Muriel Lester: Pioneer of Social Justice & Baptist Women in Ministry

A fortuitous moment took place several months ago in a local used bookstore.

I purchased a book entitled, “Ambassador of Reconciliation: A Muriel Lester Reader” without knowing anything about her. The book quickly found a place next to far too many books I have purchased and not found time to read.

There it remained shelved for months until I purchased a copy of “20th Century Shapers of Baptist Social Ethics” edited by Larry McSwain and Loyd Allen of McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the second essay by Paul R. Dekar was about Lester, noting her Baptist upbringing and detailing her social justice efforts. I pulled the collection of Lester’s writings from the shelf to learn more about this early Baptist woman in ministry who had escaped my notice until now.

Lester’s life and work are well detailed in Dekar’s essay and throughout the Lester reader edited by Richard Deats, but I will offer a few highlights here.

Born in Essex, England in 1883 to a well-to-do Baptist family, she was baptized in a local Baptist church in 1898.

A train she often took in childhood passed through Bow, and one day it stopped adjacent to this neighborhood for several minutes. “I stared down at the rabbit-warren of unsavoury dwelling-houses,” Lester later wrote, and “being an innocent of some eight summers, I could not believe they were human habitations.”

Like Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918), whose ministry in New York City’s “Hells Kitchen” profoundly shaped his life, Lester’s encounter with Bow, an impoverished section of London, did much the same.

In 1912, Muriel and her sister, Doris, began a social ministry in a small cottage there before moving into a renovated chapel—previously home to a Baptist congregation—in 1915. They named the building Kingsley Hall, and served the needy of Bow from there until 1928 when a new hall (which remains a functioning community center today) was built a few blocks away.

The Lester sisters enacted a holistic ministry approach—offering education, fellowship, housing and food—which Muriel asserted, “was not the outcome of any streak of sentimentalism, of pitying charity. It was an overdue act of justice.”

During the first decade, the number of persons being served and children living at Kingsley Hall increased until it was necessary to seek a new location. Down the street was a row of what Lester described as “rat-ridden houses,” which they purchased and renovated into a children’s home that provided both housing and education.

By 1924, what had begun with the limited efforts of her and her sister to help the needy in Bow had grown into a ministry of, in Lester’s words, “eleven whole-time workers, two buildings, a lecture series, men’s and women’s clubs, a football club, a penny bank, an adult school, a Sunday service, and a nursery school drawing a government grant.”

In the process of leading this ever-growing ministry, Lester had a gradual realization that she was becoming a parson to those who came to Kingsley Hall for help. Over time “I had to do all the work of a minister: prophetic, pastoral, and priestly. It was wholly alien from my intention. It just happened,” she recalled.

In the years following this growing awareness, she would become an advocate for women in ministry. In 1930, Lester offered a formal statement on the subject in an essay entitled, “Why Forbid Us?”

“It seems a trifle ludicrous to write a pamphlet to prove that women should be accepted as minister of the Church,” she wrote. “Rather the onus of proof is on the other side. Those who oppose it must show rational grounds for the sex bar in matters of the spirit.”

Much more can (and should) be mentioned, such as her:

  • Holistic vision of Christian faith in asserting “the business of the church touches life at every point;”
  • Pacifism in declaring that there is “no moratorium on the Sermon on the Mount;”
  • Political efforts to address economic inequality she felt resulted from unrestrained capitalism and wars resulting from unrestrained militarism; and
  • Emphasis on the need for personal piety and corporate worship to inform and shape efforts toward societal transformation.

Much of her subsequent life and work was performed outside the traditional church models and without direct connection to any denomination. Yet, her roots began with Baptist polity, and her efforts to empower others to make decisions together noted in Dekar’s essay reflects this background.

She is rightly seen as a shaper of Baptist social ethics and an early pioneer of Baptist women in ministry. Baptist women, Baptist men and Christian advocates of social justice around the world would do well to remember and reflect upon her life and ministry.

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