Dorothy Ripley (1767-1831) was a British evangelist who came to America in 1801 and in 1831 died in Virginia. She was a Quaker by confession, though she had been raised a Methodist. She traveled thousands of miles in both the United States and Britain on the camp meeting circuit. She was an effective evangelist. She also ministered to many of the disenfranchised, including the Oneida people, men and women in prison, and especially African slaves in the American south. She was self-published six times, with three of her books receiving a second printing. She crossed the Atlantic at least 9 times, most of those times traveling alone. At her death, one newspaper wrote in her obituary that she was “perhaps the most extraordinary woman in the world.”
Ripley was born in the city of Whitby, in England. Her father, William was a close associate of John Wesley. Wesley called William "a burning and shining light." William was working with Wesley at a time when the founder of Methodism was encouraging woman to become preachers. William desired that his child, before he knew her gender, was going to be preacher. He encouraged her toward that vocation for as long as he was alive. Ripley’s father died in her teen years, leaving the family in difficult financial straits. They suffered a number of other setbacks, including the loss of family members to early death, and a landslide which destroyed their family home. These incidents had a profound impact on her.
Believing that she was called to Christian ministry, and not wanting to be tied down by the responsibilities of marriage, Ripley chose a life of singleness.
Dorothy traveled north and south engaged in itinerant preaching in the United States. She spent a great deal of time in New York, South Carolina and Georgia.
Ripley faced many challenges from her culture including the hostility of both men and women toward female preachers. She was accused of being a lewd woman for allowing herself to be viewed publicly as a spectacle. A few of her opponents also accused her of prostituting herself, as she did not have an income as a means of regular support: her first years as a missionary were funded entirely by faith through the donations from people who believed in her ministry. This practice explains the title of her second book, The Bank of Faith and Works United. She persevered, and often ended up winning over her opponents through the effect of her preaching upon large crowds.
Ripley felt a burden from childhood for the slaves in America. On arriving in 1801 for her first trip to America, she gained an audience with Thomas Jefferson in order to ask for his permission to minister to slaves, preach to slave owners, and seek help for a free school to educated freed African slaves. During the meeting she rebuked the President for his slave ownership. She declared to him that she was particularly concerned for the African women who were being exploited by their slave owners. She secured the "approbation" of the President for her work. When in the south she ministered directly to African slaves, and taught their slave owners that they ought to give up their slaves.
Ripley also preached in many African-American churches. She preached for Rev. Absalom Jones' church on one occasion, and for Rev. Richard Allen (bishop) on another. Allen had been very hesitant to permit Ripley to preach at his church in 1802, but encouraged by some of his members, allowed her to do so. Later, Ripley would be one of the speakers, with Rev. Allen and several other male preachers, in 1818. It is quite possible that with her example before him, Rev. Allen felt comfortable ordaining Jarena Lee in 1819.
In January 1806, Ripley also preached at a church service held inside the United States Capitol building. She was the first woman to do so. Only one other woman ever did so: Harriet Livermore. The event was attended by President Thomas Jefferson.
Ripley assisted Hugh Bourne in starting Primitive Methodism. With Lorenzo Dow and Bourne she preached an itinerant circuit in England. The revival services these three conducted brought many people into Primitive Methodist circles.
In 1830 she led a revival that featured three other female preachers, including Watkins, Nancy Towle and Ann Rexford.
Relationship with the Quakers
Attracted to the Quakers, she began to attend their meetings. She identified closely with their doctrine of inner guidance by the light. She loved the Society of Friends, but that love was not always mutual. She applied for membership with them three times, but they repeatedly refused her membership. Several Friends privately supported her financially, believing she was legitimately called by God to preach. David Sands and Priscilla Hanna Gurney were notable Quakers who gave her a great deal of personal and practical support.
Relationship with the Methodists
Ripley was raised as a Methodist, and most of her theological understanding reflected that background. Dorothy was exposed to many famous Methods in her early life. Her father hosted John Wesley at his house on several occasions. With him came his traveling group of women preachers, such as Sarah Crosby and Mary Bosanquet. Ripley certainly would have met these women and they would have influenced her with their own powerful examples.
Ripley also met Bishop Francis Asbury who greatly encouraged her in her preaching. She associated with many other famous Methodists, including Bishop Whatcoat, Ruth Watkins and Hugh Bourne. She also traveled extensively with Lorenzo Dow, doing a preaching tour in Britain with Bourne. That tour included a stay in prison for a night when she and the eccentric Dow were arrested.
Ripley published five books:The Extraordinary Conversion and Religious Experience of Dorothy Ripley (1810) The Bank of Faith and Works United (1819), An Account of Rose Butler (1819), Letters Addressed to Dorothy RIpley (1807), which included a book of poems called An Address to All Difficulties and the memoir and collected notes of her father. She published all of these at her own expense. The first three received a second printing. She used the proceeds to fund her continued itinerant preaching ministry.
Warner, Laceye C. Saving Women: Retrieving Evangelistic Theology and Practice. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007.
Everson, Elisa Ann, ""A Little Labour of Love": The Extraordinary Career of Dorothy Ripley, Female Evangelist in Early America." Dissertation, Georgia State University, 2007. http://scholarworks.gsu.edu/english_diss/17
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