“Women as Pastors”: Mary Jane Long

As the “Women as Pastors” seminar moves to Kansas today, our ongoing series highlights a woman who — though never recognized as a pastor — nevertheless demonstrated in her life the Pauline exhortation she famously exposited: that church members should “be of the same mind toward one another” (Romans 12:16).

No pictures remain of Mary Jane Long — described as “a prominent early churchwoman” by her biographer (and great-great-granddaughter) Martha Long. Family members remember her as “a small, slender, beautiful woman — blonde, with very pretty blue eyes and a fair complexion without blemishes.” [1]

Despite her apparent beauty, it’s clear that Mary Jane thought of herself — in her voluminous writings in the Evangelical Visitor — as shy, admitting to “feeling somewhat timid” about penning her first article in the church newspaper. [2] But Mary Jane wasn’t necessarily viewed this way by others.

More about Mary Jane Long and her tempestuous relationship with the Brethren in Christ Church, after the jump.

As Mary Jane’s biographer notes:

[She was seen] as a woman of very strong will who seldom changed her mind. She diligently gave herself to leadership in the church with her husband [evangelist and early church leader T. Avery Long]. Such public leadership was frowned upon by some of the brethren. However, Mary Jane was undaunted by criticism, and so she proceeded on various occasions to do what she felt led to do. [3]

Perhaps the best illustration of Long’s uncommon tenacity is captured by E. Morris Sider in his biography of Mary Jane’s husband, T. Avery. As Sider recounts, the couple were assisting with revival services in Elmer, Michigan, in 1908:

In time, problems began to appear. The main issue was Mary J.’s insistence in playing a leading role in the work, particularly during church services.

This problem seems to have surfaced during the winter revival meeting. The evangelist (who is not named) insisted that she should not take any part in the service, except to testify, which was no more than any other woman did. Her first reaction, she wrote in the Evangelical Visitor, where she carried her case, was to sit back with the other women, but she soon realized that in this position she was not being all the help God wanted her to be.

So one evening she took it upon herself to preach a sermon, and a pointed one at that, based as it was on Romans 12:16 where Paul admonishes his readers to “be of the same mind toward one another.” [4]

Sider then quotes extensively from Mary Jane’s own account:

I had not thought in my heart to deliver the message myself, but God so marvelously opened the way, and He gave utterance the [sic] message was delivered in his name and with no regrets in my heart whatsoever. Still it was almost more than some were able to bear. My own husband sanctioned the truth right along. I told the saints I meant to be true to God on every line, let come what will . . . [5]

It’s interesting to try and imagine just how the crowd at Elmer reacted to Mary Jane’s stepping behind the pulpit — likely much in the same way that the delegates to the 1895 General Conference did when Rhoda E. Lee stood in the spot: with surprise, shock, and perhaps even anger.

Granted, the church’s reaction to Mary Jane’s sermon leaves little to the imagination. As Sider tells it:

This [the sermon] was too much for the members at Elmer. They requested the Home Mission Board to replace the Longs with someone else, a request which the board granted. . . .

But [Mary Jane] . . . obviously determined not to be outdone, launched her own religious activities. In mid-summer, a year after their arrival at Elmer, she conducted a revival in the area in a tent that somehow the Longs had managed to purchase. But she only came into even greater disrepute with the local people when, in the absence of her husband, she called in another man, John H. Byer, to help her. [6]

As if that wasn’t enough of a “last laugh” for the spirited churchwoman, consider this: in 1912, the General Executive Committee of the denomination authorized Mary Jane “to officiate in the office of a Deaconess [sic] for the following conference year” in Salem District, Texas, where she and her husband had been attempting to start a Brethren in Christ congregation. [7]

The appointment, it seems, lasted for longer than a year, since in 1914 Mary Jane wrote of her work in this capacity while still — it seems — pushing the church to new insights:

To be a real deaconess according to the word of God means more than what some professed people think. I might go about bearing the mark of a deaconess in way of wearing some special garb, and hand out cards showing my office in the household of faith, but unless I am willing to turn in my hand as it is needed and administer to the needs of the sick how could I expect that God would come to my help and satisfy my longing hungry heart. [8]

Whatever we make of Mary Jane Long — Was she an intentional revolutionary? A product of radical holiness teaching? A strong-willed biblical literalist in her reading of Galatians 3:28? — her biography continues to illuminate the many ways that women, dusted under the metaphorical rug by official denominational doctrine, persevered in service and leadership throughout the history of the church.

Notes:

1. Martha Long, “Mary Jane Long: A Prominent Early Churchwoman,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 5 (June 1982), 25.

2. Quoted in Ibid., 26.

3. Ibid., 27.

4. E. Morris Sider, Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Napannee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1978), 67.

5. Mary Jane Long, [no title], Evangelical Visitor, July 12, 1909, 12.

6. Sider, 68.

7. General Conference Minutes, 1912, 117.

8. Quoted in Long, 35-36.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
This entry was posted in Essays and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to “Women as Pastors”: Mary Jane Long

  1. dorothy gish says:

    Bless Mary Jane. May her tribe increase!

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