I recently stumbled across a fabulously ordinary story in my own hometown of a Baptist church with a long history of supporting female leadership.
It helps counter the negative portrayal of female ministers espoused by some evangelicals – like those shared by Wayne Grudem in a 2006 interview detailed here.
First Baptist Church Elm Mott, about 10 minutes from Baylor University’s campus, was founded in 1879 with 19 charter members.
Like many Baptist churches founded in this era, women played prominent roles in church organization, in Sunday school leadership (teaching both children and adult classes) and as elected church officials.
“Aunt” Mary Christian helped found the church in 1879 and remained an active member until her death in 1930.
Mrs. Netti Christian (“Aunt Not”) and Mrs. Rose Teat served for so long as Sunday school teachers that they received the designation “long term” Sunday school teachers.
Mrs. S.A. Teat was elected church clerk in 1923, a position held by both men and women, and continued as clerk into the 1930s.
Ira Hix, who later married longtime church member Harold Stovall, was elected music director in 1945 (she had first served as assistant music director in 1934).
Women were regularly elected as messengers (representatives) to the Waco Baptist Association, such as Mrs. Burney McKerral and Mrs. S.A. Teat in 1934.
They also were elected regularly as church officials, such as Miss Mozelle Murphy, who served as Bible training secretary and later assistant Sunday school director.
And they led prayers during services, such as Mrs. Kenslo and Mrs. W. A. Varner, who led two different prayers during the April 30, 1939, service.
Modern evangelical concerns about female leadership simply do not appear as a concern for First Baptist Church Elm Mott.
Indeed, Hay Battaile remarked in 1936 that “If the male members had been as busy, as energetic, and as much in earnest as the women of our Church, it would be difficult to tell what would have been the result. … May God richly bless the work of our women.”
While I have not found evidence of women serving as deacons in First Baptist Church Elm Mott, women have filled the pulpit.
From 1934 to 1938, Mrs. Lewis Ball of Houston was asked at least three times to help preach church revivals.
In July 1934, the church minutes record: The deacons recommended that “the church ask Mrs. Lewis Ball of Houston to assist us one week during our coming revival, she being a great inspiration and an outstanding Soul winner.”
Mrs. Ball not only had charge of the morning services and delivered evening messages for the young peoples’ prayer meeting at the 1934 summer revival, but she preached to the largest crowd yet recorded at First Baptist Church Elm Mott: an audience of 139.
At least six people professed faith in Jesus after her sermon, “Is It Well With Your Soul?” Sixteen baptisms resulted from the revival overall.
Mrs. Ball proved such a popular preacher that she was asked to return in 1935 and again in 1938. She received no pay for her services, but the church gave her gifts including a “pounding” in 1935.
This preaching woman from Houston, Mrs. Lewis Ball, marks an ordinary event for this Texas Baptist church.
The deacons wanted a good “soul winner” who could reach their young people. Business meeting records provide no hint of controversy about extending a preaching invitation to a woman.
As the church minutes stated, Mrs. Ball was “a great inspiration to the young people” and “exceptionally successful as a soul-winner.” So she was invited to speak at a summer revival.
Wayne Grudem used the Judy Brown story to warn Christians of the spiritual dangers created by female leadership. The story of women like Mrs. Ball tell a different tale.
Neither lurid nor provocative, Mrs. Ball’s soul-winning sermons don’t grab headlines like the murder attempt by Judy Brown.
Yet historical evidence suggests that preaching and teaching women like Mrs. Ball are normative figures in church history.
These ordinary women complicate Grudem’s claim that female leadership in the church is always “disobeying the word of God” and comes with negative consequences.
Indeed, preaching women like Mrs. Ball help us see how Christian history – just like the ministry of Jesus himself – always has made room for women.
The historical records about Mrs. Ball and the revivals at First Baptist Church Elm Mott are held at the Texas Collection at Baylor University.
Beth Allison Barr is associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion. A version of this article first appeared on The Anxious Bench, where she blogs regularly. It is used with permission. You can follow her on Twitter @bethallisonbarr.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.
(Photo courtesy of Elm Mott First Baptist Church Records, The Texas Collection, Baylor University; Hay Battaile, et. al., A History of First Baptist Church of Elm Mott, Elm Mott, Texas, 1879-1979, Texas Collection)
Associate dean in the Baylor Graduate School, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and a resident scholar at Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, where she specializes in medieval history, women’s history, and church history. She is the president of the Conference on Faith and History and is a member of Christians for Biblical Equality.