Maria Woodworth-Etter: A Powerful Voice in the Pentecostal Vanguard
When the Assemblies of God came on the scene in 1914, there were few questions about where the Fellowship stood on the often divisive subject of signs and wonders. And one who helped keep that subject on a positive note with her dynamic preaching and remarkable faith was the legendary evangelist Maria B. Woodworth-Etter.
By 1914 the 70-year-old Mrs. Etter had grown hoarse from preaching scores of tent meetings coast to coast, but she was hardly ready to slow down. She was not yet ready to turn over her weather-beaten tent and railroad discount book to newcomers such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Smith Wigglesworth.
Because of the open-arms acceptance of Assemblies of God congregations and others, Maria would keep preaching right up to her death in 1924. But before she gave her mantle to another, she established what is now Lakeview Temple in Indianapolis.
Signs of Woodworth-Etter's Ministry
Throughout early Pentecostal history, we see Maria Woodworth-Etter's footprints from coast to coast. All who have studied Assemblies of God history know that the organizational meetingplace was in the old opera house in Hot Springs, Arkansas, April 1914. What is not generally known, however, is that some of the founders—including E.N. Bell, Howard Goss, and D.C.O. Opperman—sponsored evangelist Etter in revival meetings in the same opera house during the fall of 1913, drawing big crowds of people who came because of the promised signs and wonders.
Reports of the meetings in the Word and Witness and the Christian Evangel (now Pentecostal Evangel) gave credence to her ministry and sparked invitations to such widely scattered places during the next 10 years as Meridian, Mississippi; Atlanta; Chicago; Fremont, Nebraska; Cincinnati; San Francisco; Dallas; Sikeston, Missouri; Ottumwa, Iowa; Topeka; Los Angeles; Kansas City; Denver; and Phoenix.
The 1915 Topeka meeting saw a dramatic healing of 10-year-old Louis Romer who, at the age of 92, is still around to tell about it. Suffering with what was known as St. Vitus' dance (chorea), Louis shook so badly he couldn't feed himself, and his toes bent under his feet, preventing him from wearing shoes. He had little hope outside a miracle, for life expectancy of chorea victims in that day was only 13.
Louis, who now lives in Lowell, Oregon, remembers that August camp meeting as if it happened only yesterday. "Sister Etter laid her hands on my head, and I felt a cooling of my nerves as a tingling warmth went through my body."1
Then his hands and feet straightened. "I felt so good I cried," Louis said. "All of this happened in less time than it takes to tell it."2
Mrs. Romer knew it was a miracle. She and Louis went shopping for a pair of shoes. Even the Topeka Capital was caught up in the healing when they referred to Louis in a headline as "Boy Cured by Miracle." He was never afflicted with the shaking again and seemed to be attracted to challenging work and hobbies that require a steady hand: marksman, sailor, electrician, and lapidary.3
In the Vanguard of the Pentecostal Movement
Evangelist Woodworth-Etter in 1880 began her dynamic ministry—despite the fact that she had little formal education and didn't start preaching until she was age 35. She had a husband who didn't share her call to the ministry and wanted nothing more than to stay on their Ohio farm. Even though few women were in the pulpit at the time, Maria didn't doubt her call.
She had gone coast to coast at least three times by 1894. In her earlier ministry she emphasized conversions and was very successful in meetings sponsored by Methodists, United Brethren, Churches of God (Winebrenner), and other groups. Then in 1883 people in her meetings began going into trances similar to what happened in the Early Frontier meetings.
She was soon dubbed the "Trance Evangelist," though she believed the experience was the baptism in the Holy Spirit or "receiving the power." During an 1883 meeting in Fairview, Ohio, Maria wrote that the people confessed sin and "prayed for a baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire."4 Fifteen people came to the altar screaming for mercy and fell over in trances. Even at that early date, Maria called it "the Pentecostal power," adding that "these outpourings of the Holy Ghost were always followed by hundreds coming to Christ."5
In a huge meeting in Alexandria, Indiana, Maria reported that the power of God took control of about 500 of the 25,000 people, causing many to fall to the ground. "The Holy Ghost sat upon them," she wrote. "I was overpowered."6
By 1885 she had developed a theology that included salvation, holiness, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, healing, and the imminent return of Christ. She was also big on prophecies—part of the excitement that helped fill an 8,000-seat tent from city to city.
An 1887 newspaper quoted Maria in an Illinois meeting, giving her a powerful voice before the beginning of the Pentecostal movement.
"The power which was given to the apostles in their day had never been taken from the church. The trouble was, the churches had sunk to the level of the world and were without the unlimited faith that will heal the sick and make the lame to walk. She prayed for the return of the old days and more faith in Christ among the people."7
The power demonstrated in her 1889-90 Oakland meeting was nothing new, she claimed. A San Francisco Examiner reporter wrote, "The evangelist described in a fervid manner the Day of Pentecost and claimed that the power that caused her converts to act as drunken men was the same today as in that wonderful day."8
Ten years before Charles F. Parham's Pentecostal experiences in Topeka, Kansas, Maria wrote about a meeting she conducted there. The city was stirred, sinners were converted, and "a number of bodies were healed of different diseases, and a number laid out as dead under the power of God."9 Then during the winter of 1893-94 she conducted a meeting in Los Angeles. Here is a summary of that meeting as published in her 1894 book:
"While we stood between the living and the dead, preaching the gospel on the apostolic line, earnestly contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, proving to the people that Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, according to the Lord's promise, He was with us, confirming His Word with mighty signs and wonders following."10
When she held a meeting in Louisville during the summer and fall of 1888, the Courier-Journal reported, "Fifteen persons asked to be prayed for preparatory to fully receiving the Holy Spirit." In commenting on a meeting she held in Indianapolis in 1891, Maria wrote, "A number of God's children received the anointing for service. They obeyed the command of Jesus, 'Tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem, until ye shall be endued with power from on high.' "11
If 19th-century believers would meet God's conditions, as the 120 did on the Day of Pentecost, Maria often preached, they would have the same results.
"A mighty revival would break out that would shake the world, and thousands of souls would be saved. The displays of God's power on the Day of Pentecost were only a sample of what God designed should follow through the ages. Instead of looking back to Pentecost, let us always be expecting it to come, especially in these days."12
The Early Pentecostal Movement
It is difficult to determine just when Maria Woodworth-Etter found her place in the Pentecostal movement, but we know she was very active by 1912.
In the beginning she said she held back because of what she felt was false teaching in the Movement. In her opinion, some of the people went to extremes on speaking in tongues, and others wanted the Holy Spirit to work their way, not His. She said her rule was simple: "Let the Holy Ghost work in any way that agrees with the Word of God."13
Apparently Maria was able to work out differences with other Pentecostals as most of them warmly accepted her the rest of her life. She looked at the Pentecostal movement as the greatest thing to happen to the church since the Day of Pentecost. Without a doubt, her 19th-century campaigns helped prepare the way for the 20th-century outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
After a rather quiet period between 190412, Maria hit the sawdust trail with the vigor she demonstrated in her 1880s campaigns. The role Maria played between 1912 and her death in 1924 is unique, providing a veteran "name" evangelist for the young Movement. Pentecostals called for her from all over the country. Others around the world read her books that reported high-powered meetings, remarkable conversions, healings, and a great number of church plantings. In addition, Maria used books to publish her sermons.
One of the calls she accepted came from Fred F. Bosworth, a young pastor in Dallas, who later became a well-known evangelist himself. Despite the fact that the 1912 meeting proved to be a key Pentecostal meeting, the Dallas newspapers practically ignored the thousands who were meeting daily and nightly for almost 5 months. Bosworth, however, kept the news flowing into Christian publications around the world.
R.J. Scott, a Christian businessman associated with the Azusa Street Mission, traveled to Dallas to check out Maria's Pentecostal ministry. He liked what he heard and invited her as the main speaker for the Worldwide Camp Meeting he was planning for the spring of 1913 at Arroyo Seco, near Pasadena.
The Arroyo Seco meeting became another key Pentecostal gathering in the early years of the revival. Evangelist A.C. Valdez, Sr., was a teenager at the time of the Arroyo Seco meeting, and when he was in his eighties he fondly looked back to the meeting. Maria was sickly herself and sometimes had to be carried to the crude platform. But Valdez added, "There was nothing sickly, pale, or weak about her ministering. Once her equally ill husband joined her, she raised her small hands and the power of the Holy Spirit electrified us all."14
Two children who never forgot Arroyo Seco became well-known Pentecostal evangelists, Watson and Zelma Argue. They were filled with the Spirit in a children's service, and Zelma wrote that Maria was insistent that those who received prayer lift their hands to praise and give glory to God. And when they did, she added, the power came down.15
G.T. Haywood, a well-known and influential black Pentecostal, published a report in his paper about the Worldwide Camp Meeting. He cited the many who were healed during the meeting "through the instrumentality of His humble servant, Sister Etter.... On one occasion many were healed as Sister Etter raised her hands toward heaven while she was leaving the tent."16
The Woodworth-Etter train rolled into Chicago late in 1913, and several Pentecostal missions cooperated with the Stone Church in a campaign. Anna C. Reiff, editor of the Latter Rain Evangel and former secretary to John Alexander Dowie, described the meetings as Chicago's "mightiest visitation of the supernatural she has ever known." Evangelist A.H. Argue echoed that remark, stating it was the "mightiest visitation from God of these latter days."17
Honoring Sister Etter
A great number of people in the early years of the Pentecostal movement looked at Maria as a saint. Historian Carl Brumback said she "looked just like your grandmother, but who exercised tremendous spiritual authority over sin, disease, and demons."18
M.M. Pinson praised Maria in a 1913 article published in Word and Witness, stating that she was not trying to build up a "one-man" organization but is "trying to spread the full gospel as recorded in the Book of Acts. She takes her stand with other leading Pentecostal preachers against false manifestations, which is right, and she takes her stand for the real Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit with the signs following.... God is healing people in answer to prayer by this woman."19
Another early Pentecostal leader, Robert J. Craig, pastor of Glad Tidings Temple, San Francisco, and cofounder of what is now Bethany College, Scotts Valley, California, wrote a report on Maria for the Weekly Evangel. He urged ministers to use her life and ministry as an example. "If the Pentecostal ministry would study her life and count on God, expecting the supernatural to be revealed in each meeting, what a mighty agency ours would be in the hands of God."20
Despite the accolades, Maria was aware that if some men in the Pentecostal movement could get their way, she and other women would have been behind the scenes and given little authority. David Lee Floyd, who attended Maria's meeting in Hot Springs, Arkansas, in 1913, told me that the local leadershipwhich included E.N. Bell, D.C.O. Opperman, and Howard Gossappreciated Maria's ministry but was careful not to give her "too much authority."
The Woodworth-Etter Books
Many who read Maria's colorful journal-type books put them next to the Bible in importance. Fred Bosworth, for example, helped spread her fame and credibility by wishing that "all the saints in the Pentecostal movement had a copy of Sister Etter's book. It is such a help to faith! There has been no such record written since the 'Acts of the Apostles' recording such continuous victories by the Lord in our day over sin and sickness."21
Stanley Smith, a member of the famous Cambridge Seven missionary group, which included C.T. Studd, wrote a testimonial about Maria's Acts of the Holy Ghost, which was reprinted in her 1916 book, Signs and Wonders. "It is a book I value next to the Bible," he wrote. "I venture to think that this ministry is unparalleled in the history of the Church."22
Apparently many other people valued Maria's books "next to the Bible." W.J. Mortlock, a minister and editor for Maria, wrote in her 1922 Marvels and Miracles that her big books had sold 25,000 copies from about 191221. And that was during the beginning years of the Pentecostal movement.
But that's not all. Abridged editions and other book portions were published in French, Italian, Danish, Swedish, Egyptian, Hindustani, and other dialects of India and South America.
A Swiss woman, Mlle. Biolley, translated Signs and Wonders into French in 1919. Robert Label, a French Pentecostal minister who wrote the preface to the 5th edition, commented that the Pentecostal revival in France can be attributed in a certain measure to the ministry of Maria's books.
1. Wayne E. Warner, The Woman Evangelist, The Life and Times of Charismatic Evangelist Maria B. Woodworth-Etter (Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1986), 180, 234.
4. Maria Beulah Woodworth, The Life, Work, and Experiences of Maria Beulah Woodworth (St. Louis: by author, 1894), 54. I have found only one reference to speaking in tongues [in her 1885 book] prior to 1900. She told of her husband's conversion in 1885 when he "seemed to speak with other tongues."
5. Ibid., 202.
6. Ibid., 202.
7. Decatur (Ill.) Daily Republican (September 10, 1887).
8. San Francisco Examiner (January 9, 1890). Woodworth added in this interview that "ministers who fall into line with the meetings are led out to seek more power." In the April 13, 1890, edition the Examiner told of people seeking the power, "fervently praying to be baptized in it."
9. Woodworth, 364.
10. Ibid., 428. This meeting in Los Angeles continued 5 months.
11. Louisville Courier-Journal (August 24, 1888); Woodworth, 359.
12. Woodworth, 437-38.
13. Maria Woodworth-Etter, Marvels and Miracles (Indianapolis: by author, 1922), 501.
14. A.C. Valdez, Fire on Azusa Street (Costa Mesa: Gift Publications, 1980), 41-42.
15. Zelma Argue, "Act Your Faith," Pentecostal Evangel (July 19, 1959): 8-9.
16. Maria Woodworth-Etter, Signs and Wonders (Tulsa: Harrison House, 1980), 253.
17. Anna C. Reiff, "The Day of Chicago's Visitation," Latter Rain Evangel (August 1913): 2-3.
18. Carl Brumback, Suddenly...From Heaven (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1961), 27.
19. Word and Witness (Dec. 20, 1913). This issue also published the "Call" to Hot Springs, Arkansas, which resulted in organizing the Assemblies of God.
20. The Weekly Evangel (December 16, 1916).
21. F.F. Bosworth, "The Wonders of God in Dallas," Word and Witness (August 20, 1912): 3.
22. Woodworth-Etter, Signs and Wonders, 7.23. Warner, 263.