Maria Woodworth-Etter (1844–1924)
Grandmother of the Pentecostal Movement
Maria was born on July 22, 1844 to Samuel Lewis and Matilda Brittain Underwood. Her parents weren't Christians and therefore she had no religious education until her parents joined the Disciple church in 1854. Her first loss occurred in 1857 when her father went out to the field to work, but was carried back to the house with a severe case of sunstroke. Her mother was left with eight children and no support. Her mother and all the children old enough had to work to support the family.
When Maria was 13, she heard the story of the cross at a Disciples meeting and was converted. Soon after this, she reported that she heard the voice of God tell her to "go to the highways and hedges and gather in the lost sheep." This was confusing to her as the Disciples did not allow women workers. Also, at this time, women were not allowed to vote, let alone preach from a pulpit. She thought that perhaps if she married a Christian man, they could do missions work together.
A few years later, after the Civil War, Maria married Philo Harris Woodworth, a wounded soldier. They attempted to farm, but it was a failure. She had a son who died at a very young age. Maria then had another boy, Fred, who died, and she herself came close to dying. Georganna (Georgie), the second girl, was seven years old. She also became ill and lingered in terrible pain for several months, before she also died. Three weeks before Georgie died, a little girl named Nellie Gertrude (Gertie) was born. However, she only lived four months before she also died.
Maria herself struggled with poor health and many times thought that she would die. There was one remaining boy and girl left to the Etters. Willie, the seven-year-old boy, became ill and died within a few days. All told within a few years, five of the six Etter children had died, leaving them in great grief and sorrow. Elizabeth Cornelia (Lizzie), the oldest girl, was the only child left to them.
After disease had taken five of her six children, and never growing bitter against God, Maria reported having a vision that led her to dedicate her life to the ministry. She believed that God was calling her to preach to the lost. She began to search the Word and she discovered that women were used throughout the Bible by the Lord.
Moved by Joel's prophecy predicting that the Spirit of God would be poured out upon men and women, Maria continued in her studies. After God showed her a vision of His power, she humbly said "yes" to His call on her life.
Finally, a way was opened for her to speak at a Friend's meeting. When she got up to speak, she was given a vision of the pit of hell and people not knowing their danger. She cried out for people to follow God and choose to be saved. Although she felt called to continue in ministry, she did not know how to do that. She thought she would study, but she had a vision where she said that Jesus told her that souls were perishing and she could not wait to get ready.
Day and night, Maria felt the need to call sinners to repentance. She finally started in her local area and began to see many conversions. The power of God would fall and people would run to the front in repentance. Eventually, she held nine revival meetings and started two churches locally.
Due to the failure of the farm, Maria and her husband decided to start a traveling ministry. Maria preached wherever God called and moved through the Midwest where she gained a great reputation for the power of God coming into her meetings. Not long into her ministry, she felt God calling her to pray for the sick. She was resistant to doing so, because she feared that it would distract from the evangelistic call. She said that Jesus assured her that if she prayed for the sick, more people would be saved. She agreed and began praying for the sick and people were being healed.
Maria's meetings were characterized by great power, healings and visions. In 1884, she was licensed as an evangelist by the Churches of God Southern Assembly, which had been founded by John Winebrenner. Some of her meetings had over 25,000 attendees. She traveled with a tent and set it up wherever she had the opportunity.
1890-1900 were tough years for Maria. The dramatic occurrences in her meetings and life made her ministry highly controversial. She had resistance from both the religious and secular communities She was arrested in Framingham, Massachusetts for claiming to heal people, but was released when many came forward with their testimonies. In St. Louis, Missouri, she had some of her most dramatic meetings in 1890 and 1891, but local psychiatrists filed charges of insanity against her for claiming that she saw visions of God.
In one of Maria's meetings in 1890, an man named Ericson prophesied that San Francisco and Oakland would be devastated by an earthquake and tidal wave on April 14th. This created quite a stir and the group was given extensive (negative) media coverage. April 14th came and went without the promised destruction and Ericson was institutionalized for his prophesy and her ministry team left town. (It is interesting to note that when a major earthquake did occur in San Francisco on April 18, 1906, Maria and many of her supporters felt that they had been vindicated about the 1890 prophesy.)
In 1891, Maria divorced her husband for infidelity. He was bitter and threatened to write a critical book about her ministry if she did not pay alimony. He died of typhoid within a year of the divorce. Maria continued her ministry with friends and associates. Even her own denomination struggled with what was happening in her meetings and she came under considerable pressure to stop. In 1900, she finally bowed to the pressure and gave up her Evangelist's license in the Southern Eldership of the Church of God. She was on her own.
Maria traveled extensively and met Samuel Etter in 1902 in Arkansas. They married and worked together for the next several years. It is clear that Maria knew about the Azusa Street meetings and later talked about her approval of the power of God shown there. In 1912, she and Samuel ministered at a five-month long meeting in Dallas, Texas. This meeting was widely reported in Pentecostal circles and her ministry blossomed from that point on.
In Pentecostal circles, many of the unusual things Maria had experienced caused her to be considered a forerunner in experiences with the Holy Spirit. She was well known as "Mother Etter." She continued to travel and minister, but Samuel became ill and eventually died in August of 1914. The strain of her husband's illness and death, coupled with a grueling three-meeting-a-day ministry schedule caused Maria to become ill herself with pneumonia in November 1914.
At 67, she was feeling close to death, but she claims to have had a vision of God as the conqueror of death and disease. She believed it was not her time to die. By the end of January 1915, she was back on the road ministering again.
Finally in 1918, after spending over 45 years of her life preaching thousands of sermons across America, Maria felt called to start a church in Indianapolis where she built her Tabernacle (now Lakeview Church). It drew many future leaders of the revival. She used it as a conference center, and often traveled from there to minister and preach in the Midwest.
Six years later, after having buried her five children and two husbands, her health declined. She lived next door to the church building, so the people built a big wooden chair for her and when she was too weak to walk to services, some men would take the chair to her house, put her in it, and carry her to the church building. The moment the chair hit the floor, she would gain strength and get up to preach.
Maria died at age 80 on September 16, 1924, honored as a woman of God. She is buried in a grave in Indianapolis next to her daughter and son-in-law. Her inscription reads "Thou showest unto thousands lovingkindness."
Maria's ministry had been simple, but accompanied by large demonstrations of power and thousands of converts.
Here is one of Maria's writings:
"My dear sister in Christ, as you hear these words, may the Spirit of Christ come upon you, and make you willing to do the work the Lord has assigned you. It is high time for women to let their light shine; to bring out their talents that have been hidden away rusting; and use them for the glory of God, and do with their might what their hands find to do, trusting God for strength, Who has said 'I will never leave you.'
"Let us not plead weakness; God will use the weak things of the world to confound the wise. We are sons and daughters of the Most High God. Should we not honor our high calling and do all we can to save those who sit in the valley and shadow of death? Did He not send Moses, Aaron and Miriam to be your leaders? The Lord raised up men, women and children of His own choosing. Is it less becoming for women to labor in Christ's kingdom and vineyard now as it was then?