Category Archives: Christian Women

Sarah Edwards

March is Women’s History Month!

In continuing to honor Christian women who have had a historic impact, here is a biography of Sarah Edwards, the wife of the famous Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards.

Noël Piper’s (John’s wife) also does an excellent audio biography of Sarah Edwards from Desiring God

Sarah Pierpont Edwards 1710-1758
American nonfiction writer.

Edwards is as well known for her life of Christian piety, her mystical experiences, and her status as the wife of pastor Jonathan Edwards as for her own writings. Apart from a handful of letters, her only extant work is a spiritual narrative that was first published in 1829-30, more than seventy years after her death, in a collection of writings about her husband. The narrative relates the intense conversion experience Edwards underwent in 1742. Her account was used, in altered form, by Jonathan Edwards in his defense of the spiritual revival in New England, of which he was a chief architect. Edwards and her few writings have been overshadowed by the life and work of her famous husband, but a handful of scholars have begun to take an interest in her work because of its unique approach to spirituality, its insights into Jonathan Edwards’s life and personality, and the perspective it brings into the way feminine texts have been appropriated and altered by male voices.

Biographical Information
Edwards was born Sarah Pierpont in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1710 to a distinguished family of educated preachers. Few details are known about her early life. When she was thirteen years old she attracted the attention of Jonathan Edwards, who described her extraordinary piety in his essay “On Sarah Pierrpont.” Edwards married him four years later, at age seventeen, shortly after Jonathan Edwards was ordained a minister in Northampton, Massachusetts. Edwards became a model wife to her pastor husband. She occupied a special status in the community because of her loveliness, intelligence, virtue, and piety. Her husband also used her as an example in his sermons, as he often identified spirituality with beauty. In the 1730s the Edwards household was the center of a religious revival, the so-called “Great Awakening,” in New England. By the early 1740s Jonathan Edwards and other preachers were coming under attack for the excessive fervor of the movement. In an incident that took place in 1741, as Jonathan Edwards’s success was waning, one of his disciples was able to rouse his congregation as he had not been able to do for some time. Edwards was apparently jealous of this other preacher’s success, and her husband spoke sharply to her about this. In early 1742 she underwent an extraordinary ecstatic religious experience, a “second conversion,” that she claimed cleansed her of her jealousy and resigned her perfectly to God. Edwards’s husband recorded her story and used it to buttress his authority as manager of the ongoing revival. In the late 1740s Jonathan Edwards was removed from Northampton and posted to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and the family lived there for seven years. In 1758 they moved to Princeton, New Jersey, when Jonathan Edwards was offered the presidency of the college there (which later became Princeton University). He died several weeks after taking the post, and seven months later Edwards herself died of rheumatic fever.

Major Works
The original manuscript of Edwards’s conversion narrative has been lost; however, it was quoted in full in Sereno E. Dwight’s 1829-30 memoir of Jonathan Edwards, The Life of President Edwards. An edited version of Edwards’s account first appeared in Jonathan Edwards’s Some Thoughts Concerning the Present Revival of Religion in New England in 1742. The two texts vary. In both accounts, the reader learns of Edwards’s sense of her sinfulness and pride, her encounter with the Holy Spirit, her experience of the divine, and her eventual submission to God. Her husband’s version of the experience, however, leaves out many of the personal details that Edwards recounted, including issues of power and control faced by husband and wife. Jonathan Edwards’s version changes the perspective from first- to third-person, referring to the subject of the ecstatic experiences as “the person,” and creating a sense of distance that is absent from Edwards’s own intense, personal account.

Critical Reception
As the wife of Jonathan Edwards, Edwards and her writings have been overshadowed by the famous pastor’s life and works. Several historians, however, have examined her extraordinary, sometimes turbulent, relationship with her husband and her mystical experiences. Only since the 1980s have critics examined Edwards’s own writings, and then usually only to compare her narrative to her husband’s version of her experiences. These scholars have noted how her husband used her experiences for his own purposes and edited the feminine voice out of her text; have discussed how Edwards used her husband’s theology in her descriptions; and have shown how Edwards offers insights into the religious and social life of Puritan New England.


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Catherine Booth

In honor of March being National Women’s History Month I am going to post some bios of heroic Christian women, and Christian women who have been my heros in the faith. I start today with Catherine Mumford Booth:

Catherine Booth, the daughter of a coachbuilder, was born in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, in 1829. When she was a child the family moved to Boston, Lincolnshire and later they lived in Brixton, London. Catherine was a devout Christian and by the age of twelve she had read the Bible eight times. She had a social conscience from an early age. On one occasion she protested to the local policeman that he had been too rough on a drunken man he had arrested and frog-marched to the local lock-up.

Catherine did not enjoy good health. At the age of fourteen she developed spinal curvature and four years later, incipient tuberculosis. It was while she was ill in bed that she began writing articles for magazines warning of the dangers of drinking alcohol. Catherine was a member of the local Band of Hope and a supporter of the national Temperance Society.

In 1852 Catherine met William Booth, a Methodist minister. William had strong views on the role of church ministers believing they should be “loosing the chains of injustice, freeing the captive and oppressed, sharing food and home, clothing the naked, and carrying out family responsibilities.” Catherine shared William’s commitment to social reform but disagreed with his views on women. Catherine was an avowed feminist. On one occasion she objected to William describing women as the “weaker sex”. William was also opposed to the idea of women preachers. When Catherine argued with William about this he added that although he would not stop Catherine from preaching he would “not like it”. Despite their disagreements about the role of women in the church, the couple married on 16th June 1855, at Stockwell New Chapel.

It was not until 1860 that Catherine Booth first started to preach. One day in Gateshead Bethseda Chapel, a strange compulsion seized her and she felt she must rise and speak. Later she recalled how an inner voice taunted her: “You will look like a fool and have nothing to say”. Catherine decided that this was the Devil’s voice: “That’s just the point,” she retorted, “I have never yet been willing to be a fool for Christ. Now I will be one.”

Catherine’s sermon was so impressive that William changed his mind about women’s preachers. Catherine Booth soon developed a reputation as an outstanding speaker but many Christians were outraged by the idea. As Catherine pointed out at that time it was believed that a woman’s place was in the home and “any respectable woman who raised her voice in public risked grave censure.”

In 1864 the couple began in London’s East End the Christian Mission which later developed into the Salvation Army. Catherine Booth took a leading role in these revival services and could often be seen preaching in the dockland parishes of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. Though often imprisoned for preaching in the open air, members of the Salvation Army fought on, waging war on poverty and injustice.

The Church of England were at first extremely hostile to the Salvation Army. Lord Shaftesbury, a leading politician and evangelist, described William Booth as the “anti-christ”. One of the main complaints against Booth was his “elevation of women to man’s status”. In the Salvation Army a woman officer enjoyed equal rights with a man. Although Booth had initially rejected the idea of women preachers, he had now completely changed his mind and wrote that “the best men in my Army are the women.”

Catherine Booth began to organize what became known as Food-for-the-Million Shops where the poor could buy hot soup and a three-course dinner for sixpence. On special occasions such as Christmas Day, she would cook over 300 dinners to be distributed to the poor of London.

By 1882 a survey of London discovered that on one weeknight, there were almost 17,000 worshipping with the Salvation Army, compared to 11,000 in ordinary churches. Even, Dr. William Thornton, the Archbishop of York, had to accept that the Salvation Army was reaching people that the Church of England had failed to have any impact on.

It was while working with the poor in London that Catherine found out about what was known as “sweated labour”. That is, women and children working long hours for low wages in very poor conditions. In the tenements of London, Catherine discovered red-eyed women hemming and stitching for eleven hours a day. These women were only paid 9d. a day, whereas men doing the same work in a factory were receiving over 3s. 6d. Catherine and fellow members of the Salvation Army attempted to shame employers into paying better wages. They also attempted to improve the working conditions of these women.

Catherine was particularly concerned about women making matches. Not only were these women only earning 1s. 4d. for a sixteen hour day, they were also risking their health when they dipped their match-heads in the yellow phosphorus supplied by manufacturers such as Bryant & May. A large number of these women suffered from ‘Phossy Jaw’ (necrosis of the bone) caused by the toxic fumes of the yellow phosphorus. The whole side of the face turned green and then black, discharging foul-smelling pus and finally death.

Women like Catherine Booth and Annie Beasant led a campaign against the use of yellow phosphorus. They pointed out that most other European countries produced matches tipped with harmless red phosphorus. Bryant & May responded that these matches were more expensive and that people would be unwilling to pay these higher prices.

Catherine Booth died of cancer in October 1890. The campaigns that were started by Catherine were not abandoned. William Booth decided he would force companies to abandon the use of yellow phosphorus. In 1891 the Salvation Army opened its own match-factory in Old Ford, East London. Only using harmless red phosphorus, the workers were soon producing six million boxes a year. Whereas Bryant & May paid their workers just over twopence a gross, the Salvation Army paid their employees twice this amount.

William Booth organised conducted tours of MPs and journalists round this ‘model’ factory. He also took them to the homes of those “sweated workers” who were working eleven and twelve hours a day producing matches for companies like Bryant & May. The bad publicity that the company received forced the company to reconsider its actions. In 1901, Gilbert Bartholomew, managing director of Bryant & May, announced it had stopped used yellow phosphorus.

Catherine Booth and William Booth had eight children, all of whom were active in the Salvation Army. William Bramwell Booth (1856-1929) was chief of staff from 1880 and succeeded his father as general in 1912. Catherine’s second son, Ballington Booth (1857-1940), was commander of the army in Australia (1883-1885) and the USA (1887-1896). One of her daughters, Evangeline Cora Booth (1865-1950) was elected General of the Salvation Army in 1934.



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