Your sons and your daughters will prophesy (COMMENTARY)

SONY DSCBy Chris Momany

In 1893, one of America’s theological seminaries was in a fix. The commencement season had come, and graduates of this institution traditionally presented a brief public address during closing exercises. However, in 1893 a woman would receive her degree, and the faculty did not deem it appropriate for her to speak in public! So the powers of that school suggested a “compromise.” She could have her address read – by one of the male graduates. The young woman declined this so-called gesture and stood firm. Finally, the faculty concluded that there was only one resolution to the situation. No one would give an address that year!

How many times has the church chosen to muzzle its proclamation before honoring the gifts of those called?

The woman was Lee Anna Starr, and she went on to live faithfully as a tough-minded scholar and compassionate pastor in the Methodist Protestant Church. Among other venues, she served at Adrian College in Michigan (where I am privileged to work). Every now and again I read about someone who has “gone to glory” and wish I had known them in the here and now. Lee Anna Starr is one of those saints. I imagine she would have been a wise and spirited friend.

Starr was born in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1853. She was ordained in 1895 and served a number of congregations in Illinois before coming to Adrian College. On our campus she integrated the role of pastor/scholar. Starr modeled both academic rigor and spiritual depth. She was a noted speaker in the Temperance Movement and appeared in pulpits and on lecture platforms in almost every state of the union. She was arrested three times for demonstrating against the alcohol industry and the way it profited from addiction.

Her scholarship was astounding. Starr’s 1900 article on “The Ministry of Women” confronted the exclusion of women from ordained ministry. In 1926 she offered a lengthy, 416-page academic study of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures and their teaching regarding gender issues. The Bible Status of Woman received wide acclaim and was published well into the 1950s. Dr. Starr acknowledged that many interpreted the Bible as prohibiting the ordination of women, and she knew very well that some dismissed Scripture as no friend to equal rights. Lee Anna Starr chose a third perspective. As a Christian her commitment to biblical authority was unshakable. As a woman called of God, she insisted that gifts for ministry are not bestowed according to some exclusionary criteria. Starr argued that the dynamism of the Bible had been held captive by our patriarchal culture. Only when the text is read as God desires (not as dominant powers desire) will we hear the Good News. At one point she offered an especially pithy challenge: “Not the Bible, but religious hierarchs, have effected the subordination of woman.”

Today many students of feminist theory overlook Starr. At the same time, many scholars from traditions that have not supported gender equality are mining her wisdom to challenge the status quo. She has much to offer all perspectives. Moreover, the fact that she was rooted in the Methodist Protestant tradition confounds mainline researchers. Contemporary bias often presumes that the genteel and urbane social advancement of the Methodist Episcopal traditions coincided with progressive views. This was not necessarily so.

Lee Anna Starr is hard to force into neat and clean contemporary categories, and I imagine that this is exactly how she intended her life to shine. Near the end of her book, she reflected on the powerful language of Joel 2:28: “So long as we follow the Divine plan, the cause of God will not be disturbed, and the Divine plan is that the daughters, as well as the sons, ‘shall prophesy.’”

The Rev. Dr. Lee Anna Starr is certainly among the folks I want to meet in heaven. Maybe it’s not too late for a challenging, mind-bending, Spirit-filled friendship.

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist

Chris Momany

Chris Momany has been chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College since 1996 and has taught in the Department of Philosophy/Religion since 1998. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and a graduate of Adrian College, Princeton Theological Seminary, and Drew University. His academic interests focus on Christian ethics and philosophy. He has been published in the Christian Century, the Wesleyan Theological Journal, The Asbury Theological Journal, the Circuit Rider magazine, the United Methodist Reporter, and other venues. Chris also writes for the Daily Bible Study curriculum of the United Methodist Publishing House and for MinistryMatters, an online ministry resource. His book on the Wesleyan ethic of love and justice bears the title, Doing Good: A Grace-Filled Approach to Holiness. Chris has led many conferences, workshops, and continuing education events. For several years he has combined his research and teaching with a focus on human trafficking. Today it is estimated that 27 million people are held as slaves throughout the world. Chris has been a national leader among college and church professionals in confronting this issue.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Chris Momany, UMR ColumnistPaul W.jamesGeorge Nixon ShulerChris Momany, UMR Columnist Recent comment authors
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Paul W.
Paul W.

Excellent article! When I went to look up more information on Dr. Starr, I found surprisingly little on the interwebs, which is a shame since she is noted in many places for her translation of von Harnack’s argument for Priscilla’s authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (All the download links I found to her writings turned out to be fake so be very wary if you try). Does anyone know a working link where I could find either the article or book referenced in the article? Thanks!

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Chris Momany

Paul: If nothing else, I would be happy to mail you the 1900 piece. The 1926 book should be “out there,” but I have been relying on my own hard copy. Let me know.

Paul W.
Paul W.

Many thanks for your kind offer! In the meantime, I did come across what appears to be a good book (Janette Hassey’s No Time for Silence – Evangelical Women in Public Ministry Around the Turn of the Century) that discusses Dr. Starr’s writings in the larger context of Evangelical scholarship and women in ministry at that time. I know very little about this topic, so if there are better books available, I would be quite interested in your recommendations. Thanks!

Chris Momany, UMR Columnist
Chris Momany

I have that one, too. A good read that is more general in exploring the history of evangelical women and church leadership is Nancy Hardesty’s, Women Called to Witness. Then there is Don Dayton’s classic piece from the 70s that was just re-issued with Doug Strong’s commentary: Re-discovering an Evangelical Heritage.

Jim Searls


Good piece. Interesting read about LeAnn Starr. A note for historical accuracy: She was born in Point Plesant, Virginia. West Virginia did not become a state until 1863 when the 55 counties west of the Alleghenies, broke away from Virginia to remain with the Union.

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