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Baptist women walking together in America, 1950-2000: when did you become captivated by the study of history? I was born in a twin-city area of North Louisiana, behind the First Baptist Church of one of the twin communities and around the corner from a school where I studied American history under a rare phenomenon, a seventh-grade teacher with a Ph.D. in history.

Miss Perkins believed that a study of the present and immediate past had to acknowledge that history began in the mammoth civilizations covering millennia followed by clusters of centuries such as the Middle Ages or the Renaissance Period or the great migration to a new continent, including as I learned later, by two strains of Baptist pilgrims, the Regulars and the Separatists.

Regular Baptists settled in New England primarily, and the Separate Baptists finally settled on the Southern frontiers, although they originated in New England. In those early decades of Baptist life in America, some women among the Regulars served as leaders in their churches, and they outnumbered the brethren in most churches. The more emotional Separates ordained some women as ministers. In the late eighteenth century, the two groups, though differing in social and cultural characteristics, merged as the United Baptists in 1787. Like women of other denominations, Baptist women were active in the Great Awakenings, the missionary movement, and the beginning of the Sunday School movement.

The study of Baptists by centuries makes it apparent that events of the nineteenth century would rend the United Baptists asunder; the issue of slavery ultimately divided Baptists in 1845. The two groups eventually became known as Southern and Northern Baptists, until the latter assumed the name American Baptists. In the nineteenth century, other events also influenced the lives of Baptist women, including the beginning of women's suffragist movements, in which some Baptist women participated, and the establishment of two Baptist women's colleges.

In other denominations, women were ordained during the nineteenth century, and some women, including Ann Lee of the Shakers, Mary Baker Eddy of the Church of Christ Scientist, and Ellen White of the Seventh-Day Adventists, began new sects. During this period, Baptist women became renowned for their remarkable efforts in missions at home and abroad, which was labeled as "women's work." The Judson wives, the Moon sisters, and countless others were among these unique feminists.

Then, as my teacher Miss Perkins would say, we left the century focus and moved to the analysis of the generations and the decades of the twentieth century. The first decade saw mass immigration and the factory movement, which heavily affected the roles of women; followed by the turbulent teens with World War I and the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment, which guaranteed women the right to vote. Thus, my grandmother and mother voted in national elections even before they were able to do so as messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Then came the Roaring 1920s, which was for some women the Flapper Decade, but not for Southern Baptist women who were finally allowed for the first time to present the WMU report at the SBC meeting but were still not allowed to participate as messengers, vote, or hold office. Even before the deep depression of the 1930s, women had moved into white-collar jobs, and the population shift to urban areas produced different Baptist church patterns. This shift occurred in the South somewhat later than in the North. In the 1940s, Baptist churches began hiring women to fill church staff positions. These women were generally referred to as directors of education, directors of music, or children workers. They were not called ministers. As men returned from World War II and headed for seminary, churches hired them to fill many of the non-pastoral staff positions. These men were given the title of minister, were readily ordained, and received retirement benefits that had not previously been available to non-pastoral staff members.

After completing seminary and serving on two church staffs, I returned to graduate school to prepare to teach in a Baptist college. That education convinced me of the significance of primary research, and through my years of teaching, my students were grounded in statistics and methods of research. Many of those students took advanced courses, including Sociology of Religion, in order to practice what they had learned. As I taught that course, my earliest students during the 1950s learned that a number of other evangelical bodies had preceded Baptists, particularly Southern Baptists, in recognizing the rights of women to attend seminary and to hold the title of minister and to be ordained. Frank Stagg, who would later come to our campus as visiting professor, observed that when he was in the seminary in the 1930s, women were not permitted to enroll in certain courses, but his wife was permitted to sit in some theology courses and take the exams. The course report would list the men by name and add that one unnamed woman made one of the few A's. When I was a seminary student in a later decade, I was allowed to audit some of the advanced theology courses and even take the pastoral care courses for credit under Wayne Oates, even though I was not planning to be a chaplain.

Baptist Women in America, 1950s-1960s

The 1950s saw the rise of Baby Boomers, some 77 million, in society and in church. During that decade, women, who had filled white-collar positions in church and society while men were serving in two wars began to express their dissatisfaction at now being closed out of the job market. They were no longer content with staying at home; nor were they satisfied with working only with missions and childhood education in their churches, as significant as those ministries were. Feminism began to influence church life just as it was influencing American society. The way was paved for new areas of leadership by such women as Georgia Harkness in Methodism, and by women in academic life, including Mary Daly, Phyllis Trible, and Rosemary Radford Reuther, who reinterpreted the teachings of Jesus and referred to his example in their speaking and writing about women in church and society.

In the 1950s, scattered Southern Baptist churches in Texas, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, and Virginia began to ordain women as deacons. Perhaps as many as 200 to 300 female deacons were ordained, but the Methodists, the two Presbyterian bodies, and the American Baptists ordained significantly more women to the office of deacon, and the Episcopalian church was ordaining women to be elders or priests. The Baptist churches that did ordain women deacons were often subject to expulsion from their associations.

The generation of the 1960s and 1970s produced significant rallying points for spiritual feminism. In 1963, the World Council of Churches went on record as opposing gender discrimination in the world of the church. The next year the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, ordained Addie Davis to the gospel ministry. Davis relocated to Vermont in order to find a Baptist church to pastor. In 1967, the United Nations Declaration on Women's Rights, a preamble with eleven articles, became a philosophical document affirmed by feminists, both in and out of the church. By this time, eighty Protestant bodies (large and small) supported the ordination of women, and the National Council of Churches (NCC) had affirmed women in ministry, an action that did not go unnoticed by Southern Baptist women, even though their denomination did not officially participate in the NCC.

By the 1960s, American Baptists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, and other denominations had elected women to head their national bodies, something Southern Baptists have yet to do. In 1963, the SBC did elect a woman, Marie Mathis, as second vice president. During the next two decades, two women, Myra Bates and Christine Gregory, were elected to serve the convention as first vice president. In my home state of Louisiana, I was the first woman to be elected as second vice president of the state convention. During this period, opposition to the election of female officers came from conservative women, who sought to introduce resolutions condemning such roles for women. The 1974 SBC meeting drafted several resolutions that dealt with women's roles, but all these resolutions were eventually tabled.

Baptist Women in America, 1970s-2005

By 1970, the estimate of all ordained women in evangelical denominations totaled 7,000. No wonder the status of women in religion was selected as the top religion story the next year. By the end of the 1970s, 4,000 women ministers were reported in the top ten evangelical bodies, with the Methodists and the American Baptists having the most. The number of women enrolled in seminaries paralleled the percentage found in schools of law, medicine, and business. Despite the increasing numbers of women in educational institutions, the ability of women to find employment had not improved.

In 1974, the SBC's Christian Life Commission (CLC) presented a motion to the convention that women make up at least 20 percent of the convention's committees and boards. That motion was defeated. A month later, the CLC sponsored a seminar at Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico. The conference title was "Christian Liberation for Contemporary Women." A popular book, Christian Freedom for Women and Other Human Beings, was published following the conference. The next year, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary devoted an issue of Review and Expositor to "Women and the Church." In 1976, William Hull, academic vice president at Southern Seminary, asked me to teach a summer course, which was to be called "Women's Liberation Movement and Women in the Church." Equal numbers of male and female students enrolled, and we even had a Presbyterian seminary student and a Catholic nun who participated in the course.

By the late 1970s, women had served on the SBC's Executive Committee and had served as vice president in several state conventions. More than 20 percent of the trustees of the Home and Foreign Mission Boards, the Christian Life Commission, and the Historical Commission were women. The overall participation of women in convention leadership roles eventually reached 13 percent, but this number later declined. (1) In 1975 and 1978, the SBC attempted to formulate a policy about women's ordination and/or participation in leadership roles, but these failed.

In the 1970s, almost every major evangelical body (including larger Baptist bodies) held national consultations on the role of women in church. When Southern Baptists held one, 300 representatives from agencies and institutions attended. At that meeting, participants learned that women held only about 25 percent of executive, administrative, or professional positions.

While few women were ordained in the 1960s, Leon McBeth, in his 1979 book Women in Baptist Life, reported that an estimated fifty-eight women had been ordained by Southern Baptist churches. (2) According to my own research, the number was closer to sixty-five. Many of these women were not serving as pastor. Some had been ordained in order to serve as chaplains, and others were serving in academic institutions as professors. About this time, I began to keep a file on those women, doing surveys of the ones on my list every few years until the file became very long. Ironically, as ultra-conservatism began to grow among the Baptists of the South in the late 1970s, as illustrated in the passage of rules limiting women's roles, a constant stream of newly ordained women emerged.

When the SBC met in New Orleans in 1982, the Woman's Missionary Union sponsored a meeting. The speaker at that occasion challenged clergywomen and laywomen to develop their own support system; as a result, Southern Baptist Women in Ministry (SBWIM) was founded. The organization formed both a national and many state-level bodies. SBWIM's publication of Folio and its regular meetings encouraged women even during a time of increasing fundamentalist control of the denomination. I have supported this organization as it has continued to lend encouragement to women in Baptist life and especially to female ministers.

From its beginning in 1987, the Alliance of Baptists, according to its executive director Stan Hastey, has been more a movement than an organization. First named the Southern Baptist Alliance, the organization within five years moved to establish an identity apart from the SBC. The Alliance has promoted the claim to deeper roots in the freedom movement associated with the seventeenth century. In 2005, the Alliance estimates a constituency of 125 churches, 60,000 persons, and 200 clergy. (3) The Alliance throughout its nearly twenty years of existence has been a strong supporter of women and has promoted women's rights.

Other Baptist groups, such as the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty (BJC), have also promoted the rights of women in the church. With some fifteen Baptist bodies supporting it, the BJC has spoken and continues to speak out on issues relating to church and state. Ten women served on the BJC board in 2004-2005. (4)

The last decade of the twentieth century saw continued increase in the number of ordained women, even by Southern Baptist churches. Obtaining information about these ordinations, however is difficult. Many state Baptist newspapers will not publish information about the ordination of women because they want to avoid having their editorial staff criticized. The growth and sophistication of the monthly newspaper, Baptists Today, has increased the dissemination of information about women's ordinations. On occasion, the editor of Baptists Today, John Pierce, has published a request for information about recent or new ordinations. His help has been a boon for my search for a more complete file on Baptist clergywomen in the South.

The founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) in 1991 dramatically increased the opportunities of women in local churches, professional positions, and missions. Approximately half of the elected and employed leadership positions in CBF are filled by women. Women have also filled numerous leadership roles in state CBF organizations. While some states offer wider support and greater opportunities for women in CBF-affiliated churches than do other states, female leadership and participation in CBF churches is growing.


To conclude, let me make some comparisons with recent developments in other evangelical bodies within the United States. Without challenge, the United Methodist Church has produced the most ordained women with approximately 11,000 clergywomen and 5,000 to 6,000 women serving as elders. The Methodists are the third largest religious body in the United States and in 2002 had approximately 8.2 million members. Nearly 8,300 of ordained Methodist clergy are women, and between 1,500 to 2,000 Methodist clergywomen serve at the local-church level, either in full- or part-time positions. Of the 1,299 chaplains endorsed by the Methodists, just over 235 are women, (5) compared to 196 women serving as Southern Baptist chaplains. (6) Of the 484 chaplains endorsed by CBF, 132 are women. (7)

The Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., with a membership of 3.2 million, has 4,152 clergywomen. In 2002, 15 percent of Presbyterian pastors and co-pastors were women, 40 percent of associate pastors were women, and fifty-three women pastored churches that have 500 or more members. (8) The Presbyterians began ordaining females elders in 1930 and female clergy in 1956.

At the close of the twentieth century, American Baptists had 1.4 million members, including almost 1,400 clergywomen, who represented about 21 percent of the ordained. Yet, only 9 percent of these ordained women were pastoring churches. American Baptists have just over 100 women chaplains. (9)

The Episcopal Church has just under 2.3 million members. During the twenty-four years that Episcopalians have ordained women, the number of ordained men has tended to decline while the number of clergywomen has increased. By 2002, 3,481 women had been ordained as Episcopalian priests or deacons, 25 percent of all active clergy were women, and eleven women were serving as bishops. (10)

Clergywomen who have been ordained by Southern Baptist or CBF-affiliated churches now number about 1,900, which leads me to estimate that Baptists in the South are moving steadily toward a 2,000 figure. One of the largest single professional ministerial roles for Baptist women in the South is the chaplaincy, with some 313 women serving in a variety of institutional, military, and community situations.

Now that we are in a new millennium, we have seen the retirements and deaths of a number of the first Baptist women to be ordained. We remain grateful for the pioneer efforts that these women made to a wide variety of ministries to which we give the earthly label of Baptist.

We also applaud the beginning work of the organization Global Women in this new century and acknowledge their liaison with some five Baptist bodies who concentrate on the problems of women in poverty, prostitution, poor health, and low social status. We remain equally grateful to laywomen, who may or may not serve as deacons, who continue to play leadership roles in local churches, our colleges and seminaries, and our larger Baptist organizations and boards. May God continue to bless them and us who appreciate them!

(1.) Leon McBeth, Women in Baptist Life (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1979), 122.

(2.) Ibid., 154-55.

(3.), accessed August 11, 2005.

(4.), accessed August 11, 2005.

(5.) See and chaplains/WhatsNewInfo.asp?articleID=36, accessed August 10, 2005.

(6.) See and postnuke/index.php?module htmlpages&func=display&pid=1371, accessed August 10, 2005.

(7.) See and, accessed August 10, 2005.

(8.), accessed August 10, 2005.

(9.), accessed August 10, 2005.

(10.) See and 040120b.php, accessed August 10, 2005.

Sarah Prances Anders is distinguished emeritus professor of sociology, Louisiana College, Pineville, Louisiana
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Author:Anders, Sarah Frances
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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