“Nearly twenty years ago, I came upon the name Iva Durham Vennard while searching for material on women in an introductory lecture on American evangelicalism,” Priscilla Pope-Levison writes when explaining how she came to write her most recent book, Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era. “Why had no one ever introduced me to Vennard in my Methodist confirmation class or Methodist college or Methodist seminary?” she asks (p. 173). This question drew Pope-Levison, now professor of theology and assistant director of women’s studies at Seattle Pacific University, to edit an earlier book, a collection of primary sources titled Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists, and now to write the book here under review.
In Building the Old Time Religion, Pope-Levison examines the lives and experiences of several dozen intrepid women who built religious institutions during the Progressive era. She argues that these women were unlike their itinerant foremothers in that they founded churches, denominations, and houses of rescue. “I propose a revision of American Christianity in the Progressive Era based upon an aggregate of women evangelists across the country, from shore to shore, [End Page 266] who settled down, more or less, to build and lead institutions,” she writes (p. 174). These women, she says, left a legacy in the form of the “shift they promoted from itinerancy to institution building” (p. 177).
While Pope-Levison includes a Catholic evangelist (Martha Moore Avery) and African American evangelists (Emma Ray and Mary Tate), hers is not a history of either Catholicism or race. Her focus is primarily on white female evangelists involved in the broader Pentecostal movement. Pope-Levison uses a wide array of source material, including letters and diaries, as she gives us a window into the world of the female evangelists whose careers she chronicles.
Pope-Levison divides her work into four chapters. In the first, she looks at the women she calls “institution builders,” focusing primarily on Martha Moore Avery, Maria Woodworth-Etter, and Florence Crawford. In her second chapter, with its focus on churches and denominations, Pope-Levison examines the lives of Mary Tate and Alma White, each of whom founded and presided over a denomination and network of churches. In her third chapter, Pope-Levison turns to religious training schools founded by female evangelists, including Vennard’s Epworth Evangelistic Institute and Chicago Evangelistic Institute and Mattie Perry’s Elhanan Training Institute. In her final chapter, Pope-Levison looks at rescue homes, focusing especially on Martha “Mother” Lee and Emma Ray. Pope-Levison argues in her conclusion that these and other women paved the way for the runaway success of Amy Semple McPherson in the decades that followed.
Pope-Levison frequently returns to questions of gender and domesticity, shedding light on the ways her subjects navigated often-difficult waters. Some of her subjects saw women as intellectually inferior to men (with themselves as an exemption), while others favored equality and even supported the National Woman’s Party. Many of the women whose lives she outlines struggled with conflicts with spouses and questions of how to both care for their children and fulfill God’s calling. “Most had tortured marriages,” she explains, and some waited until after their children were grown to take up their greater evangelistic calling (p. 69). [End Page 267]
Pope-Levison builds on work by Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Matthew Avery Sutton, and Catherine A. Brekus to create further understanding of the ways female evangelists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries pushed back against patriarchal norms to create spaces for themselves. Pope-Levison adds to previous scholarship by arguing that these women also pushed forward, founding churches, religious training institutes, and denominations.
RACHEL COLEMAN is a graduate student at Indiana University.