Abigail Mussey & the Ministry of Women in the Early Advent Christian Church (1/2)
The questions surrounding the propriety and appropriateness of women in ministry have always seemed to be a popular topic for conversation, and it has at times caused much controversy and dissonance among church fellowship. In the history of the Advent Christian denomination, women have technically been encouraged to pursue preaching and leadership positions since the very beginnings of the denomination, found in the Millerite movement of the 1800s. This encouragement and edification of women in ministry in the Millerite movement was founded upon a scriptural and biblical basis, and was in fact contrary to the social norm of the time. The Millerites were unique in their support of women in ministry, of women filling preaching and leadership roles, and there are several potential reasons for their support. In the brief study below, the unique and premature support of women in ministry in the Millerite movement will be examined. A comparison of the involvement of women before and after the Great Disappointment will be made, highlighting the female Millerite preacher Abigail Mussey and her ministry after the Great Disappointment. A brief overview of the life of Abigail Mussey will be given, with focus placed on the genesis and defense of her preaching ministry.
The Millerite movement of the 1800s was an eschatologically driven movement headlined by William Miller, a born-again Baptist preacher. Miller sought to prove that the Bible was a logical and consistent text; in contrast to the Deist tradition from which he converted, which taught that the Bible was a dark and mysterious and complex thing. Miller was greatly influenced by the populist culture of evangelicalism, and insisted that every individual could be his or her own interpreter of the Bible. Miller was a literalist in his interpretation of Scripture, believing every word to be literally true. This literal interpretation of Miller’s likely led to his precise date-setting of the second return of Christ. Brekus points out that Miller’s beliefs were hardly unique in the early nineteenth century, an “era that was rife with millennial speculation.”1 But what separated Miller from other evangelicals was not his belief in an imminent millennium, but his certainty that the Scriptures clearly predicted the end times, even in time and manner. Miller was convinced that he could ascertain the exact date of Christ’s glorious return to earth, and this was what set him apart from other millennialists. Miller’s prophecies were not widely studied by the public until his partnership with Joshua Himes. Himes saturated the country with apocalyptic books, newspapers, pamphlets, and other publications – essentially turning William Miller into a national celebrity by the early 1840s.
Female lecturers and preachers appeared to have a more prominent role in Millerism. Although women in ministry was a controversial idea at the time, “most Adventist women preachers appear to have been more interested in ministry than in argument. They were content that the result of their preaching should speak for itself.” The opposition faced by women preachers and ministers in the early Adventist Movement was certainly prevalent. They faced a good deal of prejudice and rejection, and the opposition for many women had become so internalized that these women themselves felt unfit or unworthy for the task and call of preaching.
Dorothy Crouse, in an article she wrote for the Advent Christian Witness entitled “Advent Christian Women of Influence;” ponders the reasoning of why women emerged in Advent
Christian work, especially when the society and the traditions of the day were in many ways working directly against this heavy involvement of women in the Millerite movement. She suggests several reasons for this emergence of women in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, including: (1) These women were devout Christians, who were now a part of a newly formed group where interest and excitement was high, which may have made it easier for different or unusual activity to emerge; (2) the Advent Christian Association of Second Adventists, which is the predecessor of the Advent Christian denomination, was formed with no central governing body, allowing congregational government to prevail and for more freedom in decision-making; (3) many of the women came from families of limited means, which meant they had strong survival skills that could be applied to their motivation in work for the kingdom; and (4) the general unrest in the country as new land became available, as well as the interest in the Southern region of the United States after the Civil War, showed men and women evangelists traveling south to help people.
However, it is more likely that the basis for the support of women preachers in the early Millerite movement was in fact Scripturally based. The eschatological tone of the Millerite movement, as well as the focus on the end times and all the signs pointing to the arrival of such a time, played a major role in the emergence of women preachers. It is clear that the Millerites would have found proof for allowing women to preach by examining the Scriptures themselves, where one of the central prophecies of the end times is Joel 2:28-29, which reads: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see vision. Even on the male and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit” (ESV, emphasis mine). Due to the focus on eschatological matters at the time, it is a logical conclusion to say that this passage would have only added to the “proof-texts” of the Millerite movement and their eschatological beliefs. The prophet Joel states that in the end times “your daughters shall prophesy,” and this would have provided weight towards evidence of the supposed imminent return of Christ, and provided justification for women doing the work of the kingdom such as preaching, teaching, evangelizing, and other such contributions to the expansion of the kingdom.
Catherine Brekus suggests that there were two primary reasons women were allowed to preach within the Millerite movement: (1) the practical reasoning that there were simply not enough clergymen available to spread this significant message of great importance; (2) the more theological reasoning, as is suggested above, that many Millerites permitted women to preach because of their gender – they identified female preaching as a sign of the coming apocalypse. Because of their literal interpretation of Scripture and all its eschatological prophecies, Brekus suggests, the Millerites were careful to examine every aspect of their lives for important and significant parallels to Scripture. Based on the Scriptural proof found in the prophecy of Joel 2:28-29, the Millerites saw the presence of a woman in the pulpit as something of cosmic significance: “she was a living symbol of the last days, a reminder that the end of the world had truly come.”
The Millerite women were adamant that their female sex should not restrict their right to go and preach the Gospel of Christ and his imminent return to the lost. Many of the Millerite women solved the perceived “issue” of their sex by arguing that God had transformed their natural weakness into a strength. Olive Maria Rice is quoted as saying, “Surely God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty.” These women were devoted to the cause, and traveled far and wide to the rural country and the urban city centers to lecture and convey their message of Christ’s return. They honestly believed they had a divine mission to warn people of Christ’s impending return, and because of this they devoted themselves to strenuous schedules of traveling and lecturing. The Millerites often argued, according to Brekus, that married women were better suited for the ministry, rather than single women. From their perspective, “nothing could be more ‘feminine’ than a woman helping her husband in his spiritual labors.” These women were almost always treated as their husband’s assistants rather than as authoritative preachers in their own right.
When the year of 1843 drew to a close with no appearance of their Savior, the Millerites did not give up hope. The scriptures were reexamined, and a new conclusion was derived; surely, Christ would return to earth on October 22, 1844. However, the second advent of Jesus Christ did not occur as it had been predicted. October 22, 1844 then came to be forever known as the day of the “Great Disappointment.” At first, the Millerites refused to believe their calculations had been wrong; but, as time went on, the Great Disappointment eventually led to the collapse and downfall of the Millerite movement. The primary link between Millerites had been their unwavering belief in the imminent return of Christ, and when this prophecy failed to manifest, the movement began to split into (sometimes competing) factions. Numerous small Adventist sects appeared, each with their own interpretation of the events which led to and including the Great Disappointment.
Brekus records that at least eight female preachers of what was the Millerite movement continued lecturing after the Great Disappointment. Inspired by this model of female leadership, many Adventist women continued to enter into the ministry during the late 1840s and 1850s. For example, both Mary Wellcome and Abigail Mussey first felt called to the ministry after the Great Disappointment, and despite their fears of opposition from the Adventist clergy, they both eventually entered into the ministry of public evangelism. Although these women managed to preserve the Millerite legacy of female evangelism which prospered during the height of the movement due to eschatological justification, Millerite women actively involved in ministry began to move in more conservative directions during the 1850s and 1860s. The prophecy pronounced in Joel 2 had since been dismissed as obsolete, and the apostle Paul’s order for women to keep silence in the churches had now superseded it. After the Great Disappointment, women preaching was no longer a sign of the coming millennium, but a “radical innovation” that threatened the stability of the family.
Catherine Brekus argues that after the Great Disappointment, women essentially disappeared from Adventist historical record. However, this is not the case according to said historical record. Admittedly, the presence of women in Adventist ministry was diminishing, and their ministry involvement was not highlighted in Adventist publications as it once was; but there were certainly women who continued to minister. More than this, as discussed briefly above, there were women who were in fact called to the ministry after the Great Disappointment. One such case, as briefly mentioned by Catherine Brekus, is a woman by the name of Abigail Messer Mussey.
1 Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 311.
2 Ibid., 310-312.
3 David A. Dean, "The Role of Women in the Early Adventist Movement," Priscilla Papers, Spring 2008,18.
4 Ibid., 19.
5 Dorothy Crouse, "Advent Christian Women of Influence." Advent Christian Witness, Jan. & feb. 1994, 15.
6 Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims, 320
7 Ibid.; citing O. R. Fassett, The Biography of Mrs. L. E. Fassett, a Devoted Christian, a Useful Life (Boston: Advent Christian Publication society, 1885), 27.
8 Ibid., 321.
9 Ibid., 320-321.
10 Ibid., 326.
12 Cf. Ibid., 330ff.
13 Ibid., 332-333.
14 Ibid., 334.
15 Ibid., 334-335.