The Lord gives the command; great is the company of women who bore the tidings. Psalm 68:11 (NRSV)

Earlier this spring I was sitting with a congregation in Durham, North Carolina listening to a “call sermon” by a student. She began by telling the story of the woman at the well from the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel. The woman was just there to get a little water, the preacher explained, but then she met Jesus who gave her living water. The preacher shifted to her story of growing up in a Baptist church in the Deep South, her doctoral education and a teaching career, and her eventual matriculation in divinity school to explore and learn. She confessed to having no intention of becoming a preacher. Like the woman at the well, she was “just there to get a little water.” But Jesus interrupted her plans and told her to go and tell a thirsty world about living water.

Listening to her sermon I was reminded of another young woman named Sarah Wight, who in the spring of 1647 began a fast that lasted seventy-six days. Her family and members of their Baptist congregation gathered around her bedside as she lay weakened to the point of death, blind, and deaf. As she moved in and out of consciousness, she received a series of revelations that offered signs of grace. After calling for a drink of water, she sat up in her bed and began to prophesy. As she recounted her dreams and visions, her sick bed was transformed into a pulpit, and the friends and family at her beside became the gathered community with whom Christ promised to be present. She had no intention of becoming a preacher either. She was just there to get a little water. But preach she did.

The Psalmist envisions a great company of women preachers. In truth its witnesses stretch from the present through voices like Sarah Wight reaching all the way back to the Hebrew prophetesses Miriam (Ex 15:20-21) and Deborah (Judges 4:4, 5:1-31). Yet the historical narrative has some noticeable gaps, especially when it comes to telling the story of preaching women among the Baptists. We know all too well the lives and writings of our Baptist forefathers from John Smyth to John Bunyan, but what about our foremothers? Were there women preachers among the early Baptists? Who were they? Did they leave behind any record of their thoughts in their own words?

A Company of Women Preachers focuses on the writings (1640-1690) of seven Baptist women: Katherine Chidley, Sarah Wight, Elizabeth Poole, Anna Trapnel, Jane Turner, Katherine Sutton, and Anne Wentworth. They were known by their seventeenth century contemporaries as “prophetesses.” Yet the distinction between “preaching,” in which only men could engage, and “prophesying,” which permitted women to exercise their gifts, was difficult to maintain. Preaching and prophesying often came to much the same thing. These women believed their prophetic activity was the fulfillment of God’s promise for a great outpouring of the Spirit and a great overturning of the social order in which women as well as men would proclaim the gospel. It was a subversive hermeneutical vision in a social world where biblical warrants were used to reinforce the subjugation of women. As Sarah Wight put it, “This is but a taste now of what shall be.”

Baptist prophetesses have been understudied by feminist scholarship, in part because they have been perceived to be less radical than the Quakers and some other Dissenters. But what could be more radical than Katherine Chidley, who conceived of herself as Jael the wife of Heber (Judges 4:21), stealthily assaulting the unsuspecting Presbyterian heresy hunter, Thomas Edwards, with the devastating blows of her theological hammer? Or Elizabeth Poole, whose reputation for mixing prophecy and politics earned her an invitation to address the council of the army as they deliberated on the fate of King Charles I? Or Anna Trapnel, whose millenarian visions and prophetic poetry made her a public enemy of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate? Or Anne Wentworth, whose spiritual marriage to Jesus and apocalyptic revelations drew the attention of royalty, politicians, and the Baptists?

These women are, to be sure, of more than just historical importance. There is much that they can teach us today about faith, the Spirit, and the church. Anyone seeking spiritual growth and guidance will greatly benefit from reading Jane Turner’s autobiographical account of “an experienced Christian.” Those exploring the depths of praise, worship, and hymn-singing stand to learn from the story of Katherine Sutton’s gift of spiritual singing. A Company of Women Preachers retrieves thirteen texts by seven early Baptist women as they were originally printed so that their voices long silenced may again be heard. Then perhaps of this great company of women it may be said, as it was of the great cloud of witnesses, that they “being dead yet speak” (Hebrews 11:4).

Curtis W. Freeman is research professor of theology and Baptist studies and Director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School. He is a member of the board of directors of Baptist Women in Ministry of North Carolina. A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth-Century England is 824 pages and is available in hardback edition from Baylor University Press.

Baylor University Press has offered a 30% discount on the book from April 18 to May 15 to Baptist Women in Ministry readers. To get the discount, visit their website at (and insert the code BCWP in the shopping cart) or call the Hopkins Fulfillment Service customer service team at 1-800-537-5487 (and mention the BCWP code).