By 1907 the Free Methodist Church sponsored rescue homes for young women, orphanages, and old folks homes across the United States. [i] All these missions provided various social services to their respective communities, but an emphasis was placed on providing housing to unwed mothers and homes for orphans.
The need to staff these missions helped fuel the establishment of the Free Methodist Deaconess Order in 1907. However, motivations for establishing the order were not straightforward as a range of social concerns fueled the order’s establishment .
One motivation was a deaconess order was seen as a way to provide acceptable ministry outlets for women. By the turn of the twentieth century, Free Methodist leaders were becoming increasingly concerned about maintaining stability in the denomination as industrialization and immigration were quickly changing American society. The internal arguments for and against women’s ordination were divisive and consensus seemed unlikely.
Women-led ministry such as a deaconess order was highly appealing for Free Methodists who wanted to encourage women to serve in ministry, but also not venture too far from their primary duties in the home. As historian Lori Ginzberg explains in her research on nineteenth-century women and benevolence organizations:
“Benevolent women—and men—were quite prepared to use the ideology of femininity as a weapon against female organizing that served interests thought too radical. The language of gender spheres, with its charge of ‘straying,’ was often used less to describe the boundaries of women’s benevolent activity than to assert the unpopularity of a cause, less to police onself than to question other women’s ‘femininity.’[ii]“
The work of benevolence was seen as Biblically acceptable. At the same, it was also a tool to combat growing Catholic influence in the United States. [iii]
A Changing America
Between 1865 and 1900 at least 13.5 million immigrants arrived in the United States. About 9 million of those immigrants arrived between 1900-1910.[iv] The United States was becoming increasingly Catholic as many of these new immigrants came from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe[v] and Free Methodist bishops were concerned America was on the verge of being controlled by the Vatican and the Anglo-Saxon majority would soon be out populated.[vi] Their 1907 pastoral address cited Theodore Roosevelt and the term “race suicide” as one of the most pressing concerns facing the country and the denomination. The term “race suicide” was popularized by Roosevelt in a 1905 speech “American Motherhood” which was given at the Mother’s Congress, the forerunning to today’s National Parent Teacher Association.[vii] Addressing the gathering, Roosevelt outlined the importance of family life, particularly the role of the mother, in maintaining American morality:
“The nation is in a bad way if there is no real home, if the family is not of the right kind; if the man is not a good husband and father, if he is brutal or cowardly or selfish, if the woman has lost her sense of duty, if she is sunk in vapid self-indulgence or has let her nature be twisted so that she prefers a sterile pseudo-intellectuality to that great and beautiful development of character which comes only to those whose lives know the fullness of duty done, or effort made and self-sacrifice undergone.”[viii]
This emerging concern dovetailed with already present premillennialist concerns about gender roles. For decades, Free Methodist women evangelists had been seen by some as pursuing a path that was outside Biblically defined gender roles. Seen as part of the emerging “Modern Woman” who was more concerned with a career than with having a family, race suicide arguments focused on defining the “Modern Woman” as “unnatural” and “detrimental to her race.” More than ever women were needed in the home to ensure educated, middle and upper-class Protestant culture survived.
Race suicide concerns were further fueled by the social activism of early twentieth-century American Catholics.[ix] As Catholic hospitals, rescue missions, and orphans became fixtures in major metropolitan areas, Free Methodist leaders became concerned about the lack of Methodist impact in social services. This concern is best expressed in a December 10, 1907, article republished in The Free Methodist from The Methodist Protestant. In the article the author Rev. C.E. Redeker outlines the history and importance of deaconess orders to the spread of Protestantism:
“In the United States, there is scarcely a city of more than 30,000 inhabitants that does not possess a Catholic hospital, managed by nuns or Sisters of Charity. The Catholic Churches have thereby gained the favor of the general public, and their Sisters of Charity have not only become servants but also pioneers of the church.”[x]
Establishing a deaconess order would offer Free Methodists a route to promote organized social services. Supporters also noted other Protestant traditions had already established such orders such as the Methodist Episcopal Church which established the office of deaconess in 1888.[xi] Part of these social services would include work with unwed mothers and orphans. Evangelism was the spoken motivating factor for Free Methodists engaged in work at Gerry homes and rescue missions.
While the rescue mission staffing concerns as well as desire to provide more ministry opportunities for women were the overt reasons for the order, the underlying, and largely unspoken motivation, was race suicide and tied to that a belief by some Free Methodists in reformed eugenics philosophy.
The immigrant population, the poor, and the uneducated were reproducing in far greater numbers than middle and upper middle-class Protestant families. Left to their own devices, children from these groups would fuel a continued decline in morality and traditional family life—concerns cited in the 1907 bishops’ address.[xii] Reformed eugenics believed individuals were not beyond saving if, given the proper education, parental models and social services, and Free Methodist rescue homes made every attempt to place children in the care of well-meaning Protestant families.
By 1912 The Free Methodist even featured pro-eugenic editorials, as J.T. Logan republished an article from the Methodist Protestant praising eugenics researchers for finding ways to isolate determinantal hereditary factors and encourage “defective” descants not to reproduce.[xiii] Consequently, the motivations behind the establishment of the Free Methodist deaconess order went beyond providing ministry outlets to women and include exclusionary philosophies that seemed to be in conflict with the social gospel concerns of earlier Free Methodists such as B.T. Roberts.[xiv]
I recognize that discussing these topics might be uncomfortable for some Free Methodists and what the denomination believed was not unique to Free Methodism but seen in many Protestant denominations during this time period. Frankly, what I’m writing about isn’t that revolutionary. Even Leslie Marston in his book Age to Age: A Living Witness notes that it was during this time the denomination turned inward and became overly concerned with preservation to the point that church planting practically stopped. It would be the mid-twentieth century before the North American Free Methodist Church again became concerned with establishing new churches and serious evangelism efforts. So, the question needs to be asked – did the decisions during this period contribute to current denominational concerns regarding lack of diversity in the North American church?
[i] Rescue missions were located in New York, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma. In particular, Life Line Mission and Wichita Rescue Home in Kansas, the San Antonio Mission of Redeeming Love, the Gerry Homes in New York, the Omaha Rescue Home in Nebraska, and the Holmes Home of Redeeming Love in Oklahoma were staffed by deaconesses.
Mary McReynolds, Redeeming Love: The Legacy of the Deaconess Ladies, (Self-published by the Deaconess Hospital, 1999), pp. 19-25.
[ii] Lori Ginzerberg, Women and the Work of Benevolence, (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press,1990), p. 25
[iii] In reviewing articles in The Free Methodist and The General Conference Daily I came across some topics that, honestly make me uncomfortable and disappointed in Free Methodist leaders. In 1907 the bishop’s address was particularly startling as Bishops Wilson Hogue, Walter Sellew, Edward Hart and Burton Jones noted the most pressing concerns facing the denomination were the deterioration of family life, rising divorce rates, and race suicide.
Vicki Tolar Collins Burtan, “The Speaker Respoken: Material Rhetoric as Feminist Methodology,” in Linda Buchanan and Kathleen Ryan (Eds.) Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetorics (West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2010), pp 148-151
[iv] Richard Hughes, Christian America and the Kingdom of God (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009), 139.
[v] Miriam King & Steven Ruggles, “American Immigration, Fertility, and Race Suicide at the Turn of the Century,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 1990, 20:3, 347-353.
[vi] J.T. Logan, “Roosevelt and the Pope,” The Free Methodist, April 12, 1910, 1.
[vii] The Women’s Congress was founded in 1897 by Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Heart. The women believed mothers were crucial advocates for the needs of children. In 1900 Theodore Roosevelt was named the chairman of the Advisory Council for the organization and remained in that role until 1919.
National Parent Teacher Organization. “125 Years Strong,” retrieved July 2, 2022, from https://www.pta.org/home/About-National-Parent-Teacher-Association/Mission-Values/National-PTA-History
[viii] Roosevelt “Remarks before women’s congress.” https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-before-the-mothers-congress
[ix] Bill Leonard, Christian Religious Experience in the United States (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2014) 271-278.
[x] C.E. Redeker “The Value of the Deaconess Movement,” The Free Methodist, December 10, 1907, 2.
[xi] United Methodist Church, “United Methodist Office of Deaconess and Home Missoner,” Retrieved July 1, 2022, https://dotac.diakonia-world.org/member-communities/united-methodist-office-of-deaconess-and-home-missioner/
[xii] Hart, Jones, Sellew & Hogue, p.9.
[xiii] J.T. Logan, “Eugenics” The Free Methodist December 31, 1912, 9.
[xiv] Howard Snyder, Populist Saints: B.T. and Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodist (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 234-356. Roberts’ defined Christian living as setting onself apart from the world, caring for the poor, opposing slavery and secret societies—things that would divide people by social class. As Free Methodism grew what exactly the term “social gospel” meant varied greatly.