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When did Churches begin to Ordain Women as Preachers?

While women have a history as teachers, writers, and preachers, there is less history of women having access to theological education or being ordained as clergy. Many women followed their call to preach without having a theological degree. Early women called to ministry may have worked as evangelists, writers, or itinerant street preachers. When did churches agree to ordain women as clergy or ministers?

Elizabeth Hooton Biography

The Quakers (Religious Society of Friends) had both women and men speak at their meetings since their beginnings in the 1650s. Elizabeth Hooton (1600-1672) was the first woman Quaker evangelist; she was beaten, whipped and imprisoned for her preaching. Sarah Blackborow wrote hundreds of pamphlets and tracts in the 1600s outlining Biblical interpretations.

Jarena Lee heard a clear calling to preach, saying, "If the man may preach because the Savior died for him, why not the woman, seeing he died for her also? Is he not a whole Savior, instead of half of one?" In 1816, Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was largely limited to the free states and therefore not a national denomination. In 1819, Richard Allen agreed that Jarena Lee had a calling and authorized her to preach in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Facing hostility, she argued that Mary Magdalene was the first to preach the risen Savior to the disciples. Without her own congregation and became a travelling minister and wrote an autobiography, The Life and Religious Experience of Jarena Lee.

Jarena Lee, itinerant preacher

Jarena Lee said it should not be considered heterodox for a woman to preach. Heterodox means independent-minded, or not conforming with accepted orthodox, conventional, or normal views.

woman at typewriter
Ethel Ruff pastored Baptist churches in the 1940s and 50s

A hundred years later, people were still talking about it being heterodox for a woman to preach. Ethel Ruff, born in Canada, graduated from Bethel Seminary in 1942 and preached for in Baptist churches in the US and Canada. The introduction to her autobiography, When Saints Go Marching: The Memoirs of a Baptist Evangelist, is written by a fellow Canadian Baptist C. Emanuel Carlson, who praised the book for showing “the vitality of a wholesome nonconformity." He said Ruff showed “a heterodox behaviour that springs out of an orthodox faith” and that “set forms and established patterns of behaviour tend to impose their restrictions until the Body of Christ becomes heartless and, in due course, lifeless.”

Catherine Booth biography

The Salvation Army was co-founded by William Booth & Catherine Mumford Booth and the organization allowed both men and women to preach from its inception in 1865. She is quoted as saying "If we are to better the future, we must disturb the present."

Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921) was the first woman ordained in a major U.S. denomination in 1851. She completed a bachelor's degree at Oberlin College in Ohio in 1847 and then lobbied for admission to theological courses. The administration eventually agreed to allow her to audit the courses, but would not recognize her graduation.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell

Antoinette Brown became an avid writer and public speaker on topics including Biblical interpretation, women's rights, temperance, and abolition.

A congregation in South Butler, New York, called her to be the Minister of their Congregationalist church, and she was ordained by the local church in 1851.

However, this ordination did not have the formal support of her denomination and Brown faced critical attitudes from the church. Even Brown's close friends in the women's rights movement - Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony - did not support Brown's efforts to serve the church, believing the church was outdated and corrupt. When forced to choose between equal rights and the church, they chose equal rights. When two infants in Brown's parish died, she could not uphold the church doctrine that unbaptized children were damned. She married Samuel Blackwell in 1856 and left the Congregational Church in 1857, citing poor health and issues with church orthodoxy. She returned to work as an activist and public speaker. In 1878, she returned to organized religion, becoming a Unitarian, where she was recognized as a minister. At that time, the Unitarian Church was a Christian denomination, breaking away from other Protestant churches over differences including the salvation of the predestined elect.

Olympia Brown

Olympia Brown (1835-1926) was rejected by several schools, before being accepted to the Theological School of St. Lawrence University and she became the first woman to graduate from theological school in 1863. Brown married John Henry Willis in 1873, kept her maiden name, and had two children. Olympia Brown became the first woman in the United States to be ordained with official approval from a national denomination, being ordained in 1863 in the Universalist Church of America. Her activist friends Susan B. Anthony, Clara Barton, and Julia Ward Howe were involved in the Universalist Church, which was a Christian Protestant Christian denomination focused on social justice. Universalists believed God would save every individual from sin through divine grace revealed in Jesus.  At the time, Universalists were a Christian denomination, differing from other protestant denominations in doctrines of the Trinity and eternal damnation.

Augusta Jane Chapin attended Olivet College and was ordained as the Universalist minister in 1864, in Lansing, Michigan. By 1920, there were 88 Universalist women ministers, the largest group in the United States.

The first ordained woman to work in Canada was Fidelia Woolley Gillette (1827-1905), who served a Universalist congregation in Bloomfield, Ontario, in 1888. Gillette was raised in the United States, where she obtained a license to preach in 1873 and where she was ordained in 1877.

Some who oppose the ordination of women can discount these early female clergy by calling the churches that ordained them "un-Christian". In the 1800s, the Unitarian and Universalist churches were two Christian protestant denominations. In 1961 the Universalist Church of America merged with the Unitarian Association and it evolved to the present pluralist view which embraces diverse religions not holding Christianity above other religions.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ denomination decided in 1885 that the Bible authorized women to prophesy and labour in the church, so endorsed women as ministering sisters as evangelists and mission workers under the supervision of a male elder or minister. Janet Douglas grew up in Ontario and moved to Michigan and by 1882 she was leading evangelical meetings in her home. In 1885 she preached in Mennonite Brethren in Christ travelling tent meetings or revivals. God blessed the preaching of Janet Douglas and by 1886, when she was 22, she planted a new church in Dornoch, Ontario, and soon after in Kilsyth. She was a lead pastor in both. After marrying, Janet Douglas Hall did joint ministry in Michigan, California, and Alberta.

new grads
Lydia Gruchy graduating from Seminary
Lydia Gruchy biography

The first woman to enroll in theological studies in Canada was Lydia Emelie Gruchy. In 1920, Lydia Emelie Gruchy graduated from the University of Saskatchewan, and in 1923 she graduated from the Presbyterian Theological College in Saskatoon.

While the Presbyterian church did not allow women to be ministers or elders, they could be deacons or missionaries, so the seminary-trained Gruchy had to find male ministers to preside over communion services, baptisms, weddings, and funerals. While male clergy filled in for her, she filled in for them, preaching in their pulpits.

In 1925, the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist denominations merged to form the United Church of Canada, largely because the small rural communities spread far apart from each other were not large enough to support three churches. Gruchy was supported by Nellie McClung, an active United Church member and one of the 'Famous Five' who advocated that women be declared as persons eligible to be named to the Senate. The United Church of Canada remains a mainline Christian protestant denomination, but it is criticized for its liberal views.

Since only men could propose or vote on motions at the General Council, men in her presbytery proposed ordaining Lydia Gruchy at every national meeting for thirteen years. With the support of some male colleagues from St Andrew's theological college and United Church Ministers, Gruchy finally achieved her ordination in 1936. Lydia Emelie Gruchy became the first woman to be ordained as a minister in Canada. The biography of Lydia Emelie Gruchy called With Love, Lydia, was written by Rev. Patricia Wotten and is available from Kobo as an e-book or can be ordered from the author's website.

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Addie Aylestock on the Toronto Bible College Missionary Committee
Addie Aylestock, first black woman ordained in Canada

Addie Aylestock worked as a domestic in Toronto to put herself through Toronto Bible College (now Tyndale University). She became a Deacon in the  British Methodist Episcopal Church (BME) in 1944 while attending Bible College. On graduation, she served in Africville, NS, and North Buxton, Ontario, communities established by Black settlers who were primarily formerly enslaved Americans.

After 7 years as a Deacon, with the same responsibilities as her male colleagues, Aylestock was ordained in 1951. She was the first black woman ordained in Canada. She pastored churches in Montreal, Toronto, Owen Sound, Fort Erie and Niagara Falls. Aylestock also served as general secretary of the BME conference from 1958-1982.

Today many theological schools have re-examined the Bible and agreed women should be permitted and encouraged as students, pastors, and teachers. But there remains an underlying opposition. Why are women a minority in Master of Divinity programs? Do theological schools include women's Biblical interpretations and writing in their curricula? Do they allow women in preaching classes and practicums? Do they direct women theological graduates to work in roles other than preaching (such as pastoral care, children's programs, and music leadership? Jesus equipped and empowered women as disciples, patrons, evangelists, and apostles. Why would the church not follow his example?

We hope that women who are called to ministry or to lead a church will stand on the shoulders of these, their foremothers.


Elaine Ricker Kelly empowers women at home, church and society by advocating for equality for all people based on the Bible. She was an investment and insurance advisor for thirty years and has three grown daughters. Elaine R. Kelly lives near Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, with her husband and enjoys hiking, tennis, music, history and culture.

Books by Elaine Ricker Kelly:

Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold  - biblical fiction offering hope and healing to anyone who feels forgotten, belittled, or out of place.

The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role - a non-fiction book of 104 flashcards with an objective, memorable look at the rationale for diverse views on gender roles.

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