Two Methodist Women Who Transformed Our Lives

April 2nd, 2022
Available from Cokesbury
The revised edition of American Methodism (Dreff, Richey, Rowe, Schmidt) is coming soon from Abingdon Press. The following excerpt (read to the end) might surprise some present-day Methodists.

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was the organization that most successfully expanded women’s sphere, home, and mothering into a public realm and provided a context within which women could and would exercise the full array of leadership and political skills. Generated from an 1873–74 crusade against saloons that spread out nationally from spontaneous beginnings in Ohio and predicated upon a social analysis that saw drunkenness, alcoholism, saloons, and the liquor industry as the determinate factors in crime, abuse, poverty, unemployment, and corruption, the WCTU capitalized on long-standing Methodist commitments to temperance and enjoyed strong support from prominent clergy in the Methodist churches, including Bishops Matthew Simpson and Randolph S. Foster of the MEC.
Francis Willard

The WCTU formally organized in the summer of 1874 and held its first national meeting that November, electing Wittenmyer as president and Frances Willard as corresponding (executive) secretary. Through tireless travel, networking, speaking, and writing, Willard led the WCTU in establishing chapters across the country, becoming the nation’s largest women’s organization. In 1879, the WCTU elected her president, an office she held till her death in 1898. From that platform Willard enunciated a vision of a transformed society, transforming the church as well. Willard proposed that America deal systemically with the systemic evil (abusive, drunken husbands/saloons/liquor industry/corrupted politicians). By adroitly employing language of Sabbath, motherhood, and home and by focusing on “home protection” and legislation to achieve temperance controls, Willard articulated an increasingly grand and complex set of reforms that required the ballots of those most affected—women. Suffrage, in Willard’s advocacy, became key to treating causes and symptoms, in effect the full array of what would be social-gospel interventions (S 1883b). Willard schematized the WCTU’s do-everything agenda under five major headings, “preventive, educational, evangelistic, social and legal, [and] organization,” and structured the WCTU into fifty departments, each under the care of a superintendent. Ideally that structure functioned as template at every level from the local to the national, every level connected organizationally to the next. All “carefully mustered, officered, and drilled,” the WCTU functioned as “womanhood’s Grand Army of the Home,” a “grand” exhibit as well of the organizational revolution. Through the WCTU, women gained invaluable training, achieved a sense of their own power, and moved through the church into social reform (H 611nn50–52). Willard was one of the foremost political geniuses of her time. She was never afraid to challenge the social norms of her time, refusing to marry and bear children, stepping into the public realm with a proud voice, and always accompanied with her lifelong female partner, Anna Gordon....

Anna Howard Shaw

By credentialing themselves with a theological degree and proving their ministerial skills in the trenches, women lived into the vocation to which Phoebe Palmer and later Francis Willard believed women were called, Woman in the Pulpit. Two graduates of Boston University School of Theology (BUST), Anna Oliver and Anna Howard Shaw, exercised successful preaching careers in the Methodist Episcopal Church before authorities clamped down. A third, New Yorker Maggie Newton Van Cott credentialed herself in the more traditional fashion as had many other women, licensed as a local preacher. Raised Episcopalian, married into the Dutch Reformed Church, Van Cott underwent a powerful conversion experience in the late 1850s, attended Methodist prayer meetings at Duane Street and in a dream experienced a call from none other than John Wesley. Teaching Sunday school and working at the Five Points Mission, she received invitations to speak as evangelist and in 1868 devoted herself full time to evangelistic speaking. Successes earned her an exhorter’s license and then a local preacher’s license and an effort by the 1869 New York Conference to censure one of the responsible presiding elders. She gained supporters among prominent members of both that and the New England Conference who experienced her effectiveness. Among them, Gilbert Haven, influential editor of the equally influential New England Methodist paper, Zion’s Herald, covered and commended her work and made a case for preaching licenses for women (S 1869b). Daniel Curry, editor of the New York Christian Advocate, weighed in negatively on this “disturbing element in the Conference” and on Haven’s “characteristic zeal,” expressing relief that the New England Conference had not seen fit to move toward admitting her (H 612n58). A preaching stint in California earned yet another licensing recommendation but a ruling by Bishop Stephen Merrill that lower judicatories had no right to grant women licenses to preach. His action was appealed to the 1876 General Conference (MEC), and California also submitted a petition favoring local preacher’s licenses for women, neither of which was accepted.That same year, Anna Oliver, holder of BA and MA degrees from Rutgers Female College, NYC, graduating BD was honored to deliver one of the BUST commencement addresses. Granted a local preacher’s license by the Jamaica Plain Quarterly Conference (Boston), she subsequently assumed interim pastoral duties in First Methodist (MEC) Passaic, not far from her birthplace, New Brunswick. Assisted by the Black pastor-evangelist Amanda Smith, Oliver had the reorganized but struggling Passaic church “buzzing,” as the local newspaper reported. During a year there, she increased membership 500 percent, lectured at New Jersey Methodism’s Centenary College for Women, and pressed for social reforms in Passaic (care for homeless children, vocational training in the public schools, and curbs on the liquor trade). Not affirmation but reversals followed. The cabinet and bishop of the Newark Conference did not continue her in ministry, she experienced severe ill health, and her invitation to preach at the weekly meeting of the New York Methodist preachers was rescinded—the latter at the urging of then pastor, later editor, and historian James M. Buckley. In 1879 members of a heavily mortgaged Brooklyn church acquired the property at auction. They organized as an MEC church, took the precaution of obtaining a new deed without the obligatory “trust clause,” and invited Oliver to become pastor. The renamed Willoughby Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church prospered under Oliver’s leadership, growing from thirteen to more than a hundred by year’s end and building Sunday school to two hundred. Recommended to the 1880 New England Conference for ordination and conference membership, she was not presented as a candidate by Bishop Edward Andrews. The Boston presiding elder, Lorenzo Thayer, indicated that he would appeal the ruling. The conference allowed her to speak, which she did for half an hour, making an eloquent case for pastoral work as uniquely “adapted to women,” a case then subsequently published (S 1880a). Persuaded, the conference then voted instruction to its delegates to General Conference to use their influence “to remove all distinctions of sex in the office and ordination of our ministry” (H 612n62).

The 1880 bishop’s, presiding elder’s, and New England Conference’s actions pertained as well to another female candidate for ordination, an 1878 BUST graduate, Anna Howard Shaw. English-born, Shaw had earned a local preacher’s license in Michigan, subsequently returning to New England and pastoring two small Cape Cod churches for six years. After performing well in the ordination examination, she was duly recommended by the conference.

In response to ruling against their ordinations, Shaw and Oliver elected different paths, Shaw to seek ordination elsewhere, Oliver to contest the decision. To the 1880 General Conference in Cincinnati went Thayer’s appeal of the bishop’s ruling, a petition from Brooklyn’s Willoughby Avenue Church asking that the Discipline be revised so as permit the ordination of its pastor, and Anna Oliver in person with a printed case including her New England speech. General Conference was in no mood to change the Discipline “as it regards the status of women in our church.”  Oliver continued her ministry, sustaining Willoughby’s broad-gauged social witness. However, the church’s finances suffered, and it folded three years later. Her health suffered as well, and she died in 1892.

Shaw also returned to her ministry with the Cape Cod congregations and indeed pursued ordination elsewhere, namely, with the Methodist Protestants. The MPC’s New York Conference accepted her candidacy and ordained her October 12, 1880 (S 1880c). The MPC did not, however, immediately turn its New York Conference’s actions into policy. Indeed, its 1884 General Conference ruled her ordination out of order. The annual conference continued, however, its recognition, and five years later another MEC woman, Eugenia St. John, sought and received MPC orders from the Kansas Conference. The 1892 MPC General Conference seated women as lay delegates and authorized annual conferences to decide for themselves whether to ordain women. The UBC General Conference in 1889 voted in favor of women’s ordination, and Ella Niswonger, the church’s first seminary graduate, was ordained that year. By 1901, the UBC ministerial directory listed 97 women. 

Shaw sits immediate right of Susan B. Anthony in the center.

Shaw would eventually follow her call in a new direction, through medical school and eventually on to women’s suffrage circuit as lecturer, providing the national movement with a much-needed religious voice. Between 1904 and 1915 she served as president of the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association, the largest women’s rights organization in the country. Alongside her female life partner of thirty years, Lucy Elmina Anthony, a niece of the renowned Susan B Anthony, Shaw changed what it meant to be a religiously-centered, politically-active public voice. During World War I, Shaw was named chair of the Woman’s Committee of the U.S. Council of National Defense, the first woman to hold such a high governmental post, for which she was also the first woman to earn the Distinguished Service Medal. This is the legacy of Methodist women—always seeking to be bold in their ministry contexts and never fearing to follow as the Spirit of God calls them through and beyond the pulpit.

comments powered by Disqus