Methodism had moved to prohibit it. It was only within the ambit ofbreakaway Methodist sects, like the Primitive Methodists (1812) and the Bible Christians (1816), that female preaching was granted an official sanction. Expanding into the 1820s, with a peak in numbers by the 1830s, by the 1860s about ninety Primitive and seventy-five Bible Christian women had served as full-time, paid 'itinerant preachers', the most senior pastoral position within these structurally loose movements.7
This rapid growth in female preaching, followed by a steady decline, is a pattern that is repeated in the American denominations influenced by the evangelical revival of the late eighteenth century. The lack of denominational structures and a highly emotional expression of religious feeling combined to create an environment in which female leadership flourished. Young, single women, predominantly from the northern states and from a variety of social backgrounds, could be found leading revival services and preaching to mixed audiences at camp meetings. Freewill Baptists and the Christian Connexion, along with breakaway Methodist groups like the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) (1816)8 and the Methodist Protestants (1830), allowed women to preach from the pulpit and, in some cases, gave them access to decision-making roles in church government.9
The status that these women had, with their rustic and spontaneous style of preaching, remained vulnerable to criticism, and in the 1830s and 1840s public hostility towards their activity began to mount. Concerns from mainline denominations about the theological justifications for women's ministry, and the feminist implications of such public preaching, combined with a growing disquiet within the revivalist denominations themselves. Keen to consolidate their numerical expansion, and to inculcate a measure of social respectability, both British and American evangelicals increasingly insisted on an educated clergy and urged women to teach from within the domestic sphere. In response, some female preachers moved into denominations which allowed them to continue their ministry. But by far the larger number simply withdrew from public ministry altogether and accepted their greatly reduced religious roles.10
The mid-nineteenth century was not, as has often been portrayed, a period in which women's public ministry ceased. However, there does seem to be a
7 Graham, 'Chosen by God', p. 90; Wilson, 'Decline of female itinerant preachers', pp. 17-18.
8 Dodson, Engendering church, chs. 1-3.
9 Billington, '"Female labourers"'; Brekus, Strangers andpilgrims, pp. 134-6.
10 Brekus, Strangers andpilgrims, pp. 284-305.
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