Janice Holmes

Next day, Sunday, July 31 [1763], I told him I had been that morning at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where I had heard a woman preach. JOHNSON. 'Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.'1

Samuel Johnson's remark on the Quaker custom of allowing women to preach has become one of the most famous comments on female ministry in English literature. Yet his is by no means an isolated opinion. Observers throughout the history of western Christianity have frequently commented on the 'extraordinary' or 'unusual' sight of a woman preaching to a public, mixed audience, especially since that activity was meant to be reserved for an ordained clergy, or at least laymen. However, women have always, if intermittently, held positions of leadership within the Christian tradition. As 'fellow labourers' in the early church, as medieval nuns and as prophetesses ofthe radical Reformation, women have occupied some measure of public religious space.

Women in nineteenth-century Protestantism were no exception. Throughout the transatlantic world, across denominations, regions and decades, women operated in the public religious sphere and exercised what were often perceived to be spiritual gifts deemed appropriate only for men. Defining what this female ministry involved in real terms is a complicated task. It depends on the observer's theological perspective - how the Scriptures relating to female behaviour ought to be interpreted - and their ecclesiological assumptions: whether or not women have the right to exercise 'authority' (that is, to occupy teaching, sacramental and organisational positions) within the church. At the conservative end of this scale, the Bible does not allow women to exercise 'headship' over a man, and women should therefore be prohibited

1 G. B. Hill (ed.), Boswell's Life of Johnson, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), vol. I, p. 463.

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