Shifting Narratives on Gender Part Three: The 1907 Free Methodist General Conference

A photo in the June 1907 Free Methodist of the 1907 General Conference.

When the resolution to approve a deaconess order came to the floor at the 1907 General Conference, the idea was met with enthusiastic support, passing through committee with thirty-five in favor and only seven opposed before coming to the floor for a conference vote.[i] Very few concerns were raised, but among the topics discussed were governance, mission, and uniforms for the order. Speaking in favor of the order, Free Methodist editor Charles Ebey reminded delegates there were already churches with such orders, and the need for a Free Methodist order was great. Reflecting on his personal experiences with deaconesses, Ebey recalled:

“I have noted for years the labors of the deaconesses of other churches and have always felt a feeling of satisfaction and gratification on entering a depot in our larger cities, and see one of these plain looking ladies dressed in black with white cuffs and white ribbons attached to their bonnets and I feel like going up to them and saying, God bless you and your noble work. Their work is to meet the incoming trains and get acquainted with young girls that come into the cities and who do not know anything about the cities and see that they are taken care of and placed in good environment and kept out of the hangs of designing malicious and wicked men.[ii]

As Ebey saw it one of the primary motivations for the Free Methodist Deaconess order was increased engagement in social service ministry. Even before establishing a deaconess order, the Free Methodist Church had begun rescue homes to address the need for safe housing for single, young women.[iii] While there were not scores of Free Methodist women waiting to join the order, delegate Lynn Webb noted. Webb cited rescue workers in St. Louis, as well as a push from Evansville Junior College under the leadership of Grace Webb, as advocating for the deaconess order’s establishment.[iv] According to Webb, these women were just waiting for approval of the order so they could be officially licensed and recognized by the denomination for their work.[v]

General Conference discussions on the order were largely positive, but the issue of a uniform for a deaconess was the one point of contention as some Free Methodists worried a uniform would be perceived by the public as a pro-Catholic endorsement and seen as too similar to the habit worn by nuns[vi]. On July 9, 1907, in one of his final front-page editorials in The Free Methodist, Ebey announced General Conference had approved establishing the order and encouraged his fellow Free Methodists to not be “squeamish about adopting the deaconess garb” as the uniform was a way for women to connect with the people they were serving and designated them as aid workers.[vii]  

The issue of a uniform seems to have been the only point of contention among Free Methodists and in the lead-up to the 1907 General Conference, Free Methodist articles about the proposed order were largely positive and strongly in favor of a deaconess uniform.

 For example, a June 18, 1907, editorial entitled “Deaconess” discussed the dress issue, noting the deaconess garb indicated their ministry role to the general public. However, the editorial went further than just endorsing the uniform for deaconesses and suggested women evangelists as well should embrace a uniform or at the very least a “neat, modest suit, uniform in color and style.”[viii] In the May 21, 1907, issue evangelist Eliza Haviland also wrote in favor of a uniform for women evangelists as well as deaconesses. Haviland was a licensed evangelist in the New York Conference since 1889.[ix] Citing her missionary work in Brooklyn New York, Haviland noted as a woman evangelist home visits were often challenging and perhaps a uniform would help establish a women evangelist’s relationship with the church just as it did for a deaconess:

“When calling at homes where I had to introduce myself, I have said, ‘I am the church missionary from Sixteenth street church and your children attend our Sunday school,’ when a distinct garb would have greatly aided me in approaching strangers/. Oftentimes I have told them “I fill the same position as the deaconess does in the Methodist Church.[x]”      

Haviland’s argument in favor of a uniform and other Free Methodist women backed her position, particularly minister’s wives who saw a uniform and a deaconess license as a way to show their position within the church during visitation.[xi]  Haviland’s views on women evangelists in uniform were also expressed by delegates at the 1907 General Conference who called on the Conference to approve the deaconess uniform and to require women evangelists to also wear it. Supporters in favor of requiring both the deaconess and the evangelists to wear a uniform, cited the Methodist Episcopal Deaconess order, as their model.

[xii] Yet, the job of a Methodist deaconess, the two orders fulfilled very different roles within their respective denominations. Methodist deaconesses could also engage in evangelistic work, including preaching, whereas the Free Methodist deaconess’s duties focused on social service.[xiii] In defining the Free Methodist deaconess role, the 1907 General Conference outlined that a deaconess should have a clear spiritual calling and desire to serve in ministry. However, her ministry duties were not to be the same as a pastor or evangelist. Instead, a Free Methodist deaconess could engage in a variety of social service enterprises that would help reduce suffering.[xiv] The 1907 Free Methodist Book of Discipline also outlined a uniform of a gray dress with a gray bonnet and white ribbons, similar to the uniform other denominations had adopted for their deaconess orders.[xv]

As noted in “Shifting Gender Roles Part Two” work in Free Methodist rescue missions was one of the main ministry outlets for deaconesses. However, tracing the history of the deaconess order and even figuring out how many deaconesses were licensed as well as knowing the exact categories of ministry they helped with is difficult to document.

Annual conferences did not designate deaconess appointments, only listing women by name. Additionally, deaconesses did not write ministry reports to The Free Methodist as regularly as women evangelists did. What ministry accounts remain largely come from Rebecca Sellew and Ida Walsh’s yearly reports promoting Free Methodist missions, and rescue homes updates that mention deaconesses such as Kate Coe, Elizabeth Moreland, and Belle McCullough.[i]

Perhaps one reason documenting Free Methodist deaconess history is difficult is the order was not as popular as leaders anticipated. Unlike what Webb predicted at the 1907 General Conference, women did not flock to the deaconess order. Because the coursework and oral examination was a two-year process, the first Free Methodist deaconesses do not appear in the annual conference minutes until 1911.

Poor recruitment and access to the deaconess coursework also appear to have slowed the movement down. In a September 5, 1916, Free Methodist article by Jessie McMurry entitled “The Deaconess Order” McMurry notes that the only Free Methodist educational institution offering the deaconess course of study was Evansville Junior College in Wisconsin, and the number of women pursuing that path was relatively small.

If, as McMurry explained, other schools would begin offering the coursework she was sure numbers would increase. McMurry urged denominational leaders to consider instituting a central committee to oversee the deaconess movement.[ii] According to The Free Methodist Discipline, each annual conference’s mission board oversaw that conference’s deaconesses, and some conferences were more supportive of the order than others.

By far the greatest number of deaconesses came from the Oil City Conference[iii]. This was in part due to another issue McMurry outlined. The deaconess order needed older women to mentor and encourage younger women to join.[iv] Annual Conference records from 1910-1920 illustrate that conferences which had several deaconesses continued to add one or two new deaconesses every few years.  Those that had no deaconesses instead saw more women becoming licensed evangelists and ordained deacons (after 1911).[v]

However, even in conferences with strong mentorship, the number of deaconesses was not large.  In the entire denomination, there were only fifty deaconesses by 1920. In comparison, there were four hundred and thirty-six women licensed as evangelists. [vi] Clearly, the deaconess order appealed to some Free Methodist women, but the majority were still drawn to forms of public ministry that included evangelism and preaching.

[i] Mesaros-Winckles, 2022. I’m devoting a chapter in my book to a brief overview of the order and how it was established but this is an area of research that really could use more analysis. The only way to get a comprehensive picture is to look up names in the annual conference minutes and then cross reference with articles in The Free Methodist from the same time as well as trying to find Free Methodist obituaries on the women when they died. Free Methodist obits are an amazing source of information. I have a list of the first deaconesses through 1920, which is where my research stops if anyone is interested.

[ii] McMurray, 1915, 11.

[iii] Oil City conference minutes and deaconess order

[iv] McMurray, 1915, 11.

[v] Mesaros-Winckles, 2022. The first deaconess was Rebecca Sellew in the Oil City Conference and from 1910-1912 all the deaconesses listed in annual conference minutes were in the Oil City Conference or New York Conference. By 1913 Michigan, Susquehanna and Kansas all had at least one deaconess and through 1920 conferences such as Susquehanna, New York and Oil City consistently had more than one deaconess in their conference and often women were listed for multiple years implying that the first deaconesses in those conferences stayed active and served as a example that inspired other women to join.

[vi] Emily McGarvey, “Deaconesses,” The Free Methodist May 18, 1915, p.2. McGarvey notes it is impossible to get accurate and up to date information on how many women are part of the deaconess order. Annual conference minutes do not designate between women who are a deaconess on trial (completing their training and exam) and those with a permanent license. So, the numbers given of the Free Methodist deaconess order are likely slight lower than I report in this chapter since some women never complete their training. McGarvey also discussed how the deaconess training required “considerable work and quite strenuous exams” but she was not asking for standards to diminish; just to increase access to training by offering it at more Free Methodist educational institutions.

[i] William Olmstead. “General Conference Proceedings: Eighteenth Sitting 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 26,” General Conference Daily, June 27, 1907, p. 2.

[ii] Charles Ebey, “General Conference Proceedings Eighteenth Setting 2 p.m. Wednesday June 26,” General Conference Daily June 27, 1907, 2.

[iii] Leslie Marston, From Age to Age: A Living Witness, (Winona Lake, Indiana: Light and Life Press, 1960), p. 442-446. Marston notes the first Free Methodist rescue homes were Holmes Home and Hospital and Guthrie Oklahoma and Life Line Children’s Home in Kansas City Kansas. Holmes was founded in 1900 and Life Line in 1907 by S.V. and Kate Coe. In addition, Free Methodists also founded Gerry homes to care for orphans and the elderly. The first Gerry home being established in Gerry New York in 1886 by Anna Chesbrough.

[iv] Jessie McMurry, “Deaconess Training Course,” The Free Methodist, August 24, 1915, 11..

[v] Lynn Webb, “General Conference Proceedings Eighteenth Setting 2 p.m. Wednesday June 26,” General Conference Daily June 27, 1907, 2.

[vi] Charles Ebey, “Free Methodist Deaconess,” The Free Methodist July 9, 1907, 1.

[vii]  Ibid..

[viii] “Deaconess” The Free Methodist June 18, 1907, 9.

[ix] Mesaros-Winckles, 2022.

[x] Eliza Haviland, “The Deaconess Garb,” The Free Methodist May 21, 1907, 2.

[xi] Emily McGarvey, “Deaconesses,” The Free Methodist May 18, 1915, 2.

[xii] William Olmstead, “Demands Made on the General Conference, The General Conference Daily June 12, 1907, pp. 5-6.

[xiii] Priscilla Pope-Levinson, “A Thirty-Year War and More: Exposing Complexities in the Methodist Deaconess Movement,” Methodist History 47:2, 2009, 103.

[xiv] “Paper No. 149 Order of Deaconesses” General Conference Daily June 27, 1907, 2.

[xv] In his editorials in The Free Methodist Charles Ebey outlined uniforms for the Methodist Deaconess order as well as the New Mennonite Church which had deaconesses wear a blue suit. See “Deaconess” The Free Methodist June 18, 1907, 9 & Free Methodist Publishing House, Doctrines and Discipline of the Free Methodist Church, (Chicago: Free Methodist Publishing House,1907) p.101. The deaconess garb was only required once a woman received her permanent license. Women who remained on trial did not have to wear the gray dress and black bonnet with white ties.

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