The 1890 Free Methodist General Conference was the first general conference to have women delegates, which added tension to the debate about women’s ordination. Clara Wetherald of the East Michigan Conference and Anna Grant from North Indiana were seated delegates at the conference (Snyder, 2006). In the Passion of the Founders (2003), edited by Gerald Coates, Wetherald speaks up during the debate about women’s ordination. (Yet, Coates records no response on the issue from Grant. I am hoping a trip to the Free Methodist archives will revel that Grant also took a stance on the subject).
After listening to her male colleagues speak Wetherald notes:
I know we have responsibilities that others do not have; and I think of all the others we should have the support of the church. I do not see why the heavens should fall and everything be turned bottom side up if five elders should lay their hands on my head and say, “Take thou authority to preach the Word of God and to administer the holy sacraments in the congregation” (Coates 118).
Wetherald’s response hones in on one of the major arguments against women in ministry. A Christian woman’s primary role is seen by some to be in the home, teaching spiritual disciplines to her children and caring for the well-being of her family. Although,as Wetherald notes, it is not impossible for women to balance both domestic responsibilities and a call to ministry.
However, even with support of women delegates such as Wetherald and the influential Robert’s powerful arguments, some of the male delagates such as a Mr. Owen from the Susquehanna Conference in New York still opposed women holding ordained positions in the church. As Owen notes:
I contend that the word helpmeet does not mean equality; it simply means a helper. I am not to stand here on this floor to prove to this body that woman is not in many respects the superior of man, but my contention is that God designed that man should be the leader and ruler, and just as the word says, ‘Woman shall be a helpmeet unto him.’ We have a President in the United States and a vice-president, and no one would content that the vice-president was equal in authority to the President. He is simply a helper in official matters” (Coates 125).
Owen’s remarks stirred outrage from the few women who attended the conference. Ida Gage of Ohio, who was attending the conference but not as a delegate, responded to Owen’s comments with a firm admonishment about his understanding of the United States government:
Referring to what my brother from the Susquehanna Conference said with regard to the president and vice president of the United States, if I have a proper understanding the vice president has the authority to perform all the duties of the president in his absence. I come to you as a vice president, and I wish this question could be settled (Coates 136).
Gage goes on to note her frustration with her lack of recognition as a minister in the Free Methodist Church:
I feel very much like a colored man when he thank God for the ‘sperience.’ My brother says this is not a testimony meeting, but I want to say just a few words. I have ‘sperience’ on this line. Some years ago, when bound by infidelity and atheism, God sent some blessed salvation plants floating down my way. I experienced religion and enjoyed it for fifteen days. God saw fit to lay His hand upon me. I lost my strength, and there he saw fit to make me go forth and preach His gospel. When I arose from under the influence of the Spirit and left the room, I settled it for time and eternity. I do not think the brethren intended to say things that hurt, but really my heart has been hurt to the core” (Coates 136).
Gage’s reference to the oppression of African-Americans, who like women in the 19th century had no rights, was a subtle reminder to the delegates of the Free Methodist church’s ties to the abolitionist movements. How could they devalue women yet fight for the African-American to have rights to more than just a religious ‘sperience’?
Even more importantly, Gage’s testimony also illustrates that, contrary to modern feminist interpretation, she viewed her conversion and religious experience as a liberating experience that justified her entering the public male space as a preacher of the gospel. Thus, religious conversions and calls to ministry like Gage’s illustrate one of the ways in which the Methodist Holiness tradition connected faith to the experiences of women by providing them with a liberated space to pursue their passions and faith in a society that allowed limited social and professional opportunities for women. Thus what really motivated the vote against women’s ordination was the male leadership’s fear of losing social and political power. Thus they (and especially the male clergy who overwhelming opposed women’s ordination while the lay pastors supported it) moved to proscribe women’s power within the church.
While the 1890 conference ultimately denied women the right to ordination, the power of women’s call to ministry cannot be denied. In denominational publications, such as The Earnest Christian women wrote the majority of articles. The topics of their article ranged from ministry related praise requests, admonishments to the denomination to live a holiness lifestyle and a passionate plea for equality in the church. In the coming weeks I plan to provide excerpts from The Earnest Christian articles from the late 1880s and early 1890s to illustrate the rhetorical power Free Methodists writers and lay pastors had in the church.
**For additional reading check out Howard Snyders (2006) book Populist Saints: B.T. and Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodists and Passion of Our Founders, edited by Gerald Coates (2003).