical and musical action. In a third, youth are visible in worship as leaders each and every week, ushering, reading Scripture, taking up the collection, and assisting with communion.
In all three congregations, the place in which we find youth embodies the present church and anticipates its future. The church may be or become a community disengaged from the central formative practices of Christian life, a community present but distanced from these central practices, or a community fully engaged in mission and ministry.
Fred Edie is an articulate advocate of this last position. In Book, Bath, Table, and Time, he gently but firmly calls the church to task for its relegation of youth to the margins of its life, reminding us that youth are no less the “present” of the church than any other baptized person. The heart of his argument focuses on the church’s unwillingness to engage youth in the “ordo-nary” life of Christian community, a life patterned by and shaped around the holy things of Scripture, Baptism, Eucharist, and Christian time.
These holy things order more than Sunday worship; they order the whole of our lives before God. He wonders, therefore, when the ski trip became a mark of the church, how entertainment became the church’s primary purpose, and why the church is surprised that young adults expect “meaningful” worship to have the excitement of a fast slalom on fresh powder.
Prophetic and critical though he is, Edie does not rant against American individualism and consumerism. Rather, he provides a creative argument about the ways in which worship must be at the heart of the church’s ministry with youth, shaping their “capacities to imagine, understand and receive the gift of Christian vocation as their own futures with God unfold.”
Drawing on his experience as director of the Duke Youth Academy, Edie demonstrates that “cultivating theologically savvy youth” not only matters but becomes possible when we turn to the “liturgically grounded lived faith of the church as theology’s generative source.”
What happens, for example, to one’s self-understanding and to one’s theological understanding when in frequent practice and amidst a diverse community one hears “The gifts of God for the people of God” juxtaposed with “The body of Christ given for you”? More, what happens when this holy meal is juxtaposed with other meals offered and received in the company of strangers?
This “pedagogy of traction,” as Edie calls it, provides an outline for the organization of the book as a whole: robust celebration of Word and Table; explicit teaching on the theology of Baptism, Eucharist, and Christian time; opportunity to practice planning and leading worship; the deliberate juxtaposition of Eucharist with other spiritual practices—servant ministry in the community, meals shared with strangers, agricultural gleaning; and intentional small group reflection on the way in which liturgical experience shapes one’s theological self-understanding.
Edie offers a liturgically rich and theologically wise alternative to what passes for youth ministry and much Christian education across the age-span and in many Protestant churches today. But it is more than this.
Under the guise of a book on youth ministry with Christian worship at its center, Edie provides a means by which pastors and congregations might reflect on the church’s “colonization by consumer culture” as well as on the church’s “thin” knowledge of Scripture, its inability to articulate the significance of the sacramental life or to reflect on the cost of our inattention to the sacraments, its lack of vocational imagination, and its inability to understand the interdependence between worship, theology and ministry in the world. This is more than a youth ministry alternative; it is a model for re-ordering a congregation’s life.
E. Byron Anderson is Styberg associate professor of worship at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. He is the author of Worship and Christian Identity (Liturgical Press).