It is so easy for “contemporary” people to look back at the religious teachers of a century ago with a certain disdain for what may seem to us old-fashioned clothing styles. We may imagine their lives very regimented and strict, all work and no play. This is partly because we only see them from the context of our own times. We find it very hard to imagine the social environment into which they were born and shaped their lives. Only bits and pieces of the past survive, perhaps a few old black-and-white photographs or battered newspaper clippings that present a dimly gray glimpse into the events and the people of earlier times. Elizabeth V. Baker (1849-1915), a leader of the early Pentecostal movement, is just such a enigma from the past.
Following her self-described unhappy childhood in Rochester, New York, Mrs. Baker and her four sisters, daughters of the Rev. James Duncan, a Methodist minister, collaborated later in life to build a church and a Bible training school, and published a magazine, Trust, which continued publication from 1902 until 1932, reprinting Mrs. Baker’s sermons and articles long after her death in 1915. In the final issue, the magazine’s editor, reports that after completing 30 years of publication she is 78 years old and unable to continue the magazine financed solely by freewill offerings.
Mrs. Baker’s success is one of those unexplained anomalies of history. At a time when divorce would have sidelined most people aspiring to the ministry, Mrs. Baker was twice divorced. An abusive marriage at age 20 ended quickly. A second marriage started well. When she was ill of a throat condition, her husband called in doctors and specialists. But relief came through an experience of divine healing, after a local pastor prayed for her.
Baker soon became an advocate for the cause of faith healing, an enthusiasm not shared by her husband who left her about 10 years later. In Rochester, she and her four sisters—Mary Work, Nellie Fell, and Hattie and Susan Duncan—founded a faith healing home, a place where persons suffering from debilitating illnesses could retreat for prayer. Elim Faith Home opened in 1895.
After doing short-term missions work in India in 1898, Mrs. Baker raised $75,000 to support the outreach to the Mukti people. Then in 1907, after hearing of the Pentecostal revival at Azusa Street, Baker and her sisters hosted revival meetings that led to the founding of a Pentecostal church in Rochester, Elim Tabernacle. Because a male pastor was not easily found, Mrs. Baker continued to supervise the ministry and preached regularly in the pulpit. The Duncan sisters also founded Elim Publishing and Rochester Bible Training School, training numerous missionaries who went on to spread the gospel message around the world. After her death in 1915, her sisters published her autobiography, “Chronicles of a Faith Life.”
The extraordinary depth of Mrs. Baker’s ministry seems to demonstrate that with faith one can certainly overcome many difficulties and personal shortcomings. In some strictly denominational church circles, such a ministry never would have blossomed, but with the unconditional support of a family, Mrs. Baker was able to do amazing things.