Women in the Ministry
Ray Frank, 1861 - 1948
Women have always been an important and visible presence in American Christian churches. Beginning in the colonial era, female congregants dominated church pews and women preachers often challenged gendered limits to religious leadership. During the great evangelical revivals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, more than one hundred women spoke publicly from church pulpits and to religious assemblies. These unordained women figured most prominently in dissenting sects, such as Shakers, Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and African Methodists, that challenged the elite hierarchies of more established denominations. As these dissenting groups and their constituents became more and more respectable, however, they too began to exclude women from the pulpit and other positions of formal religious authority.
Mainstream challenges to exclusive male spiritual leadership emerged slowly and at first only in denominations in which individual congregations did not need approval from a wider church body to ordain a minister. In 1853, Antoinette Brown (Blackwell) became the first woman formally ordained to the ministry in a mainstream Christian denomination when a small Congregational church in New York called her as its minister. Although only a few women followed in Blackwell's path, by the late 1880s and into the 1890s, demands that women's contributions to their churches be legitimated by ordination for those qualified for it gave rise to loud national debates. By the turn of the twentieth century, the Unitarians, Universalists, Northern Baptists, Christians and Disciples—all denominations in which individual churches operated autonomously—had ordained their first female ministers, although the number of women in the ministry remained small for many decades.
The road to ordination was more arduous for women of the more centralized denominations, in which an individual progressive church could not simply choose on its own to ordain a woman. The full ordination of mainstream Presbyterian women was not approved until the 1950s and 1960s, while the major Lutheran branches and the Episcopanians began to ordain women only in the 1970s and 1980s. For the Catholic Church, the issue remains the subject of much debate, with much of the Church leadership holding firm in the belief that women cannot be ordained as priests.
- For information on the ordination of women, see Barbara Brown Zikmund, "Women and Ordination," in In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women's Religious Writing, ed. Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 291-340; Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); William T. Noll, "Women as Clergy and Laity in the Nineteenth-Century Methodist Protestant Church," Methodist History 15, no. 2 (1977): 107-121.