“The Lady Evangelist”: Maria Woodworth-Etter and the Pentecostals

In 1912, Maria Woodworth-Etter burst on the Pentecostal scene, holding meetings at F.F. Bosworth’s influential church in Dallas, Texas1. From the beginnings of her ministry in Lisbon, Ohio in 1880, Woodworth-Etter had made a name as a flamboyant and zealous evangelist, preaching holiness and healing, and her emphasis on the name of Jesus and power of the Spirit naturally ingratiated Woodworth-Etter to many Pentecostal audiences.

Woodworth-Etter had a patchwork theological history. Her family joined the Disciples of Christ Church when she was a girl, but her ministry began under the auspices of the United Brethren. In 1884, she received licensure with the Churches of God (Anderson, Indiana) as “Eldership Evangelist”.2 It is not at all clear when Maria Woodworth-Etter received the baptism of the Holy Ghost, speaking in tongues, but she seems to have accepted the sign of the baptism, though she had no direct association with the Pentecostal Movement before the protracted revival in Dallas in 1912. She often referred to the “baptism of the Holy Ghost” in her journalistic books, but she never explicitly mentions speaking in tongues in any of her early writings.

Maria Woodworth-Etter was undoubtedly the most successful female evangelist of the early 20th Century. She attracted as many as 25,000 to a single service, and she crossed the country filling churches, halls, and tents with seeking souls.3 Her meetings were marked by the manifestations that many associated with frontier revivals of the early 19th Century, and her pulpit persona was commanding. A front-page New York Times article from January 1885, detailed some of the “strange scenes” at meetings held in Hartford City, Indiana: “Scores have been stricken down at these meetings, and whatever forms the limbs or body chance to assume in that position, immovable as a statue, they remained . . . “ Further, the newspaper described the revival’s charismatic leader: “The lady evangelist, Mrs. Woodworth, is a lady of fine physique, comely, and of a commanding appearance, and while not highly cultured and refined yet she is an impressive speaker, and when speaking keeps her hands in constant motion.” During the meeting, she was also subject to the ecstatic catalepsy, which became a trademark of her campaigns.4

Following the revival in Dallas, Wordworth-Etter included a number of Pentecostal churches, missions, and camp meetings in her evangelistic itinerary. Revival reports were widely included in Pentecostal circulars including The Latter Rain Evangel, Word and Witness, and The Pentecostal Evangel. She received accolades from very prominent early Pentecostal ministers including Stanley Frodsham, A.A. Boddy, George B. Studd, A.H. Argue, and G.T. Haywood.

In April 1913, Woodworth-Etter was invited to be the morning speaker at the World Wide Apostolic Faith Camp Meeting in Arroyo Seco, California. While this gathering of Pentecostals is best remembered for the baptismal sermon delivered by R.E. McAlister that ignited the Oneness Pentecostal Movement, Woodworth-Etter’s presence was an important boon to the convocation. Despite Woodworth-Etter’s Christ-centered preaching, she utterly rejected the Oneness revelation, which she seems to have sadly misunderstood. She called the doctrine “the biggest delusion the devil ever invented” and accused Oneness proponents of “denying the existence of the Father.”5

Maria Woodworth-Etter never became exclusively Pentecostal, but she continued to enjoy fellowship and popularity with Trinitarian Pentecostals throughout the remainder of her life. Her ministry continued to focus on divine healing and the Coming of Christ. She founded Woodworth-Etter Tabernacle in 1918, which she led until her death in 1924.6 A brief notice of her death appeared in The Pentecostal Evangel in September 1924, noting: “She has been the means of blessing to hundreds of thousands and many will rise up to call her blessed.”7 In many ways unorthodox, Woodworth-Etter never embraced the fullness of the Apostolic Faith, but her ministry was contributive. Her acceptance amongst Pentecostals paved the way for other women evangelists and Christian workers, and her acceptance of Pentecostals undoubtedly garnered greater respect for and acceptance of the fledgling movement as a valid expression of Christianity.

Matthew Shaw is a librarian at Ball State University. He lives in Muncie, Indiana with his wife, Brandi, and his four sons. He attends River of Life Church.

1 Fred F. Bosworth.  “Pentecostal Outpouring in Dallas, Texas.”  Latter Rain Evangel, 10 July 1912, p. 10.

2 Wayne Warner.  The Healing & Evangelizing Ministry of Maria Woodworth-Etter.  (Gainesville, FL:  Bridge-Logos, 2004), 4; 30.

3 Ibid., 30.

4 “Said to Be Religion:  Strange Scenes at ‘Revival Meetings’ Held in Indiana.”  New York Times.  24 January 1885, 1.

5 Roberts Liardon.  Maria Woodworth-Etter:  The Complete Collection of Her Life Teachings.  (Tulsa:  Albury Publishing, 2000), 856-857.

6 Warner, The Healing & Evangelizing Ministry of Maria Woodworth-Etter, 277.

7 “Sister Etter with the Lord.” Pentecostal Evangel, 27 September 1924, p. 9.

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