If you would like to read the "Little Big Foot" story from the beginning, just click on the link at the bottom of this post, or the one in the sidebar under "Labels." While Little Big Foot is a fictional town, and there is no Eastside Methodist Church in Madison, the other places I have mentioned are real. It is true that many Pentecostal churches in Wisconsin were started by women and also true that this is not widely known.
Mary Coats had not known what to think when the pretty redheaded preacher had visited North Woods Chapel. Until Lee had told her about it, Mary had never seriously considered the idea that a woman would choose to be a pastor. Mary had watched the visiting minister share her testimony on that extraordinary Sunday with such a confusing swirl of emotions and thoughts that it had made her feel almost ill.
She knew that her husband was not happy that Brother Young had suggested this woman come to preach for them, nor that the other deacons had agreed. One evening after a board meeting he had told her, in some frustration, "I do not understand how a man like Gene Young can even suggest this. The Bible is clear that a woman is to be silent in church, is not to teach men, is not to be in authority. I mean, he is a man of the Word!"
He had sighed as he sipped the iced tea Mary had brought him. "It isn't like we don't know that men and women are equal." He had smiled kindly at his wife and she had listened sympathetically as he went on, "It's not like we don't have plenty of places for women to serve. Doesn't he understand that we have God-given roles? God made men to lead. It started out that way right from the git-go, right from the Garden of Eden!"
Mary had patted his arm and nodded, listening. She loved her dairy-farmer husband, and loved that he had always been gentle and patient with her. "Like you, sweetheart," he had said with a smile. "You always understood that a woman's highest calling is to be a wife and a mother, and I love you for that. I'm glad you never got ideas that you didn't need a man to love and protect you." He had stood to his feet and stretched, grinning at her, "Of course, that's why I married you when you were still young and not set in your ways."
She had smiled back. "Why would any woman want to be in the ministry?" she had wondered aloud. "Who needs that kind of stress? A woman wouldn't be able to deal with that for long."
Then came the Sunday when Dee Anna Hanson had been the visiting minister at North Woods Chapel. As she listened to the young woman share a little of her early life, Mary had found herself leaning forward, fascinated. Occasionally she had caught herself and shifted back in the pew, glancing at Lee. She related to so much of what she heard, and once or twice she found herself wondering what it would be like to finally share her own story with a pastor.
She almost forgot that it was strange to see a woman standing in their pulpit and blessing the wine and bread at communion. It seemed undeniable that the Holy Spirit had done something unusual in their midst that summer morning. On Sunday night Mary had been surprised at Dee Anna's sermon. She was afraid to admit it to herself, but she did realize that it was the best sermon she had heard in some time. She and Lee had talked about it as they lay side by side that night. Lee had agreed that the Lord had been with them, and that he could find no fault with the sermon, or with the woman herself. "I like her," he had admitted, holding Mary's hand in the dark. "Actually, I tried not to like her."
Mary had laughed a little then and confessed, "Me too. But I did like her, Lee. I liked her a lot." Lee had squeezed her hand, where it lay on top of the sheet. A warm breeze had been blowing, she remembered. And she also remembered that Lee had turned to her and said, "Hey, don't go gettin' ideas! Or maybe just maybe get some different kind of ideas."
He had laughed and rubbed her cheek with his beard, and then they hadn't talked anymore...but later, listening to her husband's steady breathing as he slept, Mary had lain awake and wondered. She had prayed softly, "God, if it isn't right, why did so many people respond? Why did I want to listen to her some more? Why did I sense your presence in the stillness, and in that woman's words? Is their something we just don't understand? And God, what about Lee?" Her thoughts tumbled like clothes in a dryer, she thought, smiling at the image. She finally told herself, "Well, I won't worry. I bet this will be the end of it anyhow."
Now, several weeks later Mary sat in the North Woods Chapel sanctuary by her husband, remembering these things and feeling tense. She hadn't expected this meeting to be happening. Part of her heart was longing to know what it would be like to have Dee Anna Hanson as her minister. She knew that a part of her actually hoped that the lady preacher would be voted in, and she felt guilty about that. Most of all she was afraid. What would happen if the people voted for Pastor Hanson just because they liked her? What would happen to their church, to Lee and the others, and to her if they went against the clear message of the Bible?
As the meeting began, Mary sat quietly, hands clasped in her lap. She hoped there was no conflict. She hated conflict. Everything had gone fine until Bob Tucker had stood and asked his questions. What would happen now? Mary watched anxiously, glancing at Lee who stared straight ahead as Gene Young stepped away from the podium and Jim Johnson came back.
There was a pause, and then Brother Young began to speak. "Friends, I need to give you a very short history lesson." He began to pace slowly back and forth as he spoke, unconsciously adopting a mannerism from his days as a professor. " The Methodist movement began with brothers John and Charles Wesley. Pentecostalism grew out of Methodism and the nineteenth-century holiness revivals. There is evidence of Wesleyan teaching in the classic writings of many Pentecostal leaders. In short, we who call ourselves Pentecostals are rooted in the Wesleyan theological tradition. John Wesley is one of my favorite theologians, if one is allowed to have favorites in the ranks of church fathers." He smiled and then went on for a few minutes, speaking about John Wesley, circuit riding preachers and brush arbor revivals.
Then he stopped and said, "Well, please excuse me. I find church history fascinating. I will just add that the famous William Seymour, the preacher of Azusa Street, had Methodist roots. My mother, God bless her, was a Methodist too. Are some Methodists too liberal for my liking? Sure." He looked directly at the questioner. "So are some Pentecostals. And some are too rigid, my friends. Do you realize that we have our own questionable practices? We are not here to debate the merits of other denominations, though I understand that you may have concerns about the fact that Reverend Hanson has been a pastor in a different church tradition. She was one of my students in Texas at Bible college and she served as a children's pastor before going to seminary. I lost track of her, but one day I saw her at a prayer gathering in Madison. That was a surprise, almost too much to be totally coincidence. We got reacquainted, and she introduced me to her husband, Michael. We became good friends, and I want to make it very clear, a finer man of God I never knew. I never heard a better preacher, but more importatnly, he was a proclaimer of the good news of God's love by how he lived. Michael Hanson was a fine example of what a follower of Jesus Christ should be. He was courageous, gracious, steadfast, a great father to his little daughter. I miss him. Please do not insult his memory."
The congregation waited as he resumed the chair and Jim Johnson was seated. Then he went on, "The deacons have discussed a few doctrinal issues with Pastor Hanson, and we will be happy to share some of that with you. However," he paused and stood very straight, "we will not turn this meeting into a debate on denominations. And what is more, as regards women pastors, perhaps some more history is in order. Are you all aware that a woman founded this church?"
"How did I not know that?" thought Mary.