Today we look back at a Germantown woman who defied religious conventions in the 1800’s. Writer Alaina Mabaso’s ancestor was the first woman preacher in the Church of the Brethren.
There’s a story I like about a woman who was born in Germantown in 1808. She was a member of the Church of the Brethren, a Christian sect founded 300 years ago in Germany that has deep roots in northwest Philadelphia. In the custom of her faith, she dressed in dark, plain clothes and wore a black bonnet to church. As the sermon began, she would untie the strings, take the bonnet off, and hand it to her husband.
She was the one giving the sermon.
Sarah Righter Major was the first female preacher that the Church of the Brethren ever had, and according to historic accounts – even those from grudging male contemporaries – her sermons packed the building everywhere she went. She’s also my great-great-great grandmother.
I learned about Major because of a book that’s never far from my grandfather’s desk. Hyland Righter Johns – Papa to me – likes to proudly show off a slim brown book, “An Uncommon Woman: The Life and Times of Sarah Righter Major”, by Brethren scholar Nancy Kettering Frye, to anyone who might not know about his great-grandmother.
Frye notes that before Major was twenty years old, “she felt a burning desire to go out and preach”. Almost as strong as her desire to spread the gospel was her fear of the reaction from her religious community. At that time, a young woman who dared to preach would have been viewed as outrageous and inappropriate. In a surprising show of support for the time, her father, John Righter, encouraged her and even brought her under the mentor-ship of local Brethren clergy. An elder of a New Jersey congregation was the first to invite her to speak. Her confidence and eloquence quickly led to many more sermons.
Major spoke throughout the region, but was always aware of the challenges to someone of her sex. While she was generally welcomed among congregations close to her Germantown home, groups further afield refused to host her unless every member agreed that she could speak.
Major preferred preaching extemporaneously. Unfortunately, the only remaining examples of her rhetoric (that by many historical accounts, electrified the crowds) are her letters, some of which were published during her lifetime.
“I conceive it would be very inconsistent in an apostle”, Major wrote, “to quench the gift of the spirit of God because it was given to a woman…God always gave his gifts freely where they were willing to use them.”
Sarah Righter had been preaching for sixteen years when she married Norristown native Thomas Major, who boarded at her father’s house as a carpenter and later joined the Brethren ministry. The couple left Germantown in 1844 and settled in Ohio. They were early advocates for racial equality, flouting the Fugitive Slave Act from their home in Ohio: there is evidence that their home was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Major died in 1884 in Greenfield, Ohio. Her daughter was Papa’s paternal grandmother. Major’s life, and Papa’s pride in his great-grandmother, is all the more poignant to me because opposition to women preachers still exists today in many churches.
While my family is no longer a part of the Church of the Brethren, I myself, grew up in a faith that refuses to ordain women. One of the church’s clergymen, who was once a teacher of mine, wrote a paper entitled “Preaching By Women”. He wrote that a woman cannot preach any more than a man can give birth: “to speak of women preaching” is a “departure from reality”.
Too bad he never saw my great-great-great grandmother when she took off her bonnet.