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She was born in New Lisbon, Ohio. She was born again at the beginning of the Third Great Awakening at the age of thirteen. Maria immediately heard the call of God and dedicated her life to the Lord. Of her calling she would later write, "I heard the voice of Jesus calling me to go out in the highways and hedges and gather in the lost sheep." In 1863, she married Philo Horace Woodworth, whom she divorced for infidelity in 1891. She had six children with Woodworth, five of whom died young. In 1902, she married Samuel Etter, who died in 1914. She studied the Word and began preaching His divine will in healing. It didn't take long to see that evangelism and healing went hand in hand as thousands were won to Christ as a result of seeing others healed. Sister Etter pioneered the way for Pentecostal manifestations that are so common in the movement today.
Her earliest exposure to religion was through a local Disciples of Christ congregation. After her marriage, she chose to enter evangelistic ministry. Prohibited from public preaching among the Disciples, she found support in a local Quaker meeting. It was while associating with the Quakers that she received the baptism in the Holy Spirit while praying for an "anointing for service".
After this experience, she began to preach. Reporting hundreds of conversions, her campaigns attracted reporters from across the country. She was briefly affiliated with the Brethren in Christ but eventually joined the Church of God of the General Eldership founded by John Winebrenner. She was dismissed from the Church of God in 1904.
She began to pray for the sick in 1885, believing that those with sufficient faith would be healed. Her meetings also became known for people falling to the floor in trance-like states. These people would later report profound spiritual experiences while in such a state. As she preached throughout the nation, her reputation grew, leading her to purchase of an 8,000 seat tent in which to conduct her services. After 1912, she joined the young Pentecostal movement and preached widely in Pentecostal circles until her death.