Christian historians and ecclesiastical analysts often overlook the contribution of women clergy because they mistakenly see women preachers and female ordination as a later 20thcentury phenomenon, which rode the second wave of feminism. The Holiness Movement was squarely in the middle of the first wave of feminism in the 19th century. The movement was vocal and active on issues of equality such as abolition, the rights of non-whites and immigrants, the rights of the poor, and the rights of women. Nearly all of the denominations that arose from the Holiness Movement affirmed the full equality of women and their right to ordination, including the Church of the Nazarene. Yet, so many people who are now associated with such denominations do not know this history or the Wesleyan-Holiness theology on which human equality is founded. As a result, women have found it necessary to defend their right to preach in denominations that have never officially questioned such a right.
Susie Stanley’s exceptional book, Holy Boldness: Women Preacher’s Autobiographies and the Sanctified Self,1 shows that hundreds of women were preaching with an empowered sense of self and calling in denominations associated with the Holiness Movement. Phoebe Palmer was a key figure; indeed, she was its matriarch. In Donald Dayton’s words: “It was . . . the denominations produced by the mid-nineteenth century ‘holiness revival’ that most consistently raised feminism to a central principle of church life. This movement largely emerged from the work of Phoebe Palmer.”²
Palmer’s The Promise of the Father (1859), a defense of women in ministry, anticipates many interpretative moves of 20th-century feminist exegetes. But the isolated pronouncements of any figure, even one as revered as Palmer, would not be sufficient to persuade an entire religious movement to take a decisive and controversial stand on women’s roles. Rather, the Holiness Movement’s endorsement of women’s equality is rooted more profoundly in the 19th-century Holiness Movement’s articulation of its doctrine of entire sanctification. Holiness theology made it possible for women to understand themselves as “entirely sanctified” and thereby adopt new roles in radical disjunction with their pasts. Nancy Hardesty articulates this disjunction:
Christians were not only justified before God but were also regenerate, reborn, made new, capable of being restored to the Edenic state. For women it made possible the sweeping away of centuries of patriarchal, misogynist culture in the instant . . . The argument that ‘this is the way we’ve always done it,’ holds no power for someone for whom ‘all things have been made new.’³
Nazarene women clergy represent a long tradition of women preachers in the Wesleyan-Holiness Movement.
The synthesis of holiness theology with revivalism can be seen clearly in the emphasis on the instantaneousness of sanctification. Holiness theology also modifies Wesley in its adoption of John Fletcher’s linkage of entire sanctification with “the baptism of the Holy Spirit,” by taking the image and popularizing it. Baptism language linked holiness with Pentecostal power. Women who had experienced entire sanctification were empowered to accomplish that which exceeded theirhuman limitations. Through Pentecostal empowerment and “unhindered” freedom, women were enabled to progress in their spiritual journeys as never before. In holiness theology, women have equal access to the “Pentecostal power” available through the Holy Spirit. Thus, they are equally capable to be “Pentecostal witnesses” to what God can do in a life that is entirely devoted. The Church of the Nazarene, and Bresee specifically, stand squarely on this interpretation of Pentecost.
Catherine Booth (Salvation Army) and B. T. Roberts (Free Methodist) were among those writing treatises on women’s right to preach. Booth published her work on the subject in 1861. B. T. Roberts published Ordaining Women in 1891. These works, with the rise of holiness theology, allowed women to fulfill this special requirement of God. Preaching was the inevitable step after testimony, and ordination was the next step after preaching. All this was based on a belief in equality that arises from more thansocio-historical factors. Wesleyan-Holiness theology gave rise to practical application. Wesleyan-Holiness women preached in an environment that allowed them to thrive. Such egalitarianism was central to Holiness identity. Women preachers were a “natural fit” as evidence of this deeply held conviction.
The Church of the Nazarene stands out as a particular case in which women’s preaching and leadership succeeds. This was due partly to Phineas Bresee’s strong leadership. But before Bresee supported a “feminist” stand for the denomination, he had already been influenced by many women in his life.
Bresee had models of strong women in his family. His mother, Susan Brown Bresee, became part of his household and moved with her son from parsonage to parsonage in Iowa and California. Later, she was a charter member of Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene. His daughter, Sue, was also part of his new movement. The strongest female in Bresee’s life was his wife, Maria Hebbard Bresee, who worked tirelessly alongside him for over 55 years. During some of their years in Iowa, she endured a hard life, raising little children while her husband was away. In California, she helped to bear many of Phineas’ burdens as he endured the emotional turmoil of many changes, some rejections, and the responsibility of leadership of a new denomination.
After his family moved to Southern California, Phineas Bresee became more deeply involved in the Holiness Movement and consequently met women in positions of church leadership. He grew acquainted with Amanda Berry Smith, the famous African American evangelist, and heard her preach on several occasions. He wrote, “She preached one Sabbath afternoon, as I never heard her preach before, in strains of holy eloquence and unction . . . The Lord opened heaven on the people in mighty tides of glory.”⁴
Later, in the Church of the Nazarene, the preaching of women ceased to be an unusual occurrence. The following women represent the many opportunities given to Nazarene women to preach as evangelists, pastors, and mission workers. Such interactions caused Bresee to once proclaim, “Some of our best ‘men’ are women!”
LUCY PIERCE KNOTT⁵
Lucy Pierce married William S. Knott in 1882. In 1887, they took their three children and moved from Kentucky to Los Angeles, where they met Bresee. They became strong supporters of Bresee and followed him to several churches in Southern California. They became charter members of Los Angeles First Church of the Nazarene when it was organized. Bresee wrote down some of his memories of Lucy Knott. He noted that she was a “minister” among young women at Los Angeles First. He called her “pastor” of the Mateo Street mission, which was later organized into a church. “As a preacher and leader in the church, she has shown peculiar ability.”⁶ He noted the strong effectiveness of her evangelical efforts and insightful and powerful work with small groups. He also noted that she had the full support of her husband for her ministry. She was licensed to preach in 1899 and was ordained in 1903. Her congregations loved her.
Bresee also knew Rev. Maye McReynolds. Early in the young denomination, she was called by God to work among the Mexican population of Southern California. After moving from Minnesota in 1899, Maye McReyolds heard Bresee preach at a revival. That night she experienced entire sanctification and soon joined the Church of the Nazarene. She was employed by the railroad, where she encountered Spanish-speaking people on a daily basis. She felt “compelled” to work among them. She was ordained in 1906 and served as pastor of the Mexican mission, and later of the first Nazarene Mexican church. According to Rebecca Laird, she was a “confident, bold woman with great compassion . . . [with] a radiant spirit [as] a devoted missionary, preacher and leader.”⁷ She was also accorded equal status with the district superintendents at the third General Assembly, where it was “moved and seconded that Sister McReynolds, who has been for years recognized as Superintendent of our Spanish Mission in the Southwestern part of the country, be recognized as a regular District Superintendent and seated in the assembly as such. Motion carried.”8 She appeared in the official picture taken at the assembly of the general and district superintendents.
When DeLance and Elsie Wallace moved to Spokane, Washington, they brought with them a passion to spreadholiness in that area. They fostered a mission, which she headed. C. W. Ruth, the Church of the Nazarene’s assistant general superintendent, was invited to preach a revival there in January 1902. He reorganized the mission into a church during his visit upon the unanimous consent of the congregation, appointed Mrs. Wallace as its pastor. Later that year, Bresee visited Spokane and ordained her to the ministry—the first woman ordained by his hand. Her church grew. Elsie and her husband established other churches in Washington and Oregon. Bresee urged Elsie to become the pastor of Seattle First Church until it grew strong. Later, she conducted a revival in Walla Walla, where a new church was organized and she was urged to become its pastor. She remained there for nine years. She was appointed as the district superintendent of the Northwest District in 1920. After a short stay in Kansas City, where her husband served for a time as manager of the Nazarene Publishing House, she returned to Washington to again pastor Seattle First Church. After another stint as an evangelist, she moved to California and pastored three churches there. Early in her ministry, Elsie Wallace wrote Bresee seeking “fatherly advice.”9 Such advice served her well. She retired in 1941 after over 40 years of highly effective pastoral and preaching ministry.
Many other women knew and served with Phineas Bresee. Mary Lee Harris Cagle, deeply involved in the mergers that created the denomination, stands out as one of the strongest female leaders it has known. She represents the many female leaders who met and influenced Bresee, but history does not record all such encounters for us.
What is crystal clear is that Bresee stood strongly with the Holiness movement’s affirmation of women preachers, their ordination to the ministry, and the use of their gifts in public ministry. For him, it was a given; so much so that when an explicit statement on the issue was called for, it was reasoned that the obvious inclusion of women in all levels of leadership made an argument for such wholly unnecessary.
Oh, to return to those glory days when female leadership was a given. If recent statistics continue, we might just be on our way.
DIANE LECLERC is Professor of Historical Theology at Northwest Nazarene University.
2. Donald W. Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (New York: Harper and Row, 1976), 200.
3. Nancy Hardesty, Great Women of Faith: the Strength and Influence of Christian Women (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 90.
4. Girvin, E. A., Phineas F. Bresee: A Prince in Israel (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1916), 91.
5. I am indebted to Rebecca Laird for much of the following information. See Rebecca Laird, Ordained Women in the Church of the Nazarene: The First Generation (Kansas City: Nazarene Publishing House, 1993).
6. Girvin, 115.
7. Laird, 51, 53.
8. Minutes of the Third General Assembly, Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene. Afternoon session, Nashville, October 7, 1911.
9. Mrs. DeLance Wallace, “Spokane, Washington,” Nazarene Messenger, January 12, 1902, 10.