This is part one of three posts dedicated to the history of women at Prairie. Stay tuned for parts two and three coming soon!
Sharing about Women at Prairie can easily feel like a weighty task. By taking a look at Prairie’s history it is easy to recognize that we truly stand on the shoulders of giants…of dear women who had such influence and made Prairie the school that it is today. It would be an impossible task to share about every woman who has had an influence here as there are many, so we’ll take a look at a few key women in Prairie’s early history. The goal is not to argue or promote a radical feminism, rather it is to show how the Lord uses and calls each person for a unique work, no matter their gender, and to give the biblical basis that L.E. and others built from.
Throughout Prairie’s history, women have had integral roles, some behind the scenes…
- At home caring for a house and children like Pearl Maxwell and Jennie Kirk
- Providing hospitality likeMrs. Mable McElheran who opened her home to L.E. Maxwell in the early days
- As administrators like Dr. Char Bates
… and some in the spotlight, up front at the podium, preaching Sunday services, teaching students, and at the boardroom table like Miss Dorothy Ruth Miller, Miss Ruth Dearing and Miss Kathleen Dearing.
Women were trained for missionary service, as missionaries in their own right, with necessary skills, training and biblical knowledge to serve.
At Prairie, women and men were trained for missionary service. Women not just as wives to missionaries, but as single women, missionaries in their own right, with the necessary skills, training, and biblical knowledge to serve. Women have always been welcomed in all classes and programs. We might look back on Prairie’s past and assume that because it was conservative with dress and dating that it also was conservative when it came to women preachers and teachers…where women were put in their place by scriptures like….
1 Corinthians 14:34-35 which says “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
1 Timothy 2:8-14 which says “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
If Prairie is and always was a Bible school, how could they, in light of these scriptures, have permitted women, especially single women with no husbands to whom they could inquire to not only teach but preach at the Prairie? Let’s look at Scripture and the College’s view in totality before we think about discounting such women…
As Prairie’s first teacher, L.E. Maxwell had a very great impact on the early curriculum, as well as the school’s overall theology and culture. It seems that the greatest catalyst for Prairie’s view and promotion of women was from L.E. Maxwell’s beliefs, formed from his own experience having a woman Bible teacher and through his study of scripture and commentaries. The very first faculty consisted of four men and one woman, the first graduating class had three women and four men. All of the women in the first graduating class went on to serve overseas. We’ve consistently had women on our Board of Directors, and on faculty, and have always sent out women missionaries.
What was true of those early days, and continues today is a promotion of a vibrant culture of truly biblical womanhood, where hiring and promotion did not and does not occur because of gender and where programs are not gender specific. Rather, it happens based on how we can encourage each other to follow where God has gifted and called us. Our goal therefore is to honour and celebrate the faithful women who have gone before us.
Miss Ruth C. Dearing is Prairie’s longest serving woman, having joined our staff for 60 years from 1939 to 1999.
"I continued to pray about the mission field until the Lord showed me that Prairie was my place of service."
Ruth earned her Bachelor’s degree in Religious Studies from the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific College (now University). While at a camp in Washington, she met L.E. twice which is what ultimately caused her to consider Prairie. She felt God leading her to enroll at Prairie for one year of studies, even though she already held a religious bachelors degree from 2 reputable schools. During her year of studies in preparation of going to the foreign mission field, L.E. asked Dearing to join the Prairie staff. Her response was…
“In my first year, Mr. Maxwell approached me about joining the staff of the newly opened Prairie High School. When God first directed me to Prairie, I thought of course He wanted me on the foreign mission field, and had been taking steps toward that goal. In fact, Mr. Maxwell had encouraged me to apply to the Sudan Interior Mission. However, after praying about joining Prairie staff, I was soon sure that this was God’s will for the next year. Yet I continued to pray about the mission field until the Lord showed me that Prairie was my place of service. Then, in Mr. Maxwell’s terminology, ‘I unpacked.’
In 1943 he astounded me with the announcement that the Board of Directors had elected me to be the Vice-Principal of Prairie High School (he was Principal). I had never dreamed of such an appointment and had no aspirations to be an administrator. However, with his encouragement I accepted the position as from the Lord and trusted Him for His wisdom and grace. Three years later I was asked to be Principal, and held this position for 18 years.”
At one time she was Principal and teacher at the High School, was also on Prairie’s Board of Directors, and was women’s Dean for the College and High School. She remarked that “It was just about too much to do anything really well, but I tried to do it all.”
She was appointed as Bible School Registrar by L.E. Maxwell in the spring of 1964, in addition to joining as a full-time faculty member at the College. She would be a full-time faculty member for another 20 years! Famously, in her 50’s she began learning Greek “for her personal enrichment”, and when the Greek instructor left, she was able to slide right in and fill that vacancy. When she was in her 70’s she learned Hebrew, also just for her own study and growth.
Famously, in her 50's, she began learning Greek for her 'personal enrichment'.
In the spring of 1982, L.E. was 87 and faced deteriorating health, no longer able to work on the book he was writing about women in ministry. He trusted Ruth Dearing so much that he asked her to take over and complete the work, she said, giving her “complete liberty to add, omit, and/or change anything he had written.” One year later she was able to give him about two thirds of the manuscript and it was met with his approval. The book was finished and published by Miss Dearing.
"I would like to bear testimony to the fact that Mr. Maxwell's broad view of women's ministry has made possible for me a far wider field of service that I ever dreamed possible."
In the introduction of the finished book, Miss Dearing wrote: “I would like to bear testimony to the fact that Mr. Maxwell’s broad view of women’s ministry has made possible for me a far wider field of service than I ever dreamed possible. His conviction that women should not be barred from public ministry stemmed partly from his admiration for and confidence in Miss Dorothy Ruth Miller. Miss Miller’s capable and Spirit-filled ministry both in the classroom and in the pulpit together with his own careful study and exegesis of God’s Word brought Mr. Maxwell to his convictions. He was convinced that the two or three verses often used to silence women should be interpreted in the light of the Bible practice.”
Miss Dearing explained that “later when he first asked me to speak at Prairie Tabernacle services, I protested, ‘I’m not a preacher’. His answer was simply: ‘I know you’re not. But I believe God wants you to do this’. I had no personal ambition to be used in this way, but I yielded to his request because I believed he was led by God, and because I was ‘under authority.’”
The roles she accepted were roles typically given to men. There were occasions when male students would challenge Miss Dearing about her role as a Bible teacher; they would ask her for her biblical justification. Miss Dearing deferred to Mr. Maxwell or Dr. Rendall, stating that she had been asked to take on those roles and that gave her the freedom to teach without any sense that she was violating a biblical commandment.
Miss Ruth Dearing’s was a genuine calling and ministry. L.E. helped clear the way, and encouraged her skills, calling, and giftings. She was faithful to her calling, and to those in authority over her.
We can all be this way, we don’t need to do, rather we should be faithful to where we are called.