First Methodist Female Preacher
Women clergy have long been a part of many Methodist churches and today some 25 percent of ordained clergy in the United Methodist Church are women. It was 1956 when women gained full clergy status.
The tradition of women preachers began when in 1761 Methodism founder John Wesley licensed Sarah Crosby as the first woman preacher. She served with a commitment that became a lifelong passion.
Born in October, 1729 in Leeds, England, Sarah Crosby’s early years are a bit of a mystery but what is known that is that contrary to what some think of as proper for a minister she did enjoy singing and dancing and playing cards.
According to one source, Sarah did not show an interest in Christianity until she began to attend services of the Church of England at age 14. At the time she had also developed a fear of death, a feeling that grew until she was about 17, and it is likely that this possibly contributed to her new interest in the church.
Though she married in 1750, (like the other aspects of her life), little is known of her husband and whether or not he was interested in religion. In fact, even Sarah’s maiden name is unknown, and she was known after her marriage as simply “Mrs. Crosby.”
It is known that theirs was a seven year marriage and while their union ended in February, 1757 the cause for the split is unknown. Possibly her husband did not share Sarah’s passion for a spiritual life. But it is also possible that her husband introduced Sarah to the writings of John Wesley, founder of the Wesley movement. However, there was also speculation that her husband might have been an alcoholic, or a womanizer.
Indeed, what is known is that in 1749 Sarah heard the important leaders of Methodism speak—John Wesley and George Whitefield—but she did not immediately associate with the Methodists. In fact, as was a common feeling of the time, she disliked the movement, but when she read some of John Wesley’s writings she became more interested. Finally she joined the movement in October, 1749 and became part of the group of Methodists who met at The Foundry in October 1750. This was a former cannon factory that had been restored into a church venue. She became a leader of the classes held at that location, and shortly after that she experienced what she felt was a vision of Jesus saying, “Feed my sheep.” She felt this meant she should begin preaching.
In 1757 Sarah met Mary Bosanquet (another Methodist woman), and by 1758 they and other prominent women in the movement, had formed an organization to minister to the poor. By 1763 Sarah and others founded a facility called the Cedars that served adults and children, particularly the uneducated and ill. The Cedars staff taught the residents skills they would need in the outside world, but unfortunately used physical punishment if the residents did not follow through.
As Bosanquet and Crosby began Bible reading and prayer at the Cedars, they asked Wesley to provide a preacher so they could have a more religious environment. Though it eventually became a Methodist society Mary and Sarah’s religious services drew crowds and soon became a Methodist service center for that area. But the Cedars, despite a move to lessen costs, eventually closed.
Sarah first exercised her gift for preaching in February in 1761 in Derbe, and what began as a work to lead classes attracted hundreds of students. During the teaching events, eventually Sarah turned to preaching, as well as reading a hymn and praying. Her purpose was to tell the story of God’s work in her life. Because of the crowd Sarah could not speak to each individual, but she wrote that she “…gave out an hymn and prayed, and told them part of what the Lord had done for myself, persuading them to flee all sin.”
Since women preachers were rare and controversial with some, Sarah sought approval from John Wesley and he warned her that there might be criticism. He suggested that she try to conduct her ministry without engaging in preaching. Still, Wesley wrote to her, “I think you have not gone too far. You could not well do less….I do not see that you have broken any law. Go on calmly and steadily. ..” While he was obviously supporting the traditional idea of women not preaching he had also recognized Sarah’s “extraordinary call” and approved her sharing of her “experience in public.”
Then in 1771, Wesley officially allowed women to preach in public and his decision came from a request from Mary Bosanquet. She had asked that females be able to preach when they received an “extraordinary call” or approval from God.
One scholar believed that Wesley permitted women preaching mainly because she was successful at attracting converts to the faith.
Then in June, 1771 Wesley provided Crosby with the right procedures for the meetings she held as she continued to travel and conduct services through the 1770s. In fact, she wrote that she’d traveled 960 miles in 1777 alone, sometimes traveling with Wesley. At times she addressed hundreds of people at one time and up to 600 even when she was ill.
However, sometimes her preaching met local approval. On one occasion in 1770 Wesley was scheduled to preach at a particular church, but his appearance was rejected when the people there had heard there was a woman preacher in the area, and they wanted to hear her. That was of course Sarah, but in the end she did not preach at that church, but did teach a class. However, Wesley did not seem irritated at the rejection, since he had told Sarah that no matter the gender of the preacher, either of them should be welcomed equally.
By the 1780s Crosby found that all her traveling had endangered her health. Her rheumatism made it hard to write, and so for assistance, she began to live with another woman preacher. She did continue to regularly teach and to lead a group of other women preachers.
In fact, until her death in October, 1804 Crosby led classes attended meetings and even preached during the week of her death. She was 75 when she died.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.