More Than Footnotes Part 4: Women Leaders in the American Colonies

In this series of posts entitled, More than Footnotes, I will examine the role of women in different phases of Church history in order to offer a truer picture of Christianity which will benefit women and men alike. In each installment, I will briefly highlight the gender-relevant context of a section of Church history before overviewing important female figures. I will be primarily citing three works called, Her Story (HS), A History of Christianity in the United States and in Canada (HCUS) and Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE) for reference. My hope for these posts is to simply offer readers a more complete picture of Christian history by focusing on the women who are too often footnoted and forgotten.


Part 4: Women Leaders in the American Colonies


At the dawn of American colonization, Puritanism became the dominant religious force in most early colonies.  Puritanism was likewise the political and moral standard through which much American cultural development was birthed. The moral vision of the Puritans was so influential that Mark Noll suggests almost all Americans until the 19th century can be seen as reacting to this religious body (HCUS, 40). While there are other Christian movements arising out of 17th century America—such as the Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Anglicans—it is through the literary tradition of the Puritans that most of our knowledge of American women Church leadership survives.

As the Puritans increasingly came to place more emphasis on the elements of love, trust, and mutuality, the historical memories of women as evil and easily inclined to sin began to fade in America. Though women would still be regarded as the “weaker sex”, Barbara MacHaffie notices that “Colonial clergymen also began to replace the image of women as inherently evil with the idea that men and women…possess equal opportunities for redemption” (HS, 145). With the influence of the First Great Awakening of American religion (1730s-1740s) as impetus, women in American Christianity were driven by the experience of conversion to transcend prescribed roles and self-understandings. Though governmental legislation and Church policy would remain mostly hierarchical, women in the earliest days of America stand as impressive examples that the Spirit works within the marginalized to bring liberation to all. While the following three examples are principally important in Church history, there are countless names left out of this post simply due to space.



Anne Hutchinson

1) Unable to receive formal education, Puritan Anne Hutchinson (1634) developed a sharp theological mind as she dedicated her time and energies to studying the work of Puritan preacher John Cotton. After marrying at age 21 and giving birth to several children, Hutchinson started leading women’s meetings in her home where she would teach theology and offer her understandings of Scripture. Initially, Hutchinson was praised for her pious hospitality. When however, men began attending her meetings, a Puritan code was broken and Hutchinson was accused of attempting to lead a rebellion that threatened the social order for the entire Massachusetts Bay Colony. With little to no distinction between Church and state, Hutchinson’s actions led to a civil trial.

In her court trial, Hutchinson was accused of advocating several heresies. The academic that she was, Hutchinson was initially able to defend against and outwit her accusers for a time. Just as it seemed she would receive no civil punishment, Hutchinson made the fatal mistake of suggesting that not only did the Holy Spirit remove the need for magistrates and clergyman to preside as religious authorities, she also mentioned that God spoke to her directly on religious matters. In the spring of 1638, a pregnant Hutchinson was excommunicated from her colony and sent in exile. Such a punishment, due to the immense dangers of traveling without a community on the frontier, likely could have resulted in death. While tragedy would strike in the form of miscarriage, Hutchinson and her family would eventually found a home in Rhode Island—a place with much more religious diversity than Boston. There, Hutchinson continued to use her academic and lay medical abilities to inspire others. Her legacy stands as representative of women who challenged “weaker sex” assumptions (see also Sarah Osborn 1760 and Ann Dutton 1747), but also battled wider injustices in the social order.

Fell's publication, originally written in Old English, has sense been translated into modern English, perhaps most accurately by Mark Baker-Wright

Fell’s publication, originally written in Old English, has sense been translated into modern English, perhaps most accurately by Mark Baker-Wright

2) To break a classic writer’s rule and go “full out first-person”, Quaker Margaret Fell (1614-1702) is hands down one of my favorite figures in 17th century history. Though her story beings across the sea in England, Fell would also spend some time in America with her husband George Fox. Sometimes called, “the mother of Quakerism” Fell’s marriage to George Fox shows a striking example of an early egalitarian marriage and ministry partnership (see also Sarah Edwards 1742).

Fell was born under the rule of Charles II and within the context of a newly restored Anglicanism in England. In the wake of Anglicanism imperial demand for religious uniformity, Quakers such as Fell risked their life and wellbeing by their simply their general (non-Anglican) convictions which are a seen as direct threats to the inseparably fused political-religious system of England. It is in this context that Fell’s (too often overlooked) classic Women’s Speaking Justified (1666) is born.

A prophet with a fire in her belly, Fell’s Women’s Speaking Justified argues that ministers and clergy have misunderstood scripture’s instruction on women participating in the Church. With awesome intellect and Martin Luther-like rhetoric, Fell dissects the relationship between women and God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Apostle Paul. Her arguments, which unfold in ways strikingly similar to modern day egalitarian scholarship, show that the notion of women’s equal access in the Church is not primarily a modern phenomenon arising out of 20th century feminism. With passion, Fell clearly reveals that the arguments for women sharing full access in the Church are grounded in centuries of prophetically, yet culturally limited, faithful Christian conviction. (For example, while Fell confesses that women are “the weaker sex”, she argues this means they are well equipped to be servants with complete access to all Church roles)

Not surprisingly, Fell’s published thoughts on women in the Church, her underground teaching, and her refusal to swear oaths to the Anglican King Charles II led to many episodes of imprisonment over her lifetime. Her example however, stands as a prolific leader who stands in the wake of a long Quaker tradition of practicing gender equality in religion.


Jarena Lee aprox. 1790

3) The history of women in early American history would be far from complete without reflection on Jarena Lee (1783). Lee was a traveling preacher who, according to Mark Noll, in 1827 traveled over 2,000 miles and preached on 180 different occasions (Noll, 204). Commissioned by Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Lee became the first black women to preach in America with denominational approval.

As a woman, and a person of color, Jarena Lee faced life-threatening hostility in her travels. Keeping a detailed record on her journeys and early life, Lee also faced internal hostility in her dealings with suicidal thoughts. Her preaching which focused on holiness and sanctification remain a powerful example of revival thought—particularly in the Methodist tradition in which she propped open the doors for further female ordination. Challenging most every social barrier, Lee’s story and influence, like so many women of this time, speak to human rights issues deeper and wider than just equal gender access in the Christian Church.

– Michael Wiltshire

See also:

More Than Footnotes – Part 1: Women Leaders in Early Church History

More than Footnotes Part 2: Women Leaders in Medieval Christianity

More Than Footnotes Part 3: Women Leaders in The Reformation Era


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  • Charity Johnson

    Great post! Thank you. Margaret Fell, though English, was an great inspiration to such women as the early Quaker as Catherine A Brekus tells of in her book, “Strangers & Pilgrims.” – including a few of my direct ancestors. Rhode Island served as an occasional safe haven for persecuted Quakers, both male and female.