The Free Methodist Denomination has a long history of supporting women in ministry. However, the battle for official ordination went on almost a 100 years. It began in 1860 when the denomination was founded. B.T. Roberts, one of the main founders, decided for the health of the fledgling denomination not to pursue ordaining women at the same time the denomination was forming. So, the debate raged on at general conferences and in the denominational magazine The Free Methodist (later to become Light and Life magazine) until 1974 when women were officially approved for ordination.
The commitment of women in the denomination to pursue their calling and passion for ordination is evident in the stories of the first two officially ordained women in the Free Methodist Church. Pastor Jean Parry was ordained at the June 1974 General Conference, following approval of women’s ordination. Parry was from the Pittsburgh Conference and had been serving in various ministry roles since 1969 when she became a lay minister. The second woman ordained was on August 14, 1974. Ina Cochrane Ellis was an 81 year old minister and mother. She preached in the Wabash, Indiana conference as an evangelist starting in the early 1900s. She later married Osmand Ellis in 1922 and served jointly with him in ministry. Her husband died in 1939 and she continued serving as a minister in Indiana. She went on to a summer school at Winona Lake School of Theology where she received ministerial training to further her mission. (Light and Life, Oct. 22, 1974, p. 12-13)
What is interesting is that there was almost two months between when the first and second woman was ordained in the denomination. Were there so few candidates that there wasn’t a backlog of women lining up to be ordained? That’s something I will need to research more. However, if you compare the religious fervor and involvement of 19th century women with the declining number of women pursuing ordination today I think there is an alarming trend occurring. Why aren’t women pursuing ordination? What is restricting them from engaging in ministry? Is it family, fear of not being placed in church, pressure from conservative Christian culture to stay in the home and place family first? I’m not sure what the reasoning is. Frankly, I think it is a combination of all these factors.
So, while some people might think it’s “nice” to research the contributions of Free Methodist women in the 19th century, the purpose behind the research is far greater than just recording their stories. It is a call to action. A call to remember that women can be called by God to serve in the church and it is a social critique against current conservative Christian culture that downplays the role and importance of women in the church. As Free Methodists we must take a more active role in educating our church leaders, members and children about our history and our support of egalitarian beliefs. Until we begin to see more books, denominational magazine articles, and sermons about this topic the cycle will continue and women will not have the freedom or support to respond to the call to minister.