The Aftermath of the 1890 Conference

One of the greatest testaments to the drive for gender equality in the Free Methodist Church is the denominational magazine The Earnest Christian (the magazine archives are available at the Marston Historical Center website, see the link on the homepage).  Edited by B.T. and Ellen Roberts, the majority of its articles during the 1880’s and early 1890’s were written by women. The defeat of the 1890 resolution was disheartening to many women leaders in the church. In the December 1890 issue of The Earnest Christian Mattie Campbell notes the lack of respect and voice by certain church members in her article “Prejudice!”:

This morning, as I was on my way to work, I began to inquire of the Lord if it really was His will that I should take such a stand against false doctrines as I do with all my seeming harshness. The Lord answered me thus, ‘I only require thee to speak the truth in love. ‘I re- plied, ‘ Thou knowest that I do speak it, both in love for the cause and for the welfare of souls,’ when, like a flash of lightening, the power of God so came upon me that I could not contain it. After the manifest presence left, I began again. I said, “Lord our society does not consider me of any account, nor do they honor me in the least.”  Immediately He replied, “The members of the body that are considered the least upon them, I bestow the more abundant honor” (10-11).

Campbell’s revelation came in November 1890, soon after the General Conference voted down ordaining women. In her article, Campbell goes on to note that she feels great opposition to her ministry, but feels through God’s power that eventually her work will be recognized as God’s will is fulfilled. While Campbell’s article could easily be seen as using personal faith to justify and stay within an oppressive social structure, I want to draw attention to the fact that she is still speaking out and urging change, not conformity with the oppression. This desire to stay within a religious organization and work for change is further illustrated by B.T. Robert’s pamphlet On Ordaining Women, which was published in response to the 1890 Conference decision.

Roberts’ pamphlet On Ordaining Women went beyond a simple call to consider women capable for ministry. In the pamphlet, Roberts urges a complete change to the gender hierarchy and male headship practices often followed in Christian culture. Taking on the hermeneutical issues involved in Biblical feminism, Robert’s pamphlet presents one of the most progressive discourses on Christian feminism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Speaking against the cultural argument that women are not capable of serving in certain professions such as the military, Roberts notes Joan of Arc’s role in saving France from England, Herodotus’ historical account of a women’s army of “Amazons” and the Biblical prophet Deborah winning more honor than the Israelite general Barak in battle (45-46). As Roberts notes, women are just as capable of men, but have been socially conditioned to appear inferior.

In a far-reaching final declaration of equality, Roberts concludes his On Ordaining Women by noting in capital letters:

THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST, IN THE PROVISIONS WHICH IT MAKES, AND IN THE AGENCIES WHICH IT EMPLOYS, FOR THE SALVATION OF MANKIND, KNOWS NO DISTINCTION OF RACE, CONDITION, OR SEX, THEREFORE NO PERSON EVIDENTLY CALLED OF GOD TO THE GOSPEL MINISTRY, AND DULY QUALIFIED FOR IT, SHOULD BE REFUSED ORDINATION ON ACCOUNT OF RACE, CONDITION, OR SEX (104).

Roberts’ passionate plea for gender equality came over 20 years before women were granted political equality with men by the 19th Amendment and eighty-three years before the Free Methodist denomination officially ordained women. Yet, as Donald Dayton notes in Discovering an Evangelical Heritage, Robert’s writings was built upon the Seneca Falls meeting of 1848, held in a Wesleyan Methodist Church (91).  During this meeting, both religious and secular women met together to draft the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions,” considered by some historians as the foundation of the modern feminist movement, which included bold statements about the civil rights of both men and women (From Helen Hunt’s book Faith and Feminism A Holy Alliance). Roberts was familiar with the historic struggle for human equality and, while he did not live to see his ideals officially upheld, he paved the way for generations of Free Methodist women ministers to pursue their calling.

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