The 1911 Free Methodist General Conference took steps to finally allow women some form of ordination. Now, women could become ordained deacons at the annual conference level, but with the cavet that “this ordination of women shall not be considered a step towards ordination as an elder.”1
I’ll write about all five women at some point, but Ada Hall is by far my favorite. I feel a kindered spirit in her writing and passion for what she believed important enough to fight for.
Prior to being ordained a deacon, Hall had been appointed to circuits in the Minnesota and Northern Iowa Conference for ten years. She had aggressively campaigned for ordination, publishing entitled “Forward, Backward, Which?” in the April 25, 1911, Free Methodist in which she outlines the frustrations of female evangelists who had to continually defend the denomination’s position on women’s ordination to outsiders. It should be noted this article came out before the 1911 General Conference. She was clearly trying to make a point and push for action on women’s ordination.
The lack of clarity about the status of women evangelists was infuriating, and as Hall notes ordination for women was becoming more common:
“We have been humiliated and ashamed when we have to explain to outside people the position of our church on this question. They always go away disappointed, for they expect better things of us because of our high spiritual standard. As laborers together with God and with one another in the great harvest field, seeing the night so soon cometh, is it not wise that you rather help those women who labor among you, and save them from laboring under the present humiliating hindrances?”
Hall explained that women did not desire to excel above their male brethren, but to have recognition and a title that reflected their contributions:
“We came from the position of an evangelist-pastor one hour to that of a conference preacher. The next we know not what we are nor to what class we belong. Is not this a subject of more importance than deciding names? If we had but one name and knew what it stood for, we would be thankful. This question will not never down or be settled until the right is reached.”
Hall’s article pinpoints an ongoing rhetorical trend within the denomination—changing the title of roles open to women to give the appearance of more ministerial authority without actually giving them any authority. When women were first licensed as evangelists in 1878, they were simply called “evangelists” but as Hall notes later, the designation became more complex, as evangelists could be licensed by either a quarterly or an annual conference. The annual conference minutes became littered with evangelists called “quarterly conference evangelists”, “annual conference evangelists” or simply ff “evangelist.” The definition depended on which annual conference minutes you were reading.
Further complicating things was the 1907 General Conference ruling, allowing female evangelists to be appointed ministerial delegates to quarterly and annual conferences if they had been appointed as a local pastor for two consecutive years. [i] So, by 1907 women could preach and serve as ministerial delegates (under certain conditions) but they still could’t marry, baptize or serve Communion.
Hall’s frustration is perhaps one of the reasons she embraced ordination in any form as it provided her a way to finally legitimize her role as a local pastor and gave her the authority to finally baptize, marry, and serve communion. Hall essentially was flipping the script and using titles to elevate herself to the position she was already filling.
What is fascinating when studying these women deacons is their use of the title “Rev.” after their ordination as a deacon.
When the first women were ordained deacons in 1913, Bishop Burton Jones, a supporter of women preaching, wrote a front-page editorial in The Free Methodist applauding the accomplishments of the first five women ordained. Jones chose to identify Laura Lamb, Ada Hall, Bersha Green, Anna Bright, and Minnie Beers as “Reverend,” but there is no indication this was an official title used by the denomination as annual conference appointments continued to use the terms “Miss” or “Mrs.” for all women appointed to circuits. The title “Rev.” only appears by ordained elders in annual conference minutes.2 Women and men who used the title “Rev.” to refer to women deacons were making a clear rhetorical move to grant women increased credibility in their ministries.
Besides Jones’ use of “Rev.” local newspapers also often referred to women deacons as “Rev.,” but an other indication this was not official church policy was when announcements were published in local papers about next year’s Free Methodist appointments. It stands to reason the announcements were similar to today’s press releases and likely published verbatim in the paper. Nowhere in those announcements are the women deacons called “Rev.” instead they are also called “Miss” or “Mrs.” and only the ordained elders are addressed with the title “Rev.”
[i] In the Annual Conference Minutes of the Free Methodist Church of North America the standard reporting practice was to call women evangelists and women deacons “Mrs.” or “Miss” and ordained male elders by “Rev.”
1 The Free Methodist Church Book of Discipline, Free Methodist Publishing House, Chicago, 1907 & 1911.
2 See 1913-1920 Annual Minutes Free Methodist Church of North America. Chicago: Free Methodist Publishing House. What is also interesting is women deacons are listed in the annual conference report as deacons but in the conference rolls that list elders, deacons, evangelists, deaconess, and Sunday School Superintendents they are not included at all.