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  • Writer's pictureElaine R Kelly

When did Churches begin to Ordain Women as Preachers?

Updated: Jun 1

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?

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 1600's 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.

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 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 and Universalist Churches were Christian denominations, breaking away from other Protestant churches over differences including the salvation of the predestined elect.

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. 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 Protestant Christian denomination focused on social justice. Universalists believed God would save every individual from sin through divine grace revealed in Jesus. Brown married John Henry Willis in 1873, kept her maiden name, and had two children.

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. At the time, Universalists were a Christian denomination, differing from other protestant denominations in doctrine on the Trinity and on eternal damnation.

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.

The Mennonite Brethren in Crist 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 nearby Kilsyth. She was a lead pastor in both. After marrying, Janet Douglas Hall did joint ministry in Michigan.

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 Gruchy worked in various other roles for thirteen years, applying repeatedly to be ordained as a minister. 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. She was supported by Nellie McClung, an active United Church member and one of the group of five who succeeded in getting women the right to vote in Canada. Lydia Gruchy applied repeatedly for ordination and at last, 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 become 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.

The first black woman to be an ordained minister in Canada was Addie Aylestock. She became a Deacon in 1944 in the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BME). After the BME allowed for the ordination of women in 1951, she was the first woman ordained in that church and the first black woman ordained in Canada.

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 Chrisitan churches. It was not until 1961 that the Universalist Church of America merged with the Unitarian Association and it evolved from being two Christian protestant denominations to the present pluralist view which embraces diverse religions not holding Christianity above other religions. The United Church of Canada remains a mainline Christian protestant denomination, but it is criticized for its liberal views. Women were prevented from being ordained in other denominations.

Today many theological schools have re-examined the Bible and agreed women students should be permitted but is that enough? Why are women a minority in Masters 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? My novel, Forgotten Followers: from Broken to Bold, shows Jesus #empoweringwomen as disciples, patrons, evangelists, and apostles. Why would the church not follow this example?

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

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