Eliza Witherspoon: Early 20th Century Evangelist in Southern Missouri

This postcard of Downtown Neosho Missouri is circa 1910- about five years after Eliza was posted to the Neosho Circuit.

In the July 8, 1895, issue of The Free Methodist, an Eliza Witherspoon sends a ministry report from Virginia, Missouri noting that she, her mother, and sister had been “advocating the principles of Free Methodism” in that part of the country for the past seventeen years. Eliza tells readers her family is the lone Free Methodist family in the area and had spent the past three weeks holding meetings where “God sent us help and souls were converted to God– more than twenty souls.”

Far from being a single report, Eliza Witherspoon begins appearing regularly in The Free Methodist over the next few decades as writes ministry reports on her work as a Free Methodist evangelist in Arkansas, Southern Missouri, and eventually Kansas.  Her story is just one of countless female evangelists who deserve recognition.

According to the 1880 and 1900 U.S. Census reports Eliza was born about 1855 to Caroline and W.A. Witherspoon. The 1880 Census shows her sister Martha, who was six years younger, is likely the sister referred to in the 1895 ministry report. By 1880 Caroline, Eliza and Martha were living on their own in Bates Missouri where her mother lists her occupation as a school teacher.

1895 marks the first year Eliza appears in conference minutes, but not as an evangelist. In 1895 she was a delegate to the Arkansas and Southern Missouri Annual Conference, and served on conference committees discussing education and raising money to publish the minutes.

The next five years are silent and she again appears in 1900 as a delegate to Southern Missouri and Arkansas Conference.

By 1900 she is still single and still living with her mother in Bates, Missouri, but she is now an evangelist. The 1901 Arkansas and Southern Missouri minutes list her as a “conference evangelist” meaning she traveled and preached and was not assigned to a specific church. She was appointed to the Phelps County Missouri Circuit in 1904 and in 1905 to the Neosho Circuit.

Eliza’s ministry reports are fiery, and her passion for ministry is clear in the way she writes. In an August 15, 1905, report she summarizes her work in Phelps:

“I desire to state a few facts about the Lord’s work at this place. I have been doing all I can for the salvation of precious souls nearly three years. The Lord has been with us. Some have been led out into the experience of entire sanctification and a few converted.”

She goes on to describe a quarterly meeting where the Free Methodist District Elder J.M. Roberson preached. As she recounts the meeting she goes into detail about the local community in which she says “sin abounds everywhere.”

“I am pressing on my upward way. The Lord enables me to grow stronger every day. I am so glad I belong to the blood-washed company. I love the Lord. I love his people. I am devoting all I have to His cause—talent, time, voice, silver and gold; not a mite do I withhold.”

Eliza uses such colorful language in all her reports. She never married because as she explains in her 1905 her life was devoted to ministry. Most of her career was spent in the Arkansas and Southren Missouri Conference.

The 1910 Census lists her as living with an Ollie and Bessie Dryer. While the census labels Ollie as her “son-in-law” in reality he was another Free Methodist evangelist who in the 1908-1909 annual conference minutes is appointed to the Harrison County Circuit with Eliza. This co-appointment happens several times throughout her career as in 1910 she is co-appointed to Harrison with Grace Huntsinger. It’s likely she was mentoring Ollie and Grace as new evangelists. In the annual conference minutes there often appear evangelists co-appointed for a year or two and after a few years, the pair separates and have individual appointments. It’s an indication of Eliza’s status within the conference that she was trusted to mentor other evangelists.

Eliza appears to spend most of her career in areas with relatively few other Free Methodists or even Christians for that matter. In 1911 she sends a testimony to October 17, 1911, Free Methodist where she discusses attending the recent 1911 General Conference. She admits having the means to attend the conference was a surprise and once she got there she had never seen so many “Saved people before.” In fact, the 1911 General Conference Dailies note she gave the opening prayer for the nineteenth session. That session was particularly important and having a woman evangelist give the opening prayer was most likely intentional as Bishop Walter Sellew brings forth a motion to allow women to be ordained deacons in the same manner men are allowed to be ordained.

Rhetorically Eliza identifies as a minister around this time and both the 1910 and 1920 U.S. Census identifies her occupation as “minister” or “pastor.” This is unique- in all the women evangelists I’ve researched I haven’t seen many of them self-identify in this way.

Eliza continues to serve in various appointments around Arkansas and Southern Missouri until around 1913 when she moves to Kansas. She continues her work with the Free Methodist Church until her death in 1932. Her Free Methodist obit is surprisingly brief for a woman who had devoted her entire life to the denomination. Taking up a single, short paragraph:

“Witherspoon- Elizabeth was called from early toll to heavenly reward on April 10, 1932, in Arkansas City, Kansas. In her youth, she was wonderfully saved, consecrated herself to a life service, and has very commendably adorned her Christian profession. She was a member of The Free Methodist Church and held an evangelistic relationship with the Kansas Conference. She leaves relatives and a host of friends who mourn her loss.”

Eliza’s story makes me wonder how many other women had their entire ministry summarized by a single paragraph (or less). I’ll be sharing a few other stories from different but just as remarkable female evangelists in the coming weeks.

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