The story of Sarah Crosby is the story of John Wesley’s change of heart toward women preachers. By the 1750s, John Wesley had not fully accepted women preachers. This is an odd situation when you consider that Methodist women were already operating in public. They were giving public prayer, public testimony, and public exhorting. Regardless, at this time John Wesley did not give a full-fledged nod toward the sanctioning of women preachers.
Sarah Crosby and John Wesley
Considering the hesitation of John Wesley is odd when you consider that women like Sarah Crosby were examples of the most influential woman in John Wesley’s life. That woman was his mother, Susanna Wesley. At one point in John Wesley’s childhood, when his father was away on religious business his mother was leading and teaching a regular congregation of more than 200 people. However, in 1755, a conference document which John Wesley presented seemed to make provision for women preachers in exceptional cases.
In the document, John Wesley differentiates between the authority to preach and the authority to administer the sacraments. Once again for this distinction, John Wesley appeals to the early church: “Evangelists and deacons preached. Yea, and women when under extraordinary inspiration. Then both their sons and their daughters prophesied, although in ordinary cases it was not permitted to ‘a woman to speak in the church.” (In Wesley’s translation of 1 Corinthians 14:35, Wesley correctly alters the ‘women’ of the Authorized Version to ‘woman’.
So who was the first woman to receive this authorization toward women preachers? Sarah Crosby was the first to receive John Wesley’s blessing in this endeavor.
Sarah Crosby and John Wesley’s Foundry Church in London
In 1750 Sarah Crosby joined John Wesley’s Foundry Church in London. There she had the awesome privilege to hear both George Whitefield and John Wesley preach. Within two years, she became a class leader at Foundry Church. But this newfound love of God did not sit well with her husband. Within five years of attending The Foundry Church, she found herself abandoned by her husband.
Sarah Crosby and Mary Bosanquet
At this point in her life, she became friends with Mary Bosanquet. This friendship would become a significant relationship in early Methodism. The two eventually become Methodism’s first women preachers.
From her early childhood, Sarah Crosby experienced strong religious impressions. Her involvement with the Foundry society brought to life a deep urge to exhort others to repentance and faith. Consider her words:“From the love I felt to those I knew to be equally fallen from original righteousness with myself, I often desired to be instrumental in turning them to God, and never had a moment’s peace ay longer than I endeavored to aim at this wherever I came.” (Arminian Magazine 29 (1806): 466-473. Also other references in this Arm. 29, 564, 420-421).
As time went on her spiritual growth in the faith led her step by step to a point where her public testimony began to resemble public preaching. Her call to preach came during a time of “spiritual grasping” of God’s grace in her life. She recounts the experience to John Wesley in a letter: “I felt my soul as a vessel emptied, but not filled. Day and night I was amazed at the blessed change my soul experienced; but I said nothing to any one, because I was not, as yet, sure what the Lord had done for me; though I had always promised, if the Lord would but fully save me, I would declare his goodness although I believed it would expose me to various exercises, both from ministers and people.”
Sarah Crosby and Derby
In the spring of 1760, Sarah Crosby experienced the completeness of her salvation. It was at this point that she felt led to preach. Having the year before led a Mrs. Dobinson to participate in her class meeting at The Foundry Church, Mrs. Dobinson soon joined Sarah Crosby and Mary Bosanquet in conversation about evangelical efforts in Derby. 18 months later, the trio set out for the mountainous town of Derby.
This project was evidently planned over the course of several months. The September 1760 letter from Mrs. Crosby to a Sarah Moor of Sheffield indicates: ‘I shall set out for Derby about a month hence, but cannot tell you where to direct to. Perhaps you will see Mr. Hampson again first, who may be able to inform you, or bring me a letter.’ Mr. Hampson was the itinerant of that circuit.
At the commencement of 1761, this zealous group of Methodists women moved from London to Derby. Their intention of forming a Methodist society there was clear. Not only did this venture lead to the establishment of a society it also marked the beginning of the work of women preachers in Methodism. One month later, twenty-seven people attended the first class meeting.
Sarah Crosby gives an account of the events that followed the week after:
“Sunday, 8th: This day my mind has been calmly stayed on God. In the evening I expected to meet about thirty persons in class; but to my great surprise there came near two hundred. I found an awful, loving sense of the Lord’s presence, and much love to the people; but was much affected both in body and mind. I was not sure whether it was right for me to exhort in so public a manner, and yet I saw it impracticable to meet all these people by way of speaking particularly to each individual. I, therefore, gave out a hymn, and prayed, and told them part of what the Lord had done for myself, persuading them to flee from al sin.” (Arm. Mag. 29, 1806, pp. 518, this experience is the same as Susanna Wesley’s Epworth experiences).
Sarah Crosby immediately wrote Wesley for advice about the event. John Wesley does not come across as being worried. Consider his answer sent nearly three days after he received news from Sarah:
Wesley wrote back:
“London, February 14, 1761 My Dear Sister, Miss Bosanquet gave me yours of Wednesday night. Hitherto, I think you have not gone too far. You could not well do less. I apprehend all you can do more is, when you meet again, to tell them simply, ‘You lay me under a great difficulty. The Methodists do not allow of women preachers: (because of Wesley’s conviction to not separate from the Anglican Church), neither do I take upon me any such character. But I will just nakedly tell you what is in my heart.’ This will in a great measure obviate the grand objection and prepare for J. Hampson’s coming. I do not see that you have broken any law. Go on calmly and steadily. If you have time, you may read to them the Notes on any chapter before you speak a few words, or one of the most awakening sermons, as other women have done long ago.” (Wesley Letters 4:133. In actuality, another preacher, a Mr. G—h came to her relief rather than Mr. J. Hampson.)
While John Wesley was penning his response, Sarah Crosby addressed the Derby faithful again on Friday, February 13. In this large gathering, Sarah sensed confirmation that she was doing the right thing. Consider her own words:
“In the evening I exhorted near two hundred people to forsake their sins, and showed them the willingness of Christ to save: They flock as doves to the window, tho’ as yet we have no preacher. Surely, Lord, thou hast much people in this place! My soul was much comforted in speaking to the people, as my Lord has removed all my scruples respecting the propriety of my acting thus publicly.”
John Wesley’s approval of the efforts of Sarah Crosby marked his acceptance of women preachers.
Sarah Crosby Returns to London
In the spring of 1761, Sarah Crosby made her way to London from Derby. In London at this time, a revival was taking place. This occurred among the Wesleyan societies at John Wesley’s Foundry Church and George Whitefield’s Chapel. The following is from her letter dated January 28, 1763;
“I have been 5 months at Canterbury, which has been much for my own good, and the good of many. There has been a great revival, and quickening among the people. When I have an opportunity, I will send you the copy of the account, Mr. Wesley desired me write him.” (Sarah Crosby to Mr. Oddie, at the New Room, in the Horse Fair, London, January 28, 1763, Methodist Archives Rylands Library, Manchester, UK)
Sarah Crosby’s return to London opened the door for her to renew her friendship with Mary Bosanquet and Sarah Ryan. Each of these in time would become Methodist women preachers. In March of 1763, the wealthy Mary Bosanquet and the domestic servant Sarah Ryan teamed up with Sarah Crosby to begin an outreach to the destitute of London at Leytonstone. Their goal was to establish an orphanage and school along the lines of John Wesley’s Kingswood school in Bristol. Their focus was those without family and friends, the destitute children of London’s streets. Some of these children were found “naked and full of vermin.” (Paul Chilcote’s book, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of early Methodism). Over the next five years, thirty-five children and thirty-four adults were taken in.
Sarah Crosby and the push for Women Preachers
“During the decade of the 1770s, John Wesley became increasingly aware of the increasing push in the direction of women preachers. By now, Francis Asbury had departed for America. However, the leanings of John Wesley and his opinion of women preachers did not escape Francis Asbury in America. John Wesley’s unsuccessful attempts to reconcile with the Anglican structure began to push him in the direction of preserving the Methodist movement. Although he wished to remain subject to the Church of England, the church’s hierarchy was not so fond of Wesley and his Methodism.
According to Dr. Paul Chilcote in his book, John Wesley and the Women Preachers of early Methodism, “The transformation of Wesley’s attitude toward the women preachers during this critical period, and the consequent expansion of their labors and influence within the Methodist societies, cannot be fully understood apart from the context of these general developments. Decreased anxiety concerning the stability of his bond with the Church of England made it easier for Wesley to countenance the development of additional irregularities as long as they promoted the cause of evangelical Christianity.”
“The case of Sarah Crosby, as we have seen, clearly demonstrates the cautious progression of Wesley’s thinking in this regard. In 1761, he discreetly approved her actions in Derby and admonished her to speak in public about her Christian experience or to read edifying literature to her assemblies as his mother had done at Epworth. In 1769, he agreed that she might even deliver short exhortations, carefully avoiding what appeared to be preaching by frequently interrupting her discourse and never taking a text. During the years that immediately followed, these developments came to a head, however, and it became increasingly clear to Wesley that he must accept an occasional woman preacher by virtue of an ‘Extraordinary Call.’”
When did this change in Wesley’s opinion toward women preachers change is hard to know. A leading cause may have been the outreach of Sarah Crosby, Mary Bosanquet, Sarah Ryan and several other extraordinary women of faith associated with the London work. In the summer of 1771, Mary Bosanquet wrote John Wesley. In the correspondence, she pleads her case that from her looking through the Bible, women on occasion, experienced a call from God to preach, “in extraordinary situations.”
From Paul Chilcote’s book: “Employing lines of argumentation similar to those which characterized Margaret Fell’s Women’s Speaking Justified nearly a century before, Miss Bosanquet carefully considers the classic statements of Saint Paul in 1 Timothy 2 and 1st Corinthians 14 and addresses six objections that had been raised concerning their specific activities.”
Again from Paul Chilcote’s book, “Her first conclusion is that the so-called prohibitive passages refer to specific situations in which certain women were meddling with church discipline and government and do not apply, therefore, either to women in general or preaching in particular. Furthermore, a literal interpretation of these scriptural texts would contradict the apostle’s admonitions concerning the necessity of women prophesying with their heads covered, in 1st Corinthians 11:5. In her view, the objection that the speaking of women should be limited to times of a ‘peculiar impulse’ placed too severe a limitation upon the gracious activity of God. The Almighty could as easily inspire a servant to speak ‘two or three times in a week, or day’ as ‘two or three times in her life.’”
Mary Bosanquet in her defense of women preachers focused also on women in the Bible who were said to possess godliness. Her examples were Mar, the woman of Samaria, the handmaid of 2nd Samuel 20, and Deborah. Each of these, Mary states, were characterized as pure and humble, and publicly declaring a message from God. Mary replies to those who object:
“If I did not believe so, I would not act in an extraordinary manner. I praise my God, I feel him very near, and I prove his faithfulness every day.”
Wesley’s reply reveals his changed heart toward women preachers:
“My dear sister, I think the strength of the cause rests there, on your having an Extraordinary Call. So, I am persuaded, has every one of our Lay Preachers: otherwise, I could not countenance his preaching at all. It is plain to me that the whole work of God termed Methodism is an extraordinary dispensation of His Providence. Therefore, I do not wonder if several things occur therein which do not fall under ordinary rules of discipline. St. Paul’s ordinary rule was, ‘I permit not a woman to speak in the congregation ’yet in extraordinary cases he made a few exceptions; at Corinth, in particular.’” Londonderry June 13, 1771 (The Bristol Conference in 1771, the one which sent Francis Asbury to America, was on August 6thto August 9th).
Following this reply of John Wesley to Mary Bosanquet, the decade of the 1770s, saw an increase in the influence of women preachers. Sarah Crosby included.