Leadership Scholars / women in ministry / young Baptists

5 Women Who Teach Us What It Means to Be Baptist

By JJ Dickinson

JJ Dickinson

This semester for the midterm in my Baptist class, I wrote a children’s book about important women of the Baptist faith. Some of them, like Anne Hutchinson and Beth Moore, I knew a lot about. Others, like Martha Stearns Marshall, I had never heard of before. Each woman played an important role in her own Baptist community and I would argue that through learning their stories they can play an important role in our lives as well.

The first Baptist woman I studied was not a Baptist at all. Anna Palmer was a Lollard, a tradition that can be considered a parent to Baptists. Anna lived in the 1300s and believed that individuals should be given the access and ability to read scripture for themselves and things that might inhibit the ability to worship (such as requirements of pilgrimages and celibacy) were unnecessary. Because of the power of the Roman Catholic Church in England during Anna’s life, she held secret Lollard meetings in her home. In 1393 she was discovered and charged with 15 counts of heresy, one count of being the Lollard hostess, and another for incontinence. She only denied the incontinence and refused to discuss the rest. 

Even though she lived a long time ago, Anna is a great example for what it means to be Baptist. In fact, through hosting her community and advocating that the Bible should be accessible for all people Anna helped build a foundation that made the Reformation, and thus Baptist life, possible.

Next, I studied Anne Hutchinson. Yes, the famous Anne Hutchinson. Again, Anne was not technically a Baptist but instead a Puritan. As a Puritan, Anne believed that the Catholic Church and the Church of England had both gone astray and Christians ought to live “pure” lives through abandoning empty ceremonies and instead truly studying scripture. Because of this belief, Anne had to flee to New England. Once there, she was preaching even more than she had in her old home. 

At first, she was only inviting other women over, but by 1636 she was having multiple meetings a week with as many as 80 people! The Puritan leaders became uncomfortable with Anne’s influence, partially because they didn’t like everything she was saying and partially because she was a woman. In 1637, they brought Anne to court and charged her with “antinomianism,” which is the belief that works are not necessary to prove salvation. In response, Anne agreed! She believed that salvation was seen through inward transformation not through superficial works. 

Even if she was a Puritan, I love the vision of Baptist life that Anne gives us. She believed that God saves through grace in an interior, inward act. She also believed in the priesthood of all believers and that God speaks to God’s people. Anne also provides Baptist women with a powerful example. You see, even after her death in 1643, John Winthrop continued to defame her and call her the “American Jezebel.” This is because, in many instances, the people who claim to fight for religious freedom, like John, are only fighting for those they deem worthy. Baptist women, along with many other minorities, have oftentimes been left out of this vision of freedom.

About one hundred years after Anne, Martha Stearns Marshall began her ministry. One of my favorite parts of Martha’s story is that she was not treated as noteworthy or exceptional. Martha was simply another individual called to preach God’s word. You see, Martha was a Separate Baptist. This was a tradition formed out of the First Great Awakening that emphasized evangelism and the importance of Scripture. Both her husband and brother felt called to preach so oftentimes the three would lead services together. 

It is important that we remember that we will never know what it means to be Baptist if we do not study the history of the black Baptist church. At the turn of the century, Nannie Helen Burroughs was an influential suffragette and social reformer. She believed in something called the Black Social Gospel which meant that Salvation had to be a spiritual and political event in order to save the individual from separation from God and systemic injustice. Because of this belief, Nannie co-founded the Women’s Convention as a way to represent black women in the Baptist faith. Later in her life, Nannie also opened schools that taught both the Bible and black history.

The last Baptist woman I studied we probably all know. Her name is Beth Moore, and she is an author who made an important stand recently by leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. Even while she was a member of the SBC, however, Beth taught us a lot about the power of Baptist women. Being Baptist isn’t ‘one-size-fits-all,’ but instead is about experiencing a close relationship with God. 

Those are the five women I studied for my class, but I believe there are so many other important Baptist women. Women like the ones I meet with every day in my classes, on Sunday at church… women like the ones who fill our pews, walk alongside us, and help us grow. Knowing the stories of our Baptist Mothers helps us know who we are. We are resilient, kind, called people, who God has given a voice and a blessing. May we share that with the world.

JJ Dickinson is a CBF Leadership Scholar and serves as the intern for the Everything Happens Initiative and as a team member at Millbrook Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. She will graduate in May of 2022 with her M.Div. from Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C.

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