Wise words from a young woman
who lived more than 300 years ago
Introductory Note from Gary Williams:
Roughly 2000 years ago Jesus selected an unlikely group of men and women to form the core of his little band of religious radicals. They weren’t rich, educated, well-known, or without fault, yet they turned the ancient world upside down. The Bible says God chose these imperfect humans so that we would understand that what they did was the result of His power, not theirs. When they said “yes” to Jesus’ call, God gave them the tools and opportunities to do the work prepared for them.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, to find that 1700 years later He handed out a Godly dose of wisdom to a young woman in England, who, like the Apostles and disciples of Christ, came from humble circumstances. Like them, she also heard a call and answered “Yes, Lord.”
Her name was Deborah Wynn Bell and in 1709, at the tender age of 20, God used her to write about the role of women in the church. What’s remarkable is that those of us who’ve studied this issue know she was centuries ahead of her time in understanding what the scriptures teach us about women in the church.
She was born in 1689, in Yorkshire, England. Her parents were part of the still new Quaker movement that was stirring up the British landscape, but her father and seven siblings died before she was 12. Times were hard for other reasons too. Quakers were being thrown into jail, beaten, robbed of their homes, and persecuted in other ways because of their religious beliefs. These Godly people refused to participate in the government-sponsored Church of England, refused to bow down to their “betters” (as was the custom of the day), and insisted on living according to their strict interpretation of scripture. In the eyes of the law and many of their neighbors that made the Quakers deserving of anything bad that was thrown at them. It took great courage to openly admit to belonging to the Society of Friends, let alone to preach in their meetings. Still, when Deborah Bell was only 19 and without a formal education, she began an active public ministry that carried her to Quaker gatherings throughout England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland.
To get an idea of the radical nature of this young woman’s life, you should also know that the role of women hadn’t changed much between Jesus’ day and 1708. She was expected to marry, have babies, and manage her household. Her place was not to travel and preach, and she certainly wasn’t expected to show the wisdom of someone much, much older and better educated.
You’ll see what I mean about wisdom when you read the letter she wrote to a woman who sought her counsel. Her letter was published in a book titled: “The Friends Library, Comprising Journals, Doctrinal Treatises, and Other Writings of Members of the Religious Society of Friends,” printed in 1841. I have other “modern” books and articles about women’s roles in the church. None of the recent authors cover the essentials any better than this young Quaker.
Deborah Bell’s letter and why she wrote it
About this time a young woman who was a baptist, came divers times to a meeting I sometimes visited, and wrote several letters to me, by way of inquiry concerning our principles, which I answered as things opened upon my mind. After several letters had passed between us and she seemed satisfied with my answers, she wrote me another, desiring to be resolved about women’s preaching, saying, she thought me a proper person to apply to, being concerned in that service; to which I replied in substance as follows.
Though we are strangers one to another, as to personal knowledge, yet understanding by some friends, and thy own letters to me, that thou art inclined to virtue and piety, and desirous to know the way of the Lord, which is very commendable in youth, and particularly wants to be resolved concerning women’s preaching and praying in public assemblies; and I being concerned that way, and always glad to hear that young people are inclinable to godliness, find the tender love of my heavenly Father flow towards thee, heartily desiring he may open thy understanding, and give thee the true knowledge of himself, and of his way Christ Jesus, whom to know is life everlasting.
And first I shall observe, that the holy women, under the law, were concerned in carrying on the work of the Lord, when the tabernacle was commanded to be built. And Moses spake unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying, this is the thing which the Lord commanded, saying, take ye from amongst you an offering unto the Lord, whosoever is of a willing heart, &c. And they came every one whose heart stirred him up, and every one whom his spirit made willing, and they brought the Lord’s offering to the work of the tabernacle of the congregation, and for all his service, and for the holy garments; and they came both men and women, as many as were willing-hearted, &c. And all the women, whose hearts stirred them up in wisdom, spun goats hair, &c. And divers services we may find, for the carrying on of the Lord’s work, the holy women in that day were employed in assisting in concurrence with the men in the work of the tabernacle; which I look upon was figurative, setting forth something of the inward work of the holy spirit of Jesus Christ, in men and women under the glorious Gospel dispensation.
But to come closely to the point, we may observe, that Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her, &c. And Miriam exhorted them to praise the Lord; which undoubtedly was approved by Moses, Aaron, and the rest of her brethren. We also find, the Lord hath been pleased to make known his will to godly women as well as men, and to make use of their service in matters of great moment; of which Deborah a prophetess and a judge in Israel, and Huldah, the prophetess, are eminent instances. Hence thou mayest see, the public service of women in the church is no new thing, but was practised amongst the people of God in ancient days.
I shall now proceed to observe, that the same was to be continued in the latter days, or dispensation of the Gospel; which is thus expressed by the prophet Joel, personating the Almighty: ‘And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, &c. And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids in those days will I pour out my spirit, and I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth,’ &c. So if daughters have the Spirit of the Lord poured forth upon them as well as sons, why may they not preach, pray, or prophesy, when led and moved thereto by the Spirit, as well as sons?
Passing now from the Old Testament to the New, we find a notable instance in Anna the prophetess, who gave thanks and spoke of the Lord Jesus Christ unto all them who looked for redemption in Jerusalem. Here was a woman preacher, who taught or prophesied in the temple of the Lord; an early preacher of the Son of God, the Saviour of the world. But I suppose the chief objection in thy mind against women’s preaching, arises from that saying of the apostle Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians; ‘Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.’
It appears to have been only to some married women at Corinth, the apostle gave that charge; and none can justly draw from his words, that he thereby meant to prohibit all women from preaching and prophesying in public assemblies; for it is plain from the text, that those Corinthian women were not such as prophesied, or had a word of exhortation to give; but busy-bodies, asking questions which disturbed and troubled the church. But those amongst us, whom the Lord has concerned to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and declare the glad-tidings of life and salvation by him, to poor captivated souls, are not found asking questions to trouble the church, but labouring in the gift God has given them, that people may come to be turned from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God; which was the concern of Gospel ministers in former days.
Such women as the apostle speaks against, were to learn of their husbands at home; which implies, they wanted such instruction as their husbands might be able to give. We read, Philip had four daughters, virgins, who did prophesy, and though Paul and his company tarried there about a year after he had so written to the Corinthians, yet we do not find, that he in any wise disapproved the prophesying of those godly virgins. We may justly conclude, that if women’s preaching or prophesying had been put an end to by the coming of Christ, and was not to be allowed in the Gospel dispensation, Philip, an evangelist, would not have suffered his own daughters to prophesy, who were virgins under his own care, as may reasonably be supposed. Nor did the other apostles, in their general epistles to the believers, give any such commandment to the churches; which, no doubt, they would have done, if in the Gospel dispensation the Holy Ghost had prohibited women being so concerned. Besides, such a prohibition would have been a plain contradiction to the prophecy of Joel, before mentioned.
It also appears very clear, that the apostle Paul never intended such a limitation, who gave suitable advice how women should behave themselves when exercised in praying and prophesying, as thou mayest read. They that conclude the apostle intended to exclude all women from praying and prophesying, make him inconsistent with himself, to prescribe a way in one place how to perform orderly and decently, what he disapproved in another. But the same apostle is very clear when he saith, ‘For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.’ ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’
Then if there be no difference between male and female, but all are one in Christ, why may not all be like the partakers of the gift of his grace, thereby to be made to speak in his name, and exhort all to believe in him and obey him? And it is likewise to be observed, that in the same chapter the apostle advised the women at Corinth not to trouble the church, he saith, ‘Ye may all prophesy one by one, that all may learn, and all may be comforted.’ From whence it may be as strongly argued, the apostle meant they might prophesy, though not required of them by the Lord so to do; as to say he forbad women to prophesy, though the Lord required it of them. For saying ‘You may all prophesy,’ included the women of Corinth as well as the men, if moved thereto by the Spirit of the Lord. And though the apostle saith, ‘Let the women learn in silence with all subjection, but I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence,’ &c.
Respecting this I shall observe, that those women upon whom God hath poured forth of his holy Spirit, and filled their hearts with his living word, so that they cannot hold their peace, but a necessity from the Lord is upon them to preach the Gospel of glad-tidings, to those who are captives to sin, that they may come under the government of the law of the spirit of life, that sets free from the law of sin and death, having been made living witnesses of the work of God in their own hearts, and experienced a blessed change wrought therein, and a concern raised to call others to seek after the Lord, and fear him; these can direct into the way that leads to true peace, because they have known their feet to be turned into it, by the might arm and power of the Lord, which has wrought a willingness in them to follow and serve him, according to the ability he gives. And this agrees with that saying, ‘Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power.’ And he has, by his power, enabled a remnant to walk in his way, though a way of self-denial, step by step; and these whether men or women, have witnessed a learning in silence, as they have thus waited and rightly come to learn of Christ Jesus, their heavenly husband; he has opened his everlasting way and Truth unto their souls, and even constrained them, by his overcoming love, to declare of it to others, which has been done at times in fear and trembling, and much self-denial. Such women are not of those the apostle had occasion to reprove.
For we are far from usurping authority over the men, but remain in true subjection, depending upon the Lord our strength, and waiting for the authority of his holy power, which calls to this great work, and carries it on, both in sons and daughters, to the praise of his great name, and the comfort and encouragement of poor longing souls, that thy may come also and enjoy for themselves, that which will nourish up unto everlasting life. Such women as these the law allowed of, and the apostle allowed of, as might be more fully proved out of the holy Scriptures.
For they who allow not women’s prophesying, preaching or praying, must consequently conclude, that the Lord’s regard to them is lessened, and his love in measure withdrawn from them; for it is evident, by the texts I have mentioned, He made his mind known to women in ancient days, and they spoke in his word to his people; and as their counsel was taken, the Lord enabled his people to overcome their enemies. But blessed be the name of the Lord, there is a remnant in this day, who have been made partakers of his mercy, and can say he is the same that ever he was, in regard and love to all his people, male and female; God unchangeable, blessed in himself and in his son Jesus Christ for ever.
I might enlarge on this subject beyond the bounds of a letter, should I observe, how Jesus Christ our Lord conversed with, and used the service of women before he was offered up; how his first appearing, after his resurrection, was unto a woman; and also how Paul commended divers women, and tells how helpful they were to him, and entreated his true yoke- fellow to help those women who laboured with him in the Gospel; which for brevity I omit, and shall draw towards a conclusion, earnestly desiring the Lord may open thy understanding, both in this thing, and in all others which concern thy everlasting well being. If I had room I should be willing to tell thee a little of my own experience in several respects, but am more desirous to have a little conversation with thee, if opportunity admits. So with sincere desires in my heart, for thy welfare and growth in the
knowledge of God, and establishment in the blessed Truth, I conclude thy truly loving friend, willing to satisfy thee in what I can. Signed Deborah Bell
A considerable time after, this young woman came to a meeting where I was, and when it ended, told me she was the person who had written me divers letters, and received my answers, desiring to have some conversation with me, which I readily agreed to, and we spent some hours together to our mutual comfort. She confessed to the truth, and was much tendered through the visitation of the love of God to her; and some time after, finding my heart opened in love of God, earnestly desiring her preservation and settlement in the Truth, I wrote and sent her (another letter). D.B.
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