Margaret Ellen Towner
March 19, 1925
|Denomination||Presbyterian Church in the United States of America|
|Alma mater||Carleton College,|
Union Theological Seminary,
Western Michigan University
|Ordination||October 24, 1956|
Margaret Ellen Towner (born March 19, 1925) is an American religious leader who was the first woman to be ordained a minister of the Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. (PCUSA), the northern branch of the American Presbyterian Church.
Early life and education
Margaret Ellen Towner was born March 19, 1925, in Columbia, Missouri, to Milton Carsley Towner and Dorothy Marie (Schloeman) Towner. She majored in pre-medical studies at Carleton College, receiving her B.A. in 1948. Afterwards, she worked as a medical photographer for the Mayo Clinic. She left the clinic and enrolled at Syracuse University in New York to study Christian audiovisual education; around the same time, she began volunteering at local churches in Syracuse (First Presbyterian Church) and East Genesee.
Even though the PCUSA was not yet ordaining women as ministers, change was in the air, and the pastor at First Presbyterian Church suggested that Towner should explore the ministry. The church offered her its Scattergood Fellowship to attend Union Theological Seminary in New York, where Towner undertook the three-year program leading to a Bachelor of Divinity degree, which she received in 1954. A decade later, in 1967, she received an M.A. in guidance and counseling from Western Michigan University.
After obtaining her B.D., Towner was commissioned a church worker. She became director of Christian education at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church in Maryland (1954-1955) and then at First Presbyterian Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania (1955–58).
Ordination and ministry
In 1955, the PCUSA voted to begin ordaining women as ministers. The following year, on Oct. 24, 1956, Towner became the first woman ordained to the ministry by PCUSA, with her ordination taking place at Syracuse-Cayuga Presbytery in New York. (Nine years later, the church's southern branch, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. (PCUS) would ordain its first woman minister, Rachel Henderlite.) Since there were a number of Presbyterian women preparing for ordination in the wake of the PCUSA vote, Towner was initially not sure whether she was actually the first to be ordained. Her ordination was covered by Life photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, and photographs of Towner's ordination ceremony appeared in a five-page spread in the November 12, 1956, issue of the magazine.
After being ordained, Towner returned to her congregation in Pennsylvania, though she was never asked to conduct services or preach in that church; and she was also made assistant pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Syracuse. Afterwards, she served at congregations in Kalamazoo, Michigan (First Church, 1958–69); Indianapolis, Indiana (Northminster Presbyterian Church, 1970–72); and Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Kettle Moraine parish, 1973-1990). At first she worked mainly in Christian education and as an assistant or associate pastor, only later becoming a full pastor. It was not until her very last posting that she was paid equally with male pastors. She spent 17 years in Milwaukee, where she was one of three co-pastors in a parish with six churches.
In 1981, the year that PCUSA celebrated the 25th anniversary of women's ordination in the church, Towner was elected vice-moderator of the church's General Assembly. Among her activities that year was a trip to Korea to talk to Presbyterian congregations, as the Korean churches were then considering whether to ordain women.
Honors and legacy
In 1983, Towner was given the Distinguished Alumnus Award by Carleton College. In 1989, she was awarded an honorary doctorate of divinity by Carroll College.
In 2006, the Milwaukee Presbytery established the Doctor Margaret E. Towner scholarship in her honor.
- Tammeus, Bill. "Episcopal church celebrates 40 years of women in the priesthood". National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2014. Accessed Dec. 16, 2015.
- "This Far by Faith: A Dialogue Between Deborah A. Block, Pastor, Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Milwaukee, and Margaret E. Towner, Honorably Retired". Nov. 10, 2006. Accessed Dec. 16, 2015.
- Smylie, James H. "Women Ministers (1955-1966) and Margaret Towner". February 6, 2006. Accessed Dec. 16, 2015.
- Lloyd-Sidle, Patricia, ed. Celebrating Our Call: Ordination Stories of Presbyterian Women. Geneva Press, 2006, pp. 22–23; 25–26; 72.
- "Women's History: Rachel Henderlite". Presbyterian Historical Society website. Accessed Dec. 15, 2015.
- Tucker, Gail. "Quiet pioneer". 217th General Assembly: News, PCUSA website, June 15–22, 2006. Accessed Dec. 16, 2015.
- "Interview: Margaret Towner, the First Woman Pastor in the PC(USA)". Accessed Dec. 16, 2015.