When someone thinks of an American suffragist images of Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton or Susan B. Anthony might come to mind or the image of women pushing the boundaries of social norms by becoming doctors and lawyers. Yes, those women were suffragists…dare I also call them feminists?! However, there is another group of women who often aren’t included in historical narratives of suffragists, but who were also pioneering new roles for women—female pastors.
This blog has devoted over ten years to the uncovering the narratives of these forgotten women, specifically women in the Free Methodist Church. It’s important to acknowledge that female evangelists (such as those discussed on this blog) were working in tough conditions – rural towns, the frontier, traveling a circuit (sometimes even by foot)- doing the same things their ordained male colleagues were doing. Their ministry was vital to the success of many late nineteenth century denomination such as The Free Methodist Church. Yet, where in the church’s organizational history are these women featured? Are their stories prominently displayed at denominational headquarters or featured on the denominations’ website….not that I’m aware of. However, this issue is larger than just a single denomination. Because women’s contributions were not included in early church histories it’s an intensive process to write them back in.
It requires digging through periodicals, census records, and other legal documents (land contracts, marriage licenses, death certificates) and sometimes even finding descendants to get a comprehensive picture of who these women were and their contributions. It isn’t enough to just find one or two narratives and call it good. There are hundreds of women who devoted their lives to ministry.
Their lack of inclusion in organizational history is something that evangelical culture needs to wrestle with and work to actively write these women back into their rightful place in history.
I’ve spent the past year transcribing annual conference minutes in the Free Methodist Church from 1876 to 1912. Why those specific years? Well, the first documented female evangelists appear in the Susquehanna Conference minutes in 1876– a full two years before the 1878 Book of Discipline included the description of an evangelist as “any brother or sister in good standing in our Church, feeling called of God to this work.” (p.84)
Documenting annual conference data has provided so much insight into these women. I now have names of every woman licensed and appointed to a circuit during this time frame, and I can finally say for certain how many women were involved in active ministry during the late nineteenth century, particularly when B.T. Roberts the progressive founder of the denomination was alive. Why did I stop at 1912? Well, it’s incredibly time intensive and I don’t work at a college where I get the benefit of research assistants.
I started this project to provide context to the book I’m finishing on women evangelists in the Free Methodist Church and those stories stop about 1915 when the women I’ve been researching pass away. 1912 also was a good stopping point because it gives about a year of data on how many deaconesses were appointed compared to female evangelists. (Women were given the right in 1910 to be ordained deaconess in the Free Methodist Church).
Some interesting findings:
When I first began transcribing the annual conference minutes I thought there would be a decline in women’s involvement after women’s ordination was voted down in 1894. Instead, the opposite happened and women became even more involved in church ministry. Yet, as you can see from the chart while the number of women licensed as evangelist steadily increased the number of women appointed by an annual conference to a ministry circuit remained the same with only a slight increased around 1900 and then it leveled off again.
I have several hunches as to why this might have occurred. The Progressive Era saw women becoming involved in numerous social causes outside the home and by the late 1900s women suffrage publications such The Woman’s Column and The Woman’s Journal regularly featured stories about female ministers and lauded increased access to ministry as more denominations became open to women serving in some pastoral role.
Within the Free Methodist Church more conferences were licensing women by 1900. At this point, there would have been at least a generation of women who had grown up seeing other women preaching and serving in ministry. These early female evangelists like Ida Gage, Sarah Anne Grant and Clara Wetherald were role models paving the way for the next generation- it was’t a novelty anymore. It’s just the way it was.
Within the denomination women continued to gain equal status in ministry and leadership. By the 1907 Book of Discipline women evangelists could also serve as ministerial delegates at church conferences and also pastor a church. By 1910 they were allowed to be ordained as deaconesses. So, every leadership role and ministry role was open to them….except ordained elder which also restricted them from the highest positions of denominational leadership.
As this second graph shows women began to surpass men in the role of an evangelist by 1903. In 1903 there were 295 women licensed to 193 men and by 1911 there were 403 licensed women and only 146 men. So the question remains why weren’t women granted ordination as elder? They clearly were doing the exact same work and their contributions and abilities had been recognized with increased ministry opportunities within the denomination.
I don’t know for sure but my hunch is the Free Methodist Church missed their chance. In the 1880s and 1890s the denomination was more a religious movement than a bureaucratic organization, but by 1900 that was no longer the case as the denomination had clear policies and procedures to base decisions on. Those policies were created without the input of women as they could not serve in the most senior leadership roles without being ordained as elder. As happened time and time again throughout history those in power created policies and rules to maintain their power.
I’m not implying that 19th century Free Methodist men maliciously excluded women, but, with the exception of B.T. Roberts and a few others, the status quo was never questioned. Compliancy is the enemy of progress and that certainly was the case with women’s ordination.
Compliancy led to entrenchment and by the early twentieth century gendered Christian rhetoric had become the norm as evangelists such as Billy Sunday and Dwight L. Moody preached a masculinized version of Christianity that only further solidified the notion women were not capable nor meant to be leaders in the church..[i]
The present day rhetoric on gendered divisions of labor in the home and in the church is surprisingly similar to what was being argued over a century ago in opposition of ordaining women. The rise of the far-right, separatist nature of modern day evangelicalism has only exasperated the situation and entrenched the rhetoric.
As evangelical historian Donald Dayton notes by the mid-twentieth century even the holiness churches (including the Free Methodist Church) had lost their feminist heritage and, as a result, generations of women had fewer role models of women in public ministry.[ii] It became a common occurrence for evangelical women to go a lifetime without ever hearing a woman preacher or learning about their own denomination’s historical ties to the suffrage and temperance movements. Historical distance allowed individuals to forget their ties to early twentieth-century progressive causes.[iii]
American denominations need to ask themselves “Who have we overlooked?” I guarantee within every denomination there is a forgotten group of individuals who need to be re-written into church history.
[i] Robert Martin, “Billy Sunday ad Christian Manliness,” The Historian 58(4) 1996.
[ii]Donald Dayton, Discovering an Evangelical Heritage (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1976), 98.
[iii] Janette Hassey, No Time for Silence (Minneapolis, MN: Christians for Biblical Equality, 1986), 137-138.