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What We Can Learn From Early Methodist Women Preachers: An Author Interview with Rev. Donna L. Fowler-Machant

Mother’s in Israel: Methodist Beginnings Through the Eyes of Women by Rev. Donna L. Fowler-Machant explores the influence women have had on Methodism since the very beginning of the movement.

Introduction:

In December, Rev. Donna L. Fowler-Machant, the author of the blog Travels with Wesley, released her first book Mothers in Israel: Methodist Beginnings Through the Eyes of Women (affiliate link) The bo.ok is published by GBHEM and Wesley’s Foundry Books.

I am a visually impaired female pastor, author, and a fan of Rev. Fowler-Machant’s work. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, I was excited to learn more about my spiritual heritage.  

Sadly, the publisher has not made this title available on Kindle or in a digital format. Digital books are important because they allow people with print disabilities (such as dyslexia or a visual impairment) to read the text using special adaptive software. It is my hope that soon more academic texts will become available to people with disabilities. In the meantime, Rev. Fowler-Machant was kind enough to chat with me about her writing process, the fascinating “her-stories” she uncovered while researching the roots of early Methodism, and the lessons these inspirational women can teach us.

 (Related: If you would like to know more about the special software I use to read books, please see my article about the Voice Dream Reader).

Interview with Rev. Donna L. Fowler-Machant

Image description: A headshot of Rev. Donna L. Fowler-Machant shows the author’s smiling face. She wears glasses and a clergy collar.

Congratulations on your new book, Mothers in Israel: Methodist Beginnings Through the Eyes of Women. Could you tell us a little bit about your writing process? How long did it take you to write this book?

            I’ve been interested in the “her-stories” of history since my undergraduate days at Meredith College, a four-year women’s college, and during seminary and while working on my doctorate, I researched and wrote several papers examining the lives and ministries of various women.  My D.Min. project was an exploration of the challenges of being a United Methodist clergywoman as viewed through a trinitarian lens of being created by God, called by Christ, and gifted by the Spirit for ministry.  This interest was reawakened in 2016 when I was part of a Wesley Pilgrimage to England, and after some preliminary research at Duke, I embarked on a sabbatical in the UK in 2017 where I visited and used the Methodist Archives in the John Rylands Library in Manchester.  Initially I was interested in the ways in which John Wesley was a spiritual advisor to women through his letters, but my focus began to shift more to the leadership roles of early Methodist women and their relationships with each other.  After attending a Writing For Your Life conference in 2018, I began to beef up my social media presence to “build a platform” to publicize my blog with an eye towards writing a book about early Methodist women.  I was fortunate to speak with someone at GBHEM about their Wesley’s Foundery Books imprint, and with the encouragement of my editor there, I began to write in earnest, completing the book in late April 2020 during the first part of the pandemic.

What was your favorite part about writing Mothers in Israel?

Perhaps my favorite thing about researching and writing about these faithful women of early Methodism was getting to look inside their innermost thoughts about their spiritual journeys and their ministries.  They struggled with many of the feelings of insecurity and anxiety about how best to answer God’s call that women and men continue to grapple with today, but they possessed an undeniable sense of the Spirit’s guidance through their reading of scripture and receiving the sacrament as well as through their preaching and even in dreams and visions.

 The pattern of prayer and constant listening for God and their desire to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ no matter what obstacles they encountered gave them a firm foundation on which to stand.  I hope my book will encourage all who read it in their own spiritual journeys.

What was the greatest challenge you faced while writing this book?

I had been reading and doing research for years, but I was trying to check a few more things at Duke when the pandemic hit, and everything pretty much shut down.

  At first, I thought that would really hinder me from writing the book I wanted to write.  Fortunately, although there was inevitably some impact, I was able to use my copious notes and personal books and of course, articles from the internet, to finish writing, and I was grateful to have that time during early lockdown so that I could devote myself to writing.

 It was difficult not to go down rabbit holes when I was looking things up – there are so many fascinating things I would love to read and write about – but my editor kept me on track!

Image description: The cover of the book shows a black and white sketch of a group of women dressed in 18th century clothing. Affiliate link.

Your book profiles many women from the early history of Methodism. Did you have a favorite woman that you discovered or learned more about while you were researching this book? Can you share more about her?

These women were all remarkable in their individual ways and in the ways in which they mentored each other. I really grew to love Mary Bosanquet Fletcher, and it helped that she left a written legacy of her own and that she was revered by people who also wrote about her. 

She was spiritually aware from a young age and was a mystic who often perceived God’s presence and guidance in dreams and visions.  As a young woman who encountered Methodist women in leadership roles and was influenced by them, she wrestled with following her own call into similar positions of authority and the impact that inevitably had on her family relationships.

 Putting herself out in front of people was “a sore cross” to her, but similarly to John Wesley, she declared herself ready to be “still more vile” if the Lord required it of her.  She was a part of a large network of women who mentored other women (and men) in ways that enriched and encouraged them in their speaking and preaching ministries. Her dedication, collegiality, and pure gutsiness made me want to know more about her!

During your research, did you discover any interesting stories or information about Wesley’s view of disability? Did Wesley or the early Methodist movement endorse any preachers with disabilities?

 That’s an interesting question!  Wesley believed that God’s desire for human beings was wholeness of body and spirit, and he urged people to drink water, to eat healthy food, to exercise, and to avoid caffeine.  He devoted an entire book, Primitive Physick, to sharing remedies for various ailments, but I don’t recall any specific mention of preachers with physical disabilities although he had plenty to say about their spiritual disabilities.

We know from his writings that John Wesley was anti-slavery. Did you discover any interesting information or stories about women in the early Methodist movement who were black or people of color?  

Because I was narrowly focused on the earliest English women of Methodism primarily in the 18th century, I did not have an opportunity to learn a great deal about black women or people of color.  However, I did receive an email from a woman who had done some research on an early woman preacher in Barbados named Sarah Ann Gill in the 19th century.  Born of a black mother and a white father, she was instrumental in opposing slavery and in preserving Methodism despite threats, persecution, and legal prosecution.  She is regarded as a national hero in Barbados.

Can you share more about your blog, Travels with Wesley?  What tips or advice do you have for other writers who would like to  establish an author platform?

I started my blog in 2017 prior to embarking on a sabbatical in the UK, as a way to keep people back home informed. It seemed only natural to name it Travels With Wesley since I was going to be constantly on the move while I was there, visiting many important early Methodist sites and researching at the Methodist Archives at the John Rylands Library in Manchester.

 I also started a Facebook page of the same name, and there are usually at least 3 posts a day on it, featuring various quotes, pictures, stories, etc. usually about the Wesleys and other figures from early Methodism.  Having a platform of people who are interested in what you have to say and who will perhaps even purchase a book once you write it is important because publishers today expect authors to take charge of publicizing their work.

 I don’t have a tremendous number of followers, but I know that there are people learning things about Methodism they would not otherwise know, and I am pleased to be a part of that.  And some of them are buying and reading my book, which is of course a wonderful thing!

After writing your book and doing all this research, what is the most important piece of advice you would give to other clergywomen?

There are two things I would say to other clergywomen.  One, ground yourself thoroughly in scripture, prayer, holy communion, and the other means of grace.  The strength the early Methodist women received from these channels of God’s grace sustained them in their difficult ministries, and they will sustain you, too.

Second, stay in connection with other clergywomen.  Uphold each other in prayer, offer encouragement and challenge when needed, and above all, watch over one another in love.  Those relationships were vitally important in nurturing  and mentoring the “Mothers in Israel,” and similar spiritual friendships can be transforming and healing for us today.

  Wesley and other early Methodists were firmly convinced of the importance of having spiritual companions, and it was an integral part of early Methodist life.  I think we should take every possible opportunity to revive this for ourselves.

Are you working on any other creative projects? What are you most excited about right now?

At present, I am appointed to a circuit just outside London in the Methodist Church in Britain, and since I am physically in North Carolina right now, most of my time is spent on Zoom as I attempt to serve my church folks across a distance of 4000 miles and a 5-hour time difference.  I have written a couple of devotional pieces for United Methodist Communications and for the West Hertfordshire and Borders Circuit, but I suspect it will be a long time before I consider writing another book.

Do you have anything else you would like to share?

Most Methodists are unaware of the role these women played in the development of the movement and of the debt we owe them.  I hope that clergy and laity, female and male, will read the book and learn from as well as learn about them.  They are wonderful companions for the spiritual journey, and their deep wisdom and faithful example will enrich and enliven our own faith while also giving us a fuller picture of what Methodism was like in its earliest years.

A green owl logo for Rev. Rebecca Writes
The logo shows a bright green owl with glasses holding a quill pen.

About the Interviewer: Rev. Rebecca L. Holland is the author of Through My Good Eye: A Memoir in Verse, The United Methodist Church and Disability, and Hope for the Broken: Using Writing to Find God’s Grace. She blogs about faith, books, and disability awareness. Please subscribe by typing your email in the box that says “subscribe,” so that you never miss a post! .

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