David Littlewood looks at the life of evangelist Maria Woodworth-Etter.
“She goes at it like a footpad [highwayman] tackles his prey. By some supernatural power she just knocks ’em silly when they are not looking for it, and while they are down she applies the hydraulic pressure and pumps the grace of God into them by the bucketful.”
This was part of an 1885 newspaper report of meetings held by a remarkable woman evangelist in which hundreds found Christ. So many, in fact, that the police said they had never seen such a change in their city, which had been so cleaned up they had nothing to do!
The evangelist was Maria Woodworth-Etter, a woman who Pentecostal historian Carl Brumback described as ‘looking just like your grandmother, but who exercised tremendous spiritual authority over sin, disease, and demons’.
Like many of the Pentecostal pioneers of her generation, Maria (pronounced Mar-eye-ah) was brought up with little education, having been born on a farm in Lisbon, Ohio, in 1844. The tragic death of her father when she was just twelve years of age meant she had to drop out of school and led to the lack of education that later disqualified her from any formal theological training.
Maria was born again at the beginning of the Third Great Awakening at the age of 13 and immediately heard the call of God: “I heard the voice of Jesus calling me to go out into the highways and hedges and gather in the lost sheep.”
Even though her church – The Disciples of Christ – did not recognise women ministers, she felt the call to preach. Feeling the need to marry, Maria sadly made a disastrous choice in PH Woodworth, a farmer who was only nominally religious and who over the years generally hindered her ministry call. Woodworth, who appeared more interested in making money than winning souls, fathered her six children, five of whom tragically died young.
With her life in turmoil through the loss of her children and the nagging call of God within to preach, Maria searched the Scriptures for guidance. Here she found Joel’s prophecy that the Spirit would be poured out on both men and women. She then had a vision in which angels came into her room. They took her to the West where she saw fields of waving golden grain, which began to fall like sheaves when she preached.
Feeling totally inadequate, Maria asked God for the same power as the Galilean fishermen: “The power of the Holy Ghost came down like a cloud. It was brighter than the sun. I was covered and wrapped in it. I was baptised with the Holy Ghost, and fire, and power, which has never left me. There was liquid fire, and the angels were all around me in fire and glory.”
When she protested that she had no education, the Lord gave her a vision in which he miraculously taught her the Bible. He told her, “Go and I will be with you… Go here, go there, wherever souls are perishing.”
Humanly unschooled and relying entirely on the Holy Spirit for what to say, Maria launched her preaching ministry in 1880 in a place nicknamed the ‘Devil’s Den’ because of its wickedness. Tremendous conviction came upon her hearers and people cried and fell to the floor in repentance. Then, as she had seen in her vision, extraordinary manifestations began to take place which marked out her ministry.
She later wrote: “Fifteen came to the altar screaming for mercy. Men and women fell and lay like dead. I had never seen anything like this. I felt it was the work of God but did not know how to explain it or what to say.” After lying on the floor for some time, the people arose with shining faces, shouting the praises of God.
These ‘trances’ (which Etter called ‘the power’) became a major talking point. People would often fall into trances, have a vision of heaven and hell and get up soundly saved. Even on their way home from a meeting or in their homes miles away, people would fall under the power of God. Maria herself often went into a trance during a service, standing like a statue for an hour or more with her hands raised while the meeting continued.
What was the secret of her power? Obviously a very full and powerful prayer life. It is significant that after the great evangelist John G Lake met her in 1913, he always told his people to ‘pray like Mother Etter’.
Maria saw the truth of divine healing in the Scriptures and began to pray for the sick. Her methods, like Smith Wigglesworth’s years later, were sometimes unorthodox! One young boy had tuberculosis and had developed a tumour the size of a fist. When his mother brought him for prayer, Etter said, “We’ll just cut that out with the sword of the Spirit,” and whacked the lad on the neck with her Bible! The boy, Roscoe Russell, was completely healed and later became an evangelist.
Etter was also the only leading Holiness evangelist to embrace speaking in tongues, which she equated with her experience of the 1880s as the baptism in the Holy Spirit. In fact, speaking in tongues became a feature of her meetings, with foreign utterances sometimes being recognised and people finding Christ as a result.
Sadly, life with her husband went from bad to worse and eventually ended in divorce in 1891 due to Woodworth’s infidelity. He died 18 months later and Maria married the faithful Samuel Etter, with whom she enjoyed some years of happiness.
In 1918 Maria built a 500-seater church in Indianapolis called ‘The Tabernacle’ where she ministered during the last six years of her life. Even when her health finally began to fail, she refused to give up preaching. If she had to be carried to church, the minute her feet hit the platform she would be quickened by the Spirit of God and walk up and down preaching under supernatural power.
Maria Woodworth-Etter died in 1924 aged 80. With a ministry of signs and wonders that echoed the Acts of the Apostles, she has well been described as the ‘Mother of Pentecost’.
From iBelieve Magazine issue 77.