Some time back I posted this list compiled by Kevin Jackson of the Wesleyan-Arminian blog: Women Leaders in the Wesleyan Movements. I did it to make a point: support for Women in Ministry in the Wesleyan movements goes back to the days of Wesley himself — back to the very beginning of the movement. And, in this regard to holiness denominations were (generally speaking) more radical and far ahead of the Methodist Episcopal —> Methodist —> (+ EUB) —> United Methodist Church. Though, of course, the Methodists got on board too.
The revivalists were there first.
That is a paradigm shift for a lot of people. The acceptance of women in ministry in the Wesley-related movements was well ahead of the modern, secular feminist movement — and is, in that sense, unrelated to it! The more radical, Bible-thumping, revivalistic branches of the Wesleyan movement accepted the idea of women in ministry long before the official acceptance of this by the United Methodist Church.
As proof I offer this passage from Binney’s Theological Compend Improved written in 1874: “Woman’s Sphere in the Church.” I quote one small snippet, but please read the whole thing — it is not long.
Some have understood Paul as prohibiting women teaching. I Cor. 14:34-35; 1 Tim. 2: 11-12. But he evidently refers to such only as prayed and prophesied unveiled, as appears 1 Cor. 11:5-13. Paul in this had respect simply to the usage of society, as was his custom in matters of indifference. I Cor. 9:19-23. To say that his prohibition applies alike to all times and conditions of society, is to say that the prudential regulations of a degraded heathen people, eighteen hundred years ago, are universally binding, and that Christianity in this respect has wrought no change in the world it came to reform. Paul surely had a different estimate of woman service. Rom. 16:1-7, 12-15. His first public discourse in Europe was at a meeting of women, and his first convert and host was a woman. Acts 16:9-15.
This early egalitarian attitude toward gender & women in ministry is characteristic of the Wesleyan tradition and should be seen as part of the fruit of a progressive-revelation perspective on the Scriptures. The rejection of the practice of slavery by John Wesley and the earliest Methodists is another.
There is really a difference in how Scripture functions in Wesleyan theology as contrasted with other perspectives.
Al Truesdale, emeritus professor of philosophy of religion and Christian ethics at Nazarene Theological Seminary, in a brief article from 2012 briefly summarizes: “Why Wesleyans Aren’t Fundamentalists.” He says that the fundamentalist approach is to see the content Scripture’s revelation as divinely revealed information: thus, the emphasis on inerrancy. Wesleyans tend to see the content of Scripture’s revelation as God Himself: it is an invitation into a relationship with the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ through the Scriptures.
For Wesleyans, knowing the truth is primarily a matter of knowing God, of being transformed and gifted by him, and of being placed in his kingdom service. Thinking of knowing the truth as principally a matter of assent to a body of divine knowledge or propositions strikes Wesleyans as once-removed from knowing him who is the “Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
The Bible becomes the “Word of God” in that it faithfully and definitively bears witness to Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God incarnate (Luke 24:13-27). Calling the Bible the Word of God must maintain this critical order. For Wesleyans, the Bible’s truth is not primarily demonstrated and vindicated in a book or by arguments. Confirmation of the Scriptures happens in people who have been born again from above by the Holy Spirit, and who live as new creations in the power of the Spirit. Wesleyans read the Bible by asking “soteriological” questions (questions about salvation), not by asking questions about facts. They ask: How does a particular event or a book lead us to better understand who God is, his reign in the world, and what it means to be his people?
People in the Wesleyan tradition do not tend to come to the Scriptures looking for timeless structures, rules and facts. We come looking for the way into such a relationship with God that will make a genuine, lived-out difference in our lives.
Wesleyans have always had a respect for the progressive nature of God’s revelation in Scripture. The Scriptures reveal moral principles that reflect the character of God. These are being worked out progressively through time, and through the changes in human cultures.
Thus opposition to slavery was to John Wesley and Adam Clarke and other early Methodists a no-brainer. People are created in God’s image. Christ died for all, therefore God values all. They shouldn’t be treated as property. End of issue.
It was clear to Wesley (though he had quite a bit of hesitation on this) that God had clearly called and gifted certain women as preachers and teachers.
And, it was only natural for his followers to look to the Scriptures, look to what God was doing and say: Why not?!
Here is a quote from Charles Yrigoyen, Jr. that I found on the Internet several years ago. The article is no longer there, but here’s the quote:
Methodists flourished under the direction of class and band leaders, persons of spiritual strength and insight. Most of them were women! Among them were Sarah Crosby, Dorothy Downes, and Grace Murray, exemplary Christians whose witness persuaded many to accept God’s grace and begin a new life….
In effect, [Sarah Crosby, Mary Bosanquet, Hannah Harrison, Elizabeth Bennis, Jane Cooper, and others]… were engaged in preaching, and many people experienced conversion as a result of their testimony and proclamation of the gospel…. In 1787, despite the objections of some of the male preachers, he officially authorized Sarah Mallet to preach, as long as she proclaimed the doctrines and adhered to the disciplines that all Methodist preachers were expected to accept.