Women in Recent Church History

By Carolyn Moore

August 29th, 2018

This is the second of three articles by the Rev. Carolyn Moore on women in Scripture and in ministry. You can read the prior article here.

The Rev. Carolyn Moore baptizes a parishioner at Mosaic Church in Evans, Georgia.

Women have initiated some of Christianity’s more interesting movements.

Aimee Semple McPherson was the founder of the Four Square movement. Myrtle Dorthea Beall started Bethesda Temple in Detroit. Barbara Heck was the designer of John Street Methodist Church in New York City, and a church planter who established congregations in both New York and Canada.

Margaret Fell opened her home to many traveling evangelists, including George Fox, whom she later married and joined as a partner in developing the Quaker tradition. Because she would not take the “oath of obedience” to the King of England, Fell was imprisoned twice. During her first incarceration, she wrote a pamphlet entitled, “Women’s Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus And How Women Were the First That Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and Were Sent by Christ’s Own Command Before He Ascended to the Father.”

Hannah More, far ahead of her time in her social activism on behalf of girls, was a playwright who taught Methodism and started new schools for their education. Mother Teresa began a social justice movement that spanned the globe, leaving four thousand sisters as her legacy, along with hundreds of others who served as monks, priests, lay missionaries and volunteers.

Several husband-wife teams birthed significant movements. Phoebe Palmer, Catherine Booth and Hannah Whitall Smith all capitalized on exceptional partnerships with their husbands. Palmer and Booth were both Methodists who defected from that movement to start their own. The latter was the co-founder with her husband William of the Salvation Army. Palmer is known as the Mother of the Holiness movement, having started a prayer gathering in her home that spawned gatherings like it around the country. She was also the founder of New York’s Five Points Mission.

John Wesley found himself conflicted by the direction his movement should take regarding women teaching and preaching. Officially, he asked women not to preach or lead men. Unofficially, however, he encouraged them to organize class meetings, teach in those meetings and evangelize others. Raised by Susannah Wesley, his strong and outspoken mother, Wesley never embraced a complete ban of women from the pulpit. He would say they ought not preach except by “an extraordinary impulse of the Holy Spirit.” In 1787, Wesley gave his blessing for Sarah Mallet to preach as long as “she proclaimed the doctrines and adhered to the disciplines that all Methodist preachers were expected to accept.”

And other Methodist women found it difficult to be constrained. In 1866, Helenor Alter Davisson became the first woman to be ordained a deacon in the Methodist Protestant Church. Her journey toward ordination began in 1863 when she was recommended — over some objection — to the Indiana Conference as a candidate for ministry, at which time she was considered fit to preach the gospel. Ordained or not, Davisson had already proven herself capable of bearing fruit for the Kingdom. Together with her father, the Reverend John Alter, she traveled by horseback as a circuit rider through Indiana, planting a Methodist Protestant congregation in Alter’s Grove. A second congregation was planted in Barkley Township, making her the first woman to be ordained in the Methodist Protestant Church and also the first woman to plant a church.

Back in 1956 The Methodist Church ordained Maud Keister Jensen as an elder. When the denomination merged with Evangelical United Brethren Church (which had its own history of ordained women serving churches) in 1968, it was the clearly stated policy of the newly created United Methodist Church that women would be ordained as clergy and accepted as full elders in the church. Thousands of women serve today as pastors in the UM Church.

In its “Statement of Moral Principles” the Wesleyan Covenant Association wholeheartedly affirms the following:

“Scripture teaches that men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God. Accordingly, the church should treat women and men equally. We believe that both women and men are called to and gifted for ordained and licensed ministry, and both genders are able to hold any role of leadership within the WCA.”

The Rev. Carolyn Moore is the lead and founding pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church in Evans, Georgia. She serves as the vice-chairwoman of the Wesleyan Covenant Association Council. Moore’s recently published book The 19 Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit is available from Cokesbury by clicking HERE.


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