One Woman On The Sawdust Trail

The Woman Evangelist: The Life and Times of Charismatic Evangelist Maria B. Woodworth-Etter, by Wayne E. Warner (Scarecrow Press, 354 pp.; $32.50, hardcover). Reviewed by Grant Wacker, associate professor of religious studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Maria Woodworth-Etter, one of America’s most colorful woman preachers, was born in 1844 in Lisbon, Ohio, and died 80 years later in Indianapolis, Indiana. That much is certain, but until now very little else about her life has been. Hagiographic lore has made it difficult to tell where the facts ended and the legends began. Now Wayne Warner’s biography of Etter, based upon prodigious research in contemporary newspaper accounts, goes a long way toward clarifying the historical record.

Besides telling the story of Etter’s career, the book advances two theses: first, that Etter helped break the male domination of the American pulpit; second, that she was an important forerunner and, later, popularizer of the Pentecostal movement. Whether Warner proves the first thesis is debatable, but the second is beyond question.

The “Trance Evangelist”

In 1880, just after the death of the fifth of her six children, Etter determined to enter full-time ministry. First licensed with the United Brethren, she soon switched to the (Winebrenner) Churches of God, where she remained until they dismissed her for an “uncooperative” attitude 20 years later.

Starting in 1883, many of the men and women attending Etter’s meetings would suddenly fall to the floor in a trance-like state Etter considered a sign of the baptism of the Holy Ghost. Soon the “Trance Evangelist,” as she was called, felt impelled ...

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