What Can the Metropolitan Tabernacle Teach Us About Women’s Ministry?
You have likely heard of the “Prince of Preachers,” Charles Spurgeon. He ministered at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London during the second half of the nineteenth century. It’s less likely that you’ve heard of Lavinia Bartlett. She was a longstanding member and women’s ministry leader at the Tabernacle. Spurgeon held Bartlett in the highest esteem, and she became a prominent co-laborer with him in the largest church in Victorian England. Her ministry bore much fruit, and her labors profoundly shaped thousands of women at the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Though Lavinia Bartlett died over 150 years ago, pastors and churches today can learn a great deal from her, particularly as they consider how to organize women’s ministry in the life of the church.
Who Was Lavinia Bartlett?
Bartlett was born in the village of Preston-Candover, west of London, in 1806. Growing up, she regularly heard the gospel at a Nonconformist chapel. By God’s grace, Bartlett came to faith at an early age. Even as a girl, she was known as an eager evangelist and prayer warrior. She began teaching a women’s Sunday school at a young age. After marrying and moving to London, Lavinia heard Charles Spurgeon preach for the first time in 1854. Spurgeon had just arrived in London to begin a ministry that would last nearly four decades. Lavinia was skeptical that “the boy preacher” could live up to all that she had heard. But once she heard him preach, she became convinced that he was anointed by God. From then until her death, “she listened to him with the greatest profit and delight.”
In 1859, Lavinia began teaching a women’s Sunday school class at the New Park Street Chapel (which later became the Metropolitan Tabernacle). She maintained this post for over fifteen years until she died. In the first few months, the class grew from six to fifty. As the class grew, they relocated to a lecture hall where Bartlett would see between 700–800 in attendance.
Lavinia desperately wanted to reach London’s lost and unchurched women. Some estimate that as many as 2000 women were saved through her ministry! On one occasion, six prostitutes showed up to disrupt her class. Little did they know that four of the six would be converted on that very day. One of those women even eventually became a missionary.
Spurgeon praised and promoted Bartlett’s ministry whenever he could. Though the Metropolitan Tabernacle did not have female deacons, in reference to Lavinia, he often said, tongue-in-cheek, “My best deacon is a woman.” He viewed her class as one of the most important ministries in the church. When Lavinia died in 1875, Spurgeon eulogized her in her Bible class:
I do not believe that any mother in this place knows her children much better than she knew the members of this class. . . . There was about her a sympathy of heart and an affectionateness of manner, and an absence of everything like reserve and haughtiness, which drew you towards her and held you fast. Her heart was large and her efforts incessant.
What Can Lavinia Bartlett Teach Us about Women’s Ministry?
For pastors and church leaders, Lavinia Bartlett’s ministry provides at least four lessons about promoting women’s ministry in churches today.
1. Women’s ministry should serve and support the church’s overall ministry.
One of the dangers of any demographic-specific ministry is that it can become a church within the church. Bartlett didn’t allow this to happen. She always worked under her elders’ authority and labored to make her class serve the larger ministry of the church. She was not content for women to simply attend her class but wanted them to join the church and participate in the body. Spurgeon said of her shortly after her passing:
Our esteemed sister had also the grace to keep the unity of the spirit in her connection with the Church: she worked in harmony with the Christian community of which she was a member. We have heard of Sunday-schools becoming rather rivals of the Church. . . . There was no fear of this in Mrs. Bartlett’s case; she was the devoted fellow-helper of the pastor . . . she worked with, not apart from or against, the general labor of the Church; and hence her success was the gain of the Church in the happiest sense.
2. Women’s ministry is at its best when serious Bible study is the main offering.
The Word of God needs to be central in women’s ministry. Bartlett’s lessons majored on the Bible. She faithfully expounded Christ week after week. Spurgeon said her talks were “of ‘the old, old story,’ and never of new-fangled doctrines, or imaginary attainments.” She “kept to the cross, extolled her Savior, pleaded with sinners to believe, and stirred up the saints to holy living.” She “never degenerated into storytelling, or quotations of poetry . . . but she aimed straight at her hearer’s hearts in the name of the Lord and claimed their submission to Jesus and his love. She was troubled if at any time the brethren whom she invited to address her young women wandered from the one great subject or treated it in a flowery or cold-hearted style. Nothing suited her but the gospel preached in a gospel spirit.”
Our women’s ministries today should follow Lavinia’s example. They must resist the temptation to only offer women practical homemaking tips, or seven steps to being a better parent, or emotionally charged self-help. Instead, we must offer them the Word of God. Godly and growing women don’t want fluff, flowery messages, or catchy videos. They want to meet Christ in the pages of Scripture.
3. Women’s ministry raises the spiritual bar for women.
Bartlett raised the spiritual bar for the women of her class. She incited in them a greater interest in the things of God. She helped women realize their potential in God’s kingdom and the life of the church. Many of these women went on to do incredible things in service to Christ. They served needy people in their city and helped to plant churches. Some joined the mission field. Lavinia encouraged her class to attempt great things for God. Her ministry bolstered the bar of godly feminine ambition.
4. Women’s ministry needs the support of the pastor.
It’s unlikely that Lavinia’s ministry would have enjoyed as much success without her pastor’s support. Pastors should identify godly women who serve others and then support them. Spurgeon modeled this excellently. He greatly valued Bartlett and encouraged her in her ministry. He also encouraged others in the church to take notice of the good fruit of Lavinia’s ministry and pray that it may continue. Pastors do well to follow Spurgeon’s example.
In Lavinia Bartlett, we have an excellent model of what women’s ministry can look like in our churches. Though we may not see the same extraordinary fruit, we should all observe her faithful example.
In closing, consider this appeal from Spurgeon himself:
May the Lord inspire many Christian women with the high ambition to be useful, direct them in the right way, and give them success therein. For such there is great need. Are there not some holy women . . . which would emulate the honorable life-work of Mrs. Bartlett?