• Elaine Kelly

When did churches begin to ordain Women as Preachers?

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

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 was a Quaker evangelist who was beaten, whipped and imprisoned for her preaching. Sarah Blackborow wrote hundreds of pamphlets and tracts in the 1600's outlining Biblical interpretations.

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.

Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921) was the first woman ordained in a national denomination in 1851. She taught school for four years while she earned the money to cover tuition at Oberlin College in Ohio. She completed a bachelor's degree 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 speakers on topics including Biblical interpretation, women's rights, temperance, and abolition. Her public speaking led to a congregation in South Butler, New York, calling her to be the Minister of their Congregationalist church, and with this call, she was ordained by the local church in 1851. However, this ordination did not have the formal support in her denomination and Brown faced openly 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Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony - did not support Brown's efforts to serve the church, believing the church was outdated and corrupt.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 working 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 belief in the predestination of salvation.

Olympia Brown (1835-1926) was the first women in the United States to be ordained with official approval from a national denomination, being ordained in 1863 in the Universalist Church of America. Brown was an advocate for women's rights and the right to vote. Olympia Brown was rejected many times before being accepted to the Theological School of St. Lawrence University. When she graduated in 1863 she was the first woman to graduate from an established theological school. When the St Lawrence faculty refused to ordain her, Brown presented her case to the Universalist Association. The Universalists agreed to ordain her, and in 1863 Olympia Brown became the first woman ordained as a minister in the Universalist Church. Brown married John Henry Willis in 1873, kept her maiden name, and had two children.

Augusta Jane Chapin attended Olivet College and was ordained in 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 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 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, missionaries, or perform other roles. 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. Lydia Emilie Gruchy applied repeatedly to be ordained, and in the mean time, she worked in various other roles in the church. For 13 years, with the help of Nellie McClung and some male United Church Ministers, Gruchy struggled to achieve her ordination. Finally, in 1936, the United Church of Canada ordained her, and 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 researched and written by Rev. Patricia Wotten. It is available from chapters/indigo as an e-book or can be ordered from the author's website.

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 more pluralist view. The United Church of Canada remains a mainline Christian protestant denomination, but it is criticized for its liberal views.

Today many theological schools have re-examined the Bible and decided to permit women students, but questions remain. Why are women a minority in Masters of Divinity programs? Do theological schools include women's Biblical interpretations and writing in their curriculum? 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, Out of Brokenness: The Forgotten Followers, 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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