Sunday, May 5, 2013

Turkish Barbarity, or Gettin' All Feminist in Church

Several months ago, I was asked to participate in a series of educational presentations at church about our denomination (United Methodist). I jumped at the chance to learn more about women in leadership. It's shocking how ignorant I was of the details of my denomination on this subject in particular, seeing as I'm a Christian who's also a fan of feminism who giggled with glee when our church was assigned a female pastor.

Below is the speech I read in church today. Even if you're not a Christian, or a Methodist, I hope you see in it the value of persistence and determination for the progress of women everywhere.  
When we want to look at the history of women in leadership in the Methodist church, we might as well start with its founder, John Wesley. In his sermon On Visiting the Sick, Wesley writes:

“Indeed it has long passed for a maxim with many, that ‘women are only to be seen, not heard.’ And accordingly many of them are brought up in such a manner as if they were only designed for agreeable playthings! But is this doing honour to the sex or is it a real kindness to them? No; it is the deepest unkindness; it is horrid cruelty; it is mere Turkish barbarity. And I know not how any woman of sense and spirit can submit to it.”

We might well ask how Wesley came to see women as having “sense and spirit” in a time when few men thought that possible, and I think we may give primary credit to his mother for this.

Susanna Wesley, often called the Mother of the Methodist Church, set an example to John and his siblings of the power of women’s witness for God. Susanna’s Sunday evening Bible studies filled her house to overflowing and were more popular than the Sunday morning services at their Anglican Church. When the Anglican minister learned this, he tried to get Susanna to stop. She refused.

Imagine the impact on the young John Wesley of watching his mother’s powerful witness to so many people. While Wesley certainly never promoted the idea of women’s ordination—he was a staunch 18th century Anglican—he vigorously protested women’s exclusion from Christian service and from Methodist meetings when some of his early followers pushed for it. He also commissioned a number of women to preach, even a 16-year-old named Mary Fletcher, whose parents did not approve of their daughter speaking in public.

Following John Wesley’s death, the Methodist movement splintered into different groups, and in most of them, the official participation of women lost the little ground it held. By the 1840s, the situation was fairly grim for most woman who felt God’s call to lead. But due to a number of very strong and persistent women, and the passage of about 150 years, the situation would eventually change.  

Phoebe Palmer was an evangelist and writer in the mid-1800s. She ran the first Methodist prayer meeting attended by both men and women…and not just any men attended. Her meetings attracted Methodist bishops, theologians, seminary professors, and ministers, all of whom wanted to hear her ideas on John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection. Through her prayer meetings and speaking engagements and the many books she wrote, Phoebe Palmer exerted enormous influence in the 19th century Methodist church.

Two other women represented official firsts within the Methodist tradition around the same time as Phoebe Palmer.

Helenor M. Davison was ordained deacon by the Methodist Protestant Church in 1866. She is considered to be the first woman ordained in the Methodist tradition.

Ten years after that, in 1876, against tremendous odds, Anna Oliver earned her Bachelor of Divinity degree from Boston University School of Theology. Oliver was never allowed to achieve her goal of full ordination in Methodist ministry, although she did serve as a preacher in New York and New Jersey.

Gradually, more and more women pushed for official recognition in seminaries and pulpits. I will single out just a few.

Georgia Harkness became the first woman professor in an American seminary. She felt called to do graduate work in theology, but Boston University, the same school that graduated Anna Oliver in 1876 with a Bachelor’s degree, refused Georgia admission to their graduate Divinity program in the 1920s. Not to be deterred, Harkness earned a Ph.D. in philosophy of religion in the university’s Department of Religion instead. For the next 15 years, she taught philosophy and religion at a women’s college, but took every opportunity for continuing education at a number of divinity schools, including Harvard and Yale, but always as a “special” non-degree student.   

Eventually, the very persistent Professor Harkness was accepted as a full professor at Garrett Biblical Institute, a post-baccalaureate Methodist seminary dedicated to preparing students for ordained ministry. She continued to teach at that level at several different seminaries until her retirement in 1960.

On May 4, 1956, four years before Professor Harkness retired, the General Conference of the Methodist Church approved full clergy rights for women. I love how this was done because it was so simple: years of debate were summed up in a single sentence added to the Book of Discipline that reads: “All foregoing paragraphs, chapters and sections of Part III [of the Book of Discipline] shall apply to women as well as to men.”

Maud Jensen was the first woman to be granted full clergy rights after this decision by the Central Pennsylvania Conference. She was not present for her appointment, however. She was in Korea.

In last week's service, before we read the Korean Affirmation of Faith, Pastor Suzanne told us that the Methodist church in Korea is very strong. Well, Maud Jensen is part of the reason for that strength today. She spent forty years in Korea as a missionary, helping lay that foundation for today’s vibrant Methodist church in that country.

Another woman, Grace Huck, received full clergy rights in 1958. At a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of women’s ordination, Reverend Huck told a story from her first appointment. When the district superintendent told the congregation he was appointing a woman, one man in the congregation pounded his fist on the pew and shouted, “There will be no skirts in this pulpit while I'm alive.” Yet after Reverend Huck arrived and began her work, this same man became one of her staunchest supporters and allies in that church.

In 1974, 1 in 100 students in Methodist seminaries in America was a woman. Just one percent. In 2006, that number was 1 in 2. Fifty percent. From one to fifty percent in just 34 years.

Imagine how Anna Oliver and Georgia Harkness would feel about that.

It wasn’t until 1980 that the first woman was ordained as a Methodist bishop. According to the most current statistics I could find, in 2008 there were 14 women serving as bishops in the United States and 36 men.  Elsewhere in the world, only two other women serve as United Methodist bishops…in Mozambique and in Germany.

This issue of women’s ordination and full clergy rights is still extremely controversial, though less so in the Methodist Church than in some other denominations. Last week, Will [the youth pastor] spoke about the Wesleyan quadrilateral and its emphasis on using Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience to discover our faith. The experiences of Mary Fletcher, Phoebe Palmer, Anna Oliver, Maud Jensen, and so many other women speak to all four points in the quadrilateral. The debate isn’t over, but it is moving forward.

Let us, however, go back to that passage from John Wesley’s sermon On Visiting the Sick that we started with. He concludes, 

“Let all you [women] that have it in your power assert the right which the God of nature has given you. Yield not to that vile bondage [of being seen and not heard] any longer. You, as well as men, are rational creatures. You, like them, were made in the image of God; you are equally candidates for immortality; you too are called of 'do good unto all men.' Be 'not disobedient to the heavenly calling.'"


  1. This is very interesting. Thanks for posting it. Though I am not Methodist, I think the concept is universal. Being Catholic, we have not arrived at this YET. Maybe one day.

  2. Enjoyed your post-I always like reading about women's progress in the world. I was raised in the Free Will Baptist faith and as far as I know, there are no women pastors. The most influential women in our demomination are missionaries.

  3. I don't agree with everything my church (The Salvation Army) espouses, but one thing I'm proud of is that from the beginning, they ordained women. Our current General (and 2 previous including one elected in 1934)is a woman. (Of course it's easier when you create your 'own' church late in the 1800s, as William Booth did, to decide to do that.) He actually left Methodism (clearly one of the splinters!) in the 1860s to start the "Christian Mission" which became The Salvation Army. He and his wife Catherine went into the streets of East London to save the drunks and prostitutes and to provide aid. They used bands and timbrels to attract attention. It's a wonderful heritage and one I'm proud to be a part of! (Is that a dangling participle? I know it's not grammatically correct! lol!)

  4. Great post, Susan! I would love to have been a guest in church as you spoke these words. Very interesting info. Luckily, our denomination (Christian Church, Disciples of Christ) welcomes female pastors. We have had quite a few long term interim females over the years, and boy, howdy, could those ladies ever preach the word! Thanks for another thought provoking post.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!