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Stirred with the desire to give the gospel to the people,
Evangelist and Teacher of Ministers:
Jessie Weiss Curtis
1881 to 1972
Licensed minister 1945 to 1972
Something unusual was taking place in the country near the town of Drums, Pennsylvania, during the summer of 1927. A large tent had been pitched in a field, and what was going on in the tent was attracting a lot of attention.
A newspaper reporter counted 110 automobiles parked in the fields around the tent one evening, and ascertained that people were flocking in from a radius of 20 miles. In an article titled, "Kingston Girl Holding Services Near Drums," the reporter explained the attraction that was drawing the owners of these many automobiles: "Stirred with the desire to give the gospel to the people, Miss Weiss secured a tent, and with the aid of two men pitched it on the C. A. Straw farm and people are flocking by the hundreds to hear her." Night after night the crowds arrived in time to participate in the old-time congregational song service, and stayed until the sermon was finished.
"With the skill of a clergyman of long years experience," the article stated, "Miss Weiss declares that she will teach no doctrine but what she can substantiate from the Word of God. Her repertoire of subjects reaches out over a wide range."1
At the conclusion of her first evangelistic series, Jessie Weiss presented 80 converts ready for baptism. The Drums, Pennsylvania, Seventh-day Adventist Church was born. Mr. Straw, the farmer, donated the land on which the tent had been pitched, and on it an attractive church building was erected. Jessie Weiss and her brother contributed the beautiful amber stained-glass windows.
How did this woman, the daughter of a prominent merchant in Wilkes-Barre and herself a successful businesswoman, find her way into evangelism?
Jessie Weiss was born December 30, 1881, in Larksville, Pennsylvania. She had a sister, Olive, and a brother, Homer. Her father was a prosperous merchant and her mother, a homemaker. While Jessie was growing up in Wilkes-Barre, two Seventh-day Adventist colporteurs visited them. Selling books to earn a living, these men were even more eagerly seeking to win souls for the kingdom of heaven. At one house the woman whom they met did not buy their books but suggested they visit her cousin, Catherine Weiss, because she might be interested. Jessie's mother listened carefully to the booksellers' presentation, and she bought their books. Later she provided them room and board when the Adventists held tent meetings in Wilkes-Barre. Catherine Weiss became the first Seventh-day Adventist in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.2
Jessie Weiss, like Helen Stanton Williams (Chapter 1) and Anna Knight (Chapter 4) prepared for ministry at Battle Creek College. At the age of 14, Jessie was the youngest student ever to be accepted at the college, according to her family. No doubt her bright mind and earnest zeal contributed to her early admission. After starting college, Jessie switched her curriculum from nursing to the course preparing students to become Bible workers and ministers.
Her education completed, Jessie returned to Pennsylvania. As a means of earning a living, she entered the art glass business with her brother, Homer. He and his wife, Vanetta, as well as their sister, Olive, and Olive's husband, John Davis, were all Adventists. John became business manager of the Review and Herald Publishing Association at Battle Creek in 1893. Mr. Weiss, Jessie's father, became a Seventh-day Adventist at the very end of his life.
Jessie Weiss was a successful businesswoman, but at heart she was an evangelist. Every time a Seventh-day Adventist preacher was sent into her area to hold a series of meetings, Jessie offered to give Bible studies to interested people. She assisted Elder H. M. J. Richards and other established evangelists. Thus she added practical experience to her Biblical learning from college.
After a while Jessie Weiss felt called by the Lord to hold a series of evangelistic meetings herself. Consequently she asked for the use of a tent, and the East Pennsylvania Conference administrators granted her request. The other expenses and responsibilities she shouldered herself. She asked her nephew, Jack Davis, an accomplished singer, to assume responsibility for the music and arranged for two nurses to assist her in presenting the health message. Jessie prepared and presented the nightly sermons herself.
Although the newspaper article reporting the meetings is entitled, "Kingston Girl Holding Services Near Drums," Jessie Weiss was 45 years of age at the time of the effort. A woman of vitality and enthusiasm, she seemed a mere "girl."
As she prayed and worked, God blessed her effort in a remarkable way. One night just as she was preparing to preach, Jessie learned that a Jewish husband and wife were in the congregation. What should she do? Quickly she asked the Lord for wisdom. Jessie longed to say something to convict this handsome couple concerning the Messiahship of Christ.
She decided to switch topics and preach on the "seventy weeks" prophecy of Daniel 9. To her interested listeners Jessie Weiss demonstrated that Daniel, an Old Testament Hebrew prophet, foretold that the Messiah would be "cut off" just at the time that Christ was, in fact, crucified.3
Jessie's prayers were answered when the Jewish couple converted to Christianity and joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The new converts, Jay and Trudie Hoffman, later became well known for their work with Jewish people. Elder and Mrs. Hoffman directed the Times Square Center for evangelism in New York City for 20 years.
According to Elder Hoffman, Jessie Weiss was a dynamic preacher. He and his wife, Trudie, were baptized together as part of the Drums Church that Jessie Weiss established.4
God's affirmation of Jessie's sense of call was indicated by the 80 adults baptized as a result of those meetings. Jessie, like Jesus, "baptized not"5; an ordained minister was sent to conduct that rite for her converts.
After the effort in Drums with its outstanding results, Jessie Weiss was recognized as a member of the evangelistic and ministerial staff of the East Pennsylvania Conference. She conducted many evangelistic series, usually in tents, and founded one church after another in northeastern Pennsylvania.6
Jessie Weiss was effective in the pulpit before large groups, and an excellent personal worker, too. She was compassionate and attentive to the needs of individuals.
When Mrs. John Curtis became seriously ill, Miss Weiss befriended her. Before her illness, Mrs. Curtis and her husband had frequently assisted the minister in her evangelistic endeavors; Jessie and Mrs. Curtis had become good friends. Later, as Mrs. Curtis worsened physically, Miss Weiss ministered to her tenderly.
Surrounded by the love of her husband, pastor, and friends, Mrs. Curtis died. Mr. Curtis appreciated the way Jessie Weiss had befriended his wife during her final illness.
After a respectful period of waiting, John Curtis asked Jessie Weiss to marry him. She was a very attractive person. Jessie's sense of humor and her balance appealed to people around her. Although she was self-disciplined, she also knew how to enjoy life. Mrs. Curtis dressed attractively; her suits, dresses, and hats were of excellent quality and in good taste. In the days of long hair the family children were fascinated to watch her brush her long, dark tresses that fell almost to the ground; then she coiled her hair around her head. Jessie was a distinguished-looking woman who stood out in a crowd. Moreover, she was physically strong and healthy.
Jessie thought it over, prayed about it, and decided to accept John's proposal. She was now 50 years of age.
The marriage took place March 21, 1932. Afterward Mr. Curtis provided a maid and chauffeur for his minister wife, who never learned to drive a car. Far from opposing his wife's being a minister, John Curtis, a successful Seventh-day Adventist contractor, fully encouraged Jessie to follow her calling.
In Beaumont, Tunkhannock, and Montrose in northeastern Pennsylvania, Jessie Weiss Curtis was the Holy Spirit's instrument to raise up congregations. She preached in tents, at the same time conducting countless Bible studies. After groups were formed, she raised money for and supervised the building of houses of worship.
Mrs. Curtis officiated at the first quarterly meeting and communion service held in the Tunkhannock Seventh-day Adventist Church on April 10, 1943.7
Joan Davis with her parents accepted Adventism through Jessie Weiss Curtis' preaching in the community of Montrose. Mrs. Davis emphasized that Mrs. Curtis communicated the truths of salvation in words that were clear and easy to understand, even for a child.
Bible booksellers often passed on to Mrs. Curtis names of people willing to study the Bible; such interests she followed up faithfully. Often she was able to assemble such people to study the Bible in one of their homes. This could add stimulation for the participants as well as allow efficient use of time for the evangelist.
The church raised up in Montrose, like the others founded by Jessie Curtis, was thoroughly grounded in Adventist doctrine.
Even so, the legacy given to her converts went beyond what is commonly understood as doctrinal correctness. The evangelist-pastor taught love and compassion by her daily life. For one thing, she was always attuned to the members' needs. When she was evangelist-pastor at Montrose, her congregation consisted mainly of poor farm people. Sometimes as Mrs. Curtis shook hands at the door after the worship service, she unobtrusively slipped a 10- or 20-dollar bill into the hand of a member who was hanging by a thread of faith through a financial crisis. The person would marvel, "How did she know that's exactly what I needed to pay the bill?"
She was careful, though, to exercise her generosity in such a discreet way that it was not demeaning.
When nurturing people toward Adventist truth and practice, Jessie Curtis showed wisdom and caring. If she visited poor people's homes where meat and eggs were part of the diet, she did not immediately ask them to go to a strict vegetarian diet for which they did not have the resources. She made clear the distinctions between clean and unclean meats and spoke about the body as God's temple. However, she didn't say, "You have to give up beef now," or "You mustn't eat an egg." A very good and faithful Adventist, she did not exhibit extremism.8
Jessie's happy marriage to John Curtis ended after only five years when Mr. Curtis died. Later a union conference president who was a widower visited the home frequently and would have liked to marry Jessie, but she did not choose to marry again.
However, Jessie Weiss Curtis was no "loner." "I could never live alone," she said. Not beset with the financial problems that dogged some other women ministers, and men as well, Mrs. Curtis was able and willing to use her beautiful home in Lehman, Pennsylvania, as a mission. Family members and others displaced by depression or misfortune found needed housing with this minister whose home and heart seemed large enough for all. In her home the motto, "The more, the merrier," prevailed. Sometimes for those she took under her wing she not only provided housing but bought food and paid doctors' and dentists' bills as well. Many young people were assisted in obtaining a Christian education by this same generous pastor.
One of the young people blessed by Jessie's love and generosity was Jack Davis, her great-nephew. She employed him to drive her to appointments and to take care of her equipmentto set up the stereopticon projector and hang the charts. Even though he aired out the car after taking a smoke while waiting for Mrs. Curtis to give a Bible study, she knew what was going on. During this period the prayers, love, and support she gave to Jack resulted in his conversion and ultimate dedication to the service of God in the Adventist church. He was won by her preaching in the pulpit and by the love in her life.
Still winning people to Christ in northeastern Pennsylvania, Mrs. Curtis held a tent effort in Kingston during September and October of 1964. The budget for the series was $5,000, of which $2,000 went for lot rental. Again Jessie Curtis was used by God to raise up a church.
There is no indication that the people served by Jessie Weiss Curtis thought it was inappropriate to have a woman minister. In fact, as the years went on, they practically reverenced her.
One of Jessie Weiss Curtis' strengths was her gift for preaching. People who heard her recall specific features of her pulpit style. Margaret Potts says that Mrs. Curtis' preaching was "dynamicshe knew her subject like nothing I ever heard." At the East Pennsylvania camp meetings, Margaret and others experienced the inspiration of the evangelist's life and preaching. Mrs. Curtis moved around the campground fraternizing with the people, many of whom were probably her converts. The fact that she was a strict Seventh-day Adventist did not seem to turn people away. Knowing her listeners doubtless helped to shape her messages. She was "somebody you wanted to hear. She just held you spellbound. When Jessie Weiss Curtis spoke," Mrs. Potts said emphatically, "the children listened. They really listened."9
Many factors contributed to her effectiveness as a preacher and enabled her to hold children spellbound. Jack Davis recalls that his aunt never read a sermon. This extemporaneous delivery no doubt helped to hold attention. She also was eminently understandable; she never preached "over people's heads" but directly to their hearts and minds.
Mr. Davis says that Mrs. Curtis held attention as she preached on last-day events. She would use newspaper clippings of earthquakes and hurricanes, train wrecks or airplane crashes, relating these events to the last days of earth's history and the soon coming of the Lord.
Although she was not an overly emotional person, she would occasionally wipe a tear from her eye. Hearing her preach, her nephew Jack Davis thought the Lord might be coming the next day. He says, "I used to get goose pimples hearing her preach!"
Mrs. Curtis was well equipped for her work of evangelism. She used colorful, graphic, bedsheet-sized posters and charts to illustrate Biblical topics: the image of Daniel 2, the beasts of Daniel 7, the judgment, the sanctuary, the seven seals, the ten commandments, the Sabbath42 charts in all. The woman preacher had paid struggling Adventist artists to create these striking visual aids to illustrate her sermons, and to put bread on their tables at the same time.
In addition to the charts, Mrs. Curtis assembled an extensive stereopticon and projector slide collection, along with the equipment to show them, that were the stock-in-trade of some of the most successful evangelists of her era.
After she had established a church and the baptisms had been counted, Jessie Curtis did not forget her converts. She visited them to monitor their progress and encouraged them to hold fast; or, if they had slipped away, she nurtured them back. When there was no pastor for churches she had previously established, she gladly agreed to pastor for a short time. Thus new members were added while others were sustained. These methods help explain why churches that she raised up still exist when other entire groups of converts have disappeared.
The more we learn, the more it becomes understandable that the East Pennsylvania Conference presidents sent their interns for training to this experienced, effective minister. Elder N. R. Dower, formerly ministerial director of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, recalls that he started his work under evangelist Curtis.10
In addition, conference administrators made a practice of sending ministers to work with Mrs. Curtis when they appeared to be drifting away on some point of doctrine or church authority. Sometimes a rehabilitation was effected, and the worker found his footing again as he associated and counseled with this wise and godly woman minister.
Although Mrs. Curtis usually conducted her own evangelistic campaigns and developed churches virtually alone, she wasn't averse to assisting someone else when the need arose. She solicited building materials from contractors to help another minister to build the Scranton, Pennsylvania, Church. Being generous in giving herself, she was not embarrassed to ask others to contribute. She also worked to build the Wilkes-Barre Church. In fact, John Curtis gave the land for the building while Jessie Curtis and Homer Weiss donated the stained-glass windows.
Thus by widely diverse methodsevangelizing, pastoring, soliciting, donatingJessie Weiss Curtis contributed constantly to the growth of the work in eastern Pennsylvania.
As a person Mrs. Curtis was well organized and an exceptionally strong leader. By character and personality she commanded attention and respect; when Mrs. Curtis spoke, people listened. Although she was not effusive emotionally, people around her sensed her warmth. Children loved her.
Jessie Curtis was a reasonable person who could keep priorities in mind. She read the papers, kept up with current events, and had her own library. She was constantly collecting sermon material.
Mrs. Curtis faithfully attended church meetings and business sessions, such as the Columbia Union Conference Session in Atlantic City in 1959, where she was photographed in the center of a group of her members.
Mrs. Curtis and Mary Walsh were good friends, both licensed ministers. Jessie had the privilege of meeting Ellen White in person.
There is an anecdote told by the family concerning an attempt to ordain Jessie Curtis at which she apparently dissented.11
Jessie Weiss Curtis served as a licensed minister in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination from 1945 until 1972, more than 25 years. After retirement she continued to be active in witnessing for her Lord. An illness finally slowed her down for the last year of her life, and she died at Mountain Top, Pennsylvania, September 6, 1972. She lived nearly 91 years, a unique blending of ministry, family love, and unfearing interaction with the public. She died in the hope of the resurrection, desiring above all else to meet her Lord at His return.
Mrs. Curtis left the world quite different from the way she found it. Her obituary states that "She held tent meetings and organized many churches in the East Pennsylvania Conference."12
Toward the end of her life Mrs. Curtis said that if she had her life to live over, she would do exactly the same work that she had done. What bigger thrill could there be than teaching people the Bible, bringing them to their Lord, and seeing them baptized and saved in the kingdom?
2 Jack and Joan Davis, interview with the author at the Davis home in Monrovia, Maryland, August 24, 1984. (See Appendix A, 5.2.) Quotations in this chapter not otherwise credited are based on a transcription of this interview.
3 Daniel 9:26, 27.
5 John 4:2.
6 "Curtis, Jessie Weiss," mimeographed life sketch.
7 "Historical Sketch of Tunkhannock Seventh-day Adventist Church," in the program for the Dedication Services of the Tunkhannock Seventh-day Adventist Church on October 11, 1975.
8 Interview of Jack and Joan Davis with the writer, 1984.
9 Margaret Potts, Hyattsville, Maryland, telephone conversation with the writer, June 22, 1985.
10 Conversation of Eld. N. R. Dower with the writer at the Potomac campgrounds, June 1973.
12 "Curtis, Jessie W.," Review and Herald (November 2, 1972).
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