Born and raised in New Lisbon, Ohio to a non-Christian family, Maria was ten years old when her parents experienced a change and joined a Disciples of Christ church. It was there that Maria first learned about Christ and the Christian faith.
Tragedy struck the family three years later when her father died from severe sunstroke. Left alone with eight children, Maria’s mother worked to support the struggling family with the help of the older children. Around this time, Maria was born again at the age of thirteen.
Immediately, Maria heard God’s call to “go to the highways and hedges to call the lost sheep.” She responded by dedicating her life to serving the Lord, but the Disciples movement she had met the Lord through did not allow women in ministry. This was disconcerting and eventually caused her to consider marriage so that she and her husband could serve the Lord as missionaries. In 1863, at age nineteen, she married Philo Harris Woodworth.
Maria and Woodworth’s marriage was also tragic. They tried to farm but failed, and five of their six children died at young ages, a hard trial for any parent to endure. This left only their oldest, Elizabeth.
Then Maria was asked to speak at a Friends meeting. When she got up to speak, she had a vision of how close the people were to the edge of hell yet they did not know it. This profoundly moved her. Later as she pondered this vision, she contemplated studying to prepare for the ministry. God then gave Maria a vision in which He told her that souls were perishing and she did not have time for the preparation she wanted to pursue.
After this, Maria felt burdened for the lost day and night. She decided to hold meetings in her local area, and the Lord moved in such a great way that many repented and turned to Him. Two churches were born out of these meetings, and Maria and her husband began a traveling ministry. Her reputation spread as the Lord moved powerfully wherever she ministered.
During this time, Maria felt the Lord calling her to pray for the sick, but she was reticent because she thought it might distract from her evangelistic message. The Lord appeared to her again in a vision and assured her that when she prayed for the sick, even more would be saved. She obeyed and the results were spectacular. Soon as many as twenty-five thousand gathered for her meetings.
Controversy tends to follow such remarkable success either because of religious jealousy or “old wineskins” that are incapable of accepting something new or different. In Maria’s case, it was not just the religious community that attacked her, but the secular community as well. In Massachusetts, Maria was arrested for claiming to heal people, but so many witnesses came forward that they had to release her. Then local psychiatrists filed charges that she was delusional because she claimed to see visions. Just as Jesus Himself was continually challenged, criticized, and attacked by adversaries, those who follow Him endure the same. With Maria these attacks were especially vicious, but she persevered relentlessly.
In 1890, a man prophesied the coming of an earthquake and tidal wave to San Francisco in April. As is typical with prophecy, those who heard assumed it referred to April of that year, but the month passed without an earthquake. The man was arrested, which further maligned Maria’s ministry. Sixteen years later the earthquake came in April 1906, and many felt the vision was vindicated. Even so, it was obviously mishandled, and Maria’s critics used it against her.
The pressure of the ministry also hurt Maria’s marriage. In 1891, she and Woodworth divorced due to his infidelity. Woodworth threatened to write a book critical of her ministry if Maria did not pay him alimony, but he died within the year. In 1902, Maria met and married Samuel Etter.
Maria’s denomination struggled with what happened in her meetings, especially the way some “swooned” during them. This was later called “being slain in the Spirit.” This phenomenon happened in revivals and awakenings for centuries, but no one adequately understood it at that time. However, those who experienced it claimed to have had remarkable experiences with the Lord and were profoundly changed.
Even so, the denominational authorities pressured Maria to stop the people from swooning in her meetings. She did not start or even necessarily want them in her meetings, but neither did she know how to stop them.
Then denominational authorities demanded that she discontinue the gatherings. She refused and lost her credentials.
This proved fortuitous, as a new movement had begun at a former stable on Azusa Street in Los Angeles. This was the perfect spiritual home for Maria. In 1912, F.F. Bosworth hosted her for a five month long meeting in Dallas, Texas. Word of the extraordinary works of God in those meetings spread abroad. This touched and inspired some future great evangelists in the Pentecostal movement, such as Aimee Semple McPherson and John G. Lake, who called her “Mother Etter.”
In August of 1914, Samuel Etter passed away after a long illness just as World War I began. The strain on Maria from not seeing her husband healed and taking care of him while keeping a ministry schedule that had her speaking three times a day wore her down. She became sick herself. At sixty-seven she was ready to go home to her Lord. Then she had another vision in which the Lord showed Himself as the conqueror of sickness and death, and that her time was not up. Soon she was well and back on the road, preaching the gospel and healing the sick with renewed vision. In 1918, she started a church in Indianapolis that she used as a conference center and a base from which to travel.