This blog post was first presented as part of the New Leaf In the Company of Women conference in May 2017.
Stories have a great power to inspire and help us see outside ourselves. History is filled with stories, many of which come from a context different enough from our own, that we can see the aspects of another life in a way that can bring clarity to our own life.
No person in history has a simple and straight-forward story, women who stepped up to lead in the Church are no different. I teased at the end of a previous post, that history would not have to wait very long until the Methodist women were stepping up to speak into the context where everyone has a voice. I’d like to share part of that story with you.
The friend I would like to introduce you to today is Sarah Crosby, not to be confused with the nineteenth-century hymn writer, Fanny Crosby, Mrs. Sarah Crosby lived in eighteenth-century England and was active in the early Methodist movement.
I first met Sarah Crosby through her letter to John Wesley about the doctrine of Christian Perfection, which was the topic I was researching. Sarah’s letter is addressed to John Wesley himself, and we soon learn that Wesley has asked her opinion on his recent publication on the topic. Crosby answers his direct questions, and then launches into a fascinating recollection of her spiritual narrative, which is marked by an intimate encounter with God that propelled her further along her journey toward spiritual maturity.
I love the power of a well told story! I was captivated. I knew that I needed to learn more about Mrs. Crosby. She left a hint in her letter that makes the historian’s heart race. She writes: “There are many more particulars, which I haven’t room for, and have acquainted you with many years ago.”1
I did find out more of Mrs Crosby’s story, she was converted at a young age and then joined with the Methodists because she found Wesley’s vision of spiritual maturity compelling. She remembers him preaching: “If it is possible for God to give us a little love, is it not possible for him to fill us with love?”2 Crosby encountered God in an intimate way, which fueled her ministry. She served in several Methodist communities, leading small discipleship groups, 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 (similar to small group ministry), because they did not have a local leader. On February 1, 1761 she writes in her journal that she met with 27 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.3
With that bold move, female Methodist preaching was born.
She then writes a letter to John Wesley recounting what had happened, and wondering if she had transgressed. But she must not have wondered too seriously, because the journal entry for five days later (before she received a response from Wesley) reads:
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.4
Wesley’s letter is dated the next day and reads: “I think you have not gone too far; you could not well do less.”5 John Wesley, in relationship with gifted and called women, made room for their ministry in the Methodist community.In relationship with gifted and called women, Wesley made room for their ministry in the Methodist community Click To Tweet
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.6 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 tell 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. John Wesley had died eleven years earlier in 1791, and since that time many of things he fought for were being reversed. He was no longer there to fight for women in the pulpit.
The introduction to the collection tells the story. The 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? 7
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. And 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 than eighteenth-century women, Sarah Crosby and her fellow preachers help us to reflect on how those who are in leadership now can make way for women who the Holy Spirit is calling upon.
And if women are called to work alongside men, who else is called, too?
More to read on the blog
- Crosby, Early Methodist Spirituality, ed Paul Wesley Chilcote, 266.
- Crosby, Holy Women, 28.
- Crosby, Holy Women, 42.
- Crosby, Holy Women, 43.
- Wesley, Holy Women, 43.
- Full title: Biographical sketches of the lives and public ministry of various holy women : whose eminent usefulness and successful labours in the church of Christ, have entitled them to be enrolled among the great benefactors of mankind : in which are included several letters from the Rev. J. Wesley never before published. Edited by Zachariah Taft.
- Taft, Holy Women, Introduction.