There’s been a huge surge of interest in women discipling women in recent years. Books, conferences, blogs, and podcasts urge us to pray, study, organize, read, and counsel one another. For some, this seems like a new development. After all, wasn’t women’s ministry in the past just jam-making and missionary teas?

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Aside from the many godly women who discipled younger women, there were those who trained and organized them, transforming whole areas by God’s grace. Ellen Ranyard was one of them. Despite being recognized by historians and sociologists, this extraordinary and visionary woman has largely been forgotten by Christians. As we reflect on how to minister to women today, we must remember and learn from the past.

Deeply Devoted Messenger 

In many ways Ellen Ranyard is a mystery. No biographies have been devoted to her, and she didn’t write about herself, despite being a prolific writer. Born in London in 1810, she was raised in a non-conformist, middle-class home and was converted at the age of 16 through the witness of a friend who took her to distribute Bibles among the London poor. Ellen later recalled, “She spoke to them, but the Spirit of God carried the message home to me.” Both girls caught typhoid on this excursion, and Ellen’s friend died, which left a great impression on her: “I remembered thinking that the Bible work was the one work to which I had been called by God, and to which I must keep faithful.”

The full fruition of this calling took years, however, as Ellen followed a conventional trajectory first: marrying, rearing children (two of whom died in their late teens), and supporting others in the distribution of Bibles. Gradually, her work developed. First, she published devotional poems. Then she wrote a children’s book about Scripture and began editing The Bible Society’s journal. When she was nearly 50, her family moved back to the East End of London, where she’d grown up. 

As in London today, the rich lived close to areas of devastating and deeply entrenched poverty. And so it didn’t take long for Ellen to see the needs and begin meeting them. Nineteenth-century literature teems with smart ladies, baskets on arm, picking their ways through dark and dirty streets, often rejected by those they sought to help. This was reality. Many well-to-do ladies visited and distributed charity; Christians took Bibles as well. But the very poor scorned the rich. They took the charity gladly, but didn’t respond to the Christian message. Or they took the Bibles but struggled to apply its message to their lives.

With God-given perception, Ellen realized a new approach was needed: working-class women already living in these areas could be gospel messengers—“the missing link,” as Ellen put it, between wealthy believers and the struggling masses. 

Building an Army

Marian was orphaned at the age of five, and suffered homelessness and poverty as she grew up. She had, however, been taught to read, and when a missionary gave her a Bible she put her trust in Christ. Marian longed to spread the news that saved her. She became Ellen’s first recruit in an army that would eventually number in the hundreds.

Marian and others like her gained access to some of the most degraded homes in the darkest areas where the charitable ladies couldn’t—or wouldn’t—go. Four families lived in one room; drunkenness and violence were habitual; employment was irregular. Charles Dickens’s tales are tamer than the true-life stories of women who made a paltry living collecting the skins of dead cats or picking through rubbish tips for pennies.

Ellen’s army would sell Bibles in installments, a penny a week for 24 weeks, and did the same with mattresses. They taught mothers to read, to make soup and to sew, never giving away anything but charging cost prices. And all the time, they would boldly speak of the Lord Jesus. Behind these women, who were paid by the charity Ellen established, were the lady Superintendants, often pastors’ wives, who would access funds for the worst cases and give direction, training, and Bible teaching.  

Ellen’s Best Tool

Rising at 5:00 a.m. every morning to pray before immersing herself in the detailed administration of her growing organization, the pen was Ellen’s best tool. Through writing letters, articles, and books she relentlessly promoted the work, writing not about herself (she often used the initials L. N. R. rather than her name) but about the workers and those they helped. Her descriptive writing is energetic and engaging, full of pathos and clarity. 

Ellen’s stories were useful not only to raise funds and motivate others to service, but to demonstrate God’s grace. The poor women who responded to the gospel and patiently endured the trials of their chaotic lives became examples to middle-class readers. While Ellen’s sentimental stories are often culture-bound and classist, there’s much we can apply today: the example of women evangelizing and teaching others; seeing women not as victims but as responsible agents; the bold application of Scripture for comfort, warning, and direction in all circumstances; and encountering lives redeemed by the gospel.

Trailblazing Woman

The charity grew and was duplicated in other British cities, as well as overseas. A nursing branch with its own training school, which lasted well into the 20th century, was established. Through it all, Ellen’s mission remained: to see women equipped to minister to women, working with local church leaders and other parachurch organizations to advance God’s kingdom through the faithful presentation of God’s Word. In a time before the word “complementarian” was coined, Ellen lived it.

Women converted through the organization quickly became involved in hosting prayer meetings and sharing with others. They joined local churches and began teaching the gospel to their kids and witnessing to their husbands. Quoting Ellen Mason in her preface to Civilizing Mountain Men, Ranyard writes: “If you would have (a country) redeemed to the Lord . . . send women to women and let her teach the ABCs of Christianity, which is mother’s work the world over.”

At a time when Protestant churches didn’t employ female workers, and ministry to women tended to occur in formal Sunday school-type settings, Ellen’s work was trailblazing. Others like Amy Carmichael followed her pattern, and lives were changed the world over. I love that this older woman, who had suffered her own tragedies, was used by God to create something new and beautiful. Ellen Ranyard didn’t dominate the work, but equipped others to serve, not seeking her own glory, but Christ’s. 

We must remember and learn from her devotion and ambition, her commitment to the share the gospel and serve the needy, and her willingness to work with people unlike her and not be known herself.