One of the most under-researched areas of Free Methodist women’s history is the Free Methodist Deaconess Order. I have not been able to confirm an end date for the order, but it was approved by the 1907 General Conference and was in place well into the late twentieth-century (if anyone knows when the order ended I would love to hear from you).
Established as a way to counter what was seen as a rising Catholic threat, the Free Methodist Church and other Protestant denominations began deaconess orders in the mid to late ninteenth century to provide a range of social services.
Catholic hospitals, rescue missions, and orphans were becoming fixtures in major metropolitan areas, and Free Methodist leaders were concerned about the denominations’ lack of impact in this area of ministry. While Free Methodists did engage in social services through their gerry homes and rescue missions, a deaconess order would formalize social ministry for interested women.
The order was enthusiastically approved by denominational leaders, and when the resolution to approve a deaconess order came to the floor at the 1907 General Conference, it passed through committee with thirty-five in favor and only seven opposed.[i] On the conference floor, there were very few concerns, 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]
While there were not scores of Free Methodist women waiting to join the order, delegate Lynn Webb noted that rescue workers in St. Louis were waiting for approval, and under the leadership of Grace Webb Evansville Junior College was ready to offer a deaconess licensing program.[iv]
However, the order’s establishment was more than a way to provide an official title to rescue mission workers, it also was a means of providing 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.
In particular, the bishops saw cementing specific ministry roles for women as an essential tool to preserve Free Methodist values. 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.
The deaconess order was intentionally crafted as an alternative to the evangelist license for with the 1907 Book of Discpline including a statement that a deaconess was a woman who felt called “to advance the cause of Christ but not to become pastors or evangelists.” Instead, her ministry involved care for the sick, the poor, supporting the local pastor with home visitation and “alleviating as far as possible the suffering of those within her reach.”
Since the role involved care for the sick, deaconess education required women to read a nursing manual as well as two different histories of deaconess orders, and then pass oral exams on what they had learned.[i] From annual conference records, it appears most deaconesses did not start off as an evangelist, choosing to pursue the deaconess license as their outlet for ministry.[ii]
Beyond the work of Free Methodist deaconesses in Free Methodist recuse missions, it is difficult to track their ministries, as annual conferences did not designate deaconess appointments. 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.[iii]
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 were 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, article by Jessie McMurry entitled “The Deaconess Order” McMurry notes the only Free Methodist educational institution offering the deaconess course of study was Evansville Junior College in Wisconsin, and the number of women who were 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.[iv]
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.[v] This was in part due to another issue McMurry outlined. The deaconess order needed older women to mentor and encourage younger women to join.[vi] Annual Conference records from 1910-1920 illustrate that conferences that had several deaconesses continued to add one or two new deaconesses every few years. Those that had no deaconesses saw women instead become evangelists and deacons.[vii] 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.[viii] 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] McMurray’s article promoted the deaconess training course at Evansville Junior College. In the article she provides an overview of various forms of deaconess ministry but notes the work of the Free Methodist deaconess is so varied and the need so great it was hard to give prospective deaconesses direction on where exactly they could go and serve. McMurry also noted the deaconess training program was incredibly rigorous and, to date, only a few students had completed it. This corresponds with annual conference reports on licensed deaconesses. By 1915 there were only 20 deaconesses listed in conference minutes and the position had been available to women since 1907. McMurry, “Deaconess Training Course,” 11.
[ii] In addition to becoming a licensed deaconess Kate Coe also appears as a licensed evangelist in the 1904 Central Illinois Conference Minutes where she was co-appointed with her spouse S.V. Coe to the Bingham and Bethel Circuits. In 1906 she was appointed by herself to the Greenville Circuit in the Central Illinois Conference. She appears in 1909-1912 in the Kansas Annual Conference Minutes as a conference evangelist appointed with S.V. Coe to Life Line Mission. In 1913 she became a deaconess and no longer appears in conference minutes as a licensed evangelist. Her choice to switch from evangelist to deaconess appears to be unusual as other early deaconesses do not appear in minutes as evangelists prior to becoming deaconesses. Mesaros-Winckles, 2022.
[iv] McMurray, “Deaconess Training Course,” 11.
[v] Free Methodist Church, Annual Conference Minutes: Proceedings of the Forty Annual Conference of the Free Methodist Church of North America (Chicago: Free Methodist Publishing House, 1910), 189-211 & Free Methodist Church, Annual Conference Minutes: Proceedings of the Forty-One Annual Conference of the Free Methodist Church of North America (Chicago: Free Methodist Publishing House, 1912), 291-307.
[vi] McMurray, “Deaconess Training Course,” 11.
[vii] 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. Mesaros-Winckles, 2022.
[viii] 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. McGarvey, “Deaconesses,” 2.
[i] William Olmstead, Ed. “General Conference Proceedings: Eighteenth Sitting 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 26,” General Conference Daily, June 27, 1907, 2.
[ii] Charles Ebey, “General Conference Proceedings Eighteenth Setting 2 p.m. Wednesday June 26,” General Conference Daily, June 27, 1907, 2.
[iii] 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 was established in Gerry New York in 1886 by Anna Chesbrough. Leslie Marston, From Age to Age: A Living Witness, (Winona Lake, Indiana: Light and Life Press, 1960), 442-446.
[iv] Jessie McMurry, “Deaconess Training Course,” The Free Methodist, August 24, 1915, 11.
[i] C.E. Redeker “The Value of the Deaconess Movement,” The Free Methodist, December 10, 1907, 2.
[ii] 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/
[iii] Hart, Jones, Sellew & Hogue, “Pastoral Address,” 9.
[iv] J.T. Logan, “Eugenics” The Free Methodist, December 31, 1912, 9.
[v]Roberts defined Christian living as setting oneself 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. 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,