Sarah Mallet was one of a few women preachers accepted and encouraged by John Wesley in the early days of the Methodist movement. Despite physical and financial hardships, as well as attitudes and policies against female preachers, she traveled extensively, preaching for at least 55 years.
Early years (1764-1777)
Sarah was born in 1764 into a working-class family in the village of Loddon in Norfolk, England. Sarah and her siblings worked with her father and uncle in the family tailoring business. From a note she wrote in a letter to Wesley, it appears the family did not produce garments for wealthy people, but largely for people who were poor or of modest means.
As a family with nine children, the Mallets would not have been able to afford public education for their children. Sarah’s mother instructed the children, and Sarah became interested in religion at a young age. Learning to read and write was not encouraged for lower-class people. However, Sarah did learn to read and write and corresponded often with other women and with Wesley in his later years.
Wesley made many visits to the Norfolk area, including 18 visits to Loddon between 1772 and 1790. He became familiar with Sarah’s father and uncles and may have stayed with Sarah’s family during a visit. When her parents became members of the Methodist Society, they enrolled Sarah, too.
Conversion and “fits” of preaching (1778-1786)
As a teenager, Sarah suffered bouts of depression, and her initial enthusiasm for religion waned. At age 16, she went to live with her Uncle William, a Methodist class leader. There she experienced God, but she fell seriously ill and had to return home. Health problems plagued her throughout her life, but she continued to feel a strong call to speak publicly about God.
As she struggled with this call, she began having “fits,” preaching while seemingly unconscious or in a trance. The “fits” continued for several weeks, word spread and more and more people came to hear her speak. A crowd of about 200 gathered to hear her on one occasion. These episodes clarified God’s call on her life and convinced her of God’s desire that she preach. When the episodes subsided and she regained her health, her uncle asked her to speak in his Methodist preaching house. She spoke there every week and began to get invitations to preach in nearby villages.
Thus began her long career as a traveling preacher.
- “Lightly Esteemed by Men: The Last Years of Sarah Mallet, One of Mr. Wesley’s Female Preachers,” Methodist History, October 2003
- “My Dear Sally” by David East (published by the World Methodist Historical Society)
- “Sarah Mallet: Pioneering Female Preacher in British Methodism”
A Methodist local preacher (1787-1793)
The Methodist Societies allowed women to be class leaders, lead in prayer and visit the sick. Women were also allowed to exhort, calling for repentance and testifying about personal conversion. They were also permitted to preach one of Wesley’s “Sermons on Several Occasions.” But exhorters, male or female, were not allowed to “take a text,” that is, expound on a biblical text of their own choosing on their own. Wesley did not authorize women to preach as a general rule. Yet he did come to recognize some exceptional cases. Sarah Mallett was one of them.
Wesley first met Sarah late in 1786. He had heard about a young woman who had fits and had begun to preach. Less than a year later, Sarah received a letter stating that, by order of John Wesley, the Methodist Conference of 1787 had no objection to her preaching, “so long as she continues to preach the Methodist Doctrine and attends to our Discipline.”
This provided Sarah with some measure of written authority to continue preaching despite attempts by some to stop her. There is no evidence of such a note being given to any other female preacher.
Wesley offered Sarah advice on preaching and conducting worship and encouraged her to learn by offering her books from his personal library. He also offered financial assistance for her travel expenses. Over the last few years of his life, Wesley sent numerous letters to Sarah, or “My dear Sally” as he called her. Sarah noted in a letter that her family disapproved of her preaching and traveling, but Wesley “became a father to me when my own father refused to do a father’s part.”
Two years after Wesley’s death, Sarah married Thomas Boyce, a class leader and local preacher. She and Thomas had six children, only three surviving past infancy. During the years they raised their children, Sarah was no longer listed in Methodist rolls as a local preacher.
In 1813, Sarah’s husband, their son Thomas Jr., her father and her Uncle Thomas all died. Six months later, her Uncle William, who first asked her to come preach, also died. After her husband’s death, Sarah resumed traveling and preaching, and her name appeared on the preacher’s plan for several years.
Preaching with strong opposition (1813-1846)
After Wesley’s death, Methodist leaders began to actively discourage women from preaching. In 1803, the Wesleyan Conference officially banned women from public preaching. Despite this, about 25 women continued and were not prevented by some of the male leaders. Sarah was not deterred and she continued to preach where she could. She befriended Martha Grigson, a wealthy widow who also felt called to preach. The two women traveled together throughout central England, leading worship services in Norfolk and nearby areas, and as far as London and Birmingham.
By 1841, the prohibitions against women preaching finally prevented Sarah from continuing as she had for so many years. She complained that she could exhort in meetings, but was denied the pulpit. She remained strong in her commitment to preaching. "I said Mr. Wesley never treated me thus, but have ofered [sic] me his pulpit, when with him once at Lowestoft... I will go on as I have done and speak good of the name of the Lord wherever I go, and if I am denied the use of Chapels or pulpits, I do not trouble at that. While there is a barn, or a waggon [sic] in our land, neither earth nor hell shall shut my mouth-till the Lord shut it by death."
After her friend Martha died, the published obituary made no mention of her extensive preaching. Sarah was upset at the incomplete memorial, writing, “You see by that how little the labours of females is thought of. We are lightly esteemed by men, but loved by God.” She vowed to write much more about Martha in her own papers.
In the last few years of her life, Sarah suffered more bouts of ill health but traveled and preached as often as she was able. She died on April 22, 1846, at age 82. No Methodist publication printed her obituary and her funeral service was not held in the local Methodist chapel. She was buried at the parish church in North Lopham in an unmarked grave.
Her long preaching career spanned 55 years, despite serious illness, financial hardships and ongoing discouragement and opposition to women preachers.
More than 60 years after Sarah’s death, the Wesleyan Church, one of the branches of Methodism in England, repealed the ban on female preachers. In 1918, the Methodist Conference officially allowed women to become local preachers with the same rights and privileges as men.
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