Women in Leadership: A historical approach
The study of Methodist history suggests, I would argue, that the denomination and its offshoots are well placed to offer leadership opportunities to women. The prominence of women in the early history of Methodism was highlighted by Earl Kent Brown in 1983, and further studies, notably by Paul Chilcote, have ensured that this feature of the eighteenth-century movement is firmly established in its historiography. I propose to examine the later history in the light of this ‘early Methodism baseline’, seeking to identify some of the factors that led to change over the ensuing two centuries, and to examine the extent to which it may be held to have persisted.
‘Early Methodism’ 1738 – 1791
Both sociological and theological factors help to explain the nature and importance of women’s leadership in early Methodism. It took root most readily among small and middling tradespeople – precisely the situations in which women were most likely to be found working as equal partners in a family enterprise, or where they had a degree of economic independence, thus giving spiritual authority to any individual, whatever their gender or status. Methodism’s Arminian theology shared with Evangelical religion in general a reliance on the individual’s testimony to an inner experience of conversion. Its particular theological framework was (and is) is built around the concept of three stages of grace, – (a) prevenient grace, offered to all (c.f. Calvinism), stirring people to an awareness of their spiritual need
(b) convincing grace, bringing about repentance and conversion (c) sanctifying grace, working to increase holiness in the believer. This gave particular implications for women’s leadership.
1) ‘Leadership’ in early Methodism did not necessarily mean ‘ordained leadership’. Methodism famously began as a movement within existing church structures, principally the Established Church: John Wesley, despite some ambiguous actions in his later years, always proclaimed his determination to keep it so. A virtual ‘clergy caste’ was created from 1744 onward, consisting of those preachers whom Wesley regarded as being ‘in connexion’ with himself and one another, whom he met annually in Conference and stationed to a new circuit every year by his own authority. Most of them were laymen: women were necessarily excluded from this itinerant and self-supporting life. The majority of preachers however did not itinerate but were ‘local’. A distinction was made between ‘preaching’, which involved ‘taking a text’ i.e. preaching from Scripture, and ‘exhorting’, which did not. The speed and fervour of revival, combined with blurring of distinction, made it possible for many women to act as preachers. Some travelled widely on the basis of personal invitation rather than stationing, and a few women were either explicitly or tacitly recognised as ‘preachers’ by Wesley himself.