A vocal charismatic from western Canada, Sarah Bessey has just come out with her first book, (2013) Jesus Feminist . It’s a highly relational and popular account of how Bessey’s love for Jesus flows into her approach to female flourishing. As part of the launch for the book, she’s been giving interviews, including one at Christianity Today . While I have not read all of her book, the bits I have suggest that Bessey wants to reclaim the nineteenth-century heritage that has shaped many women in the Holiness-Pentecostal movement.
In certain respects the “mother” of these women is the Methodist Phoebe Palmer , while their midwife is Harriet Beecher Stowe . From her home in Manhattan, Palmer represented the center of the holiness movement at least through 1870. The daughter of Lyman Beecher , Stowe encountered the holiness movement through her associations with Palmer and the college professor turned holiness advocate, Thomas Upham .
After his experience of sanctification, Upham mined the spiritual tradition for insights, writing on the Spanish and French Quietists, Catherine of Genoa, and others. In fact, it was most likely a dinner discussion between the Stowes and the Uphams about the new Fugitive Slave Law passed by Congress in 1850 that became a catalyst for Uncle Tom’s Cabin . Upham defied the law in harboring a run-away slave the very next evening.
One can see the influence of holiness ideas on Stowe at the end of the novel when she asks, “But, what can any individual do? Of that, every individual can judge. There is one thing that every individual can do—-they can see to it that they feel right .”
Holiness was always about the proper ordering of human emotion and desire through an encounter with transcendent love in the form of the transcendent lover, Christ. In this sense, it was an Augustinianism that fused mystical union with evangelical conversion.
Wedded to the emphasis on the right ordering of human desire was a populism that flowed from the democratized view of the Spirit present within the holiness movement and bequeathed to Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement. This populism gave birth to a lay movement that utilized populist mechanisms such as an emerging mass media and societies (think YMCA/YWCA) to push a message of social holiness—the proper ordering of civic life.
Women evangelists and leaders were central to this entire enterprise. While many Americans celebrate Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Seneca Falls as central to women’s rights, the largest organization of women in the late nineteenth century was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union run by Frances Willard , whose statue sits in Statuary Hall. Willard was a Methodist who had a spiritual experience of the perfect love in sanctification under Phoebe Palmer. She was deeply pro-family, in part because of the trafficking of women she saw in cities like Paris where prostitution was legalized. Numerous women associated with the holiness movement were part of this organization, including Hannah Whitall Smith .
The list of prominent holiness and Pentecostal women is long, but here are a few: Catherine Booth , Amanda Berry Smith , Carrie Judd Montgomery , Maria Woodworth-Etter , Ida Robinson , and Aimee Semple McPherson . Robinson and McPherson founded new denominations; Booth co-founded the Salvation Army with her husband William Booth; and Smith, Montgomery, and Woodworth-Etter were evangelists in the holiness and Pentecostal movements.
The social program concerned the proper ordering of familial and civic relations as the macrocosm of the proper ordering of emotion and desire. This combination of social and personal holiness flowed from the democratized view of the Spirit and the bridal mysticism that went along with it. It was the love that flowed from ecstatic union in a sanctifying encounter that prompted their desire to minister.
A recent study of over 700 Pentecostal women ministers suggests that they share this view of calling. Most are bi-vocational, remain committed to their families and family life, and have a strong internal sense of calling that flows from their own encounters.
In their push for women’s rights and labor laws that protected children and workers, these holiness and Pentecostal women were also part of the so-called first wave of feminism.
Did they say and do crazy things? You bet. But nothing more crazy than a Julian of Norwich claiming to have received a revelation of divine love from Jesus himself in the face of the Black Death, or a Hildegard of Bingen writing a young Odo of Soissons to tell him that she did have a personal revelation of the Trinity that would solve the theological dilemma he was having as a result of the teaching of Gilbert de la Porree in the Parisian schools.
Imagine Julian of Norwich, in a soft East Anglian accent, testifying about her encounter with a shriveled-up Jesus, her heavenly Mother, and how she received three wounds because she wanted to be Christ’s lover just like Mary Magdalen. Some modern evangelicals might consider that “strange fire.”
These women began from a revelatory encounter of divine love that compelled them to seek the flourishing of all women, of all human beings. When I read Sarah Bessey, I hear that same language of desire, of intimacy, and of a determination to be fully conformed to the Son in the power of the Spirit “for the sake of the kingdom.” Her book is but the most recent manifestation of a phenomenon that will continue within the “revivalist” wing of evangelicalism.
Dr. Dale M. Coulter serves as an associate professor of Historical Theology for the School of Divinity. He joined Regent University School of Divinity in 2007 and has served as interim director of the Ph.D. program and associate dean of academics. Before coming to Regent, he was a faculty member for eight years in the School of Religion at Lee University.
Coulter currently serves on the editorial board of Victorine Texts in Translation, having also co-edited the first translation of the series (Trinity and Creation, 2010 Brepols). He also served as co-editor of PNEUMA: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies (2010-2015) and currently is a member of the executive committee of the Society for Pentecostal Studies.
Coulter is also involved in ecumenical discussions as well as a participating member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. He blogs occasionally at First Thoughts, the online platform for the journal First Things, which is published by the Institute for Religion and Public Life. As an ordained minister, Coulter remains active in the life of the local church by regularly teaching and preaching.