Walter Sellew’s Phamplet “Why Not?”: A Logical Defense on Women’s Ordination

Walter Sellew

The path to ordain women in the Free Methodist Church seemed to stall with the death of B.T. Roberts after the 1890 General Conference. Yet, the battle wasn’t over. In 1898 the Free Methodist Church for the first time appointed four bishops – Wilson Hogg (aka Hogue), G.W. Coleman, E.P. Hart and Walter Sellew. Sellew is the forgotten advocate for women’s ministry. Yet, without his support I believe recognition of women’s contributions within the denomination would have taken even longer to occur. While women were not granted the right to ordained elders within the denomination until 1974, they were granted the right be deacons at the 1911 General Conference. The resolution read as follows:
“Whenever any annual conference, shall be satisfied that any woman is called of God to preach the gospel, that annual conference may be permitted to receive her on trail, and into full connection, and ordain her as a deacon, all on the same conditions as we receive men into the same relations; provided always that this ordination of women shall not be considered a step toward ordination as an elder,” (Marston, 1960, p.419)

Sellew had worked diligently since publishing his pamphlet “Why Not?” on women’s ordination to see them granted more senior leadership roles. The passage of the 1911 resolution was seen as a step forward for the denomination. Never mind that it would be another sixty-three years before the next move was made to ordain women as elders. Yet, Sellew was still concerned after the 1911 General Conference that the 1915 General Conference would seek to overturn the decision of allowing women deacons. Thus, he reprinted his pamphlet again in 1914 and notes in the forward that the decision to reprint it was due to two reasons. First, that many people had joined the denomination since the pamphlet’s original printing in 1894 and didn’t understand or support the denominations decision to ordain women. Second, that he wanted to forestall any move to repeal the 1911 decision.

While Sellew continued Roberts quest to see women ordained, filling Roberts shoes was an impossible task. The more I read of Sellew and his writings the more I admire him and his convictions. Yet, stylistically Roberts is the better writer and orator. Where in “On Ordaining Women” Roberts appeals to the readers logic through history and Biblical interpretation; their sense of ethics by noting social restrictions placed on women in the late nineteenth century, and the appeals to emotions through his passionate and eloquent defense in the final chapter of his pamphlet. As a true rhetorician Roberts uses all three Aristotelian techniques to create his defense – ethos (ethics, appeal to believing the character and integrity of the speaker), logos (logic), and pathos (passion and emotion). Sellew appeals only to the logical reasons for ordination. While, his defense is well written, it lacks the emotional spark that makes me want to shout “Amen” every time I read “On Ordaining Women.” However, to give Sellew some slack his pamphlet is still a well written, well argued defense of the Free Methodist beliefs on women in ministry. Set in a different time period than “On Ordaining Women,” Sellew saw that political equality would soon be guaranteed for women as more states were granting them the right to vote and a constitutional amendment was being pushed by suffragists in Washington D.C. He saw how women were now business owners and entrepreneurs, and now the only place where they were not granted equal status was within their religious communities. The very place that should have been the first to grant them equal rights. Sellew explains this hypocrisy in the opening pages of “Why Not?”:

“Yet it is a curious fact that the prejudice against the religious rights and privileges of women is more strongly entrenched than that against either her social or business rights, and yields the last of all, and then most reluctantly. He who has the property of another, in his possession, selfishly detained against the will of the rightful owner, is not at all likely, by the very nature of the case, to see clearly the right relations existing between them. So, men, who for so long a time had held these varied rights in their possession, acquired by force, and with whom this principle of power had been for so long a time both judge and jury, law and gospel, could not be expected to see their relations rightly. But life is motion. Inherent rights will not always be quite, and the law of return operates here as in nature. The prejudice against the social rights of women was the first to begin to give way, but so long delayed was this that not till after the dark ages did the light of God begin to break through and reveal what out to have been recognized long before, that women in the social sphere where not only the equal but actually the superior of man.” (6-7)

Sellew goes on and offers a point-by-point defense of women’s various roles within the church. To justify allowing women to be deacons he goes on for several pages providing various concordances and Biblical dictionaries as evidence the different meanings of “ordained,” “preaching” and “deacon” illustrate that much of what has been used to argue against women’s role in ministry is nothing more than a difference in translation.

Roberts and Sellew do differ on two key points. First, in on “Ordaining Women” Roberts takes the issue of women’s ordination a step farther than Sellew and says that women and men were created equal by God. Sellew does not claim that – instead noting that there are inherent differences, and some women have been given an extraordinary call to ministry. Sellew’s position is more along the lines of John Wesley who believed that some, but not all women, were called to ministry. Second, Sellew tried to reassure his male readers that even though women make up a majority of Free Methodists congregations they almost always will vote in a society meeting to appoint men to senior leadership roles over women. Only when a capable man is unable to be found will they appoint a woman. I understand that in an era when women were just beginning to realize their potential for public service they wouldn’t think twice about appointing a man over a woman. I just have a problem that Sellew seems to be pandering to the men. As a rhetorician I do see the point of trying to balance the importance of Free Methodist women’s roles and the hesitations of conservative men. I just wish he had been a bit more forceful and not quite so middle of the road. Nevertheless, no matter what my personal critique of Sellew’s pamphlet is, the fact cannot be overlooked that without his influence women most likely would not have even been granted the status of deacons in 1911. Over the next few posts I’ll continue to explore Sellew’s support of women in ministry, particularly his support of women and missions through his biography of the founder of the Free Methodist mission in China – Clara Leffingwell.

Sources:

Leslie Marston. From Age to Age A Living Witness: Free Methodism’s First Century. Winona Lake, IN: Light and Life Communications (1960).

Walter Sellew. “Why Not?” Why Not

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