The 1907 Free Methodist General Conference was largely supportive of establishing a deaconess order, and unlike women’s ordination, the idea was met with little backlash from the more conservative leaders of the denomination.
However, there was one point contention– should the Free Methodist deaconess have a required uniform? 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.[i] Yet, supporters of a uniform argued that by requiring deaconesses to wear a specific outfit or certain colors, the public would be able to easily distinguish their mission and affiliation.
Prior to the 1907 General Conference, The Free Methodist published editorials on proposed resolutions for the upcoming conference. The deaconess uniform was discussed in several editorials,, and some writers even proposed that women evangelists also adopt a 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 and suggested women evangelists as well should embrace a uniform or at the very least a “neat, modest suit, uniform in color and style.”[iii] 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.[iv] Citing her missionary work in Brooklyn New York, Haviland noted that as a woman evangelist home visits were often challenging, and perhaps a uniform would help establish a woman evangelist’s relationship with the church just as a uniform 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.[v]
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.”[vi]
Delegates at the 1907 General Conference expressed similar sentiments, citing uniforms for the Methodist Episcopal Deaconess Order as their model.[vii] Yet, the job of a Methodist deaconess, was different from the proposed Free Methodist order. A Methodist Deaconess could engage in evangelistic work including preaching, whereas the Free Methodist Deaconess’s duties focused on social service and preaching was explicity noted as not a part of their ministry.[viii]
The 1907 General Conference approved both the order and a uniform, outlining in the 1907 Book of Discipline 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.[x]
It’s important to consider why a uniform was suggested and approved for deaconesses and suggested for women evangelists, but was not suggested for men serving as elders or deacons. Yes, the Free Methodist Church did embrace simplicity of dress as a way to make everyone feel welcome in their churches,[xi] and early photos and ministry accounts by women evangelists illustrate they were already aware of the need to establish their authority and calling through simple fashion.[xii]
The cited reason was to identify women in ministry to the public, but a largely unspoken reason was the uniform was another way to illustrate separate spheres of ministry for women and to regulate women’s attire under the guise of spiritual concerns.[xiii]
The Free Methodist concerns about women’s fashion and the need to uniform Free Methodist women in ministry directly connected to concerns that high fashion led to indecency and immorality[xiv]—behavior that was leading to the decline of family life and increasing divorce rates.[xv] Critiques on dress in The Free Methodist often focused on women’s fashion, women’s bodies and placing blame for society’s moral failures on women. Under the editorial control of J.T. Logan in the early 1900s, The Free Methodist published twelve articles on dress between 1909 and 1915. None of the articles were regarding men and their fashion choices.[xvi]
For instance, in a May 6, 1913, article republished from the Sunday School Times in the “Reform” section, the author calls out women’s fashion as one of the main causes of men’s moral failures and perceptions by men that such women were of questionable moral character. As the author explains:
“These women of better circumstances set the pace absolutely for the girl of small wages. The girl may have no home to which her friends may be invited her social effort is expended in her dress. She follows the prevailing fashion of immodesty; she inflames the passions of the young men she meets; she may not be sheltered and safeguarded, and she is swept under.”[i]
Requiring women to take responsibility for the thoughts and sometimes even choices of men was a theme that was returned to on several occasions in The Free Methodist, and the articles often seemed directed towards young, unmarried women and their parents.
As editor, Logan would highlight short articles about fashion and immorality on the front page of The Free Methodist, such as in the March 3, 1914, issue entitled “The Girl Question.” Logan warned families to keep an eye on their daughters as they grew older and became interested in “longer dresses and beaux.” Citing an article from the Litchfield, Illinois News-Herald, he encouraged parents to keep their daughters busy with home duties and only give them plain clothes to wear. As Logan asked, “Where will you have their impression come from—from the riffraff of the streets or from the home?”[i]
As with many elements of the Free Methodist Deaconess order, the decision to require a uniform was far from straightforward and was informed by underlying social concerns within the denomination. I am not trying to discount the important work Free Methodist deaconesses did, but unlike women evangelists, the deaconess fit neatly within preconceived ideas of women’s role in the church, home and society. Whereas, by her very existence, a female evangelist was illustrating women could perform and be called to the exact same ministry as men. Acknowledging the woman evangelist raised uncomfortable questions about gender, church governance and leadership that the more conservative Free Methodist leaders preferred to ignore.
[i] See “The Dress Question Again,” The Free Methodist August 3, 1915, 9.; J.T. Logan, “Women Blamed,” The Free Methodist, August 24, 1909, 1.; Sarah Cooke, “The Bible and Dress,” The Free Methodist, November 7, 1911, 3; Esther Meachem, “The Womanly Woman,” The Free Methodist, December 6, 1910, 2.; Sarah Cooke, “Woman’s Dress,” The Free Methodist, December 7, 1909, 11.; Eunice Budd Loomis, “Dress Reform for Free Methodism,” The Free Methodist, June 15, 1909, 7 & J.T. Logan, “Fashion Slaves,” The Free Methodist, October 5, 1909, 9.
[i] Eugene Foster, “The Girl Part of the Boy Problem,” The Free Methodist, May 6, 1913, 10.
[i] Charles Ebey, “Free Methodist Deaconess,” The Free Methodist, July 9, 1907, 1.
[iii] Charles Ebey, Ed.,“Deaconesses,” The Free Methodist, June 18, 1907, 9.
[iv] Mesaros-Winckles, 2022. (my transcription of women evangelists from 1876-1912)
[v] Eliza Haviland, “The Deaconess Garb,” The Free Methodist, May 21, 1907, 2.
[vii] Emily McGarvey, “Deaconesses,” The Free Methodist, May 18, 1915, 2.
[viii] William Olmstead, Ed. “Demands Made on the General Conference, The General Conference Daily, June 12, 1907, 5-6.
[ix] Priscilla Pope-Levinson, “A Thirty-Year War and More: Exposing Complexities in the Methodist Deaconess Movement,” Methodist History 47 no.2 (2009): 103.
[x] William Olmstead, Ed. “Paper No. 149 Order of Deaconesses” General Conference Daily, June 27, 1907, 2.
[xi] Free Methodist Church, 1911 Discipline, 27-28.
[xii] See photos of female evangelists in this book. In the photos all the women are wearing dark colors and simple collars with no ordainment as per Free Methodist guidelines for dress in The Free Methodist Discipline.
[xiii] Ruth Rubinstein, Dress Code: Meanings and Messages in American Culture 2nd Edition (Boulder: Colorado, Westview Press, 2001), 67 & 91.
[xiv] Free Methodist Church, 1911 Discipline, 27-28.
[xv] Deberg, Ungodly Women, 70-71 & 106-107.
[xvi] Between 1910-1915 The Free Methodist had twelve articles on dress or blaming women for worldliness. Eugene Foster, “The Girl Part of the Boy Problem,” The Free Methodist, May 6, 1913, 10.; J.T. Logan, “The Girl Question,” The Free Methodist, March 3, 1914, 1.; J.T. Logan, “Fashion Slaves,” The Free Methodist, October 5, 1909, 9.; J.T. Logan, “Girls Read This,” The Free Methodist, March 14, 1913, 1.; & Nom De Plume, “Putting on of Apparel,” The Free Methodist, March 29, 1910, 2.