Historians know about Ellen Ranyard. They view her as one of the great founders of social work, a visionary leader in her field. But that’s not how she would have viewed herself. She would have seen herself simply as a Bible woman.
Born in London in 1810, she was raised in a non-conformist, middle-class home and was converted at the age of sixteen 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, she wrote later, ‘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.’
At first Ellen’s life was a picture of conventional piety; she married, reared children (two of whom died in their late teens), and supported others in the distribution of Bibles. Gradually, this developed: she published devotional poems, wrote a children’s book and began editing The Bible Society’s journal. At last, 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 poverty. Unemployment, over-crowding and all kinds of abuse abounded. Women even were known to make paltry livings from collecting the skins of dead cats. Some well-to-do ladies did visit and distribute charity, Christians took Bibles as well. But the very poor often scorned the rich. They often took the gifts but rejected the gospel. Or they struggled to apply its message to their lives, so different from those of their visitors. With God-given perception, Ellen realised 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
Ellen’s first recruit was Marian, an orphan who had known homelessness and poverty, but who had put her trust in Christ and longed to spread the news that saved her. Dozens more would follow her, gaining access to some of the most degraded homes in the darkest areas. Recognising that charity didn’t always signal respect or teach responsibility, Ellen’s army sold Bibles in instalments, a penny a week for 24 weeks, and did the same with much-needed mattresses. They taught mothers to read, make soup and sew, never giving away anything but charging cost prices. They built genuine relationships with the slum women and all the time they would boldly speak of the Lord Jesus.
Rising at 5am every morning to pray before immersing herself in the detailed administration of her growing organisation, Ellen also invested time in recording the work. Through letters, articles and books she told of the workers and those they helped. And so, the organisation grew and was duplicated in other British cities, as well as overseas. A nursing branch, with its own training school and which lasted well into the 20th century, was established. Through it all, Ellen’s mission remained – to see women equipped to minister to women, to advance God’s kingdom through the faithful presentation of God’s Word. She wrote, ‘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 women’s ministry tended to occur in formal Sunday school type settings, Ellen’s work was trailblazing. This older woman, who had suffered her own tragedies, was used by God to create something new and beautiful. She didn’t dominate the work but equipped others to serve, not seeking her own glory, but Christ’s.
A previous version of this article was first published by The Gospel Coalition.