Ordination of women in Methodism

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Methodist views on the ordination of women in the rite of holy orders are diverse. Some Methodist denominations practice the ordination of women, such as in the United Methodist Church (UMC), in which the ordination of women has occurred since its creation in 1968, as well as in the Free Methodist Church (FMC), which ordained its first woman elder in 1911,[1] in the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which ordained its first female deacon in 1890 and ordained its first female elders in 1974,[2] and in the Bible Methodist Connection of Churches.[3] Other Methodist denominations do not ordain women, such as the Southern Methodist Church (SMC), Evangelical Methodist Church of America, Fundamental Methodist Conference, and Primitive Methodist Church (PMC), the latter of which does not does not ordain women as elders nor does it license them as pastors or local preachers;[4] the PMC does, however, consecrate women as deaconesses.[4] Independent Methodist parishes that are registered with the Association of Independent Methodists do not permit the ordination of women to holy orders.

Some of the groups that later became part of the United Methodist Church started ordaining women in the late 19th century, but the largest group, the Methodist Church, did not grant women full clergy rights until 1956.[5]


John Wesley's views on women[edit]

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was the first within his movement to authorize a woman to preach. In 1761, he granted a license to preach to Sarah Crosby.[6] Later, Wesley also licensed other women as preachers, including Grace Murray, Sarah Taft, Hannah Ball and Elizabeth Ritchie. One of the youngest women, Mary Fletcher, began preaching at age 16 and at age 21 was thrown out of her parent's home because of her faith.

Wesley's appreciation for the importance of women in the church has been credited to his mother, Susanna Wesley. It is said[by whom?] that she instilled in him, and in his brother Charles Wesley, a fellow preacher in the movement, a deep appreciation for the intellectual and spiritual qualities of women. Susanna Wesley and other women in the early Methodist movement helped to evangelize and were active members in Methodist activities ranging from band classes to raising funds for the continuation of Methodism and managing educational institutions.

John Wesley's views on women can be found in his 1786 sermon "On Visiting the Sick". In the sermon, he attacks the requirement of submissiveness that was often imposed on women of the time:

"It has long passed for a maxim with many that “women are only to be seen but not heard.” And accordingly many of them are brought up in such a manner as if they were only designed for agreeable playthings! No, it is the deepest unkindness; it is horrid cruelty; it is mere Turkish barbarity. And I know not how any women of sense and spirit can submit to it."[7]

Previous to this sermon, John Wesley had also removed the word “obey” from the marriage rite he sent to North America in 1784.[8]

Methodist Episcopal Church[edit]

Anna Oliver

After John Wesley's death in 1791, several splits happened within the Methodist movement. The Methodist Protestant Church split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1828 and, later in 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church, South split, leaving a separate Methodist Episcopal Church of the north. The Methodist Episcopal Church previously saw schism, with the departure of some individuals in 1841 resulting in the formation of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, out of which the Bible Methodist Connection of Churches was created in 1968. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South also gave rise to other denominations that split from it, such as the Congregational Methodist Church in 1852 and the Southern Methodist Church in 1940.

Wesley's death also marked a shift in the view on women in the church. Some denominations continued to officially sanction the status of women. In 1866, for example, Helenor Alter Davidson was a circuit rider for the Methodist Protestant Church in Jasper County, IN. She later became the first ordained minister of any Methodist denomination.[9] Starting at the end of the 19th century, the Methodist Protestant Church had not only begun to ordain women, but had also granted them full rights as clergy.

This was not the case for all denominations. During the next decades, the Methodist Episcopal Church reversed many practices, and publicly emphasized the domestic role of women, refusing to acknowledge their more public role as church leaders and preachers.

In 1880, despite support from the Alumni of the Theological School of Boston University, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to ordain many of the female graduates. Some of the reasons given[by whom?] for this refusal were:

  1. Theological objections that interpreted First Corinthians 14:34-35 to mean that women should be silent in church .[10]
  2. Socio-cultural objections including the status of both white women and women of color in Western society, the home and workplace
  3. Church politics, when Bishop Edward G. Andrews of the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church of New England said ordination of women was “unlawful.” In his opinion, the law of the Church did not authorize the ordination of women.[11]

It was for the latter reason that Anna Oliver was not ordained in 1880 despite the fact she had graduated from Boston University School of Theology in 1876, and had served two churches with obvious success. In response, Anna Oliver and her supporters lobbied the General Conference to have all distinctions on the basis of gender removed from the Book of Discipline regarding status for ordination. Anna Oliver prepared pamphlets in which she outlined the reasons to remove the gender basis for ordination; such as the natural gifts and fruit of women to pastor, the sacramental needs of the mission field, the demands of charity, the Golden Rule and appeals to what John Wesley would do. In response, the General Conference not only denied the motion to remove the gender basis from ordination in the Book of Discipline, they revoked the licenses to preach of all those women who currently held them.[12]

Anna Shaw

Two years later, Anna Howard Shaw, who received her theological degree in 1878, was denied ordination on the grounds that "there is no place for women in the ordained ministry of the Methodist Episcopal Church."[citation needed] She left the church and was ordained in the Methodist Protestant Church that same year. She later went to be an activist in women's suffrage, and it was due in large part to her leadership that women were eventually granted the right to vote.

Margaret Newton Van Cott, an American Methodist preacher born in 1830, devoted her life to evangelism and holding revival meetings across the country.

In 1924 The Methodist Episcopal Church granted women the right to be ordained as local deacons and elders.

The Methodist Church[edit]

In 1939, the Methodist Protestant Church (with the exception of the Mississippi Conference that continued the Methodist Protestant Church), the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South merged, forming the Methodist Church. In the Methodist Church, women from the Methodist Episcopal Church-South gained the right to ordination, while the Methodist Protestant women gave up full clergy rights in the merger. The politics used to justify this were said to be that the new denomination already faced sufficient problems. The Louisiana Conference, for example, had 5 women who had recently been ordained, Fern Cook, Nettie Mae Cook, Lea Joyner, Elaine Willett and Anna Ruth Nuttall. The newly formed Methodist Church recognized their ordination and accepted them into the conference, yet offered only a few actual appointments.

By 1945, only 3 remained in the conference. One of these women, Lea Joyner, was never given an official appointment. She was told, “no church will have you.” She was given a vacant lot and $5,000 and told to start her own church in Monroe, Louisiana. When she died in 1985, she held the distinction of having the longest pastorate in the Louisiana conference, and the largest Methodist church in the world pastored by a woman. The church she started in 1952 had over 2,200 members.[13]

In 1942, the Fundamental Methodist Conference split from the Methodist Church and it does not ordain women. The Evangelical Methodist Church split from the Methodist Church in 1945 and does ordain women as elders.

Historic vote in 1956[edit]

On May 4, 1956, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the General Conference of the Methodist Church approved full clergy rights for women. This was done by adding one sentence to the Book of Discipline: “All foregoing paragraphs, chapters and sections of Part III [of the Book of Discipline] shall apply to women as well as to men.” Bishops were now required to appoint every pastor in good standing, regardless of gender. Maud Jensen was the first woman to be granted full clergy rights after this decision, in what is now the Central Pennsylvania Annual Conference.[14] Grace Huck was another woman accepted into probationary status as part of this historic vote, and she was received into full connection in 1958. She recalls the resistance to her ministry by a male member of her church in one of her early appointments. She has been quoted as saying that when the district superintendent told the congregation he was appointing a woman minister, one man shouted, “there will be no skirts in this pulpit while I'm alive.” She also noted that he later became one of her best supporters.[15]

Evangelical United Brethren Church[edit]

The Church of the United Brethren in Christ started ordaining women with full clergy rights in 1889.

In 1946, the Church of the United Brethren in Christ united with Evangelical Church to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Evangelical Church had never ordained women. The Bishops from both churches agreed to not ordain women in the newly formed church, but there was never a vote on it at annual conference. Many churches continued to ordain women with full clergy rights.[16]

Current denominational positions[edit]

Free Methodist Church[edit]

In 1861, the Free Methodist Church reported the fact that women served as preachers and in 1864, the General Conference of the Free Methodist Church created a class of lay non-pastoral ministers known as Evangelists, who were both men and women.[1] In 1911, the Free Methodist Church started ordaining women as deacons and in 1974, the FMC started ordaining women as elders.[1]

Methodist Church of Great Britain[edit]

As early as 1890, women were ordained as deacons in the Methodist Church of Great Britain.[2] On 2 July, 1974, the Methodist Conference in Bristol permitted the ordination of women as presbyters.[2]

Primitive Methodist Church[edit]

The Primitive Methodist Church does not does not ordain women as elders nor does it license them as pastors or local preachers;[4] the PMC does, however, consecrate women as deaconesses.[4]

United Methodist Church[edit]

In 1968, when the United Methodist Church was formed from the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church, Methodist women clergy were afforded the right of full connection.[17]

In 1980, the first woman, Marjorie Matthews, was elected and consecrated as a bishop within the United Methodist Church.[18] In 1984, the first African-American woman, Leontine T. Kelly was elected and consecrated as a bishop.[19] In 2005, Rosemarie Wenner was the first women to be elected bishop outside the United States.[19] She was elected by the Germany Central Conference.[19]

Over 12,000 women serve as United Methodist clergy at all levels, from bishops to local pastors. As of 2006, 16 women had been elected as bishops. To try to address the lack of women of color in faculty positions at United Methodist Seminaries, the Board of Higher Education and Ministry created a scholarship program, which has over 40 participants and more than 22 graduates with doctorate degrees in theology.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "FMC Statement on Women in Ministry". Free Methodist Church. Retrieved 31 May 2017. 
  2. ^ a b c "Methodist Church celebrates 40 years of women’s ordination". The Methodist Church in Britain. 17 June 2014. Retrieved 31 May 2017. 
  3. ^ Sams, G. Clair (2017). "The Bible Methodist, Issue I, Volume 49" (PDF). Bible Methodist Connection of Churches. p. 2. Retrieved 31 May 2017. 
  4. ^ a b c d "Discipline of the Primitive Methodist Church in the United States of America" (PDF). Primitive Methodist Church. Retrieved 31 May 2017. 
  5. ^ http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?ptid=1&mid=1021
  6. ^ http://www.iscuo.org/clergywomen.htm
  7. ^ Kenneth Cracknell and Susan J. White, An Introduction to World Methodism, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 217
  8. ^ World Methodist Book, Page 218
  9. ^ http://www.religioustolerance.org/femclrg13.htm
  10. ^ http://www.WomenInMinistryEpilogue.com[dead link]
  11. ^ Kenneth Cracknell and Susan J. White, An Introduction to World Methodism, Cambridge Press University, 2005, p. 218-9
  12. ^ An Introduction to World Methodism; p. 219
  13. ^ http://www.iscuo.org.clergy.women.htm[dead link]
  14. ^ http://www.religioustolerance.org.femclrg1.htm[dead link]
  15. ^ http://www.gbhem.org/WomenClergy[dead link]
  16. ^ http://www.interpretermagazine.org/interior.asp[dead link]
  17. ^ Communications, United Methodist. "Timeline of Women in Methodism - The United Methodist Church". The United Methodist Church. Retrieved 2017-02-02. 
  18. ^ Marjorie Matthews, 1916-1986
  19. ^ a b c United Methodist Bishop Firsts

Further reading[edit]

  • God's Amazing Grace, the autobiography of Rev. Grace Huck (one of the first 27 women ordained in the Methodist Church after the vote of 1956), Sand Creek Printers, Spearfish South Dakota, 2006.
  • Courageous Spirit: Voices from Women in Ministry, Upper Room Books
  • Book of Resolutions, The Status of Women and The Celebration of Full Clergy Rights for Women
  • Commentary: United Methodism and the Ordination of Women
  • Women and Wesley's Times
  • General Commission on the Status and Role of Women
  • Courageous past bold future: the journey toward full clergy rights for women in the United Methodist Church

External links[edit]