The Lord gives the command; the women who proclaim good news are a great army. — Psalm 68:11, NASB
There is a prophecy in Ps. 68:11. . . . I fully believe that that prophecy referred especially to woman’s work in the church; that all these efforts by women have been in the line of its fulfillment, but that its real accomplishment is still future. All former efforts have led up and prepared the way; they have been in the nature of a John the Baptist to the last proclamation by the great host of woman-messengers which shall prepare the world for the return of our Lord. This last work must be done by women who have been trained both in the knowledge of, and in obedience to, the truth; who can be trusted to stand against the wiles of Satan, the lusts of the flesh, and any flattering suggestions from ambitious men; but supported by the practical sympathy of men who are so true to principle as to be able to recognize that woman alone can do the work of woman.
I believe that in this message to my sisters God has made a call for a company who can be trusted with the very heart of the third angel’s message; who will stand against the temptations and perils of the last days; who will with patient endurance and cheerful self-renunciation take this gospel to those who [cannot] be otherwise reached.—A Woman-Ministry or The Gospel in the Home by Mrs. S.M.I. Henry, p. 11. (https://bit.ly/3oykQsf)
In the late 1800s, Sarepta Myrenda Irish Henry was one of America’s most potent voices fighting against liquor consumption. After learning that someone enticed her youngest son into a saloon, she sprung into action and galvanized women in her city to start a vigorous campaign to protect Christian homes against this vice. Such public actions were quite contrary to her nature. She said of herself, “No woman could suffer more from timidity in public work than I have suffered, or than I would suffer continually if it were not for the courage, the strength, which is breathed into me from the Spirit of God,”—Supplement to the Review and Herald, December 6, 1898, p. 2.
After 20 years of traveling around the country as the national evangelist of the then newly-organized Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and writing tracts, pamphlets, and books on the subject, she became extremely ill. Broken and bedridden, Henry checked into the Battle Creek Sanitarium for treatment. While there, S.M.I. Henry learned of the Sabbath and was baptized into the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1897.
As Henry resumed her WCTU work, she added Adventist camp meetings and churches to her itinerary and even preached to 2,500 people in the Dime Tabernacle in Battle Creek, Michigan. During 1898, Henry met scores of Adventists at various camp meetings, but she was particularly moved after encountering Adventist women. “There has been growing in my heart something that I did not dare express to [anyone]. I felt that our women are dying spiritually,—dying to the truth while wrapped about with its traditions, simply because they are not using it. Truth to them is like salt that has lost its savor. . . . I could see how God could use our women in His work for those who need to know what His word really teaches, what Christ really means to a lost world. . . . A great longing sprang up in my heart for re-enforcement from the ranks of our women, who know many things so much better than I do, and who could bring so much power to the work of God in the world”—Supplement to the Review and Herald, December 6, 1898, p. 1.
While she was serving in Australia, Ellen G. White wrote to Henry: “I have thought, with your experience, under the supervision of God, you could exert your influence to set in operation lines of work for the Lord. There certainly should be a larger number of women engaged in the work of ministering to suffering humanity, uplifting, educating them how to believe—simply believe—in Jesus Christ our Saviour.”
The General Conference (GC) organized the Women’s Gospel Work department in 1898 under the leadership of S.M.I. Henry. From 1897 through March 1900, Henry wrote a column for The Review and Herald—“Women’s Gospel Work”—and traveled extensively to encourage women to answer God’s call to ministry—especially in their homes and circles of influence. On March 4, 1899, Henry gave a Sabbath-morning address during the 33rd General Conference Session in South Lancaster, Massachusetts, about the urgent work needed to be done in Adventist homes. She boldly declared, “For some reason the gospel has never gone as it ought to have gone. . . . There has seemed to be something not discernible upon the surface, which has hindered the progress of the gospel; and I want to tell you brethren, no matter how much you may look abroad for these things, how much these hindrances may seem to come from the world, I want to tell you that if everything was all right in the homes which are represented by these people, the gates of hell could not prevail against you”—The Daily Bulletin of the General Conference, March 7, 1899, p. 172.
Hundreds of letters from Adventist women across the country poured in asking Henry how to begin a work for the Lord. In her booklet A Woman-Ministry (p. 40), she wrote: “First of all it is necessary to be filled with the Holy Spirit. . . . A great work is in our hands; a work which no woman can perform alone. It will take the whole body of this people—the prayers and faith of men and women, as well as the power of God, to do that work which God has laid upon us as women. . . . This woman-ministry is the very core, the vital point of the gospel message. That message [cannot] go without the women of the church.”
Henry wrote of women being “God’s chief builder in the earth; she is His peculiar chosen instrument. Because of this, Satan has tried . . . to keep her where God could not use her in the work of rescuing the world, which she helped to ruin. God has made an imperative call for us to come to His help”—Supplement to the Review and Herald, December 6, 1898, p. 2. She worked tirelessly for the “woman ministry” and sought to organize an army of Adventist women knowledgeable in God’s Word, encouraging each other, and intentionally making their lives count for Jesus.
On January 16, 1900, S.M.I. Henry died suddenly. The nine-person team working alongside her on the GC Committee on Woman’s Work attempted to keep the work going. Sadly, the weekly column disappeared in 1901, and the vision perished. More than 70 years would pass before the church would broach the subject of a specialized ministry for women, and it took another 22 years for the concept to gain momentum. In 1989, the North American Division began Women’s Ministries, and a year later, General Conference delegates voted to form the Office of Women’s Ministries during the Annual Council. Five years later, delegates at the 1995 General Conference Session voted for a full Women’s Ministries department.
While progress has been made, albeit slow, Kit Watts, former Adventist Review assistant editor, asked a probing question in an editorial entitled “Forgotten Heritage” (Adventist Review, March 16, 1989, p. 5). That question still needs answering: “Are we today ready to advance to the ground on which Ellen White and the brethren . . . stood when they recognized women’s potential?” Asked from a different angle, Are we ready to rise up as a “mighty army” of women to proclaim the good news of the gospel and herald the end-time message of the three angels? Henry raised the alarm even louder in a startling statement: “This work [cannot] be done without women; and if His coming is delayed, we shall be largely to blame”—Supplement to the Review and Herald, December 6, 1898, p. 3.
In her letter to S.M.I. Henry, Ellen White wrote: “When believing women shall feel the burden for souls—the burden of sins not their own—they will work as Christ worked. They will consider no sacrifice too great to win souls for Christ”—Supplement to the Review and Herald, December 6, 1898, p. 2. There is a great and solemn work to do, ladies. Let us reclaim our forgotten heritage! God wants YOU! Our time is now. Let us move forward as one in the power of the Holy Spirit, trim our lamps, arise, and shine!