Ruth Steelberg-Carter (1902-1984) was the wife of two Assemblies of God national leaders during her lifetime – Wesley Rowland Steelberg (1902-1952) of the Assemblies of God USA and Howard Carter (1891-1971) of the Assemblies of God in Great Britain and Ireland. She had roots in the Azusa Street revival and, in her retirement years, she had a vibrant ministry to prisoners as an ordained Assemblies of God prison chaplain. The Nov. 13, 1977, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel shared the story of her chaplaincy ministry, demonstrating how one woman who had already lived a full life poured herself into meeting the spiritual needs of prisoners in her latter years.
Ruth was a child of the Azusa Street revival (1906-1909), the interracial revival that was a focal point of the emerging Pentecostal movement. She was the daughter of Elmer Kirk Fisher, who was the founder and pastor of the Upper Room Mission, an early Pentecostal church in downtown Los Angeles, located just a few blocks from the Azusa Street Mission. Her first husband, Wesley Steelberg, helped found Christ’s Ambassadors (the Assemblies of God ministry for young people) and was an early speaker for the Revivaltime radio broadcast. He was serving as general superintendent of the AG when he passed away suddenly in 1952 while participating in the third World Pentecostal Conference in London.
Her second husband, Howard Carter, was a founding member of the Assemblies of God in Great Britain and Ireland in 1924. He served as the principal of Hampstead Bible School in London for nearly 30 years. He is remembered for a round-the-world evangelistic tour with evangelist Lester Sumrall in the 1930s. He also served as chairman of the Assemblies of God in Great Britain and Ireland from 1934 to 1945. Ruth Carter had three daughters who were all active in the AG. Her son, Wesley P. Steelberg, pastored AG churches in Redwood City, North Hollywood, and Long Beach, California. She also was an aunt of AG educator Stanley M. Horton.
Ruth’s ministry often seemed overshadowed by the ministry of the men in her life. Raised in a pastor’s home and the wife of two influential ministers, Ruth had a supporting role in their ministries. After her first husband passed away, as a widow, she began ministering as a missionary representative and an evangelist. She was ordained on April 28, 1955. Later that year she married Howard Carter and traveled with him to England, where she served as a co-pastor and evangelist, preaching in many services.
Forty-five years ago, in an issue commemorating Prison Sunday in the AG, the Pentecostal Evangel reported on Ruth’s ministry as a prison chaplain at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. Even though by that time she was a widow for the second time, and was in her seventies, she visited the Medical Center six times a week, spending several hours each time attending to the needs of inmates.
This prison ministry at the Medical Center was started by Paul R. Markstrom, Institutional Chaplaincies representative of the AG. Ruth was one of the first ministers to assist at this facility. She conducted Bible studies and offered friendship, encouragement, and prayer. Ruth worked closely with the Protestant chaplain and was assisted by a number of students from Central Bible College and Evangel College. She went to the hospital wards at the facility on Tuesday afternoons to talk and pray with inmates individually.
For the worship services, Ruth was assisted by other volunteers, including her daughter, Juanita Colbaugh; son-in-law, Lloyd Colbaugh; Lucille Clark; and Burton Pierce and his wife, Mabel. Lucille was an instructor at Evangel College. Juanita was a pianist, and Mabel was an organist for the services. Lucille led the Monday night Bible studies when Ruth was absent. Burton led a Bible study on Sunday mornings. Both Lloyd and Burton took turns leading worship on Sunday evenings. Attendance averaged 75 to 100.
Ruth viewed this as an important mission field, and she dealt with men from all walks of life. She talked with Buddhists, Muslims, and unchurched people, as well as people from different ethnic backgrounds. She said that the work was exciting as she was able to share with many people who had never heard the gospel. “At the close of the Sunday night services, almost always they ask if any wish to confess Christ as their Saviour,” said Ruth, “and there’s hardly a time that we don’t have men giving their lives to the Lord.”
Even though she had traveled and lived in many areas of the world in her lifetime, Ruth said she had not seen a greater mission field anywhere. “I’ve been on many mission fields,” she said, “and I’ve never seen a more fruitful field than this prison ministry right here in the U.S.”
With her friendly smile and genuine concern, Ruth easily won the hearts of many inmates. The men started calling her “Mom.” One of her coworkers said, “There are hundreds who have been led to Christ by the prison witness of Mom Carter. She is mother to a lot of fellows who never knew their parents.”
Ruth Steelberg-Carter’s example shows how Christians can engage in fruitful ministry in their twilight years and, in particular, how widows who have spent most of their ministry in supporting roles can blossom and take on new ministries in their newfound singleness.
Read “The Men Call Her Mom,” by Robert C. Cunningham, on page 8 of the Nov, 13, 1977, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “Born Again—What Strange New Doctrine is This?” by Kenneth D. Barney
• “He Put a New Song in My Mouth,” by Birdie L. Etchison
• “Minister With Love,” by T. E. Gannon
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.