Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, Illinois. He is also a Honorary Fellow in the School of Divinity, Edinburgh University. He has written eight books, including A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (OUP, 2011) and John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life (OUP, 2018). His popular articles and reviews have appeared in numerous venues, including the Wall Street Journal, the Christian Century, World, and the Times Literary Supplement.
In this Context Chat, Ashley chats with Dr. Timothy Larsen about how women in early Evangelicalism contributed to the spread of the Gospel as preachers, patrons, and philanthropists.
During your academic career, you have written on many topics but one of your research interests has been on women and Christianity, particularly within Evangelicalism. What first attracted you to studying this subject matter?
Evangelicalism can mean different things to different people in our culture today. In your opinion, what kinds of beliefs did early British evangelicals share?
In your research, you have argued that women have contributed to the public ministry of early Evangelicalism in three ways (albeit, I am simplifying things a bit) as: preachers, patrons, and philanthropists. Can you give us some examples of evangelical women preachers in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries?
British observers of evangelical revivals accused evangelical preachers of “enthusiasm” and “ranting”—or, in other words, overly emotional forms of preaching. In fact, John Wesley warned a female preacher to: “Never scream. Never speak above the natural pitch of your voice; it is disgustful to the hearers. It gives them pain, not pleasure, and it is destroying yourself. It is offering God murder for sacrifice.” With this quotation in mind, do you think that Wesley was trying to protect female preachers from violating societal beliefs regarding social respectability?
Can you share some examples of eighteenth or nineteenth-century women who contributed to evangelicalism as patrons?
Another way to think about philanthropy is social activism —the belief that a Christian lives out their faith through good works. Who then are some early evangelical social reformers?
One argument by historian Christopher Brown is that: ‘‘The most important agents in the spread of Evangelical religion among the upper classes seems . . . to have been the female members of the families. It was nearly always through wives and daughters that seriousness was introduced into aristocratic households.’’ Would you agree with that statement?
Standard Final Questions for a “Context Chat”
Which do you prefer: tea or coffee? Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon or evening
What is a book that you have read more than once that you would recommend? TS Eliot, Four Quartet and Eleanor Vandevort, A Leopard Tamed
Do you have a hero of the faith? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Perpetua
Featured Women of the Church
Catherine Booth (1829-1890): She co-founded the Salvation Army, which was “committed to the wellness of people, both spiritually and physically,” with her husband, William Booth. As Dr. Larsen noted, she had an “overwhelming sense of God’s call,” even though she was initially reluctant to preach and speak in public. She becomes one of the most “influential ministers in one of the most important countries in the world.”
Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon (1707-1791): She played a key role in establishing the Methodist denomination. Due to her wealth, she was able to build 60-70 chapels throughout Great Britain. “Here is one woman, by the force of her spiritual conviction and earnestness and the use of her wealth and her status in the hierarchy of society, she creates an entire evangelical denomination that still exists to this day.”
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896):Author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin(1852), which becomes the best-selling novel in American history up to that point. She wrote a “haunting, powerful novel that really changed people’s views of slavery.” Although many have said that President Abraham Lincoln credited the novel with starting the American Civil War, that is not true.
Eleanor Vandevort (1925–2015): She graduated from Wheaton College in 1949. Eleanor’s book recounting her experiences as a Presbyterian missionary in the South Sudan included an introduction from the missionary Elisabeth Elliot. Dr. Larsen describes A Leopard Tamed, “It startled me…it is the most emotionally honest book…it is really honest about what missions is actually like.”
Perpetua (182-203): Due to the survival of her writings from prison, she is one of the earliest recorded female Christian voices outside of the New Testament. After refusing to renounce her Christian faith, Roman officials had her killed. For the early church, Perpetua’s martyrdom spoke to the importance of persevering in the faith, no matter the cost.
Regarding early Evangelicalism: “The emphasis isn’t as strong on narrow belief in terms of doctrine. By in large, they are functioning in a world that is pretty orthodox. And they are agreeing with that. So, the Trinity is established, Christ’s divinity is established. Those kind of basic Christian beliefs are just there. What evangelicalism is particularly honing in on is the drama of salvation in an individual human soul. What evangelicals believe in that sense is that God really wants to transform each individual’s life. And therefore, that relationship with God has weight and meaning even if the person we are talking about is a poor servant or is an unskilled laborer or whoever they are. There is dignity and worth in their life and in their story because it is a story of the greatest drama in the world, which is the drama of redemption…Evangelicalism to me is essentially a renewal movement.”
Regarding early evangelical preaching: “So there is always a tension between respectability and effectiveness and freedom. I think you can see that even in the NT letters where the apostles were giving instructions and are trying to walk this line between freedom of the Gospel and worrying you will offend the wider culture so much by not looking respectable that it will make it ineffectual. So, Wesley has that in his own life. He becomes very effectual in speaking outdoors. But that was against canon law and the Church of England, which he was ordained in…So, he is living it himself…It is hard for us to get back to time where there were no microphones. It is very difficult to project your voice in an effective way to an audience…without screaming.”
Dr. Larsen’s Sources
CB Image Source: Unknown - Scanned from Catherine Booth: A Sketch by Brigadier Mildred Duff. Published by The Salvation Army Book Department of London, Melbourne and New York (1890)
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