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Rediscovering The Pioneer Spirit

By Carolyn Tennant

Enrichment journal, spring 2001.


Florence Crawford


Jenny Evans Moore Seymour

Throughout history, women have evidenced a strong pioneering spirit. They have charted new paths, explored virgin territory, endured hardship, and braved danger.

Perhaps the first image of a pioneer that comes to mind is of wagon trains headed into the Western frontier. Those early settlers demonstrated tremendous courage, risk, and inner fortitude-traits that are still needed today. Harrowing stories of pioneer women abound. As they forged into new territory, the trials they suffered are nearly unimaginable in our convenience-based society. Many women lost children and husbands to sickness and other mishaps. Shallow graves were hurriedly dug as the wagon train moved on. No time was allowed for mourning, and it was unwise and dangerous to lag behind.

In the new land, women like Sadie Whelden, my husband's grandmother, built soddies on their homesteads, making do with what meager goods they possessed. Sadie went barefoot on the prairie, saving her only pair of shoes to wear to church on Sunday.

Pioneer women generally lived without health care. One woman lost 17 teeth because they were decayed. Since no dentist was generally available, pulling of one's teeth was usually done by a novice and without painkillers. The thought of this causes us to shudder. The vivid stories of the first women who came west as missionaries may also make us shudder.

Narcissa Whitman, along with her physician husband, worked among Native Americans in the Oregon Territory. She wrote to family back east telling of her need for friends and the challenges of hospitality when their small home was turned into immigrant headquarters. In 1847, they lost their lives in a massacre. By government order, missionary work was halted in the territory for several decades.

As we think about these women, we can't help but muse about our own commitment, sense of adventure, strength, and curiosity. From a spiritual viewpoint, there is certainly new territory to take. Although there are few unexplored regions left in the world, there are still places in need of the gospel. How determined are we? What makes us quit?

Women with Strong Spirits

There are many women who have sacrificed everything to serve God in difficult places. Some gave away their wealth and lived in poverty so they could help the poor, the mentally and physically ill, the abandoned children and youth, and prisoners.

It couldn't have been easy for Sarah, the earliest pioneer mentioned in Scripture. She didn't know where she was headed, but she packed her belongings and followed Abraham and a dream to the Promised Land. The challenges of that trip must have been difficult, but Hebrews 11 tells us she accomplished it by faith.

It could not have been simple for Deborah when she led Israel. People streamed to her tent in the hills to receive her judgment and insight. Exactly how this occurred in the midst of the Jewish viewpoint concerning women is a wonder to consider. It was as unusual then for a woman to go to war as it was for Joan of Arc in the 15th century. Yet both women were used by God to bring courage to flagging armies and to save their nations. Such stalwart attitudes are critically needed today as women decide to hang on and fight, no matter what the cost. Their strong spirits of faith make them key players in God's ultimate victory in family, church, city, and nation.

Women with strong spirits have impacted missions as they went to foreign lands, determined to do whatever was necessary to extend God's name. Many lost children to illness and difficult conditions. Their courageous reaction and unstoppable spirits speak volumes.

Maria Taylor, the wife of Hudson Taylor, director of the China Inland Mission, served next to her husband to deliver the message of Christ to China. In 1870, she and Hudson decided they must send their four oldest children back to England for their health and education. It was a heartbreaking experience for the parents as they took the children by boat down river to Shanghai to book passage on the steamer to England. On the way, 5-year-old Samuel, their frailest child, died and they buried him along the river. On their return to the interior, the Taylors received news that another missionary's wife was gravely ill. Maria set aside her own grief and hurried to help care for this woman. Although she was 6 months pregnant, Maria traveled all day in a wheelbarrow to get there. Then she stayed up all night to nurse the ailing woman.

The history of missions is replete with women missionaries who worked with their own call next to their husbands. The long list includes women of great internal stamina such as Anne Hasseltine Judson in Burma, wife of the first American missionary. Judson regularly visited her husband, Adoniram, while he was jailed in a vermin-infested prison. She also protected his precious biblical translations during the raids on their home in his absence.

Betty Jane Grams, Assemblies of God missionary and educator, is an example of a modern pioneer who for years worked next to her husband, Monroe, to train workers and establish churches in Bolivia and throughout South America. Betty died on June 4, 2000. Women such as these worked and ministered in significant ways in administration, translating Scriptures, writing about their experiences, and teaching.

Numerous single missionaries have also made a significant impact. Between 1915—40, the percentage of single women among the appointed Assemblies of God foreign missionaries ranged between 30—43 percent. When that is combined with married women on the mission fields, far more women than men were missionaries prior to World War II.

Since World War II, however, the percentage of single women appointed by Assemblies of God Foreign Missions has declined to about 5 percent of the total number of appointed, active Assemblies of God missionaries. Is there a hesitancy, a lack of pioneering among women these days? As much as we dislike facing it, could it be that we are too used to lives of ease and modern luxuries? Are there other hindrances that the Movement needs to consider?

Many women in the early days of missions were so motivated and burdened by their call they could not be dissuaded from going. We need to let our concern for the lost break our hearts.

Anna Ziese was one such woman who refused to leave her place of ministry during danger. She set sail for China alone in 1920 and ministered there for nearly 50 years. Her heart for the Chinese caused her to stay when the American consulate recommended an evacuation in 1948. Ziese was not heard from for many years, and it was presumed she had died in the ensuing Communist takeover. Word eventually came that she was alive, still touching lives for God until her passing in 1969.

Assemblies of God missionary Lillian Trasher began her ministry in Egypt as a single missionary in 1910. During an outbreak against British rule in 1919, Lillian and scores of orphans hid for three days in a brick kiln to escape the terror of the uprising. Many times supplies were so low she rode a donkey from town to town begging for food for the children. In over 50 years of ministry, she saw 15—20,000 unwanted children touched for the Kingdom.

In the late 1800s, the Scottish-born Mary Slessor went as a single missionary to Calabar in western Africa, where the slave trade originated. Slessor lived in poverty and yet took in orphans who were thrown into the woods or left to die in the midst of the terrible human exchange that constituted the slave trade. Rarely did she have less than a dozen children in her shack. She would lay each baby in a cradle hammock and tie a string to each cradle so she could rock those who cried out for soothing during the night. Slessor's knowledge of indigenous customs, language, and law made her such an expert she became the first woman vice consul of the British Empire.

Besides working with children, many women ministered to other women both overseas and in the United States. Through such work, Christianity ultimately influenced families and future leaders. Etta Calhoun founded women's ministries in the Assemblies of God as did Lizzie Robinson in our sister movement, the Church of God in Christ. These were not designed to be social clubs, but strong units of ministry, witness, and healing.

Some women have established missionary societies, providing the resources to place thousands of missionaries in various countries. Women have also advocated for societal change, morality, temperance, abolition, and other issues of sin and injustice.

Women and the Early Pentecostal Movement

The pioneering spirit especially emerges as God grips women's hearts through revival and any fresh work of His Spirit. God's call is to step out in faith. Women are often used because they dare to do this. Pandita Ramabai was used in Pentecostal revival overseas. As an educator in India, Ramabai designed new approaches to learning, but received criticism both from Hindus and Americans regarding her creative methodologies. Like many indigenous women leaders, she is an example of those who rose with strength of purpose and willingness to suffer misunderstanding and rejection even from her own people.

Working with William Seymour at the Azusa Street revival of Los Angeles in 1906 were his wife, Jenny Evans Moore Seymour; Anna Hall, who preached among Armenians and Russians in Los Angeles; and revival leader Lucy Farrow. As Lucy preached and laid hands on people, it was often reported that every person present was baptized in the Spirit. Many did not like the fact, however, that God was using African -Americans and women in this fresh move of the Spirit. God kept calling both into the work of the ministry.

Women taught and preached widely in the early days of Pentecost, and many church leaders testify of finding Christ under the ministry of a woman. The church that eventually became Central Assembly of God in Springfield, Missouri, began in a home with Lillie Corum as pastor.

Early female evangelists and preachers spread the Pentecostal message in towns and cities of any size, finding places to minister in churches if they could, but also in barns and storefronts. Nothing stopped them; they were burdened for souls. These included Ivey Campbell, who preached across Ohio; Zelma Argue, who preached throughout Canada, the U.S., and the South Pacific; Carrie Judd Montgomery, who ministered widely as a healing evangelist; Marie Burgess Brown, who founded Glad Tidings Tabernacle in New York City; Aimee Semple McPherson, who established the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel; and Florence Crawford, who founded the Apostolic Faith movement in the Pacific Northwest.

Evangelist Maria Woodworth-Etter not only preached salvation to thousands, but she also organized churches and conducted baptisms. Many fell under the power of the Spirit and large numbers were healed at the crusades of Kathryn Kuhlman.

Many such women discovered that they walked in the wake of controversy. Pentecostalism itself had its share of theological dissenters. Added to this was the fact many thought women should not carry the message. Then consider that amazing healings and other signs and wonders so often accompanied their ministries. It is easy to sense the challenges that existed for these intrepid women.

Responding to God's Call

While this list of early pioneers could go on for pages, we need to ask the hard question: Where are the many strong women evangelists, pastors, and teachers today? Only 3 percent of Assemblies of God senior pastors today are women, and there are very few female evangelists in comparison with the early days of our Movement. We can say that today's circumstances are different, but our Movement has always been open to women in ministry. The Assemblies of God recognizes and makes room for the anointing and a call to ministry. Indeed, these various women had something in common; their call from God overpowered everything else.

A story from Florence Crawford is indicative of her responding to God's call. She related having a dream in which a door opened before her, through which shown the light of heaven. God spoke to her and said that He had set an open door before her and no man could shut it.

Today, it is too easy to shrug off these stories of women as coming from a period when sacrifice was a simpler matter. We can persuade ourselves that we are not called to such extremes. We do, however, have some powerful models today who challenge us, and we really need not turn from this confrontation with so much ease.

One modern pioneer woman who has not turned away is Carol Vetter, an Assemblies of God home missionary to the deaf in inner-city Chicago. She has dared to go where the need is and has forfeited safety, earthly goods, ease, and health. Today, we need more women who will step out like Vetter, willing to pay any price to see the gospel advanced. (See sidebar: Carol Vetter: Pioneering Woman of Faith.)

Urban needs tend to draw women with a pioneer spirit like Aimee Cortese, who pastors in New York City and works in prison ministry. Katie Peecher serves with her husband in an area of Chicago that demands God's perspective, vision, and faith. There are also women like Judy Cordero who continues to pastor a Spanish church in St. Paul, Minnesota, after her husband passed away. She discovered her own call in the midst of this life transition.

Though often misunderstood, many women indeed have been pioneers. They set out into unmarked territory, stretching beyond their comfort level to follow the call of God. They let the anointing of the Lord flow.

As Amy Anderson, Ph.D., pastoral studies faculty member at North Central University, has said, "A pioneer goes forth and suffers what no one else may have to suffer. But a pioneer does it so that it opens the door for the sake of others."

If others before us have paid such a great price, we also need to gather courage and go forth with resolve. We can pioneer new territory so those behind us can find the way. It's time to rediscover the power and strength behind a true pioneer.

Carolyn Tennant, Ph.D., is vice president for academic affairs at North Central University in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and has taught and preached widely across the United States and overseas.