Priscilla Pope-Levison’s new book Building The Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era is the most significant contribution to the collective memory of women evangelists in the United States since Janette Hassey’s 1986 book No Time for Silence. As a personal friend of Priscilla I was truly excited to read this important work and, as I read, I kept saying to myself “Why wasn’t this book out three years ago when I was writing my dissertation!?” It would have come in handy.
There are so few scholarly books focusing on the contributions of women evangelists who were both amazingly gifted preachers and gifted builders. Women who not only defied the social stigma of preaching publicly, but who also used their skills to found institution like Bible schools and inner-city missions. Women who built these institutions often had little outside help and very few stable financial contributions to keep the schools and houses running.
What I love is that Pope-Levison weaves the stories of several prominent female evangelists including Emma Ray, a Free Methodist evangelist and inner city missionary (who I have written about on this blog), Ivan Durham Vennard, who founded Chicago Evangelistic Institute , Mather “Mother” Lee who spent her life devoted to rescue work among prostitutes, and Catholic evangelists Martha Moore Avery and Florence Crawford, whose ministry resembled Aimee Semple McPherson’s but with a Catholic bent.
Like No Time for Silence, Pope- Levison interweaves the lives of these women in a captivating book not focused on a single woman, but on many women’s contributions to ministry during a specific time period in American history. She divides their contributions by their ministries: evangelistic organizations, denominational endeavors, vocational religious training schools and rescue missions and homes.
Building The Old Time Religion is an effortless read; so captivating that it might be easy to overlook the amount of painstaking archival research put into this book project. I finished it so quickly when I got to the appendix I craved more. However, this book should be viewed not as the only book needed about women evangelists in the Progressive Era but a starting point for more research. As a fellow archival scholar, I know how many months, possibly years was poured into this project. It was a massive endeavor. In recent years, the Progressive Era has become dominated with books about Aimee Semple McPherson, a captivating, empire building female evangelist, but she was only one of many. Pope-Levison draws attention to that fact not overtly but through illustrating how other women were doing the same thing around the country. It wasn’t one woman was breaking down barriers and opening doors for women to preach; it was countless women.
For any scholar who studies women evangelists in the nineteenth and early 20th century it is a must read. Yet, I know I have a lot of people who read my blog who aren’t scholars. This book is also something anyone would enjoy. Pope- Levison has a gift of writing an academic book in a down to earth manner that anyone can take pleasure in reading.