An Interview with Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison
Whipple-Lunn Lecturer at NTS, October 11
NTS is pleased to welcome Dr. Priscilla Pope-Levison as the featured speaker for the 2023 Whipple-Lunn Lectures on Evangelism. On Wednesday, October 11, she will present three times and each presentation (at 11:30 am, 1:15 pm and 3:00 pm) will take place in the Koinonia Café. The 1:15 pm lecture will be preceded by a luncheon that starts at 12:45 pm. The lectures will be videotaped and offered on the Praxis website (www.ntspraxis.org) for members.
Dr. Pope-Levison is no stranger to Wesleyan-Holiness churches and groups. For fourteen years, she served as Professor of Theology and Assistant Director of Women’s Studies at Seattle Pacific University, a Free Methodist school. She is also a past president of the Wesleyan Theological Society (2018). Since 2015, she has worked at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, first as Associate Dean for External Programs and currently as Research Professor of Practical Theology.
She is a noted authority on evangelism. Her most recent book, Models of Evangelism (2020), is a widely used textbook in many undergraduate and graduate schools, including NTS. She is also known for two other books in which she did ground-breaking work, particularly in Wesleyan-Holiness history: Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists (2004) and Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era (2014). Dr. Pope-Levison is a graduate of Duke Divinity School (MDiv) and has an earned doctorate from the University of St. Andrews.
In the interview below, Dr. Pricilla Pope-Levison shares her thoughts about women evangelists, which comprises one of her three upcoming lectures at NTS. The interview was recorded earlier and edited and condensed for brevity.
Q: Dr. Pope-Levison, you have written two noted books on American women evangelists. When did your interest in this area begin?
My interest started 28 years ago when I taught evangelism at Duke Divinity School. While preparing lectures on the history of evangelism in North America, most of the books at that time followed an all-male trajectory, which went from Jonathan Edwards to Charles Finney to Dwight L. Moody to Billy Sunday, and finally to Billy Graham. As an ordained minister who thought much about women’s issues—and taught classes in women’s studies—I asked a simple question: “Were there any women evangelists besides the well-known trio of Kathryn Kuhlman, Aimee Semple McPherson, and Phoebe Palmer?” And what I uncovered was this amazingly rich, diverse treasure trove of women evangelists. My research has taken me across the country, even to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and to the Nazarene Archives in Kansas City, where I worked with former denominational archivist Stan Ingersol on the early evangelist and pastor Mary Lee Cagle.
Q: When do we first encounter women evangelists in America?
One of the first women who identified as a kind of evangelist was Bathsheba Kingsley, who lived prior to the Revolutionary War. In 1741, she took her husband’s horse and went into the neighboring towns proclaiming the gospel message of Jesus Christ, because she believed she had received a divine revelation from God. Unfortunately, Jonathan Edwards, who was her pastor at the time, chastised her for taking her husband’s horse without consent, as well as for riding on the Sabbath. And since that time, there have been women who have traveled in a variety of ways to proclaim the message they believed God had given them.
Q: How does your book on women evangelists in the progressive era (published in 2014) differ from your earlier book?
Historians refer to the progressive era generally as that period between 1890 and 1920. I argue that the women evangelists profiled in my book shifted their focus from an itinerant ministry, where you traveled from place to place to preach, to building institutions. So, women are building schools, starting rescue homes and missions, and starting churches and denominations, as well as banding together into evangelistic organizations. This is an area of women’s history, more specifically, of Wesleyan-Holiness history, that was not put together until my book.
Q: In your work, you discuss Nazarene evangelist and pastor Mary Lee Cagle. Tell us about her and her contribution to evangelism.
Mary Lee Cagle, who was born in 1864, fits the template of many women from that time. She was converted at a Methodist evangelistic meeting as a young girl and felt a call to preach. Her family, especially her mother and brother-in-law, discouraged her from pursuing her call. Later, after she marries her first husband, Robert Lee Harris, she is sanctified and gets involved with him in evangelistic meetings. She sings and plays the piano and assists him at the altar. Sadly, he dies of tuberculosis at a young age, but before his death, he asks her to continue his work with the New Testament Church of Christ. Though she’s timid at first, Mary Lee grows into this call. She receives a kind of consecration, where the Spirit falls on her again and again, and she talks about “turning the pulpit loose”—this phrase became the title of my 2004 book.
What I love about Cagle is that she gathers a group of women evangelists and church planters and these women go throughout Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee during the Jim Crow era and preach to interracial audiences. During this time, Mary Lee gets a call to preach at a Black church she’s known since she was a child on her family’s farm, and despite objections from family and friends, she goes anyway.
She goes into these difficult places to preach and plant churches, and I’m incredibly inspired by her radical zeal for God, and her confidence in God’s protection, which does happen. And she’s breaking ground in areas that, historically, are quite difficult for women, and difficult, given these interracial audiences. And eventually, thanks to her work, she, along with the New Testament Church of Christ (whose name was changed earlier to the Holiness Church of Christ), is brought into union with the Church of the Nazarene. And Mary, and her female cohort, are part of the first generation of female leaders in the Church of the Nazarene. These women help raise the number of clergy women in the denomination. And, in many Wesleyan-Holiness denominations, women are accepted and welcomed, and their ministries are recognized. Mary Lee Cagle had a radical zeal to be of full service to God, and I don’t want this generation of women to forget the shoulders on which they’re standing, because women like her made this possible.
Q: What other concerns do you bring out in your work on women evangelists?
These women brought out concerns and illuminated biblical texts resulting in a fuller and more robust understanding of faith. In the late 19th and early 20th century, women had to defend their right to preach. In 1896, Mary Lee Cagle penned this great sermon, “A Woman’s Right to Preach.” Almost every woman I’ve studied had some stock sermon in which they start with women in the Bible—going from the Old Testament to the New Testament—like Deborah, Phoebe, or Mary Magdalene, and the Samaritan woman, and so on. They talk about these women as role models and biblical examples to help support what they’re doing. These women aren’t afraid to confront problematic biblical texts. They don’t shy away from 1 Timothy 2:12 or 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. In 1 Corinthians 14, where the apostle Paul seems to have issues with women preaching, women evangelists warn against universalizing the text and debunk similar Pauline injunctions. They affirmed an overarching view of the Bible and noted texts like Galatians 3:28, an early baptismal formula, that says in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, and affirms our oneness in Christ Jesus.
During this period, the story of Pentecost, which was understood as the birth of the Christian church, was most important. As the prophet Joel says in Acts 2, God’s Spirit will be poured out on everyone in the last days. Due to Phoebe Palmer’s work, women evangelists didn’t have to do any fancy exegesis on this passage. They understood they were living in the last days and needed to make their contribution. So, women affirmed their personal call and explained how God had converted, sanctified, and called them to preach. They affirmed their divine authority to do what they were doing.
Q: What special takeaways have resulted from your work with women evangelists?
One takeaway for me is the fortitude, courage, and perseverance of these women at a time when what they were doing was highly unusual, highly problematic, and highly oppositional. Every one of them faced opposition—it was tough going. They got discouraged. They started ministries and institutions on pennies and nickels with donated food and secondhand clothing.
With their administrative abilities, they created institutions out of nothing but the belief that God called them to build a particular church, ministry, or school. They had faith that God would provide a way, even when no way was in sight. They were sometimes disheartened, but they didn’t give up.
While growing up and dealing with my own call to ministry, I never had a woman as a role model and never saw a woman preach. And though I wasn’t a pioneer, I had to make my own way without an example. There was still a lot of ground that needed to be broken. After I got to seminary, there was one woman teaching in my first year, but no other women were hired until after I left. During that time, I so wished that I had known about these women. I didn’t find out about them until after I was ordained, had a PhD, and was teaching in the same seminary where I went to school.
I don’t know if I would have done things differently had I known about them, but it would have filled some gaps for me as a woman in ministry. I am the beneficiary of their work, and of their faith and courage. Let me conclude by sharing the story of my favorite woman evangelist. Dr. Iva Durham Vennard is best known for founding the school that became Vennard College, outside Oskaloosa, Iowa (which closed years later in 2008). She’s a role model for me, because she and her spouse, Thomas Vennard, were able to keep a solid marriage, despite all that Iva was involved with. She was a professor, a principal of a school she founded, a minister who preached, and a mother and a wife—and she was able to hold all these things together. She and her husband sacrificed to make things work.
She symbolizes something important for me. She represents the contemporary struggle that many women have in ministry, especially students who wonder if all these things can be possible. Perhaps, they can be if we and those we love and those who walk with us are willing to sacrifice along the way, and come together, not just for what we want, but for what God wants. That we can partner together and make this happen for God’s glory.