Mariet Hardy Freeland: A Trailblazer for Women’s Preaching and Public Speaking

I’m beginning an exploration of the life and ministry of Mariet Hardy Freeland. While Clara Wetherald and Ida Gage were influential in the debates on ordaining women, Mariet helped pave the way for later evangelists like Wetherald and Gage. Biographical information is taken from the book Mariet Hardy Freeland: A Faithful Witness by Emma Freeland Shay.

Mariet Hardy Freeland was a trailblazer for women evangelists in the Free Methodist Church. Born in New York in 1829, she was the youngest of 10 children.  While there is a vast archive of Mariet’s original writings (which I still need to dig into), it is disappointing to see her biography written in the third person and written by her daughter and edited by the Free Methodist Women’s Missionary Society. While the intentions of the author and editors were good, as a rhetorical historian I cringe when the beginning of the book says the material is from Mariet’s personal diary and letters but was put into third person in “order to form a continues life record.” Mariet’s daughter was well intended, but I’ve read Mariet’s original articles in The Free Methodist. She has a strong voice that is diminished by putting it into the third person. Her vibrant personality and convictions only shine through occasionally in the manuscript. Although her story, no matter who wrote and edited, is astound and ground breaking. It is a important not only to early Free Methodist history but to first wave feminist history. Mariet was a very early public speaker and preacher, blazing new territory for women in the public sphere.

Connections to the Methodist Episcopal Church

Mariet connected with the Methodist Episcopal Church at an early age and was greatly influenced by the holiness revival being led by Dr. and Phoebe Palmer.  She had a remarkable spiritual sensitivity, and while still in her teens dedicated her life to Christian service. This led her down a path that pushed her to the bounds of social acceptance. Throughout her life Mariet was never afraid to voice her thoughts, especially if she felt led by the Holy Spirit. She was a gifted writer and a regular contributor to both The Earnest Christian and The Free Methodist magazine. One of her life’s passions was gender equality. Her daughter Emma Freeland Shay notes that Mariet first began to experience gender discrimination while attending the Genesee Wesleyan College and Seminary. She wanted to take the regular college course so she could learn Latin and Greek and read the Bible in its original languages. However, women were not allowed to enroll in that program and she had to take the classical courses set up for women. Instead of Latin and Greek she learned German and French “as was more becoming to the training a young lady should receive.” (p.41) She was outraged that she could take science and math alongside the men but not enroll in the same program. Being judged by her sex rather than intellectual ability infuriated her.

When she graduated from the seminary she was at the top of her class, but because by that she had become a radical supporter of the holiness movement she was denied the top spot at her graduation. Within the Genesee Wesleyan College there was a deep division between the students who embraced the holiness teachings and those who opposed it. The division at Mariet’s college represented the larger division in the New York Methodist Episcopal Conference at that time.

A Call to Preach

While at college Mariet felt a direct call from God to begin publicly preaching. This was almost unheard of during that time period. It was the 1850s, the only women speaking publically where mostly abolitionists. The Seneca Falls Convention, which is often considered the beginning of the first wave feminist movement, didn’t happen until 1848. Women were still being scorned and mocked when they took the stage to speak in any public setting. It was viewed as unseemly and unladylike to speak in a public gathering of both men and women.

At this time Mariet describes herself as rather timid, but she can’t deny her call. She summarizes her struggle to accept public ministry as “abhorring” the idea at first, but finally saying, “O Jesus, only thou my leader be, and I still will follow thee. Even though the path lead to that apparently inappropriate position for a woman to occupy.”

Throughout Mariet’s biography there are editorial comments that try to frame her as typical, modest Christian women. Yet, again and again the personal writings included and the comments that most certainly come from her daughter don’t align with the image that early twentieth century editors were trying to present. Mariet was anything but a typical nineteenth century woman.

Mariet lived among the founders of Free Methodism – Benjamin and Ellen Roberts, the Rev. William Kendall and his wife. As a good friend of Martha Kendall, Mariet regularly attended services.  By the late 1850s she was deeply associate with Roberts and like-minded holiness reformers in the Methodist church. She began public preaching in churches when invited. Roberts invited her to speak to the 13th Street Church in Buffalo on Wednesday, February 22, 1860 (an independent church he was in charge of prior to the forming of the Free Methodist Church in August 1860). The next week she spoke in Lockport. Writing about both experiences she said, “I have no doubt as to whether I am in God’s order in taking this cross, the light has shone so convincingly upon my soul respecting it. I doubt not that I shall have much to do in this direction before I die.” She acknowledges that her preaching was not typically regarded as proper for women, yet she felt called by God to preach and she did it. That was who Mariet was- she never resisted a challenge or a chance to challenge social and spiritual norms that she deemed harmful.

Another remarkable element of her character is her independence. She was thirty when she married, much older than the average nineteenth century marrying age. She was called to preach, teach, and write professionally prior to getting married. She did marry J.H. Freeland, a Methodist minister and of the same group as Roberts and Kendall, but they shared a common passion to preach and a common vision for Methodism. Mariet didn’t marry because it was what society expected of a woman. If she had wanted to follow social customs she would have married much earlier.

J.H. and Mariet married in November of 1860 and spent the rest of their lives in joint ministry. As a couple the Freelands, like the Roberts, and other early Free Methodist couples were a spiritual force to reckon with. Mariet was also a passionate, gifted writer who spoke her mind and defended women’s ordination in the 1890s and was among the first women to be granted an evangelist license in the Free Methodist Church.

Over the next few posts I will be transcribing a few of her articles and illustrating her passionate belief that spiritual and gender equality were intrinsically connected.

Mariet Hardy Freeland: A Faithful Witness by Emma Freeland Shay

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