Maria Woodworth Etter (1844-1924) was a true pioneer in the history of “signs and wonders” in the church. A diminutive, uneducated woman from the backwoods of Ohio, she was rough-speaking and marked by suffering (five of her six children died). For more details, see this useful blog post by Shawn Stevens.
Even so, she felt a call from God at age 35 to proclaim the gospel. It was a day where women could not vote, let alone preach. So she asked God to qualify her. She records: The power of the Holy Ghost came down like a cloud. I was covered and wrapped in it. I was baptised with the Holy Ghost and fire, with power which has never left me. [‘A Diary of Signs and Wonders’]
She began touring with a gospel tent. This was well known in America, but Maria’s meetings were different. People fell to the ground and lay there for hours. Some saw visions of heaven, which they reported to the audience. Others spoke in tongues. Angelic singing was heard, even by journalists.
God used her most strikingly, though, in healing. People travelled hundreds of miles to be prayed for by her. She believed and taught that every need was already supplied in Christ’s atonement. She got people to lift their hands and praise God from the heart; then with authority she would command the sickness to go. In her various books and in press reports of the day, there are ample testimonies of the crippled running, cancers disappearing, decayed organs restored, the deaf hearing, and the mentally ill recovering.
What makes Maria Woodworth Etter stand out is the magnitude of the healings that took place in her campaigns. Many of these read like the Book of Acts. For this alone she has been called “perhaps the greatest woman evangelist in the history of the Church”. Here are a few examples, taken from her book A Diary of Signs and Wonders (1916, reissued by Harrison House).
‘A sister had met with an accident five years before. Her hip [muscles] had wasted away and for three years she had not left her bed. I saw she was in a terrible condition, but I knew there is nothing too hard for the Lord. I told her to put her trust in Him, then I prayed and she arose, perfectly healed of all her diseases, and went shouting around the house.’
Some sickness linked to demonic oppression
‘A little girl was carried into the meeting [at Springfield, Illinois, c.1884], as helpless as a baby. She had spinal meningitis, was paralysed all over, her brain was impaired, her head dropped on to her chest, and she had no use of her back and limbs. She had been so for six months, and for four months had only eaten nothing but drunk a little milk.
‘I laid hands on her and commanded the unclean spirits to come out of her. In five minutes she could sit up straight and lift her hands above her head. Five minutes more and she could talk and stand up… The next morning she was the first one up, running from house to house telling what God had done for her.’
Miraculous healing of multiple diseases
‘[A man of 64 in Indianapolis] had had piles for 30 years. He had had them cut and burned off four times; then cancer commenced. He got so bad that he had to sit on an inflated ring, and his wife had to flush his bowels twice a day, using a long syringe and tube and 2 quarts of water. Then he would bleed and it was so offensive that she could hardly do it.
‘The bowel was all gone on the left side for ten inches up; the backbone was exposed, having no flesh on it. He also had rheumatism… God converted and healed him all at once, in less than 15 minutes. He was baptised with the Holy Ghost and is now one of God’s little ones. There is nothing too hard for our God!‘
Healing as a pointer to God’s heart
‘[In Muscatine, Iowa], a lady came to the meeting suffering greatly. Eight months before, she had fallen down a flight of steps; her arm and wrist had been broken and her fingers crushed. The arm and hand were very swollen and inflamed. Doctors gave her no hope of ever being able to use the arm or hand.
‘When we prayed for her, the people crowded around to see what would happen. When they saw her begin to move her fingers and hand, and saw the swelling going down, and saw her stretch out her arm, then clap her hands shouting “I am healed!”, they could scarcely believe their eyes. Strong men, who were not believers, wept and said “Surely God is here!”
Her work did not go unopposed. Medical practitioners sought to get her committed as insane, but the press generally defended her. The manifest healings spoke eloquently of God’s grace working through her. We sense something of the personal cost in this report from the St Louis Globe of 1890:
The meeting was one of the most disorderly that has ever been witnessed under the tent, for no sooner would someone throw up his or her hands in a religious ‘trance,’ than the crowd would stand up on the seats, push forward, and do everything but literally climb over each other to see the person. Mrs. Woodworth’s face had a harassed or troubled look, but she still possessed the same pleasant welcoming smile which she always wears; and she walked up and down the platform making the same graceful curving gestures which many claim to be her method of hypnotizing her followers.
On account of the many unusual things she had experienced, and the evident Holy Spirit power in her gatherings, Maria was welcomed by early Pentecostals as a forerunner of their own movement. She worked alongside several pioneers like F F Boswell and John G Lake, who called her “Mother Etter”.
Courageous faith isn’t just for special, brave people. Some of God’s heroes had to overcome serious limitations, even to get started. One such was James Parnell. He was a delicate lad, short for his age and sensitive. He loved Jesus and sensed there must be more than going to the parish church.
In 1653, when he was 16, he heard of George Fox, the leader of the Quakers, who was in prison in Carlisle. Weak as he was, James walked the 150 miles and, fainting with exhaustion, was allowed to visit Fox. We have no record of their conversation, but Parnell was filled with the Holy Spirit and commissioned by Fox to be an evangelist.
He had just two years of life left, but they were amazingly fruitful. A colleague at the time wrote: ‘He was of a poor appearance, a mere youth, coming against giants; yet the wisdom of man was made to bow before the Spirit by which he spoke.’
Disinherited and turned out of home by his parents, Parnell set about the work of the gospel. Sometimes with a partner, sometimes alone, he went from house to house, ‘preaching, praying, exhorting, and turning the minds of all sorts of people to the light of Jesus.’ He was ridiculed for his short stature, and often after preaching he was exhausted. Faith kept him going.
Hearing that two Quakers had been whipped at Cambridge, he went there and preached himself. He continued in the east of England, strengthening the Quaker assemblies. Finally, Parnell was arrested and imprisoned in Colchester. “I am committed to be kept a prisoner, but I am the Lord’s free-man,” he wrote. His jailers starved him for days at a time, then let him climb down a rope to get food. The jailer’s wife and daughter used to beat him, and on occasions he was locked outside in mid-winter.
It was too much for his weak constitution. One day he had no strength left to climb the rope but fell to the concrete below, and died of his injuries. He was just 18 years old. He was the first of several hundred Quaker martyrs. His message to all of us is summed up in the last words he sent to the Quaker believers in Essex: “Be willing that self shall suffer for the truth, and not the truth for self.”
Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), from Connecticut, USA, took eccentricity to a new level. From childhood he knew sweeps of emotion beyond his fellows, higher highs and deeper lows. His conversion experience was unusually dramatic too: in a dream, he was carried off to hell by a demon, and cried to God that he deserved it – but begged for mercy. He knew amazing peace and joy and woke up loving God.
At 21, he was accepted as a circuit preacher by the Methodists. Later he was an independent evangelist. He quickly gained a reputation, both for his appearance and his methods. Lorenzo usually had just the clothes he stood up in, which he wore until they were so unsightly that some person in the audience would donate a replacement – which might not be the right size. He had a beard down to his chest and never combed it. He didn’t always wash. After his death, one obituary said: Who will forget his orangutan features, his outlandish clothes, the beard that swept his aged breast, or the piping treble voice in which he preached the Gospel of the Kingdom.
He and his wife Peggy embraced poverty for the gospel’s sake. They would often sleep rough in the woods. Peggy wrote a journal of these times, later publicised as Vicissitudes in the Wilderness (available online here).
Dow’s preaching mannerisms were a revelation. A generation before, the great open-air preacher George Whitefield was passionate but serious and measured. Lorenzo Dow shouted, screamed, wept, begged, insulted, and challenged people’s complacent beliefs. He told stories and jokes. It is recorded that he could hold an audience of 10,000 spellbound. He gained the nickname “Crazy Dow” and happily accepted it. Lorenzo himself wrote a retrospective account of his many experiences, The Dealings of God, Man, and the Devil (available online here).
He had a keen eye for the theatrical. He loved to turn up at a public event, go to the centre or on to the stage (uninvited) and announce loudly that he would preach on that spot in one year’s time. One famous episode took place in Westminster, Maryland, and he repeated it elsewhere. Seeing a boy with a trumpet, he enlisted his help: after the start of a service in a meeting hall, the lad was to climb an adjoining tree and wait for a signal. Inside, Dow preached a “fire and brimstone” message. In a great crescendo he cried: ‘If Gabriel were to blow his trumpet announcing the day of Judgment is at hand, would you be ready?’ It was the signal. The boy blew the trumpet! People screamed and rushed to the front to seek mercy and make peace with God. The boy made a quick getaway!
His engagement to Peggy was suitably unusual. He would marry her, he said, but “if you should stand in my way in the service of the gospel, I will pray to God to remove you!” Stout-hearted Peggy said yes nevertheless and they married in 1804. She accompanied him on many of his travels, which were long and arduous. They would camp in the woods without a tent, hearing wolves but trusting God. This they did out of love for the hundreds of settlers, born and bred in the wilderness, and now adult, who had never seen a preacher.
One record exists of Dow arriving at a village in Alabama: his pantaloons were worn through, and for several hundred miles he had ridden without a cloak, for he had sold it. He was barefoot and his umbrella was held by just three spokes. Small wonder that Peggy entitled her autobiography Vicissitudes in the Wilderness. When Peggy died, Lorenzo married Lucy, who was every bit as feisty as he: at their wedding she promised “to be a thorn in his flesh and a sword in his side”!
Despite their grinding poverty, however, Dow made a point of refusing lavish gifts from well-wishers, accepting only the bare essentials. Such a lifestyle took a toll on his health. He had asthma and malaria and, like the great Methodist circuit preacher Francis Asbury, could not stand for a whole preaching but had to lean on something.
Dow was a phenomenon, a source of entertainment as well as awe. Many a child was christened Lorenzo in his honour. But he also provoked opposition, especially in southern states, where he opposed slavery. He was sometimes pelted with stones, eggs, and rotten vegetables. That never stopped him; he simply walked to the next town and gave the same sermon again! At Jacksonborough, Georgia, he was abused and attacked so badly that, on leaving, he “shook off the dust from his feet” [Matthew 10:14] and cursed the place. Within a few years, all that was left of Jacksonborough was the home of his hosts – the rest had been abandoned and fallen into ruin.
In all, Dow made three trips to Britain, where he longed to preach the gospel to Roman Catholics. He was received as something of a curiosity but his preaching was respected everywhere. He introduced a group of Methodists to the American-style “camp meeting“, where revivalist preachers spoke to crowds in giant open-air congregations, which might last 3 days. As a result, Hugh Bourne and the Primitive Methodists began holding them in England.
The editor of his journal continued: “His eccentric dress and style of preaching attracted great attention, while his shrewdness, and quick discernment of character gave him no considerable influence over the multitudes that attended his ministry. Who has not heard of Lorenzo Dow? He was one of the most remarkable men of his age for his zeal and labor in the cause of religion. It is probable that more persons have heard the Gospel from his lips, than any other individual since the days of Whitefield.”
In 1793, William Carey, a shoemaker and subsequently Baptist pastor from Northamptonshire, UK, took his family to India as missionaries. They finally settled at Serampore in West Bengal. For seven years they had not a single convert, their funds ran out and for a time they were destitute. His wife Dorothy got severely depressed and three of their children died. But by the time of his own death 41 years later, Carey had planted churches, founded colleges, overseen the translation of the gospels into forty local languages, and had secured the banning of ‘sati’ – the ritual burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre. He is still a revered figure in India and has featured on postage stamps.
What made the difference were some radical changes made when reinforcements arrived in 1799. Joshua Marshman, a gifted linguist, was a happily married man who saw immediately the strain in Carey’s marriage and his neglect of his children (whom Marshman found rude, indisciplined and uneducated). The Marshmans took the children under their wing and brought them some much-needed love and discipline. William Ward brought a practical business brain and took the weight of administration off Carey’s shoulders, as well as taking charge of the printing operation.
All this gave Carey a support structure that freed him to discover his leadership gifts. These three men thrashed through many issues and found a oneness of heart. This found an unusual expression: a brotherhood covenant, a pledge of loyalty and commitment. Entitled Form of Agreement, it was published in 1805 and has eleven points. Three times a year they read the pledge through at a special service and re-committed themselves to it. This covenant bond was faithfully kept by all of them until death. It was in many ways their backbone, the mainstay of the work in India.
This document has received little attention, but it well merits a closer inspection. Its context is specifically missionary – as opposed to the church covenants of membership that existed at the time. It is heartfelt, uncompromising and at times very strict. For example, the final point pronounces woes to the man who ever pulls away from the unity and does things on his own.
The Form of Agreement opens with a carefully-worded justification of their being in India at all. There is a reason for this. The Baptist Church in England at the time held a hyper-Calvinist position regarding the salvation of sinners. Forever lodged in Carey’s memory was the occasion where he made known his missionary yearning at a ministers’ meeting in 1786; an older pastor allegedly (some say apocryphally) stood up and said: “Young man, sit down! when God pleases to convert the heathen, he will do it without your aid and mine.”
So Carey chooses his phrases carefully: ‘We are sure that only those who are ordained to eternal life will believe, and that God alone can add to the church such as shall be saved.’ Carey and several colleagues back home had challenged the prevailing determinism; he himself had preached a sermon on the necessity of missions, in which he included the memorable exhortation: Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God. Yet he was wise enough to realise that, were they to antagonise the Baptist hierarchy in England, they could easily cut off the supply of recruits and donations on which they relied.
Carey then brings the balance. ‘Nevertheless, we cannot but observe with admiration that (the Apostle) Paul… was the most conspicuous for his personal zeal in the work of persuading men to be reconciled to God. In this respect he is a noble example for our imitation.’ Touché? I think so!
And so to the first article of the covenant itself, which concerns urgency for lost souls. Recent research claims that 98% of Christians worldwide are neither envisioned nor equipped for mission in 95% of their waking lives. If that really is the case, then let us hear the heart expressed by Carey and his friends.
It is absolutely necessary that we set an infinite value upon immortal souls. [We should] endeavour to affect our minds with the dreadful loss sustained by an unconverted soul launched into eternity. May their case lie with continued weight on our minds.
India is a vast country, lying in the arms of the wicked one. This is no colonial pride, for Carey is just as scathing about his own roots: ‘He who raised the sottish and brutalised Britons to sit in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, can raise these slaves of superstition… and make them worshippers of the one true God in spirit and truth’. Indeed, in faith Carey anticipates a day when He will famish the gods of India and cause these very idolators to cast their idols to the moles and the bats.’
This blog post considers reasons why the “heart for the lost” has been largely lost in Christendom today and challenges us, very practically, to do something about it. No doubt, Carey and his covenant team would long for us to do so!
Articles 2 and 3 of William Carey’s 1805 Serampore Covenant are rooted in good sense and the wisdom born of experience in the field. The need, they write, is for a contextualised gospel: to converse with [Indian people] in an intelligible manner and to avoid coming across to them either as fanatics or as irrelevant. Sounds familiar? Read any piece about relevant witness in a post-modern (or ‘post-Christian’) society and the same issues apply. Here is an example from the UK Evangelical Alliance.
So Carey, Marshman and Ward commit themselves to several things:
* conversing with sensible natives;
* reading some parts of their major writings;
* attentively observing their manners and customs.
They stress the need to know Indian modes of thinking, their moral values and their manners. So much is standard missionary training today, of course. But the Serampore missionaries see it as crucial to understand the way they reason about God, sin, holiness, the way of salvation, and [man’s] future state. This surely parallels the move in today’s ‘Emerging Church’ to understand where post-modern people are coming from, and then to reach out to them in Facebook evangelism or whatever.
Carey also advocates a common sense approach to interacting with people of the Hindu majority religion. We must abstain from those things which would increase their prejudices against the gospel – in particular, English colonial haughtiness, and cruelty to animals. There should be no direct confrontations, no defacing of their statues, no disturbance of their worship gatherings. Carey praises the mild-mannered and gracious approach of the Moravian missions and of the Quakers among the Native American tribes. He was to enlarge on this elsewhere.
He who is too proud to stoop to others, in order to draw them to him…, is ill-qualified to be a missionary , states the Form of Agreement. The Serampore trio pledge to follow the stated aim of the Apostle Paul, to “be all things to all men, that I may by all means win some” (the Bible, 1 Corinthians 9:22). And the section closes with a paraphrase from an unnamed missionary to North America, almost certainly either David Brainerd or John Eliot: “that he would not care if the people trampled him under their feet, if he might become useful to their souls”.
To be continued…