Clara Celestia Hale Babcock (1850-1924): First “Ordained” Female Gospel PreacherAuthor: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Bible, Church, Church History, Clara C. Babcock, Culture, Hermeneutics, Restoration History, Women
The Year of our Lord, 1888
The year of our Lord 1888. That year two relatively obscure women from very small towns stepped outside the carefully constructed safe zone for Victorian women. One, Selina Moore Holman from Fayetteville, Tennessee (read her story HERE) engaged in a year long discussion in the pages of the Gospel Advocate with various men of the Stone-Campbell Movement on women in the church and world. The other Clara Celestia Hale Babcock (1850-1924) in tiny Erie, Illinois, not far from the Mississippi River, became the first “ordained” female evangelist among us. There was no fan fare, no neon lights. The event was so quiet that historians have often not even known she existed. Or if they did they chose to write her out of the history books rather than in them!
It is not until 1892 that we learn what happened in that out of the way small town Erie. As was typical for ministers of the day, Clara Babcock wrote to a brotherhood paper to report on “the work” in her part of the world. Announcing through the pages of the Christian Standard that since coming into full time ministry she had personally baptized 300 converts to the Ancient Gospel “for the salvation of their souls” under every condition from cutting holes in the ice to the heat of summer.
Most men of the day could not imagine a woman proclaiming God’s word much less baptizing anyone. It was deemed inappropriate for her frail, in mind and body, sex. Practically out “in the middle of nowhere,” Clara Babcock was shattering stereotypes about women. Anticipating the cultural prejudices of her day she wrote, “For centuries woman with her magnetic influence, her tender pleadings, as well as her intuitive powers” had been denied “rostrum and pulpit.” Like Selina Holman, Babcock was no feminist, though she did not fit Victorian cultural ideals of her day. The greatest vocation of any woman was to be a fantastic wife and a loving mother. Knowing men would hurl insults either to her or her husband she took pride in her six children and the godliness of her home. A Christian home was a “happy home where each member [was] willing to sacrifice some … for the salvation of souls and the glory of God” (Babcock, “From the Field,” Christian Standard 28 [2 January 1892], 21). Women too, however, are members of God’s kingdom and called to use their gifts and abilities to serve the one true King.
Brief Bio of Clara Babcock
Clara C. Hale was born in Fitchville, Ohio on May 31, 1850. Her father died while she was only four months old and she was adopted by a Methodist minister named F. C. Paine. Fitchville is only twenty miles from Oberlin College, where Antoinette Brown had attended school. Brown would become the first ordained woman in America in 1853. Nathan Hayes, who recounts the story of her conversion, notes that Babcock had believed the “facts” of the gospel, repented and was baptized. “A true Christian searches the Scriptures for truth, does not trust the word of denominational tradition alone” but seeks “the biblical way.” After being “buried in the waters of baptism” she went out with “Bible in hand, to evangelize her friends.”
Very little is known of Babcock’s life in this period. But like many other women during the days of Reconstruction, the call to oppose the evil of alcohol was great. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union was formed in 1874. The original “Molly Hatchet,” Carrie Nation, a member of the Stone-Campbell Movement, rallied many women with Bibles and axes to change the society for Christ. The Temperance Movement became a catalyst in the life of many women (as we saw with Selina Holman). They were “new women” in Christ! Clara became president of the Whiteside County WCTU in 1887, prior to her becoming the minister for the church in Erie. Indeed it was through her work with the temperance crusade, the power of her speeches, that convinced the church she needed to be a preacher. So she became the ordained evangelist for the Erie church on August 2, 1889. Like other evangelists of the day she traveled frequently to preach the word. Establishing churches in Rapid City, Illinois; Ellendale, ND and even into Canada. She would, over the course of her ministry, lead over 1500 people to the waters of baptism, convert denominational preachers, and fight a battle for her own integrity.
A Report that Ignited a Fight
Clara Babcock’s report in the Christian Standard did not sit any better with its male readers than Selina Holman’s articles in the Gospel Advocate. Over a two year period the Standard was inundated with articles against women preaching, women voting, women violating her “subjection.” All of these governed by the same text btw. There were some that argued the opposite side however.
Sister Babcock did not sit back and let others do her fighting though. She defended her ministry but did so kindly and respectfully. A writer in the Standard insulted not only Babcock, but all women, by stating that female brains were smaller than male brains which is why they were not allowed to teach, preach, or lead men in any capacity. Babcock, though, believed that women were created equal in God’s sight. Then in a witty retort she responded, “It never dawned upon my mind that it was quantity, but quality that was needed. If this is true reasoning, then we should expect great thing from the elephant.” Others had insisted that women were simply to weak to do the work of an evangelist. Her paragraph is worth quoting at length. Responding to one who said she could lead someone to Christ but then was obligated to turn them over to “us brethren.”
‘Well, sister, you may be able to preach, and bring souls to obedience, but you will be obliged to turn them over to us brethren.’ I have fully demonstrated woman’s power, physically, as in over three years I have baptized all candidates presenting themselves. I have stood in ice water, and baptized many at once, in and out, any time the occasion demanded, in summer’s heat and winter’s cold, both in the baptistery and in rivers. I have never taken cold or been hoarse in the work; I am forty-three years old, the mother of six children, and every living relative of mine has been brought to faith and obedience. I have a happy home; each member willing to sacrifice some, if
need be, for the salvation of souls and the glory of God. By the encouragement of my family and the blessing of God, my labors have resulted in the conversion of over three hundred and I am still determined to forward preaching the Word.” (“Women in the Pulpit,” Christian Standard 28 [4 June 1892], 482)
After an evangelistic trip the local paper, Erie Independent broadcast on December 6, 1902, “CLARA BABCOCK RETURNS TO ERIE.” Declaring her to be “one of the most popular” ministers of the Christian church. By this time Clara was preaching in two pulpits regularly at Erie and Thomson. Still preaching until the end, some 36 years after being called to the pulpit in a small town. At the age of 74, Babcock preached and two responded in Savana, Illinois. She baptized the believers but became ill and died the next day, December 12, 1924. Like other ministers she did more than preach on Sundays or in “protracted meetings.” Over the course of her thirty six year ministry she did 172 funerals and many weddings as well.
Never Heard of Her
I never heard of this powerful servant of the Lord until the late 1990s. She was not mentioned in even one of the works on the Stone-Campbell Movement that I had. C. T. Sigmon has suggested that Babcock’s voice, along with other women, has been silenced by two influential means among our fellowship. The first is the simple act of excluding any of her sermons from sermon books. Sermon books have exercised an incredible amount of influence in nearly all branches of the Stone-Campbell Movement. Anthologies of sermons are a stable but also a way of cultivating “denominational” identity through a coherent message and image. The second way Babcock was silenced was ignoring her existence in histories written by men. Her sermons were never read and her existence written out of history. But there she is. There will be many in the new creation because of her sacrificial service to the Lord. I am glad to have her on our family tree.