Essay / Misc.

The Bible Women

Mother Horton and Lyceum The story of Biola’s founding is easily told as the story of Big Men doing Big Things for their Big God. I’ve told the story that way myself, because it’s true: Biola’s three most important founders were a civil war veteran oil tycoon (Stewart), a highly-educated world-traveling evangelist (Torrey), and an urban pastor who could train an army of workers to evangelize, teach the Bible, and minister to those in need (Horton). Manly men doing The King’s Business! The smell of sanctified testosterone was heavy in the air back in 1908.

But there were women involved, too. It’s tempting to say that they did their work quietly behind the scenes, letting the Alpha Males make the headlines. It’s tempting to say that they were the heavier material that settled to the bottom of history’s stream, leaving the noisy elements on the surface. It’s tempting to say these things, but they are a bit too cliched to give a vivid picture of what the women who built Biola were like.

Consider the Bible Women.

Anna L. Horton, wife of T. C. Horton, was a spiritual matriarch to a small army of young women associated with the Bible Institute of Los Angeles in its early years. Indeed, her organizational feats pre-date the 1908 founding of Biola, as she and her husband shared the ability to gather groups of workers around them wherever they were. “Mother” Horton set up something called the Young Women’s Lyceum Club as a Bible study and fellowship group strategically designed to provide constructive evening activities for young women employed in downtown Los Angeles. This was a large group (one of their meetings is pictured above) of women fairly committed to Christian work.

But inside this larger group was a select cadre of especially serious women, who had more training and were more committed. In fact, they were devoted to full-time work as witnesses for Christ. They called themselves the Bible Women.

Even in the earliest reports about their work in Los Angeles, the people who write about them seem a bit astonished by them and at a loss to explain them. A 1910 report in The King’s Business begins, “There are as many inquiries concerning the plan, scope and real purpose of this work among women, which has been so wonderfully owned of God, we will endeavor, as concisely as possible, to answer the leading questions at this time.” Eight women make up the group, who doe their work “under the immediate direction of Mrs. T. C. Horton, who plans all work, but urges each worker to individual responsibility to and liberty in the Lord regarding all details.” Even Mother Horton, a bit of an authoritarian by most accounts, apparently didn’t dare to interfere too much with the work of each Bible Woman.

Over and over in the early years, reports of their work begin with “The entire work has so many branches it is most difficult to state fully its many ramifications.” But their basic approach seemed to be personal visitation, house to house, in heavily populated areas. A summary of their strategy:

A district is assigned each woman, its probabilities and possibilities discussed and made a subject or prayer, followed by faithful visitation with the Book in hand. Homes are opened for parlor classes and the members are interested in canvassing their own neighborhoods for the classes.

A series of lessons covering the fundamental truths of Scripture is given in each place and the class then moved on to another interested center, so covering the district. From this work springs numberless personal cases for special dealing until assurance of salvation and joy in the Lord results in lives of many. These classes average 75 or 100 per month, with as many more addresses in churches and before various societies. Hospital work is fruitful service and salvation has been brought by God’s grace to many afflicted and dying.

There are several classes in school and colleges and as it has been impossible to refuse requests from Sunday schools, every Bible Woman is at work each Sunday morning. Endless petitions for help in every variety and from every quarter are responded to as the women find it possible. Through their agency a number of homes have been reconstructed on the true basis and alienations have been changed to harmony and peace; waywardness and rebellion have given place to submission to God, and sin has been recognized as sin and fought and overcome by the help of the Mighty One.

Conferences and prayer circles are held as seems wise in many localities and the blessing of God follows each effort. There are a number of classes in surrounding small towns where the call for help has been strong and insistent and the field seems to grow larger each year.

From this general work much of a personal nature necessarily follows, which is impossible to report.

The entire corps of Bible Women meeting each Tuesday in the bible Institute at 4p.m. for report and conference and prayer are bound together in bonds of closest harmony and fullest fellowship, going on to each new week with heart and body strengthened for renewed effort in the blessed work of the salvation of souls and upbuilding of the saints.

What kind of women were these Bible Women? They were obviously competent for the ministerial activities listed above: canvassing, teaching, counseling, and doing “much of a personal nature.” Another month’s summary gives some qualifications of the Bible Women:

The Bible women did a great work last year. We have found this house-to-house visitation, with the heart-to-heart talks, one of the most fruitful missions of the Institute. The workers are all competent, strong teachers, and all capable of meeting the difficulties resultant upon the changed conditions of our city life. The many fads and fancies connected with the latter-day religions, necessitate intelligent and wise dealing upon the part of those who seek to rescue the misguided women who fall so easily a prey to the snares of the enemy. Many homes have been made bright and beautiful, and telling testimonies come from many sources concerning the work of these consecrated women.

A favorite feature of these Bible Women reports is the statistical report:

A few extracts from the report give some intimation of its scope:
Homes visited……6040
Special interviews….493
Accepted Christ……90
Bible classes……568
Other meetings conducted…..358

Along with these, there were visits to “shut ins” and hospitals, with the distribution of hundreds of gospel women 1911

For just a moment, ignore the fact that these Christian workers are women. Imagine any group of Christian laypeople, not seminary trained or denominationally ordained, but equipped with knowledge of the Bible, personal evangelism, spiritual counseling, and apologetics (“intelligent and wise dealing” with “the many fads and fancies connected with the latter-day religions”). Imagine them at work in the rapidly expanding metropolis of Los Angeles, visiting thousands of homes, organizing Bible studies, and cooperating with a host of churches. What vision of the priesthood of all believers must have mobilized such an evangelical social force at the dawn of the twentieth century?

We actually know precisely what that theology was, because the Biola evangelicals of the early twentieth century took care to explain exactly what they were thinking. In a King’s Business article from 1910, Rev. A. T. Pierson specified the “Essential Elements in the Layman’s Message.” “First of all,” Pierson says, “the distinction between ‘clergy and laity’ is an invention of the devil. There is no foundation for it in the New Testament, and the erection of an artificial and arbitrary barrier between disciples in the matter of testimony to the gospel and personal work for souls, was one of the most magnificent triumphs of Satanic subtlety and strategy known in history.”

Pierson is not primarily thinking about the ministry of women here. He has a more comprehensive goal in mind: to restore the ministry of the laity to its central place, and “to lead the church back to the place where every disciple went forth to witness for Christ because he was a disciple.” But as his article develops, he keeps finding female examples: “I feel, as Hudson Taylor used to say, that I would rather be in the succession of the Samaritan woman who, while the disciples went to the city to buy food, in her zeal for souls forgot her waterpot.”

“And,” says Pierson, “I do not read that she was ever ordained by a Presbytery or association conference. She reminds me of Miss Field in Burmah, who went out and told the Gospel story to those who had never heard it. They asked her, ‘Have you ever been ordained to preach the gospel?’ ‘No,’ she answered, but I was foreordained to preach the gospel.’:

If you forget for the time being that they are women, the work of this group is an astonishing enterprise that makes you wonder if you’ve ever actually seen a church that takes the priesthood of all believers seriously.

But then, remember that the Bible Women wre just that: women. Try to picture a Los Angeles before national women’s suffrage, with these teams of women combing the neighborhoods, “Bibles in hand,” witnessing and teaching and counseling. In fact, they were very aware of the opportunities and limitations that belonged to “the fairer sex.” Men could not go door to door expecting intimate conversation about domestic issues; the Bible Women could and did. And it is worth remembering that the Institute’s Bible Women all understood the Bible to teach that there were limits placed on the amount of relative authority that could be properly held by women in the congregation. They were all complementarians rather than egalitarians, to use a later evangelical distinction. Were they inconsistent to knock on doors, lead Bible classes, confront doctrinal error, and do that whole range of things that made up their work? Try telling a Bible Woman that, if you dare.

Under a picture that names each of them (Miss Higgins, Mrs. Petty, Mrs. Covey, Mrs. Neth, Mrs. Lowe, Mrs. Horton, Miss Wood), the King’s Business describes their character:

They are Bible Women because no other title would be indicative of their mission or work. The Bible is in their opinion the only text and proof Book with which they could meet the errors of the times or the enemy of souls. The work in necessarily one of constant self-negation, close study, ceaseless prayer and endless tact as well as a work of joy “in the Lord.” The borders of the work cannot be found or the reach of it determined for in its ramifications and never ending groups of agencies it is ever changing like a kaleidescope and the newly formed conditions and calls for quick change of plan or method can only be met by the power of the faithful God and leading of the Holy Spirit. Every variety of spiritual need, every form of false doctrine, every degree of Bible ignorance, every phase of heart hunger and soul need, continually face these devoted Bible Women for solution, counsel, loving consideration, and sympathy. …Every woman of the band is a trained, tried, and proven Christian Bible worker, none other could at all be used, and great care by the Superintendent of this work is necessary to conserve both time and means. …

Every issue of the King’s Business carried reports and updates about their work. See here, here, here, here, and here.

Around 1912, the favored way of reporting on the work of the Bible Women shifted from statistics to anecdotes. If you read enough of these stories, you notice some consistent narrative patterns and literary style which develop over the years until finally they become attached to the signature of: Mrs. Anna L. Horton. Mother Horton didn’t write any books or sermons to let us hear her tone of voice, but buried in the King’s Business is a series of her stories about the work of the Bible Women. Check for instance here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

This is why it wouldn’t do justice to the Bible Women to say that they did their work quietly or out of the spotlight or behind the scenes. They were aggressive. They were the ones making the difference. In many ways, because of their radical vision of the priesthood of all believers, they were the leading edge of the Bible Institute’s impact on the city.

When R. A. Torrey came off his massive world tour, he began investing his work in Bible Institutes precisely so he could train laypeople to do Christian work themselves. He knew that the future did not lie with the big crowds of city-wide revivals flocking to hear his famous voice. Instead, the future was with well-trained, competent people who knew how to teach the Bible, lead neighbors to faith in Christ, refute heresies right where they hatch, and apply Biblical wisdom to everyday life. Torrey traded in his high-profile ministry so he could equip the saints, building up the Bible Women to do the work of ministry. Under Mrs. Anna Horton, and later under Mrs. Lula Stewart and other leaders, the Bible Women did that work.

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