Helenor Davisson: First Ordained American Methodist Woman

A portrait of Helenor Davisson made from the only known photograph of her, which is badly faded.

In August of 1866 the Civil War had just ended and America was slowly becoming a United States again as confederate states began rejoining the union. Perhaps more astonishingly, in that same year President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill that eventually become the 14th Amendment, guaranteeing citizenship and equal protection under the law for black Americans. He did so in spite of such broad congressional support that his veto was overcome by a 2/3 super-majority. In the highest leadership position in the country, prejudice was preventing even basic rights for black Americans. Nine years later the Supreme Court would rule against women’s right to vote. Progress was coming on several fronts, but this was still an age of considerable challenges to equality.

At that same time in a tiny rural county in northern Indiana, Helenor Davisson was being ordained a deacon to preach the tiny circuit of churches where she and her father had been ministering for nearly 20 years. The Methodist Protestant Church was a smaller counterpart to the Methodist Episcopal Church, two of the many denominations that would eventually merge to form the United Methodist Church. Helenor’s father, John Alter, was a prominent businessman and preacher from Pennsylvania that took his family of 10 west to Northwest Indiana in Jasper County. When Helenor’s mother died when she was just 14, she became caretaker of the house while her father preached and built his mill business.

The one-room Rosebud School was built and donated by Helenor’s father and was home to one of the four churches on Helenor’s circuit.

Growing up in a preacher’s home with significant responsibility, she was a mature woman when she began preaching the circuit with her father in her early 20’s. Eventually they would grow the circuit to four churches and about 100 members.

Her story is not an easy one though, in spite of her significant ministry success. We don’t know all the opposition she faced in preaching as she kept no journal of her ministry as far as we know. But we do know some of the official oppositions. Helenor performed at least two weddings in her ministry. Soon there would be those who challenged the legality of those marriages. One has to wonder if she didn’t avoid additional weddings to avoid legal troubles that could ensue for the couple.  During Annual Conference the very next year after her ordination, several ministers tried to pass a resolution that would prohibit women’s ordination. Likely because of the respect Helenor had garnered, the resolution was tabled without definitive resolution. They would leave the matter to General Conference to decide.

At General Conference it appears that women’s ordination was referred to a study committee, because the reports of a study committee were submitted to the next General Conference in 1871. Politics won the day here in spite of theological conviction. The majority report of the committee was in favor of women in ministry. But the minority report was read first. The majority report was never read before the conference moved to receive the minority report and therefore ban women from ordination.

 It would be long after Helenor’s death before the Methodist Protestants would ordain another woman. Her name continues to appear in conference journals until 1874, so it seems that she continued in ministry. But she likely preached only rarely from that point forward as she grew ill for several years and died in 1876.

For the curious researcher, a couple short biographies have been written about her that can be found here and  here. There is also an unpublished biography (called The Little Pest) that started with some of Helenor’s personal autobiography of her early life, supplemented with details of her later life filled in with stories of friends and records of the Methodist Protestants.

 I tell this little bit of her story here because my hope is that it will encourage those that are advocating for women’s leadership in the church. I’ve been advocating  since about 2003. That isn’t very long, but I have been working long enough to have seen some successes and long enough to have grown frustrated at times.  Recently I had the opportunity to learn about Helenor with a group of the historians that have worked to establish a cluster of five sites associated with her life as an official Methodist Heritage Site. That was a rich opportunity to hear of a woman that was far ahead of her time.

(A vote will be taken at General Conference in 2016 to give these sites “Landmark” status. Send this post to any GC delegates that you know so that they can learn about Helenor.)

Historians gathered at Helenor Davisson’s newly restored grave stone.

We can all wish that the Church was always equally open to leadership of both genders. We could wish the effects of sin away. But the reality is that injustice has always been with us and will be with us until Christ returns. So working toward justice will inevitably be a long struggle that will often take three steps forward and two steps back. The situation is much better in the church today. But there are still those that oppose women’s ministry. As Martin Luther King once said, quoting an earlier minister, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” My eschatology is a bit different yet than King’s. Sin will always be with us until Christ returns. But even in spite of sin, the work of the Church and other people of good will continues to advance toward justice.

In the case of women’s ministry, the fight is not only for justice, but maybe even more importantly that the Church may more adequately fulfill her God-given calling. 

My visit to one of the historical markers of the advancement of women in ministry leadership reminded me both of where the Church has come on this issue and the remarkable effort that it took to get there. Helenor reminds us that we are not trailblazers. Lack of historical awareness makes us believe that no one has gone this route before. Visiting her grave and walking through the building where she once preached reminded me that we are in the middle of the journey. It’s hard to be very frustrated when so many before have worked longer and harder. It’s also hard to be too impatient when progress will still be ongoing when we leave this life.

Be encouraged by Helenor’s story today and look forward to God’s coming Kingdom.

Click here to see all that I’ve written on women in ministry.

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Comments

  1. says

    Question:
    In this article you state that politics, as opposed to theological conviction, won the day at that particular Methodist conference in the 19th century discussing women’s ordination. Is this entirely accurate? If the majority of so-called Catholics decided abortion was legitimate and then the Pope wrote an encyclical that condemned abortion and any Catholic supporting should be excommunicated in spite of the majority of Catholic laity’s objection to the encyclical then did politics win the day or did theological conviction win the day? There is a long history within the Church (Protestant and non-Protestant) of women’s ordination not traditionally being accepted. I don’t think a denomination deciding that women should not be ordained is submitting itself to politics as you presume despite what the majority says. Perhaps strong theological conviction does stand against it. From my own personal research on this subject, I would say theological conviction seems (if not does) lean heavily against women’s ordination.

    And construing this topic as a means of social justice and equal rights, sorry, you are continuing to miss the point big time. It is clear to me that your position on women’s ordination does not rest on theological conviction at all but is simply about politics. No one comes up and says “I’m going to be a priest–ordain me!” You must be chosen first and foremost to be ordained and even then, not all who are ordained can remain such. Recently, an archbishop of ours had to resign from his position as he was caught having numerous affairs and the laity and the women that he was fornicating with said “Enough’s enough!” and they exposed him thus forcing him into resignation. A rather humiliating resignation if you ask me.

    • says

      I will merely repeat what I’ve said on other occasions. You already know that I have plenty of posts with both biblical and theological arguments for women’s leadership. Just because this 1,000 word post did not make such an argument does not mean that my longstanding conviction is upon theological grounds.

      As for the “majority” report: The majority wasn’t just a random vote, but a majority of the experts, presumably theologians and pastors of their fellowship, that was encouraged to study the topic. The majority report would have been the authorized theological position. Unfortunately, it was never read.

      I have never presumed that anyone can simply demand ordination as a requirement of justice. Ordination isn’t a right. But when women are called by God, answer that call, and men deny them that call, it is most certainly an act of injustice.

      I’m sorry to hear about your archbishop, both for the sake of his ministry and the women he violated. My prayers are with all involved as they seek the will of God.

      • says

        “I have never presumed that anyone can simply demand ordination as a requirement of justice. Ordination isn’t a right. But when women are called by God, answer that call, and men deny them that call, it is most certainly an act of injustice.”
        You are assuming that they are called by God to ordination though. There is no grounds to prove this and the Church has always said “no”. Then you blame it all on men which is NOT a theological argument at ALL! I know plenty of women who do not support women’s ordination. In fact, I asked a Traditionalist Catholic young woman about this issue and she responded against the issue of women’s ordination rather harshly. I sniff politics, NOT theology when you say shit like “men deny them that call”.

        Yes, I have read your “Biblical” arguments but all they are is YOUR interpretation of the Bible against THOUSANDS of years of standard Christian teaching on this subject. The tradition by which the Bible has been historically read over the years needs to be overcome before one can make any decision on this which is my own church has decreed no to women’s ordination. Is it because there’s a bunch of men denying their call? NO! When you say this it indicates to me that you are NOT basing your arguments in favor of women’s ordination on theology whatsoever. Yes, I have read your Biblical arguments and have shown why the Bible alone cannot be used to solve this. The Bible itself was given to us by people who did not support women’s ordination.

        Going back to the Methodist pastors and what-not–does this actually mean they were basing this on theology? What if a bunch of Catholic bishops decided abortion was morally acceptable in the eyes of God. According to traditional Catholic teaching, this would still not be the authorized theological position even if all the Cardinals agreed it was. In fact, they would cease to be Catholics and cease to be Cardinals if they said that and we would have to find new ones. “Authorized theological position” unfortunately does not mean “the majority of pastors agree on it”.

        I have given you also numerous theological objections to women’s ordination that you have still yet to consider. Probably because they don’t stem from the Bible? But who cares! The MAJORITY of Christian theological tradition is NOT Bible only. When you think the Bible is the only trump card, that leaves you as a sola scriptura heretic who stands OUTSIDE the Church Universal. BEFORE you can influence any one in the Church Universal’s decision on this (as I have explained numerous times), you need to REPENT of ALL your heresies and enter INTO the Church Universal. Which means letting go of the self. Look, I would rather take the easy way out and go with women’s ordination as well but I have studied this issue long and hard and I know the Biblical arguments for and against and the theological arguments for and against but for some reason, the Church has never accepted it and perhaps it is for a reason that I don’t understand that the Church has never accepted it and it isn’t because “men deny them that call” (that is a POLITICAL ARGUMENT WHICH YOU NEED TO DROP OR QUIT INSISTING ON ALL TOGETHER!)…it is simply for a reason I don’t understand. And we who belong to the Church Universal accept the things we cannot understand in faith. You accept the Trinity and cannot understand that.

        When you insist and keep on insisting and pressing such arguments as “men deny [women] that call”, I cannot take your argument into serious consideration or based on theological grounds whatsoever. This is one of my main problems with accepting radical egalitarianism. ALL of it is based entirely on politics passed as “theology”. It is all based on framing Christian men who are a part of denominations which do not favor women’s ordination as the problem. Something I know from experience is FALSE! So don’t give me that shit that your argument isn’t based on politics of any sort when it CLEARLY IS!

        I am THROUGH with politics! If you can provide theological arguments for your position which can COUNTER all of my posts and also get into the discussion from a sacramental perspective (as in the Bible needs to be read through this lens first and foremost, NOT sola scriptura heresy), then we can have a potential real discussion. But all I see is a pseudo-discussion. And you have just accused me of denying God, unless you think that denying God’s calling is somehow not denying God. I have denied God before but I guarantee you whether or not women are ordained has NOTHING to do with denying God. Apparently, that Traditionalist Catholic woman who scolded me for even thinking women could have the potential in the future to be ordained is also among the men who deny God. Perhaps you are using men in a gender inclusive sense to mean all humanity? Further, where is your proof that God has indeed called women to the sacerdotal priesthood? If you cannot provide theological or scriptural proof of that (which you have not, you have merely stated the sacerdotal priesthood in the first place is wrong which again goes against Church theology and leaves you OUTSIDE the Church and everything you say nullified), then you cannot insist that men deny them that call that they never had in the first place.

  2. says

    Well, comments above go to show: this issue can still draw great heat. I have learned so much with you, Jeremiah, about our history, and I’m so glad you’ve highlighted the life and story of Helenor Davisson. I am currently reading “Accidental Theologians,” a little book on the lives of Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux. For those counting, that means women now account for 12% of the Doctors of the Catholic Church. I was particularly struck by the courage and boldness these women showed: “medieval women could be imprisoned, tortured, or burned at the stake for transgressing established gender barriers of Church and society.”

    And yet they, feeling called, rose to the challenge. Their words are still challenging and shaping our spiritual formation today. Let’s keep recounting our history, and in so doing, show that the Church universal suffers when women’s voices are not heard alongside their brothers.

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