And Blessed Is She: Women’s History Month

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

When I began teaching preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, I was a Garrett Teaching Fellow, working for the Homiletics Department Chair and my major professor, Dr. James W. Cox; I was still completing my doctoral work in the field and later would become a professor of preaching. This early teaching would have begun along about 1981; at that time, Southern Baptists in a few places were experiencing a rather short-lived taste of progressive theological and social flirtation. The theological portion lasted for the duration of my studies and my teaching years; the social aspect did not. It wasn’t really possible to separate the two, but I’m trying a bit for the sake of what I want to write here.

In my earliest preaching classes, women were being admitted into preaching classes for the first time in the seminary’s history, and Southern had always been one of the two most forward-thinking among the six Southern Baptist seminaries. Prior to that, since Southern Baptists and most other Baptist types–though not American Baptists, which were the forebears of Silverside Church–were convinced that God would never, ever call a woman to preach (despite ample biblical evidence to the contrary) there was no need for a woman to enroll in a preaching course. Missionaries-to-be and Christian educators-to-be could take public speaking courses but not preaching courses.

And Blessed Is She: Sermons by Women edited/written by David Albert Farmer and Edwina Hunter

I found in these early Southern Baptist preaching women not only extraordinary zeal and skill, but also unwavering determination to their calling to preach that they believed came from God Godself. The resistance with which most of them had to deal in their home churches and from some of the fundamentalist (many jealous) male students was heart-breaking, but they pressed on, and they inspired me tremendously both in their preaching and in their resolve to do what they believed God had called them to do despite the odds. I would later discover in my study of the preaching of women in American history, which became a research interest of mine and an area in which I taught courses, that this was a common thread in the experiences of most trailblazing women preachers in all mainstream religious groups on US American soil.

I realized as I taught that I had practically no female preaching models or mentors to show my female students, and somewhere in those late-night professorial bed-tossings the idea of a book about the sermons of women and the preachers themselves came to me.

Harper and Row Publishers had a religious books division in San Francisco back in the day, and the publisher was a gent named Clayton Carlson. He bit and bought. Harper was not speedy so it took a few years to pull things together, and they required that I find a female co-writer and co-editor. I wasn’t pleased about this, but when you’re an unknown you typically make few demands if any. By that time, Dr. Edwina Hunter, Professor of Preaching at Union Seminary in NYC signed on to produce this book with me, I had the essentials outlined, but though I hated to admit it–not because she was female but because it was my baby–she brought much wisdom and personal experience to the project. Edwina and I wrote the biographical sketches of the preachers, and then we found standout sermons from each one. I took the work on women who had already passed into preachers’ glory in the next realm so in most cases, I was lucky to find even the one sermon I did find. The research was intense and arduous, and I loved every single second of it. Edwina worked with preachers who were living at the time we were working so she had them to speak to and to contribute sermons to her for consideration.

By the time the book was published, the Southern Baptists had turned hardcore fundamentalist again and kicked women out of preaching classes. I left the seminary (and teaching for many years) and was serving as pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, when the book was finally published in hardcover in 1990. Judson Press would later buy the paperback rights. It’s been in print ever since as far as I know. It made good money at first; now a year’s royalties will barely pay for a pound (some years, a large cup!) of Fair Trade coffee.

We received great reviews, and for years the book was used both in seminaries and on secular campuses in women’s studies programs. Not bad, on my part, for a boy who grew up in Halls Crossroads in ultra conservative East Tennessee attending the Beaver Dam Baptist Church.

So here on this first day of Women’s History Month, I share that story with you and celebrate my role, one of the high privileges of having been a preaching professor, as someone who early on lost enough sleep to realize that God was luring me to find a lighthouse from which I could shine a bright light on the preaching of women. The book is dedicated to, guess! My female students. And still today, I honor them–those from Southern Seminary; the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Rueschlikon, Switzerland; and Eastern Baptist/Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and then St. David’s, Pennsylvania.