The Wesleyan Tradition’s Long Road to Reclaiming the Ancient Church’s Practice of Ordaining Women

Wendy J. Deichmann

Although John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, respected and employed women in ministry, neither he nor his early successors in the eighteenth century advocated for the ordination of women. During his lifetime, it was rare for a Christian group to embrace the value of ordaining women, despite biblical and spiritual bases and historic precedents in favor of the practice. We’ve explored these precedents and the struggles over their continuance in the early and medieval periods of the church in previous blogs. (See here and here.) Following Wesley’s footsteps, the ordination of women was not allowed among early American denominations in the Wesleyan tradition, such as the Methodist Episcopal Church, that developed in the wake of the new nation’s independence.

Widespread resistance to the recognition of God’s call on women to ministry and even more so to the ordination of women was, however, called into question in the nineteenth century in the US by women in the Wesleyan tradition who acknowledged God’s calling on their lives for ministry, and by men who supported an affirmative ecclesiastical response to this call. In the early 1800s, for example, Jarena Lee of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Fanny Butterfield Newell and Maggie Newton Van Cott of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and Lydia Sexton of the United Brethren in Christ came forward with announcements of God’s call on them to preach. Because of evidence of their respective callings and fruits of their ministerial labors, they each became an exception to established, American Methodist denominational rules against women being licensed to preach.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, growing numbers of Wesleyan and Methodist bodies began to acknowledge more formally God’s calling on women for a variety of Christian ministries. Missionary organizations discovered that women were needed in mission fields to perform ministries in association with other women in both international and domestic contexts so began to commission and deploy female missionaries. In 1869 Methodist Episcopal women in Boston organized the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society and sent Miss Isabella Thoburn and Dr. Clara Swain to India as missionaries. Likewise, women called to use their gifts as lay leaders and deaconesses were eventually permitted to do so, with the Methodist Episcopal Church approving the order of deaconess in 1888 and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church seating women as lay delegates in 1892. In 1889 the Methodist Episcopal Church consecrated and licensed Isabell Reeves as a deaconess, the first of many women to be authorized to serve in this biblical, ministerial role within the Wesleyan and Methodist tradition.

American Wesleyan, Methodist, and Pietist denominations finally reached milestones in spiritual and ministerial egalitarianism when Wesleyan Methodist, Methodist Protestant, and United Brethren in Christ denominations began ordaining and granting full clergy rights to women in the late nineteenth century. The Illinois Conference of the Wesleyan Methodist Church ordained Mary Wills in 1861, Methodist Protestants ordained Maggie Elliot in 1877 and Anna Howard Shaw in 1888, and the United Brethren in Christ ordained Ella Niswonger in 1889. The African Methodist Episcopal Church ordained Julia Foote as a deacon in 1894 and as an elder in 1900. The Wesleyan Methodists and Free Methodists made continuing, firm commitments to the ordination of women in 1891 and 1911, respectively. The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church granted women licensing and ordination rights as local preachers, deacons, and elders in 1918 and full clergy rights in 1966. The Methodist Episcopal and Methodist Episcopal, South, Churches began ordaining women in 1924 and 1930, respectively. This practice was finally approved by their successor denomination, The Methodist Church, with the ordination of Maud Keister in 1956, one hundred and seventy-two years after the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church. For its part, The United Methodist Church, founded in 1968 with the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist denominations, has, for the half-century plus four years since its inception, steadfastly continued the practice of ordaining women and men who are called by God into the ministry of Jesus Christ.

The significant history of these developments is, unfortunately, often recounted and taught to students of the Wesleyan tradition in isolation from the larger history of Christianity. The problem with learning this heritage apart from the larger historical narrative is that it often leads to an erroneous conclusion that the heirs of Wesleyan thought and practice (and some of their contemporaries) came up with the idea that women called to ministry ought to be ordained as are men called to ministry. Furthermore, isolating this history from the larger narrative gives the impression that the ordination of women is only a modern development, possibly even a fad that may not stand the test of time. Disconnected from biblical and ancient church narratives, the biblical concept and practice of ordaining women become easy prey to selective biblical literalists and those with personal and political reasons to oppose the ordination of women.

It is important to remember that the women among us today who are ordained or candidates for ordination are not anomalies or representatives of a passing fad. Nor is the ordination of women something recent or new, although it has been fought for and against throughout the centuries of church history as if it is somehow a novel or dangerous practice. Women called and ordained into Christ’s ministry stand in a line of humble, obedient women two millennia long that includes Jesus’ own mother and friends, Mary Magdalene, Priscilla, Phoebe, Junia the apostle, Olympias the Deacon, Leta the Presbytera, Athanasia and Isabell Reeves the deaconesses, Mary Wills, Anna Howard Shaw, Ella Niswonger, Julia Foote, Maud Keister, and innumerable others who have been and yet will be faithful to the call of God to serve in the ministry of Jesus Christ.


Posted Feb 28, 2022

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