by Kit Watts

She burst like a comet across the sky of Adventism almost a century ago. Exuberant with vision. Vibrant with hope.

Responding to a friendly initiative from Ellen White, who was then living 12,000 miles away in Australia, Sarepta Myrenda Irish Henry wrote, confiding both dismay and a desire. Dismay that Adventist women seemed lethargic about their faith and ignorant of their potential. And a desire to change all that.

S. M. I. Henry was used to changing things. In 1874 when she discovered her youngest son had been enticed to enter a saloon, she immediately went into action. Determined to protect Christian homes, she galvanized the women of Rockford, Illinois, into a vigorous campaign against liquor.

She also joined forces with the newly forming Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), destined to become one of the most potent movements of the late nineteenth century and the largest women's organization in the world. Serving side by side with her friend Frances Willard, WCTU's engaging and powerful leader from 1879 to 1898, Mrs. Henry accepted a post as national evangelist. She exhausted herself with preaching and organizing for WCTU for 20 years. One biography of her is aptly named Whirlwind of the Lord.

In 1874 she had been a shy woman. In fact, her daughter's book about her is titled, in part, The Evolution of a Recluse. And although Sarepta considered it terribly unfair that because she was a woman, she could not go to a university, she subscribed to society's prevailing view that women should stay in the background.

But conscience won over convention. With homes failing, with families suffering because men squandered their means in saloons, with children enslaved in factory work to help their families survive, S. M. I. Henry could not be silent.

She worked in homes and small groups. She wrote tracts, pamphlets, and books. And she went public. From camp meeting to convention, from Chautauqua gathering to church revival, she preached to great crowds. Hundreds accepted Christ - and changed their ways.

Then her health broke. Bedridden, Mrs. Henry entered Battle Creek Sanitarium on August 31, 1896. Three months later she accepted the Sabbath. The next spring she was miraculously healed by prayer. Restored to her former vigor, she preached to an audience of 2,500 in the Dime Tabernacle.

She struggled to understand and accept Mrs. White's prophetic gift. Once that barrier was surmounted, the two women - spiritual giants and seasoned leaders - gravitated to each other in a trans-Pacific correspondence. "Your letter was refreshing," Ellen White once wrote, "the more so because your ideas are in harmony with my mind" (Ellen G. White Letter 118, 1898).

On December 6, 1898, Mrs. Henry published her hopes in a four-page supplement of the Review and Herald. The "woman ministry" she proposed would organize Adventist women to encourage one another, study Scripture, and make their lives count for Jesus.

Every week in 1899 the Review gave Mrs. Henry a page, boldly headed Woman's Gospel Work, which she filled with Bible studies, poetry, letters, and practical advice. At the same time she crisscrossed the country, speaking tirelessly.

On March 30, 1898, the question of ministerial license for Mrs. S. M. I. Henry came up. "Several remarked that it was their judgment that she should receive a ministerial license, which would be more in keeping with her line of work. A motion prevailed to grant her such recognition form the General Conference" (General Conference Committee Minutes).

Mrs. Henry died suddenly on January 16, 1900. The nine-member GC Committee on Woman's Work continued bravely but only for a short time (General Conference Bulletin, 1900, p. 200). The column in the Review vanished in June 1901 but the goals for "woman ministry" still exist: to organize women to encourage one another, study Scripture, and make their lives count for Jesus.

Adapted from Adventist Review, March 16, 1989.
Used by permission.