Canada’s Christian Heritage Web Site
“The very gates of heaven were opened to our souls.”
The best-documented Canadian female preacher in the Methodist Episcopal tradition is Eliza Barnes Case. She was a dynamic and energetic missionary teacher who came to Canada from the New England states in the 1820s and later married WILLIAM CASE, the superintendent of Indian missions. Historians have chronicled her preaching in a number of places after her arrival in Canada and her leadership in at least one revival.
Eliza Barnes was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in November 1796. Little is known of her until she began work as a missionary at the Canadian Methodist Indian missions when she was about thirty years old. In her career as a committed and energetic teacher and preacher, Eliza became one of the most effective and best-known workers with the native Indians in southern Ontario.
In her first years as a missionary, she travelled from mission to mission, supervising Indian women, organizing benevolent societies, and teaching children and adults. She made at least one trip annually to the United States to raise funds and make reports.
The year 1829 is typical of Eliza’s constant activity. In February, she travelled north with male missionaries on an exploratory trip to Holland Landing to discuss establishing a mission on Snake Island in Lake Simcoe. In March, she set out on a two and a half month tour of the New England states to raise funds and to arrange for the translation of biblical materials. By the middle of May, she was back in Upper Canada working at the Rice Lake Mission, near Peterborough, and two months later she began a mission tour of Lake Simcoe and Lake Huron. In September, she was at the Grape Island Mission, near Belleville. In October, she went to York (now Toronto) to collect supplies for the credit River Mission, and in December she organized a benevolent society for the Indian women at that mission.
One of Eliza’s main activities was the organization of native women’s Dorcas societies to raise money to spread Christianity among the Indians. These groups made items such as moccasins, gloves, straw hats, and brooms. Eliza obtained the materials the women needed to produce these goods and then took the finished products to city bazaars, where they were sold.
Of all her skills and accomplishments, though, contemporaries were most impressed by her preaching ability. At that time, however, it was generally not acceptable for women to preach. The Canadian Methodist newspaper the Christian Guardian noted in 1829 that a woman preaching was an “eccentric effort,” out of her proper “sphere.” Ladies “preach the precious gospel by sewing gloves and moccasins, knitting mittens, making baskets and brooms,” it was later pointed out in another Methodist paper, the Christian Advocate. Yet, Eliza’s preaching successes were well received and well documented.
Like all early Methodist who experienced conversion and felt God’s grace and forgiveness, Eliza had a passionate need to share her religious convictions. She was an assertive and forceful woman. She had grown up in the more liberal atmosphere of the United States, where women had more freedom to speak out in public than they did in Canada. And she did not hesitate to proclaim her theology with fervour and eloquence and preached extensively in both countries until 1830.
Eliza created a sensation preaching in York and began at least one great religious revival in the area. The prominent Indian missionary PETER JONES wrote about several of her preaching triumphs, including one occasion at Yellowhead’s Island in lake Simcoe where she caused a “mild Pentecost … the very gates of heaven were opened to our souls, and the spirit of God descended upon our hearts.” Jones saw a footpath appear “like a blaze of fire,” and the whole camp “manifested the presence of God.”
The Canadian Methodist educationalist and temperance worker LETITIA YOUMANS reported that Eliza already had a reputation as an effective speaker when she came to Canada from the United States, and that she was greatly sought after for camp meetings and services in private homes. Letitia recorded the reminiscences of one woman whose doorway had become the pulpit for one of Eliza’s sermons. The inside of the house was filled with women, while the men stood in the large yard in front. Eliza’s text was from Ezekiel’s vision of the waters, and the woman recalled that, “When the preacher [Eliza] spoke of the spread of the Gospel, and quoted in raptured accents, the waters were still rising … I fancied I could still see the waters of life flowing in until the earth was filled with the glory of God.”
In an era when women were considered to be the weaker sex, Eliza tangibly dispelled the notion. Travel from mission to mission was hazardous, and on one occasion she was thrown from a wagon. Later, a boat in which she was travelling almost capsized in a gale on Lake Couchiching. For a time, she lived with another missionary teacher, Sally Ash, in a cramped seventeen-foot-square bark schoolhouse where they also taught twenty-five girls how to read, sew, knit, and braid straw. The structure caught fire, and Eliza narrowly escaped. That summer, she lived in a wigwam on an island because of a virulent fever on the mainland.
Eliza’s days began at five o’clock in the morning in winter, at four in the summer. She and other female missionaries were in charge of weekday schools for girls and instructed women in the evening. On Sundays, there could be as many as six sessions—prayer meetings, preaching, services, and classes.
The hard work, long hours, and primitive living conditions notwithstanding, Eliza had an opportunity to share and to live out her faith in a salaried position, an unusual alternative for a woman of that time.
Eliza stopped preaching abruptly and settled down in the early 1830s, just before she married William Case. A number of male ministers had objected to Eliza preaching, and William, at first, had refused to sit on the platform with her when she was speaking.
After her marriage, Eliza continued teaching household and “domestic science” at the missions where she and William lived. By the time she died at the age of ninety-one, Eliza had contributed greatly to the spread of Christianity in Canada and the United States. Her faith served as a dynamic model for the women of her era and continues to do so today.