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Summary Article: Willard, Frances Elizabeth (1839–98)
From Handbook of Women Biblical Interpreters

On September 28, 1839, Frances Elizabeth was born in Churchville, New York, to Josiah and Mary Willard. In 1841 the family relocated to Oberlin, Ohio, home of Oberlin Collegiate Institute, where both parents attended classes. In 1845 the family moved farther west, to Wisconsin. When she and her sister, Mary, enrolled in Northwestern Female College in Evanston, Illinois, in 1858, the whole family moved there. It became her home until her death on February 17, 1898.

Willard taught school for a few years. From 1865 to 1866 she helped the American Methodist Ladies Centenary Association raise money to build Heck Hall (in honor of Barbara Heck, who helped to found Methodism in both the United States and Canada) at her brother’s alma mater, Garrett Biblical Institute, in Evanston. After a grand tour of Europe and the Middle East, she became president of Evanston College for Ladies in 1870, and thus the first female college president to confer degrees. However, when the Chicago fire dried up contributions, her college was subsumed into Northwestern University, and she was named dean of the Women’s College and professor of aesthetics.

As a delegate to the first national conference of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Cleveland in 1874, Willard was named corresponding secretary. She had found her calling. In 1879 she became its president, a post she held until her death. In 1891 she was elected president of the World’s WCTU as well.

Willard grew up in a deeply religious family. She had a conversion experience during a bout of typhoid fever when she was about twenty years old and became a member of Evanston’s First Methodist Church on May 5, 1861. In 1866, when Holiness advocate Phoebe Palmer visited First Methodist, Willard claimed the “second blessing,” or entire sanctification.

Her family had daily family prayers and Bible readings, a practice she continued throughout her life. However, her diary shows that her frequent resolutions to read the Bible herself more often were crowded out by other activities. Yet it also reveals frequent quotations from, paraphrases of, and allusions to Scripture—references to twenty-four of the sixty-six books in excerpts edited by Gifford (447). For example, when her brother, Oliver, decided to become a Methodist minister, she wrote that he would be sharing “the story of One who so loved [the world] that He gave His Son to die for its redemption [John 3:16]; … of One who ‘knoweth our frame—who remembereth that we are dust’ [Ps. 103:14]; who is ‘touched with the feeling of our infirmities,’ ‘who was tempted in all points like as we are’ [Heb. 4:15b], who ‘was wounded for our transgressions, who was bruised for our iniquities’ ” [Isa. 53:5] (Gifford 61).

The WCTU was a thoroughly Christian organization. Meetings always included Bible readings and usually hymns. Women ministers were given prominence in the organization. Willard’s writings and speeches are liberally sprinkled with biblical references. The WCTU members knew well the biblical arguments for and against both temperance and woman’s suffrage. They depended on such verses as Eph. 5:18: “Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit.” Their opponents preferred the example of Jesus’s turning water into wine in John 2 and 1 Tim. 5:23, where Timothy is instructed to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake.” In arguing for woman’s suffrage, Willard often contrasted humanity’s original sinful state to the salvation brought by Jesus Christ. For example, in her 1887 presidential address to the WCTU, she first notes that “under the curse, man has mapped out the state as his largest sphere, and the home as woman’s largest,” but “women are tired of this unnatural two worlds in one.” Instead, they would “ring out in clear but gentle voices the oft-repeated declaration of the Master whom they serve: ‘Behold, I make all things new,’ ” quoting Rev. 21:5 (Hardesty 132).

Although a devoted daughter of the Methodist Church, Willard had a tumultuous relationship with it. In 1880 she was sent by the WCTU to Cincinnati as a “fraternal delegate” to simply bring greetings to the Methodist General Conference, staunch supporters of temperance. Her presence evoked a contentious discussion of the “woman question.” Although the all-male body eventually voted to let her speak, the rancor was so deep that she simply left a written message for a male friend to deliver. The conference went on to deny ordination to two women and to withdraw preaching licenses from all women. In 1888 Willard was back at the general conference in New York City as one of five duly elected female lay delegates. After another lengthy and vicious debate, the women were denied seats. Long an advocate of women’s rights and women’s suffrage, Willard published Woman in the Pulpit (expanding her article in the Homiletic Review, Dec. 1887), the only works in which she makes a biblical argument on behalf of women.

Despite numerous previous nineteenth-century exegetical justifications for women’s ministry to draw on (Hardesty 143–45), or perhaps because of them, Willard does little in-depth biblical analysis. Her first two chapters are titled “The Letter Killeth” and “The Spirit Giveth Life.” In the first she points out the numerous inconsistencies in two arguments used by opponents of women’s ministry: the “literal” method and the “playing fast and loose” method (Willard, Pulpit, 19). For example, some male ministers preach fervently on the literal veracity of 1 Tim. 2:12, “I suffer not a woman to teach,” while at the same time ignoring the fact that many women in the congregation are in violation of verse 9, which tells women not to adorn themselves with “braided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array” (20). They hold 1 Cor. 14:34, “Let your women keep silence in the churches,” to be absolute truth while ignoring Paul’s previous injunctions in the Corinthian letter against taking church members to court, against marriage and remarriage, and in favor of celibacy (19). In opposition to temperance advocates, some ministers argued endlessly in pulpit and print that at the Last Supper Jesus used real wine—yet they remained totally indifferent to the fact that he also used unleavened bread (19). With regard to 1 Cor. 11:3 (“The head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God”), Willard says that many exegetes play fast and loose. In order to argue that this verse teaches woman’s subordination to man, many are willing to assert—against trinitarian orthodoxy—that Christ is subordinate to God. She concludes that people interpret Scripture on the basis of their cultural biases.

Willard also notices that interpretations change. Earlier in her own lifetime, many upheld the several New Testament injunctions of “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters” (Eph. 6:5; cf. Col. 3:22; 1 Pet. 2:18) as evidence that slavery was an institution acceptable to God. But wiser understandings made literal interpretations of these passages obsolete. She also points out that early church fathers buttressed with Bible verses their belief in many scientific “facts” now proved to be erroneous (Pulpit, 24).

Turning to “The Spirit Giveth Life,” she declares that “Christ, not Paul, is the source of all churchly authority and power” (40). She then points out that Jesus draws from Martha the same affirmation as from Peter that Jesus is the Messiah (John 11:27; Mark 8:29) and that Jesus discloses his own commission to the Samaritan woman (John 4:1–42). While he “called” the Twelve, women followed without being “called” (Pulpit, 41). “No utterance of his marks woman as ineligible to any position in the church he came to found” (41). “Christ’s commission only is authoritative” (42), says Willard, and it was women whom Christ commissioned to announce his resurrection (Matt. 28:10; Mark 16:7; Luke 24:10; John 20:17). She observes that women as well as men received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 1:13–14; 2:1–2). And Peter, in explaining what has happened, quotes the prophet Joel: “It shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy” (Acts 2:17).

As a good Methodist, Willard was undoubtedly familiar with the Methodist Quadrilateral. For Wesley, the Bible was the primary authority, but it was also to be balanced by Christian tradition, human experience, and reason. Willard declares, “A pinch of common-sense forms an excellent ingredient in that complicated dish called Biblical interpretation, wherever it is set forth at the feast of reason, especially if it is expected at all to stimulate the flow of soul!” (Pulpit, 26). Later she declares, “And the truth of God, a thousand times repeated by the voice of history, science, and every-day experience,” is that “it is not good for man to be alone” (45, alluding to Gen. 2:18). She argues that both men’s and women’s perspectives on the Bible are necessary to understand God’s message fully.

She looked forward to the day when “women share equally in translating the sacred text” and urged “young women of linguistic talent … to make a specialty of Hebrew and New Testament Greek in the interest of their sex” (Pulpit, 31). She initially supported Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s Woman’s Bible because it was to be a new translation made entirely by women. But when Stanton could not find the resources to do that, she instead published polemical commentary on selected passages. Stanton’s own contributions expressed some rather unorthodox opinions, which offended many WCTU members. Willard withdrew her support (Bordin 172–73).

Willard preferred to point out the positive examples of women’s ministry in the Bible. She reported that thirty to forty passages in the Bible illustrate women’s public work while only two speak against it. Those two would presumably be 1 Cor. 14:34, “Let your women keep silence in the churches,” and 1 Tim. 2:12, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” She cites in particular 2 Tim. 2:2, “The things that thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men.” But in rebuttal, she observes that “the word translated ‘men’ is the same as that in the text ‘God now commandeth all men every where to repent’ [Acts 17:30, anthro¯poi],” a text that even the most literal would also apply to women (Pulpit, 34). She lists women from both Testaments who did God’s work and shared the gospel: “Miriam, the first prophetess, and Deborah, the first judge; … Esther, the deliverer of her people; … Lois and Eunice, who trained Timothy for the ministerial office; … ‘Tryphena and Tryphosa and the beloved Persis’ ” (the last three from Rom. 16:12; Pulpit, 33–34).

Although Willard rarely offers any systematic biblical interpretation, her work shows that she was thoroughly grounded in the Bible and constantly used it in her life’s work on behalf of all women.

See also Palmer, Phoebe (1807–1874); Stanton, Elizabeth Cady (1815–1902)

  • Bordin, Ruth. Frances Willard: A Biography. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986.
  • Gifford, Carolyn De Swarte. Writing Out My Heart: Selections from the Journal of Frances E. Willard, 1855–96. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
  • Hardesty, Nancy A. Women Called to Witness: Evangelical Feminism in the Nineteenth Century. 2nd ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.
  • Willard, Frances E. Glimpses of Fifty Years: The Autobiography of an American Woman. Chicago: Woman’s Temperance Pub. Association, 1889.
  • Willard, Frances E.. Woman in the Pulpit. Boston: D. Lothrop, 1888. Repr., Chicago: Woman’s Temperance Pub. Association, 1889.
Nancy A. Hardesty
© 2012 by Baker Publishing Group

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