Emilia Louisa Aronson


 BORN 29 March 1842 in Bangor, Wales.
 DIED 26 April 1926 in Wandsworth, England.
 MARRIED Charles Baeyertz (1843-1871) 16 October 1865 in Melbourne, Vic.
 CHILDREN   Charles Nalder Baeyertz (1866-1943)
 Marion Cecilie Baeyertz (1869-1952) (moved to England)
Emilia Aronson was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Bangor, North Wales, in 1842. She suffered chronic ill-health as a child, and was withdrawn from school at 13. She came to Australia in 1865 to recuperate after a nervous breakdown following the fatal illness of her fiancé. (Interestingly, a Jewish couple on their honeymoon travelled to Australia on the same boat, Empire of Peace — Louis and Bertha Monash, parents of Sir John. They described it as a miserable tub!) However 4 months on a sailing ship, and life in Australia, restored her health completely, and she was later to fulfil schedules of large meetings with only short periods of respite in between—and indeed lived to the age of 84.

In Melbourne, after a year of balls, concerts and theatre parties, she married Charles Baeyertz. He was a bank manager, a committed Anglican, and they were married secretly at Christ Church, Hawthorn. As a result she was cut off from her family (she had a brother and sister in Melbourne), although she did not then convert to Christianity. In fact she wrote Before we were married, I exacted a promise from my husband that he would never use any religious arguments as I was determined to live and die as a Jewess. Theirs was, according to the account, a very happy marriage; they moved to Colac on the edge of Victoria’s Western District and had a son and a daughter.

Despite her husband’s promise not to speak to her about religion, she was influenced by his life and faith, and decided to be christened at the same time as her baby.

She was later confirmed, believing she should be part of the faith in which she intended to bring up the children. However, she was aware that she had no belief that Christ was divine, and felt that to attend Communion was the rankest hypocrisy. In fact she suffered some agony of soul over the whole issue.

At this stage of her life Mrs Baeyertz would have seemed the epitome of a woman at the centre of a woman’s sphere. She had a loving husband and two beautiful children, she had dutifully turned to his faith, and through all this time at Colac she was a constant attendant at church, assisting in special ways, and taking part in every ordinary effort made in the general work. She was even presented with a handsome silver tea and coffee service in recognition of her services.

However, she felt no real peace of heart about her state of faith, and following the shock of her husband’s fatal shooting accident, resolved to be ready to meet him in heaven. Her conversion experience resulted from her reading the gospel of John, which convinced her that Christ was God, and made a profound difference to her life. Her biographer contrasts the empty social life which she had prior to this event with the activities in which she now engaged. She was moving gradually into the sphere of church and philanthropic work. Her activities changed from what might be called physical support of the parish church, to a more personal, soul-winning approach. After moving to Geelong in about 1871, she undertook visiting in the gaol and hospital; she took up regular house-to-house visiting (holding her commission not from the vicar of the parish only, but from her loving Lord); and she taught a large class of senior teenage boys in Sunday School.

That she was well aware of what society expected of her is evident from a paragraph in the Biography which reads, In spite of all this outside work she never neglected her home or her children. From the first she had had a deep sense of the responsibility of motherhood, and nothing was ever permitted to interfere with God’s first charge to her — her home and little ones. Her boy was her constant companion, when not working.

Later her biographer emphasises that she did not contemplate preaching tours away from home, especially not overseas, until her son was married and settled. There are two instances given when her daughter was very ill and Mrs Baeyertz pleaded with God to spare her, particularly mentioning the comfort she had been as a baby when her husband died. Her daughter appears to have remained unmarried for some years and accompanied her mother on speaking tours.

There are hints that her son did not entirely agree with his mother’s lifestyle, as when she left Australia the Biography states He was the child of many prayers, and her heart was strained to its utmost tension as she bade him farewell. No eye but God’s, no ear save His, saw or heard all that passed in those last sad moments. It is not for us to try to picture that interview. He is not mentioned in her will.

Another step in her life during this time in Geelong was the occasion of offering her first prayer in public. It gives a picture of the constraints women might feel at audible participation in religious or public activities, especially when it is remembered that Mrs Baeyertz was active in other activities where she needed to be articulate. It was at a prayer meeting for mothers held in the Presbyterian manse, and after a struggle she consented to read out a prayer, which she would prepare at home, at the next meeting. However when her turn came to pray she discovered, to her dismay, that the light was too dim for her to see the written letters. An awful sense of nervousness came over her, so that the dim lines danced in a maze before her eyes. What should she do? She had begun, so could not break off abruptly without an attempt to fulfil her promised word. She thrust the paper prayer into her pocket, looked straight away to God, talked to Him as a yearning child would to a parent and speedily forgot everything else. Thereafter she had no more qualms. Perhaps the problem this gifted and active lady felt at praying in what was hardly a public meeting gives us.

It was also in Geelong that she had what would now be called a charismatic experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which she felt gave her the power and strength to undertake her later ministry. It does not seem to have been accompanied by any manifestations such as speaking in tongues, but after this she found far more effectiveness in her ministry. Repeatedly she affirmed that any power in her words was from God alone, and that He gave her the words to speak.

Her next move was to Melbourne, where she was asked to be a missionary to the Jews. Two aspects of Mrs Baeyertz’s circumstances gave her freedom which other women did not have: she was a widow in comfortable financial circumstances, and she had been Jewish. She was often advertised as the converted Jewess. This latter gave her the advantage of being already rather unusual, if not an object of some curiosity, and her behaviour could be to some extent explained away on this basis if necessary.

The Jewish ministry was not successful (in fact she received death threats), and she soon began work among factory girls. At first she held meetings in the dinner-hours; by 1878, at the instigation of the Secretary of the YWCA, large night meetings in the Assembly Hall. Hearing of her successes, with many girls experiencing an evangelical conversion, ministers began inviting her to their churches, wanting to see the same results there.

It was at this stage that she crossed the line between what was acceptable, even expected, of a Christian woman, and what could cause notoriety. By now she had left behind the more acceptable church-based activities, and even the more philanthropic ones such as hospital visiting. That she was well aware of the problems is evidenced by her perplexity as to whether to accept these invitations: she was not clear in her mind as to her right to attend mixed meetings … great darkness of soul came over her … she began to wonder if…it was God’s mind for her to take mixed meetings, and whether her refusal had caused God to give her this darkness to force her to face this great question as in His sight. She sought the advice of a friend who lent her a book, through which it seemed to her that the Spirit clearly revealed to her what the mind of God was on this matter, as regarded herself, and kneeling down, she gave up her reputation to God. She told Him she was willing to be misunderstood by all the world if only she had his smile.

This conviction was tested quite soon with an invitation to speak at a Congregational church. She was rather horrified to find the whole church packed, and three ministers present! The three men before her were tall, big men, and with their long, black coats, their solemn faces, and their huge white starched ties, they appeared like sons of Anak in her path. However she felt filled with the peace of God and was able to give the message she believed she had been given, with the result that there were two vestries filled with seekers after salvation. From that time invitations to speak in various churches flowed in faster than she could fulfil them, and she was now fairly launched upon the world as an Evangelist for God.

Later in the Biography the Rev. A J Gordon of Boston is quoted as saying, We count it among the most significant signs of the times that so many women are moved by the Spirit of God to tell out the story of redemption, and to lend their help in the work of gathering in the harvest of souls. At home and abroad as missionaries and evangelists, as Bible readers and tract distributors, the number of Christian women who are doing the Lord’s work is constantly increasing. We believe, in spite of the seeming prohibition of Paul, that the Spirit of God calls and commissions women to be evangelists.

That the acceptability of a woman preacher depended upon the evident blessing of God on her work is borne out by another quotation from a letter by the Bishop of Nelson, who wrote that Notwithstanding all that is said upon the opposite side, I could not if I had the power dissuade her from what cordially receives the Divine blessing; but her action and the conduct of her services disarm all opposition that should arise, and the Lord certainly confirms the Word as spoken by her with signs.

Both of these comments imply some level of comment or criticism, as would only be expected. Interestingly, the writer goes on to comment that the Protestant community of Montreal is known to be very conservative in religious matters and that even the great D. L. Moody was not very successful there, but that somewhat to everyone’s amazement, an unknown evangelist, and a woman at that, … in one short week [turned] the tide of Christian sentiment here from a cold indifference … to an overflowing enthusiasm such as has rarely occurred in this city. He mentions thousands being drawn to the church where the meetings were being held.

All these writers argue from pragmatism: the results showed that she was blessed by God, so they warily put aside the norms of adherence to the New Testament prohibitions on women speaking in public. There was also the feeling since the Revivals in Britain of 1859-60 that these were extraordinary times, possibly leading to the imminent Second Coming of Christ. Both these elements are contained in a comment in the non-denominational periodical Willing Work, when writing about her ministry the editor Edwin Good said in 1878 We are quite aware that different opinions exist as to the propriety and scripturalness of the public preaching of the gospel to a mixed audience by a lady, yet we are sure that all interested in the triumphs of the gospel must rejoice to know that as a result of her ministry a goodly number of precious souls have been won for the Saviour. It may be that God is giving special blessing to a weak instrument, partly as a reproof to the other sex, and partly as an encouragement to such as are qualified for this work … or perhaps … God is … using extraordinary means to compel them to come in before the final closing of the door. But be this as it may, there can be no doubt of the genuineness of the work itself.

She herself wrote, in a tribute to Henry Reed the Tasmanian Christian leader and philanthropist, that in those early days, when I suffered much persecution because of the solitary walk as an evangelist which the Lord had marked out for me, I owe more than I can tell to the loving sympathy and saintly life of that blessed man of God, dear Henry Reed. Clearly she had her supporters and detractors, and the former were evidently largely convinced of the validity of her calling by the blessing of God, evinced by the large crowds and changed lives of her hearers.

Certainly the reports in the Tribune of her Hobart meetings give no hint of criticism. In January 1879 they told their readers Mrs Bayertz [sic] has elocutionary ability, a good command of simple but forcible language; she possesses a clear and distinct utterance, an earnest, pleasing, and modulative voice, and an intonation of pathos and feeling which renders her addresses very impressive, and gives her power over her hearers.

Getting back to Mrs Baeyertz, the reports of her manner such as the one given in the Tribune seem to say as much by the attitudes they reflect as by their actual words. One feels that perhaps they expected a shrieking harridan warning them of the dangers of hell fire. Instead, they found, as a report from London said, that Her quiet and ladylike demeanour, absolutely devoid of any peculiarity in dress, manner or language, disarms at once any prejudice against a woman speaker that may have existed… The press in Christchurch wrote that she was totally devoid of sensationalism, of quiet, dignified manner, and exercising a marked influence over her hearers.

We have a description of Mrs Baeyertz from a Toronto newspaper which bears out these comments and gives a picture of what she looked like: She is a middle-aged lady, of striking presence—;erect and commanding in figure, though not tall; with a dark countenance, brown eyes, firm chin, and characteristic nose. Her face is one that would arrest attention in a crowd. It is full of character—strong, eager, and expressive; and when lit up by the fire of her emotions while she is speaking, it is quite beautiful … She is a most effective speaker. Her voice is one of rare sweetness and power, and she uses it like an experienced orator. She has good command of choice, nervous English, and she speaks with directness, simplicity, and clearness, avoiding subtleties of argument and obscure allusions. Her voice must have had remarkable carrying power in those days without amplification, as she is constantly referred to as speaking to audiences in the hundreds, if not thousands. In fact an earlier report from Tasmania said that Mrs Baeyertz was most impressive in her style … she would be good example to preachers in her delivery.

However notwithstanding the many positive comments, we know from private information that the group of Christians meeting in the People’s Hall in Hobart, where large congregations heard her speak, eventually asked her not to return as they had decided women should not be allowed to preach.

The group which met in the People’s Hall was the fledgling Brethren assembly, and the diary of one of their elders, Henry Garrett, a Hobart businessman, records on 27 March 1880 that he and a visiting speaker, Mr Moyse, spoke to Mrs Baeyertz and told her she could not preach for them any more. Incidentally, it is indicative of the non-denominational status of some early Brethren fellowships and the wide acceptance of Mrs Baeyertz that she had already taken three lots of meetings over three years. In fact this was not an isolated case—in May 1878 she is recorded as having preached at the Gospel Hall (ie Brethren) in St Kilda, taking the Sunday evening Gospel meeting with the room crowded to overflowing and people being converted, and in January 1880 she was reported as speaking at both evening evangelistic meetings (about 400 people) at the Believers Conference at the Kentishbury [Sheffield] Gospel Hall.

So from the mid-1870s she embarked on a public career in evangelism and Bible teaching. Until at least the early 1900s she was active in taking meetings in many Australasian cities and overseas. The Biography does not, I believe from internal and other evidence, give every place at which Mrs Baeyertz spoke. However, consistently large crowds, sometimes numbering thousands, are mentioned over a period of about 25 years. Her original bases were in Melbourne, Adelaide and district (where she spent most of the three years from 1880), Bendigo, Ballarat, Hobart, and Launceston. Following an invitation to New Zealand in 1889, examples of meetings in Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson, Wellington, Wanganui, and Auckland are given. In about 1891 she went to North America, taking large meetings in Los Angeles, Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal, followed by an invitation to Britain in 1892 where she spoke in London, Cardiff, Winchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Belfast, and Dublin. There seems no reason to doubt the veracity of the account; it was obviously published when most people involved, and indeed Mrs Baeyertz herself, was still alive.

Consistently large crowds, sometimes numbering thousands, are mentioned in Melbourne, Adelaide and district, Bendigo, Ballarat, Hobart, Launceston, Dunedin, Christchurch, Nelson, Wellington, Wanganui, Auckland, Los Angeles, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, London, Cardiff, Winchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee, Belfast, and Dublin,over a period of about 20 years. She saw her ministry as based on fundamental Christian truths, common to all Christians. In the course of the Biography, and in the reports in Willing Work, specific churches mentioned as holding meetings for her are Anglican, Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist and Brethren. Certainly she had no intention of forming her own church or promoting a personal following, as did some of the more charismatic American women preachers.

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