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Historian: women's place in Methodism inconsistent


MADISON, N.J. (UMNS) - Early Methodism may have accepted women's participation more than in subsequent years, according to a historian who has specialized in the topic.

Jean Miller Schmidt said John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement in England in the 18th century, did not feel he could authorize women preachers as the Quakers did in his time, but he extended "the extraordinary call" to them as well as to men.

He encouraged women to perform a diaconal role, often calling on them to be the "visitor of the sick," a specific office in the classes or small groups he created to foster the spiritual life of believers. Women were welcome to pray in public, witness and exhort, noted Schmidt in an address to the Fifth Historical Convocation Aug. 16, held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History.

Schmidt, the Gerald L. Schlessman professor of Methodist studies at United Methodist-related Iliff School of Theology, Denver, received the 2003 Distinguished Service Award for her contributions to United Methodist history. She is particularly interested in North American religious history of the 19th and 20th centuries. She is the author of Souls or the Social Order: the Two-Party System in American Protestantism and Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism.

Although women were pioneers in the Methodist movement, men held the institutional power and eventually told women that their place was in the home, she said.

Schmidt cited Mary L. Griffith of Mauch Chunk, Pa., who appealed to the General Conference - in writing because women were not allowed to speak. Like others, she felt called to preach but ordination was denied to women. She pointed out that women were two-thirds of the membership of the church and that women were being shut out of the functions of the church because of their gender.

"If God calls, how can the church refuse the call without coming into controversy with its divine master?" Schmidt quoted Griffith's message of 1880.

Today's ordained women "stand on the shoulders" of laywomen who struggled to serve, Schmidt said. She noted that the United Methodist Church, beginning in 1980, has elected 14 women bishops.

"We give thanks for all that has been accomplished," she said. "But the struggles still go on and go on."

During the commission meeting, the Rev. Justo L. Gonzalez was named to receive the 2004 Distinguished Service Award. Born in 1937 in Havana, Cuba, Gonzalez has taught at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico, Candler School of Theology and the Interdenominational Theological Center, both in Atlanta, and Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga. The author of more than 75 books, he edited the 14-volume Spanish edition of The Works of Wesley.

In other business, commission members voted to forward a resolution to the 2004 General Conference asking every annual conference and every congregation to celebrate 50 continuous years of full clergy rights for women in 2006.

The voting members also reviewed a resolution calling for establishment of an African-American Methodist Heritage Center, but after discussion decided to suggest an endowed position for a librarian at the church's present center on the Drew University campus. The librarian would preserve ethnic minority materials and make them broadly available to the church and the public.

Grants totaling $28,000 were awarded to assist in the ongoing maintenance of 11 heritage landmarks related to the history of the United Methodist Church.

Voting members also agreed to recommend to General Conference the addition of another such landmark. New Hope Baptist Church in Boston, formerly Tremont Street Methodist Church, was the site of the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church's Woman's Foreign Missionary Society in 1869.

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