|Methodists swap stories of fearless women of faith|
Stories of Methodist women of faith across the generations are exchanged
and celebrated during the "Struggle, Faith and Vision" conference at
Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tenn. UMNS photos by Maile
By Marta W. Aldrich
April 2, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
Keynote speaker Dana L. Robert tells stories of outstanding
church women. "These testimonies – our stories of struggle, faith and
vision – are the threads that weave our common identity as Methodist
women across time and space."
A tiny, working-class woman in a plain brown dress, Mary Nind had a
titanic faith and a genuine call to testify after God led her and her
five children through the Civil War while her husband fought as a Union
When her congregational church threatened Nind with expulsion for
speaking aloud about her deepening experiences of God’s grace, she
joined the Methodists of St. Charles, Ill., where a friend told her
"there is more liberty for women to exercise their gifts."
That change had "profound implications for the next century of
Methodism" – and Nind’s subsequent ministry reflects the rich heritage
of women’s impact on Methodism and social reforms in the United States
and the world, according to Dana Robert, a professor at Boston
University School of Theology.
Nind’s story is one of dozens shared March 9-11 about women in
Methodism at a conference called "Struggle, Faith and Vision:
Celebrating Women in the United Methodist Tradition," held at
Scarritt-Bennett Center, where a new research library is dedicated to
the study of organized lay women in mission in the Methodist tradition.
Conscience of Methodism
Conference participants celebrated women throughout generations as the
conscience of Methodism and the prophetic voice of the church – whether
called to ministry as clergy or lay people and despite the obstacles of
poverty and prejudice.
However, they worried The United Methodist Church may lose that
conscience if the stories and struggles of outstanding church women are
not remembered and passed down to inspire future generations of women.
"We’ve got to be more intentional about nurturing the next
generation," said Robert, who gave the opening address to the
According to Robert, Methodist women in ministry have been effective
historically because of their authentic relationship with Jesus Christ –
and often in spite of a church organizational structure that did not
recognize their right to preach until 1956.
"… The essence of our identity lies not in structures, or ordination status, or the Book of Discipline,
or race, or wealth, or nationality, but in the continuity of testimony
from the earliest days of Methodism in England, to the United States,
and to world Methodism in the 21st Century," she said.
Such testimonies are consistent with the biblical accounts of women
who "were the last at the tomb and the first to witness to the
resurrection," she said. "Didn’t the Samaritan woman, Mary Magdalene,
Phoebe, Dorcas, Priscilla and other followers of Christ act as
evangelists, teachers and church leaders?"
Stories of faith
In her opening address, Robert described Mary Nind as a lay woman who
insisted on giving a testimony that grew out of her struggle as an
impoverished single parent during wartime. Nind became the organizer of
women’s mission societies throughout the western United States,
traveling by train, stagecoach and foot and speaking in camp meetings,
revivals and churches. In 1877 alone, she traveled 7,000 miles and was
home only 15 weeks.
But in 1888, despite receiving the most votes from the Minnesota
Annual Conference to attend General Conference, Nind sat out when the
church’s highest lawmaking body refused to seat women. She continued to
travel and speak out on social justice issues including liquor, women’s
rights and foot-binding.
"Anybody who goes to church every Sunday
knows that women in the Methodist tradition are extremely central to the
life of the church at every level. We need to keep alive scholarly
exploration of women’s history within a religious tradition."
–Norma Taylor Mitchell
The story of Dr. Louise Branscomb, a physician in Birmingham, Ala.,
was also shared. A Methodist lay woman active in the church at the
local, national and international levels from the 1950s to the 1980s,
Branscomb was outspoken on issues of race, women’s rights and laity
"She was tenacious, articulate and fearless," said Norma Taylor
Mitchell, professor emerita of history at Troy University. "And it was
not easy for her as a woman in both the field of medicine and as a lay
person in The United Methodist Church. Louise was really hated by many
Methodists in Birmingham. They regarded her as a troublemaker."
The church’s last women’s history conference, held in 1980 in
Cincinnati, was sponsored by the United Methodist Commission on Archives
and History and was the first to focus on the heritage of women in a
major U.S. denomination. Papers and books produced out of the conference
became the foundation for Methodist women’s history in the church.
"It’s been 27 years since the last one, and this is long overdue,"
said Mitchell, who helped to organize the Cincinnati gathering. "Anybody
who goes to church every Sunday knows that women in the Methodist
tradition are extremely central to the life of the church at every
level. We need to keep alive scholarly exploration of women’s history
within a religious tradition."
Mitchell said the church historically has invested little time and
resources in scholarly research about Methodist women. "We lax back into
male domination very quickly if some group isn’t intentional in seeing
that women have a voice both historically and in the present," she said.
About 100 scholars, church leaders, students and others attended the
Nashville event, which was sponsored by Scarritt-Bennett in partnership
with Middle Tennessee State University’s Department of History.
"This gathering needed to happen because we have a lot of new thought
and new names and new faces and we want to expand the base of interest
and passion for women’s history in the church," said the Rev. H. Sharon
Howell, president of Scarritt-Bennett.
Jane Arterburn (left) and Jane Bucher peruse selections in the newly
dedicated Virginia Davis Laskey Research Library, dedicated to the study
of organized Methodist lay women in mission.
The conference opened in conjunction with the dedication of the
Virginia Davis Laskey Research Library. Named for a former director of
the church’s Woman’s Division of Christian Service, the library includes
the minutes, publications and other historic documents of organized
societies of lay women for mission; mission work told through the
journals and personal writings of women missionaries; the mission and
study publications of the Women’s Division of the United Methodist Board
of Global Ministries; and personal papers from women leaders in the
United Methodist tradition.
"I’ve always said … that the lay women’s organizations do the best
mission studies of anybody I know," said Howell. "… I think the same has
been true of the way in which they have been on the cutting edge of
most of the justice issues, not only in the United States but in the
"For some reason, we seem to be at a moment in our culture where we
have kind of lost some of those courageous voices. The Scarritt-Bennett
Center will be one of those places where education and empowerment of
women continues and those prophetic voices are nurtured."
Strength in education
Conference participants heralded a Methodist emphasis on education as
having profound implications for women in the church, noting that by
the late 1800s, Methodists had founded more co-educational academies,
schools and colleges than any other denomination in the United States.
That impact continues today.
"When I travel in Africa, I can often recognize Methodist women
because of their confidence that in Christ they are equal to men, and
they attribute their educations to Methodism," said Robert. "Grachel
Machel, for example, former first lady of Mozambique and wife of Nelson
Mandela, has often said publicly that her Methodist education trained
her for leadership that helped Mozambique to move beyond Portuguese
The Scarritt-Bennett conference was part of the church’s continuing education.
The Rev. H. Sharon Howell, president of Scarritt-Bennett Center, welcomes participants to the conference.
"It’s been a real eye-opener," said Lisa Fagerstrom, 47, who attends
Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass. "It makes me
proud to be a Methodist."
Amy Beth Hougland, a student at Duke Divinity School, said hearing
the stories of other Methodist women strengthened her own desire to be
ordained in The United Methodist Church.
"I don’t take for granted the women who paved the way for me to do
that," said Hougland, 36. "These stories connect us through the years
and form who we are as women in the Methodist tradition."
*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service
News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com.
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