In 1740, the teenage Martha Stearns heard the gospel preached anew. Not only was she, along with her soon-to-be husband, Daniel Marshall, converted during the New England revivals of the First Great Awakening, both felt called to convert others. After serving as missionaries to the Mohawk Indians in New York, the Marshalls headed South. Encountering Baptists in Virginia, they accepted believer’s baptism as biblical, were immersed, or “dipped,” as some called it, and joined a Baptist congregation. But there was a catch. These Regular Baptists, Calvinist in their theology and liturgical in their worship, did not permit women to preach or even speak in worship. And Martha was known for her public exhortations. The Marshalls soon left and joined Martha’s brother, Shubal Stearns, who had likewise been converted to the Baptist faith, in Sandy Creek, North Carolina. While Shubal stayed in North Carolina, the Marshalls, with their growing number of children (Martha is believed to have had six) founded Separate Baptist churches across North Carolina, eventually settling in Georgia. Separate Baptists soon outnumbered the more formal Regular Baptists. Revivalist in nature, they “allowed women to pray in public” and the “illiterate to preach,” noted one shocked opponent. Regarding the former, no female evangelist was more recognized and sought-after than Martha, whose “zeal and eloquence” and “prayers and exhortations” were said to have “melted a whole concourse into tears!”
Despite the myths and inconsistencies that now surround Martha, her overall biography demonstrates that the tradition of women preaching reaches far back in Baptist history. It also reveals deep-seated tensions over the practice as it forced congregations to ask “what does a preacher look like?” In eighteenth-century America, some Separate Baptists answered that question in radical ways, with reports of women, slaves, and children mounting their pulpits. But as the Southern Baptist Convention formed around support of slavery, Baptists tamed their revolutionary tendencies. Eventually, Separate and Regular Baptists joined; worship services segregated; and while women might have entered the pulpit, they were neither ordained nor paid for their services. It was not until 1964, more than 200 years after Martha Stearns Marshall, that Southern Baptists ordained their first woman, Addie Davis. Gender then animated much of the Southern Baptist controversy roughly twenty years later, with women’s submission becoming the absolute test-case for biblical inerrancy. Even now, the number of women serving as senior or co-pastor in the more progressive Cooperative Baptist Fellowship remains low at 6.5 percent. This sobering statistic puts the Cooperative Fellowship well behind its mainline neighbors.
In 2007, Baptist Women in Ministry established the Martha Stearns Marshall Day, now Month, of Preaching, and it branded T-shirts with the slogan “This is What a Preacher Looks Like.” I am excited for my church, Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, to participate more fully in the month. Let me offer two reasons. First, the month forces us to reimagine Baptist history and heritage from the perspective of those who have been at the denomination’s margins. From this different vantage point, past successes often seem more subdued than celebratory. And the characters we honor are not the usual heroes of our faith. Candidly, I have made a career out of remembering the unsung women of our past, bringing their stories to our attention. So, the month for me is about where we have been as Baptists, and about how our past might augur well for the future. That leads to a second reason, which is more personal to my faith and my faith community. As Christians, we hold that the Word became incarnate, or flesh, and dwelt among us. Embodiment pulsates at our faith’s center. And embodiment as the tabernacling presence of God represents, for me, what’s really radical about the gospel story. If we profess that God calls each and every one of us in the fullness of our humanity, working through and never in spite of our gendered and racialized bodies, then our pulpits ought to be the custodian of this truth. By embodying as well as proclaiming it this month, we can imagine God more broadly, something I want my son, indeed all our sons and daughters, to experience and celebrate.
Elizabeth Flowers is associate professor of Religion at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. She is a member of Broadway Baptist Church and is author of Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women and Power since World War II.
Reprinted with permission from the Broadway Baptist Church website.