August 7, 2017: When Female Preachers Flourished

Posted on : Aug 8th, 2017 | By | Category: Still Speaking

“Women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.” I Corinthians 14:34

Many years ago, I led a Bible Study at a church that was struggling with “what the Bible says about homosexuality.”  They knew Romans 1 and I Corinthians 6, by heart, and they were not all that open to what I had to say.  So after a fair amount of time, fielding one bible quote after another, I asked if any of them knew what I Corinthians 14:34 said.  Dead silence.  Someone finally found it in their bible and read it aloud.  I asked them if they believed that – knowing full well they had a woman pastor.

For those of us in progressive Christian circles, the very thought of women not being equal with men is absurd and unbelievable.  But that has not always been the case.  The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted American women the right to vote—a right known as women’s suffrage, wasn’t ratified until August 18, 1920.  Meanwhile, 100 years earlier (1823) strong women like Harriet Livermore began leading us in a new direction.

Harriet knew that God had called her to use her gifts and with great courage, she broke down the walls of separation by gender, to proclaim a more inclusive Gospel and church.  Today we are blessed by her life and faith.  So the next time you wonder if equality and justice will ever come, or if your work for justice and equality means anything, think about Harriet and all those who have paved the way for us to be where we are today.  Then think about where our church and country will be 100 years from now.  God is not done with us yet!



From the UCC Historical Council

UCC ROOTS: Remembering our History

When Female Preachers Flourished

Plunging through the icy waters of a New Hampshire river marked Harriet Livermore’s final break with her church. She had grown close to a group of Free-Will Baptists who encouraged her to share her “public testimony for Christ.” But, as a covenanted Congregationalist she had to seek formal dismissal from her pastor to be baptized by full-immersion. In January 1823, she took the plunge, insisting later that she was “buried with Christ in baptism.”

After her immersion Livermore assumed the name of “pilgrim stranger” and traveled the country as one of many female itinerant preachers who flourished during the revival enthusiasm of the “Second Great Awakening.” She spoke in churches, homes, schools, prisons, and fields – wherever people gathered.

She preached often in Christian Connection churches – a radically independent movement that later became part of United Church of Christ history. The “Christian movement” encouraged women’s leadership in worship, but did not ordain women. Some people rejected women’s leadership and labeled Livermore an “enthusiast,” “eccentric,” or “monomaniac.” She responded by writing a tract entitled Scriptural Evidence in Favor of Female Testimony in Meetings for the Worship of God – defending her right, and the right of all women, to preach.

Harriet Livermore (1788-1868) captivated audiences with sermons on the urgency of faith and the impending return of Christ. She considered herself an instrument of God. On four occasions, she preached in the U.S. Congress to legislators, and to overflow crowds of curious Washingtonians.

Like many evangelical women of her generation, male clergy initially encouraged Livermore. Later, however, male clergy turned against women when revival traditions entered the mainstream. Prohibitions against female preaching increased as the country embraced more conservative views of women after the Civil War.

Harriet Livermore, however, never gave up, remaining a passionate promoter of women in church leadership to the end of her life.

Contributor: Samuel Lovett

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