She Shaped Me: 10 Exemplars of Faith

Christian leaders reflect on the women from history who’ve influenced them.
She Shaped Me: 10 Exemplars of Faith
Image: CT Illustration

Throughout history, God has used faithful women in powerful ways for the good of the church and the world. They are women of character and virtue, women who struggled and made mistakes, women who took risks and devoted their lives to answering God’s call. Above all, they are women who deeply loved God. Here, ten contemporary women reflect on the examples of ten women from Christian history who have significantly influenced their own faith in Jesus.

Jo Anne Lyon on Phoebe Palmer: Outward-Looking Holiness

Reading about Phoebe Palmer “opened up my imagination about the possibilities—about what a woman leader in the church could be,” says Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita of The Wesleyan Church and founder of World Hope International. Known as the mother of the holiness movement, Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874) encouraged Christians to consecrate their lives to Christ, praying, “My all is upon Thine altar.”

For Palmer, this total submission to Jesus began with a personal tragedy. In 1836, her daughter was killed in a crib fire and, Lyon explains, “She fell on her knees before God and said, ‘Use me in whatever way you want.’” Palmer began leading a Bible study in her home that grew to involve hundreds of people. Soon she began speaking at highly attended Christian gatherings in the US and abroad that, according to Christian History, “sparked a revival which brought nearly a million people into the church.”

But what stands out to Lyon is that Palmer “embodied holy living that is outreaching, that cares about society, that is justice oriented.” Palmer ministered where many dared not go: the notorious “Five Points” slum in New York City. She founded the Five Points Mission, which provided housing, clothing, food, and education. “The character trait that so draws me to her is the idea that justice and evangelism come together to make holy living,” says Lyon. “Too often, holy living can become simply inward-looking—How can I be more holy?—and we lose sight of the fact that it is about justice. Consider the passage from Amos: ‘Let justice roll down like a river and righteousness like a never-failing stream.’ You can’t have justice without righteousness or righteousness without justice. Holiness is an action.”

Christine Caine on Sojourner Truth: Identity in Christ

“I feel a deep connection with Sojourner Truth and see her as one of my mentors,” says Christine Caine, the founder of A21, a nonprofit organization focused on rescuing victims of human trafficking.

Abolitionist Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) was born into slavery in New York as Isabella Baumfree. In 1826 she made her escape. In the years that followed, her faith grew as she sensed God’s presence and leading. “Jesus loved me! I knowed it, I felt it,” she said. Soon God revealed a new name and a new calling: to travel declaring truth.

As her Narrative of Sojourner Truth describes, she focused on “‘testifying of the hope that was in her’—exhorting the people to embrace Jesus.” Truth spoke out against slavery and for women’s rights while remaining faithful to a consistent theme: “I has just one text to preach from. … My text is, ‘When I found Jesus.’”

“She was fueled in her fight for freedom by love and godly conviction, rather than by rage and bitterness,” says Caine, who is the author of several books, including Unexpected. “The thing that has impacted me the most is the strength she drew from knowing her identity in Christ. You cannot truly fight for the emancipation of others if you do not have an internal revelation of your own freedom in Christ. True change and transformation happen from the inside out, and—given that as a slave she was treated as a commodity and not a human being—it is no small thing that she did not see herself as her oppressors saw her. She saw herself as God saw her. When you see yourself as God sees you, you can then see others as God sees them.”

Yvette Santana on Corrie ten Boom: Resilient Hope

Corrie ten Boom (1892–1983), the first licensed female watchmaker in Holland, worked in her family’s shop. When the Nazis invaded, she took on another role: working in the Dutch resistance. Corrie oversaw a network of safe houses (including her own home) that secretly harbored Jews. In 1944, the ten Booms were arrested and imprisoned; Corrie and her sister, Betsy, were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Betsy eventually died.

“Even during her time in the concentration camp, you see a person with great strength and determination,” says Yvette Santana, a regional women’s ministry coordinator with the Church of God and executive board member of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. “Regardless of what she was facing, she exuded hope: hope in God’s ability to work, hope in God’s people, and hope in the future.”

That hope in Christ laid the foundation for ten Boom to do what seemed impossible: offer forgiveness to her captors. In The Hiding Place, ten Boom described battling to overcome “the coldness clutching my heart” and praying “Jesus, help me!” as she joined hands with one of her former prison guards and, through tears, said, “I forgive you, brother!” Ten Boom wrote, “I had never known God’s love so intensely as I did then.” Ten Boom’s example of forgiveness is particularly compelling to Santana, who says, “Forgiveness is something we must practice as leaders in an ongoing fashion. If we don’t, we’ll lead broken and burdened.”

Ten Boom “lived through one of the most unimaginable horrors in human history, yet she modeled how to be full of hope, regardless of what your circumstances are. Our world—my world—needs to be more hope-filled,” says Santana. “I reread The Hiding Place every once in a while to remind me that, whatever I’m facing, I have a greater hope.”

Vivian Mabuni on Amy Carmichael: Complete Surrender

“If there be any reserve in my giving to Him who so loved that He gave His Dearest to me; if there be a secret ‘but’ in my prayer, ‘anything but that, Lord,’ then I know nothing of Calvary love,” Amy Carmichael wrote in If. When Vivian Mabuni read Carmichael’s biography, A Chance to Die, as a new believer, she was struck by Carmichael’s total relinquishment of everything to Jesus: “I found myself drawn to Amy’s willingness to invest her life into the lives of others. She responded to God’s call in every season of her life.” Mabuni, who has served as a missionary with Cru for 29 years and is the author of Warrior in Pink, says, “Amy’s story helped shape me to invest my life in vocational Christian work.”

After hearing Hudson Taylor speak at the Keswick convention, Carmichael (1867–1951) began praying about missions; within a few years, she sensed God saying, “Go ye.” Because Carmichael suffered from a painful nerve disorder (neuralgia), she was initially barred from serving as a missionary in China. Eventually, she made her way to India, where she lived for the next 53 years. Through the Dohnavur Fellowship she founded, Carmichael rescued children from the prospect of temple prostitution. So beloved by the children she cared for, Carmichael was known as Amma (“Mother”).

Mabuni notes that Carmichael was an early pioneer in “rescuing vulnerable children caught in sex trafficking. The modern-day work of International Justice Mission and other organizations is work Amy did as a single woman before these horrific situations came more into the public eye.” Mabuni also appreciates Carmichael’s choice to honor the local culture by wearing a sari—which was not common practice among missionaries in that era. Ultimately, says Mabuni, “her only aim in life was to please her Lord. She modeled a life surrendered to the lordship of Christ.”

Nicole Massie Martin on Jarena Lee: Daring Obedience

On the day “when my heart had believed, and my tongue had made confession unto salvation,” Jarena Lee wrote, she leapt to her feet in front of the church congregation “to tell of the wonders and of the goodness of him who clothed me with salvation.” Lee’s desire to testify about Jesus continued to grow.

A few years later, Lee said, she distinctly heard a voice “which said to me, ‘Go preach the gospel!’” One Sunday, when a speaker couldn’t deliver his sermon, Lee (1783–1864) spontaneously preached in his place. “During the exhortation,” Lee wrote, “God made manifest his power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labor according to my ability.” After hearing Lee, Richard Allen—the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church—gave her his blessing to become an itinerant preacher.

Lee wrote an autobiography that “serves as a testimony to her own recognition of God’s goodness toward her in life and ministry,” says Nicole Massie Martin, a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and the author of Made to Lead. In her autobiography, Lee was candid about struggles with depression. Martin says she is struck by “her authenticity in sharing her pain. It would have been easy to paint a picture of success and well-being, but Lee boldly shared about her illness, attempts at suicide, and her dark nights. This reality only strengthens her character and reminds us that challenges do not disqualify us from fulfilling God’s calling.”

Despite the danger she faced preaching to racially mixed audiences in the era of slavery, Lee recorded that “the Lord gave his handmaiden power to speak for his great name.” Martin says, “I admire her depth of conviction that drove her past earthly barriers. While she had every reason to see her life through the lens of what she could not do, her deeply rooted sense of her call and the reality of God’s voice allowed her to see beyond that which was designed to hold her back.”

Jennie Allen on Henrietta Mears: Committed Faithfulness

“The big dream for Henrietta Mears wasn’t to build a huge ministry. The big dream for her was faithfulness,” says Jennie Allen, founder of IF:Gathering. Henrietta Mears (1890–1963) served as the director of Christian education at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood for 35 years, overseeing Sunday school programs for children and adults and leading a Bible study in her home. Under her leadership, the Sunday school program grew from a few hundred to several thousand participants. Mears also launched several conferences and began publishing church resources (which eventually became Gospel Light).

Through her teaching, Allen notes, Mears had a profound spiritual influence on future leaders like evangelist Billy Graham, Bill Bright (the founder of Cru), and Dawson Trotman (the founder of The Navigators). “She had no idea that the people she taught would go on to change the shape of evangelicalism as we know it,” says Allen. “She just knew that if you teach the Word of God faithfully and train up others to understand and communicate God’s Word, then the world will change.”

Allen cites a favorite quote about Mears from Donn Moomaw: “She never yielded to the fashion of the day in toning down the atoning work of Christ.” Allen explains, “She kept her eyes completely zeroed in on the gospel—and she did not do it in a way that was necessarily ‘fashionable.’” Allen sees parallels to today's pressure to water down the gospel message. “Of course, as Paul makes clear, we do contextualize it, but there’s a fine line between that and trying to make the gospel more ‘fashionable.’ What I love about Henrietta Mears is that she stuck to the basics of the Word of God,” Allen says. “She taught the Word of God faithfully, and through that, a lot of other people did the same.”

Liz Vice on Joan of Arc: Determined Conviction

Musician Liz Vice finds much to ponder in the life of Joan of Arc. “For Joan of Arc to be so young and to lose her life for the calling she was so bold and outspoken about—it’s amazing,” says Vice, whose second album (Save Me) released this summer. “She was literally a child—probably around the same age as Mary in the Bible—and she got a call from God to face men who were in authority. This young, zealous, confident woman told people, ‘God gave me a vision and this is how we need to execute it.’”

At 13, Joan of Arc (1412–1431) began having mystical visions in which God directed her to help save France from English dominance during the Hundred Years’ War. Authorities were initially skeptical of Joan’s claims, but after thorough questioning, religious leaders concluded she was honest—and Joan rallied thousands of French troops to drive the English out of Orléans. At 18, Joan was captured by those allied with England. She was charged with heresy, convicted for being a schismatic, and sentenced to execution. As she was burned at the stake, Joan’s last word was “Jesus.” Twenty-five years later, the pope appointed a retrial of her case, and she was declared innocent.

“If I were to say that God sent me, I shall be condemned, but God really did send me,” Joan said during her imprisonment. Vice is struck by Joan’s conviction as she faced opposition. “They were like, Who are you? And I often question myself like that—Who am I to think that God would use me? God has given me a gift to use and I have a platform to talk about Jesus outside of the church, and yet I still question, Who am I?” For Vice, Joan’s willingness to die for her convictions poses questions worth deeply considering in our own seasons of suffering: “Are you willing to die to self? Pride-wise, ego-wise, are you willing to not have the last word? And perhaps the question is less about Who am I? and more about remembering who this God is in whom I chose to put my trust.”

Patricia Raybon on Mother Teresa: Compassionate Love

As a 12-year-old, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu (1910–1997) sensed God calling her into ministry; at age 18, she became a nun and received the name Teresa. She served in India as a teacher in a girls’ school for 20 years until she received a “call within a call”—direction from God to embark on a new ministry. “I heard the call to give up all and follow him into the slums—to serve him in the poorest of the poor,” Mother Teresa wrote in her journal.

“Taking to the streets daily, Mother Teresa nursed the sick and dying, washing the open sores of the diseased, caring for orphans, and feeding the hungry and thirsty,” explains Patricia Raybon, award-winning author of many books, including I Told the Mountain to Move and My First White Friend. Raybon notes that though Mother Teresa is not without her critics, “she inspired others to see the poor and their poverty, taking a vow of poverty herself and living it. More than anything, she suffered with people—living out, in real time, the definition of the word compassion, ‘to suffer with.’”

While Raybon cites African American women like Harriet Tubman and Jarena Lee as significant ongoing influences in her life, her interest in Mother Teresa was birthed during a personal crisis: Her husband needed emergency brain surgery. “My prayers weren’t moving my mountains,” she says. “In the midst of my struggle, I stumbled upon a little book of Mother Teresa’s sayings, only to discover her simple guidance: To pray is to love. This advice changed my life—and also my husband’s.

“Born black in America in the Jim Crow era, we’d struggled to reconcile the reality of being hated by our government, its citizens, and even those in white churches—while trying to love ourselves and each other,” Raybon says. “To both of us, the concept of being loved—and loving others—was impossible to understand or navigate. Yet here was Mother Teresa saying to me, first, to love Jesus. Love him for his sacrifice. Love him for his grace. Love him because he first loved us. Then, filled with that love, give some of that love away. And that then is love—and, also, it is prayer.”

Jeanette Salguero on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Made in God’s Image

Despite living in a cloistered convent in Mexico City, Sor (Sister) Juana Inés de la Cruz (1651–1695) was acclaimed in both Mexico and Spain for her prolific writings. Because girls were barred from education, Juana—an avid reader from a young age—was self-educated. As a teenager, she was tested by a panel of scholars on a variety of subjects and the stunning span of her knowledge became known far and wide.

Juana became a nun at 21, continuing her studies and writing poems, plays, and texts for religious services. As Sor Juana’s writings drew attention, they also drew criticism, particularly for her engagement with secular topics. But for Sor Juana, faith in God was naturally integrated with studying philosophy, arts, and sciences. She believed women had a God-given right to pursue knowledge and education, writing publicly on this topic in Respuesta a Sor Filotea. When a plague swept through her convent, Sor Juana cared for her sisters until she succumbed to the illness and died.

“Sor Juana manifested many admirable virtues: courage as she astutely confronted gender-based marginalization, love as she cared for the sick, justice in her struggle for equality. However, what I admire the most is her understanding of the imago Dei,” says Jeanette Salguero, senior vice president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and associate pastor at Calvario City Church in Orlando. Knowing she was made in God’s image and given abilities by him, “Sor Juana understood her calling and she actualized the very unique gift of God in her: her inimitable intellect. It was a way of demonstrating God to the world—it was a sacred participation for her. Sor Juana’s deep understanding of who God called her to be touches the depths of my heart.”

Kristyn Getty on Cecil Frances Alexander: Deep Truth

Cecil Frances Alexander (1818–1895), a prolific Irish hymn writer, began composing poetry as a child. She taught Sunday school in her youth and maintained a passion for teaching children biblical truth throughout her adulthood. As the title of one of her first published collections of verse makes plain—Hymns for Little Children—Alexander’s theologically rich lyrics were all initially intended for young worshipers. Influenced by the high-church Oxford Movement within Anglicanism, Alexander used poetry to communicate essential Christian doctrine. Hymns for Little Children, for example, was structured around the Apostle’s Creed and included some of her best-known hymns today, like “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “Once in Royal David’s City.”

“She understood the importance of deepening our understanding of the Lord,” says hymn writer Kristyn Getty. “So filled with compassion and dismayed by how little the children in the community around her knew, she was creative, practical, and intentional in the use of song-writing.” Getty is “particularly struck by how hymns she’d written for little children many decades ago contain texts that would often be considered too long or complex for adults to sing today.” Yet, Getty says, “Deep believers sing deep things about God. And songs filled with deep things about God help nurture deep believers.”

Getty recalls being impacted by Alexander’s songs during her own childhood in Northern Ireland. But of even greater impact, she says, is “in our vocation as hymn writers. My husband and I have been challenged by her example: the importance of the church singing together—across all age groups—rich Bible truth in beautiful ways.”

Kelli B. Trujillo is projects editor at Christianity Today.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our CT special issue focused on women raising their voices. In “Heard,” we explore how women are speaking up, not only in response to scandals or injustice, but also more broadly for the sake of the gospel and the values of Christ’s kingdom. Click here to download a free digital version of our special issue.

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