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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 Bradfield.

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 soldier.

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 conference.

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 rights.

"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."

Long overdue

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.

New library

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 world.

"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 colonialism."

The Rev. H. Sharon Howell, president of Scarritt-Bennett Center, welcomes participants to the conference.

The Scarritt-Bennett conference was part of the church’s continuing education.

"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 newsdesk@umcom.org.


Dana L. Robert, Professor, Boston University School of Theology: "What do Methodist women have in common …"

Dana L. Robert, Professor, Boston University School of Theology: "When I travel to Africa …"

The Rev. H. Sharon Howell, President, Scarritt-Bennett Center: "I have always said …"

Jan Love, Dean, Candler School of Theology: "I hope to God on many things …"

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