by Al Maxey

Issue #506 ------- October 11, 2011
Consider not so much who
speaks, as what is spoken.

Thomas Fuller {1654-1734}

A Determined Non-Sectarian
The Life & Labors of Abigail Roberts

Now and then, in almost every era of human history, our God raises up a number of special saints who dare to stand boldly, and, if necessary, alone, against the secular and spiritual ills that invariably inflict themselves upon the land. They are divinely guided men and women intent upon serving a higher cause, at times at great personal sacrifice, in order to achieve a greater good. Who can forget Esther (Hadassah), whose bold stand for her people, the Israelites, led to their ultimate deliverance from possible extinction? And who can forget the wise words of Mordecai to this courageous young woman (who was also his cousin)? -- "Who knoweth whether thou art come to the kingdom for such a time as this?" (Esther 4:14, KJV).

Rahab also comes readily to mind, a woman portrayed in many versions of the Bible as a "harlot," yet one who played a vital role in delivering Jericho into the hands of the Israelites; a woman also listed prominently in Hebrews 11 as a giant of faith. We also dare not leave out Deborah, a prophetess of God and one of the deliverers/judges of Israel, who dared to stand boldly for the Lord when many around her were fearful, and thus faltered when called. To be perfectly honest, throughout history there have been some fearless women of faith who have dared to answer God's call to serve as His mouthpieces to His people. God did not intend for His glorious kingdom to be sexist (a male only club), but rather that it would be a kingdom of priests and prophets in which gender distinctions were absolved. This is especially experienced in the new order of the New Covenant, in which "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Therefore, just as Joel prophesied, "Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days ... and your sons and daughters will prophesy" (Joel 2:28-29). Thus, we are not surprised to discover in the early church that Philip the evangelist, who was one of the Seven chosen in Acts 6, had four daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:9). Nor do we marvel that Priscilla proclaimed the Good News or that Phoebe served as a deaconess or that Junia was "outstanding among the apostles" (Romans 16).

Over the past two millennia, women have stood boldly for their faith in Jesus even in the face of forces that were determined to suppress and silence them. I hate to think where the church would be today were it not for our saintly sisters in Christ. I have heard on many occasions over the years where members of a congregation recount how, had it not been for the women of previous generations in that location who remained faithful even when the men did not, the church in that place would not even exist today. The apostle Paul, when he traveled to the city of Philippi, "went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled" (Acts 16:13). What?! Where were the men of faith in this "leading city of the district of Macedonia" (vs. 12)? Once again, I thank God for all the women of faith down through the ages, in both old and new covenants, who dared to stand firmly in/for their faith, and who dared to speak, even when those who were silent wished that these women would do the same.

In this current issue of my weekly Reflections I would like to introduce you to one such saintly sister. In his book "Early Women of the Christian Church" (published in 1921), the author, J. F. Burnett, characterized this woman as being very "strong-minded," although he went on to clarify, "I use the term in its good and not its evil sense." This was a woman who clearly perceived the compelling need to call her fellow Christians out of sectarianism and into a sweet, non-judgmental fellowship with one another, and who courageously did so, even though it evoked strong emotions against her! She spoke out, when others told her to be silent; she preached, when others told her it wasn't "her place." Her name was Abigail Roberts, and she will forever be remembered by the disciples of Christ Jesus as one of the early non-sectarian reformers in our nation's religious history. Most of you have quite likely never heard of her; thus, I want to introduce you to this lady who did so much to promote our liberty in Christ and our unity in One Body.

Abigail was born on February 17, 1791 in Greenbush, New York to William and Esther Hoag. The Hoags were Quakers, and this was the religion in which Abigail was raised. It was not uncommon for women to speak in the assemblies of the "Friends" (a term by which those in this religion preferred to be known), and Abigail was impressed that women should be given this privilege (which was clearly denied in many of the other religions around her). Abigail informed her mother one day that she hoped the Spirit would call her to be a proclaimer of God's will. One of the other family members replied, "Do not trouble yourself, Abby, you will never be called to preach." The family was wrong, however. Abigail would indeed be called to share her faith publicly, and she would be quite effective in doing so.

In September, 1809, Abigail Hoag was married to Nathan Roberts, who was said to be "a moral and industrious young man, who later, as a Christian husband, did all he could to aid his wife in her ministry" [J. F. Burnett, Early Women of the Christian Church]. Abigail then became actively involved with a number of religious organizations, seeking a place where she might become useful in the cause of Christ. In 1814, Nancy Gove Cram, who was a traveling evangelist (riding from place to place on horseback) with the Free-Will Baptist Church, was holding meetings near where Abigail lived. Abigail, who attended the meetings, was so touched by Nancy's teaching that she asked her to come hold a meeting in her house! This she did, and Abigail invited people from all over her neighborhood to attend!! During the course of this meeting, Abigail made the solemn commitment to give her life into service to Jesus by proclaiming His Gospel publicly. The following Sunday, she accompanied Nancy Cram to a nearby community (Burnt Hill), and there she preached her first sermon, which, by all reports, was well-received.

Abigail Roberts chose to affiliate herself with the Christian Connection Church, a non-denominational movement that discouraged any denominational or sectarian distinctions, and which merely sought to be an open association of believers in Christ Jesus. They had begun ordaining women in 1810, and thus Abigail felt it would be a good "fit" for her, especially in view of her very strong opposition to sectarianism and the elevation of denominational dogmas to LAW. Burnett observed, "She cares nothing for dogmas. ... Man tries to know God through his logic; woman knows Him better through emotion and service! Man is concerned about the cubits, the cedar wood, the size of the ark, the Urim and Thummin of the Jewish Tabernacle; woman walks straight into the Holy of Holies and receives her blessing!! Man constructed the cross, and hung the world's Redeemer upon it; but woman waited, and wept, while He died. If woman had been admitted to her rightful place in the councils of the early church, we would have had more of Christ's religion, and fewer man-made creeds barnacled on the Ship of Zion, all of which finds testimony in the life and labors of Abigail Roberts" [Early Women of the Christian Church]. Abigail Roberts spent the vast majority of her ministry preaching the Good News in New York and New Jersey, and her labors led to many conversions, as well as the establishment of several congregations!! One biographer and church historian wrote, "It was largely due to the efforts of Abigail Roberts that the ideology of the Second Great Awakening was brought to the people of rural northwestern New Jersey. Throughout her career she worked tirelessly, preaching every day for weeks at a time in all weather conditions. She faced discrimination on a regular basis, but her devotion to women's rights and her faith enabled her to persevere."

The son of Nathan and Abigail remembered very well the persecution his mother faced from some of the more fundamentalist preachers of that day who felt women should be "silent and in submission to their betters." Philetus Roberts, who also became a noted preacher, wrote "A Memoir of Mrs. Abigail Roberts," which was published in 1858 in Irvington, New Jersey. This picture of his mother, which appears at the top of this Reflections, is from the frontispiece of that book. In the book Philetus stated that the leaders of the various denominations in the areas she went to preach, "commenced at once a bitter opposition to Mrs. Roberts and the work of which she was the instrument. ... She would often attend the meetings of other denominations, and would sometimes hear the professed minister of Christ denounce her, calling her a deceiver, and, at the same time, would unblushingly falsify and misrepresent her views" [p. 80]. This, of course, was, and still is, a typical tactic of those ultra-conservative fundamentalists and traditionalists who are far more interested in preserving uniformity than promoting unity in the Body of Christ! I have seen my own teachings, for example, shamelessly twisted and misrepresented in public by those who desire to "silence the heretic troubling the church." Such public opposition is never pleasant, but "it comes with the territory" for those, like Abigail Roberts, willing to face the forces of factionalism in order to promote the oneness and harmony for which our Lord Jesus prayed in John 17.

J. F. Burnett wrote, "In an atmosphere of unabating sectarianism, Mrs. Roberts went forth to do and dare for the right! Almost everywhere she went to preach, she encountered opposition, and at times it was very bitter. It was the delight of some preachers to hold up to ridicule a 'female preacher.' She would sometimes attend meetings in the neighborhood where she happened to be, and it would not be uncommon for her to hear herself spoken of as 'dangerous to religion,' and her cause bitterly denounced, and often grossly misrepresented. The opposition in one community was so bitter that a woman told her husband that if he would waylay the 'female preacher' and gag her, that she would personally tar and feather her" [Early Women of the Christian Church]. "In her preaching Abigail insisted that party names were wrong, and that they divided God's people; that written creeds and formulas of faith imposed upon the church an assumption of power that was wholly unwarranted; that the followers of Christ were 'Christians,' and should be known by His name, and that they should acknowledge no creed but the Bible. She taught that the mission of Christians was to promote unity among all God's people; that it was wrong for Christians ever to be bitter against each other simply because they disagreed on some tenet of religion; that creeds and party names not only promoted divisions, but were stumbling stones in the way of sinners, and that they should be removed; that if all the people of God would take His Word for their rule of faith and practice, and wear the name of Christ, that all strife and bitterness would cease, and Christians would dwell together in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace" [ibid]. "Mrs. Abigail Roberts was not only strong in argument, but quick and sharp in repartee! A minister who did not believe that a woman should preach, and who would have silenced even a man from preaching as Mrs. Roberts did, said to her, in a cutting, sarcastic tone, 'If you are called to preach, why do you not go to the heathen?' Without hesitation she replied, 'Judging from what I witness, I am right in the midst of them'" [ibid].

Abigail served for twelve years as a proclaimer of the Good News, and worked tirelessly during this time. However, her health began to fail her and she was forced to restrict her efforts during the remaining years of her life, although she continued to travel and preach as her physical condition allowed. She passed from this life in Providence, Pennsylvania on July 7, 1841 and her body was buried there. She was only fifty years old. Fifteen years later, her son, Philetus Roberts, had the bodies of both his mother and father exhumed and transported to Milford, New Jersey where they were placed in the cemetery of the church she had helped found -- the Milford Christian Church. On her tombstone is this inscription:

The friends and advocates of Christian
union erected the Chapel in this yard
for her use; and, in remembrance of her
many virtues and public religious labors,
this shaft has been erected by her early
friends and the members of the Milford
Christian Church.

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Readers' Reflections

From a Minister in Tennessee:

Dear Brother Maxey, I would like to purchase the Complete Set of all your CD's. My check is enclosed. I am really looking forward to receiving your works, and know that they will aid me in preaching His Word. Thank you!

From a Reader in Washington:

Dear Brother Al, That was very well done, again! Your Reflections article "There Is One Baptism" has cleared the relentless fog that has shrouded this passage for me for decades! Thank you! I was very privileged to witness a baptism this past Sunday in Lake Washington. The one who was being baptized was an 18-year-old young lady, and the one doing the baptizing was a 40-year-old woman who had studied with her for a couple of months. I thought it was very fitting. Some folks get wrapped around the axle with "form over function," and think that it is okay to live in the 21st century as long as we "do church" in the 1st century!! May God bless you, brother, for your work.

From a Minister in Texas:

Brother Al, Great article!! We are on the same wave-length on baptism. I get very nervous when people use the word "essential." I find baptism no more "essential" than living a life of love, conforming to spiritual molding, or taking care of widows and orphans. The "Essentialists" are just trying to get back to LAW. Keep writing, brother!!

From a Reader in Tennessee:

Al, Have you lost all of your senses?!! There is NO salvation without being baptized. Without water baptism you have NOTHING. I wouldn't trade places with you for 10,000 worlds. Eternity is forever, Al. Wake up!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Thank you so much for your Reflections, and for your continuing contribution to love and unity!!

From a Reader in Texas:

Brother Al, Your latest essay ("There Is One Baptism") expresses a better view of our immersion into Christ than what most of us are used to hearing! Thanks!

From a Reader in Georgia:

Dear Brother Al, WOW!!! I really do appreciate the depth of research that you put into each of your Reflections. I learn something every time I open them up. I've recently come to regard faith (granted by His grace) to be the "sinking into" moment. It is only God who can truly know a person's heart. I see baptism in water as a public witness to an inner faith, something one does to declare their faith, and which their fellow believers respond to by welcoming them into their family of faith. I just cannot accept that baptism in water is a sacrament that allows me any part in saving myself. I leave that totally up to Jesus and the work that HE did! Thanks again for a great time of personal reflection!

From a Reader in Arizona:

Brother Al, Again your reflection upon what the Scriptures say has enlightened me! Plotinus' words suggest the "from above" birth that releases us from ourselves so that we may begin restoring Holy Love! I saw that love in a brother's face so clearly at Pepperdine in May. If only all of us were "sunken into" Jesus so deeply, so that we might reflect Him so clearly!! Al, you teach meaningful truths and give sincere encouragement.

From a Reader in California:

Brother Al, I read the quote from Plotinus. I do not know a thing about this man, and, as far as I can recall, it is the first time I have ever even heard his name. For a man who apparently does not have a reputation for being a very good "Christian," he certainly understood Christianity far better than the vast majority -- and I mean the Vast Majority -- of those who claim the name today. Great quote!!!

From a Reader in Mississippi:

Bro. Al, Plotinus was a worldly philosopher who never discovered the God of the Bible. To bring one of his ideas to the interpretation of Eph. 4 is, in my estimation, a mistake. We must interpret the statement in Eph. 4:5 in view of other NT passages about baptism. I do enjoy your writings, however. Let's both keep on studying. God bless you.

From a Reader in Florida:

Brother Al, I agree, as you pointed out, with the truth revealed in 1 Cor. 12:13 -- "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into One Body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." It is indeed much more reasonable to view the "one baptism" as this one, rather than the ritual immersion in water which merely portrays the greater spiritual reality. Frankly, there is far too much confusion concerning the distinction between reality and ritual within our ranks!

From a Minister in California:

Bro. Al, If the "one baptism" of Eph. 4:5 is not the one water baptism into Christ, then is the "one Lord" not the one Lord we know of? What about the "one faith"?

From a Reader in Calcutta, India:

Dear Brother Al, I was removed, and then also blocked, from the Facebook group "Seekers of the Old Paths" for quoting Matt. 11:19 and Luke 7:34, and for then suggesting that Jesus drank wine, and that our Lord did so without sin (Heb. 4:15). That group is highly judgmental and critical of everything, and I believe they are mostly made up of legalistic patternists. Would you happen to know of any Facebook group that's fair and objective, and that is unprejudiced in their approach to the study of the Bible? Oh!! Also, I want to thank you for your weekly Reflections!! God bless!

From an Author in Texas:

Dear Bro. Al, You've touched the core of the gospel and our response! It is "the elephant in the living room" that so many professing Christians fail to see. Salvation is union with our perfected Brother: Jesus Christ, God's perfect Son. Indeed, this union is much more than a legal, or virtual, union; it is a real merging of identities into one! I wrote a book in 2007 titled Your Hope Is Too Small: The Hope Of Glory (the Foreword was written by Edward Fudge), and it's available in all the bookstores and online. It sets forth your point, plus the eschatological significance of being a "partaker of the divine nature." I have had considerable objection from certain Christians who have never bothered to seriously consider that we shall become like the Son and share His glory. Thus, they are devoid of the most important incentive for godly living. Brother Al, as Leroy Garrett would say, "Soldier On!!"

From a Minister in New Mexico:

Dear Brother Al, Thanks for a most needed corrective to a sacred tradition. I am glad to hear you affirm that immersion "by the agency of the Spirit of our God" is an absolute essential, and that Eph. 4:5 isn't about water!! May God bless you richly as you continue proclaiming the Good News.

From a Leader with Eastern European Mission:

Brother Al, I just read your Reflections on the "one baptism" (Eph. 4:5). Over all, I thought it was good; I enjoyed it very much. It called to my mind an editorial by Bro. Reuel Lemmons that I read long ago in the Firm Foundation in which he wrote to the effect that we are plunged, submerged, immersed into Christ, but that the Scriptures never speak of us coming out of that union with Him!! Instead, we go forward clothed with Him in that new glorious relationship in which we have become one with Him. At least that is my recollection of the editorial some four decades later.

From a New Reader in California:

Dear Brother Al, A young woman I know bases part of her lack of belief on the account of the golden hemorrhoids in 1 Samuel 4-6. This whole story is laughable to her, and just adds one more thing to all the other "stupid stuff" in the Bible. Anyway, I began a search on the Internet about this account and was referred to your web page. I learned a lot from your article (Reflections #135 -- Five Golden Emerods: A Tale of Rodents and 'Rhoids) that I hadn't really paid any attention to in the past. As a Christian, I can now discuss this subject intelligently with her or anyone else, thanks to your study. Please add me to your mailing list, and thank you for your good Reflections.

From a New Reader in Washington:

Brother Al, Please add me to your mailing list for Reflections. I am challenged by your articles and, to be honest, some of them scare me, but they also force me to challenge what I think I know.

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