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Sarah Frances Anders
Sarah Frances Anders

 

 

Anders and Kelley
Anders with her student Kyle Kelley

 

 

 


BAPTIST WOMEN WALKING TOGETHER: 1950-2000
by Sarah Frances Anders

Dr. Sarah Frances Anders, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Louisiana College has been a mentor and role model for countless women involved in ministry or other paths of service. Highly regarded for a long career of academic excellence, she is also known for generosity, great wit and style, and (speaking from personal experience) great patience with her students. This article is excerpted from a speech she gave to the Baptist History and Heritage Society annual meeting at Samford June 2-4, 2005. --(editor's note KK )

If Tom Brokaw were a Baptist woman, which generation would he deem the "greatest generation" for Baptist women? Would he go further back in centuries before the "Separatists" and the"Regulars" migrated to the American continent - or would it be one during the 20th century? We remember that "Separates" settled in the Southern frontiers while the "Regular" Baptists moved into the New England areas. They joined ranks in 1787 becoming the United Baptists, but being quite different in social and cultural characteristics, this union would fracture during the events of the next century - such as the suffragist movement and abolition of slavery. Their new labels would be Northern (later American)
Baptists and Southern Baptists.

Women in both groups would participate in the Great Awakenings, the missionary movement and the beginning of the Sunday School movement. During this century there would be Baptist colleges established for women. There would also be women like Ann Lee of the Shakers, Mary Baker Eddy of the Church of Christ Scientist, Ethel White of the Seventh-Day Adventists and others beginning new sects. Baptist women were becoming renowned for their efforts in missions at home and abroad - i.e. names such as the Judson wives, the Moon sisters were among these unique feminists.

Baptist women in the South, however, would get the right to vote by the end of the teens in the 20th century, before they would be allowed to speak or vote in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Even before the Deep Depression, SB women began to move into white collar jobs and by World War II when men were going into military service, SB women were taking on church staff positions, where they usually were referred to as directors of education, music or children--not ministers. When men returned from the wars and went to seminary and took on some of these positions, they were ordained, called ministers and open to retirement benefits which had not previously been available to non-pastoral staff. Women who attended seminary received degrees in religious education and did not take advanced courses in theology.

As the l950's saw the increase in population with 77 million Baby Boomers, women began to exhibit feminism in more than missions and childhood education--as did Georgia Harkness in Methodism and others like Mary Daly, Phyllis Trible, Rosemary Reuter in restating the teachings and examples of Jesus as they wrote and spoke about the roles of women in church and society Scattered SB churches had begun to ordain women deacons in Texas, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri and Virginia--probably as many as 2-300, but not to the extent that Methodists, the two Presbyterian bodies, American Baptists did --or the Episcopalians did elders or priests. Baptist churches that did were often subject to expulsion from their associations.

The middle generation or two decades of these last 50 years produced significant rallying points for spiritual feminism. In 1963 the World Council of Churches went on record as opposing sex discrimination in the sphere of the church. The next year the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina ordained Addie Davis (thus last year they celebrated a significant anniversary.) She went to Vermont to pastor a church.

In 1967 the United Nations Declaration on Women's Rights, a preamble with 11 articles became a philosophical stance for feminists, in and out of the church. By this time there were 80 Protestant bodies (large and small) that supported the ordination of women.

Although Southern Baptists were not participants in the National Council of Churches, the affirmation of that body toward women did not go unnoticed by Baptist women. Although Southern Baptists would not match American Baptists, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ and others in eventually electing women to head their conferences, by 1963, the first woman, Marie Mathis would be named 2nd Vice President of the SBC, followed in the next two decades by Myra Bates, and then Christine Gregory as lst Vice President. In this period my home state LA would elect a woman vice president. But during this period some opposition would come from conservative women about such roles for women. The 1974 SBC was one of several in which debate on the roles of women in the SBC would be most virulent, but such resolutions were eventually tabled.

By 1970 the total estimate of all ordained women was 7,000 throughout evangelical bodies. Thus, small wonder that the status of women in religion was the top religion story of the next year. By the end of the 1970's, 4,000 women ministers were reported in the top ten evangelical bodies...led by Methodists and American Baptists. The number of women enrolled in seminaries paralleled the percentage in schools of law, medicine and the like--finding equal employment was another matter.

In 1974, the Christian Life Commission presented a motion to the SBC that at least 20% of committees and boards be women, but it would be defeated. A month later that Commission sponsored a seminar at Glorieta Conference Center on "Christian Liberation for Contemporary Women". An outgrowth was a book "Christian Freedom for Women and Other Human Beings".

The next year, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary devoted an entire issue of its Review and Expositor to "Women and the Church." The next summer Dr. William Hull, the seminary's Vice President, would schedule a summer course, "The Women's Liberation Movement and Women in the Church." Equal numbers of males and females enrolled, plus a Presbyterian seminary student and a Catholic nun--a good way to celebrate 1776!

By the late l970's, women had served on the Executive Committee of the SBC, as well as vice presidents of several state conventions. More than 20% of the Home and Foreign Mission boards, the Christian Life Commission and the Historical Commission were women. The overall participation of women reached 13% for a time, but later declined. In 1975 and 1978 attempts to formulate SBC policies about women's ordination and/or leadership roles failed. Almost every major evangelical body (including some Baptist ones) had held national consultations on the role of women in church, when 300 from SBC agencies/institutions finally met. What became apparent: only about 25% of Baptist women held executive, administrative or professional roles, although about 50% were qualified for such positions.
In the decade of Addie Davis' ordination (1960's), few SB women were ordained;

Leon Macbeth reported in his 1979 book an estimated 58 ordained SB women--my files confirmed 65 by then. Most did not intend to be pastors, but needed ordination to become chaplains or planned on other roles. My research began in the 1960's, and included surveys of these women every few years until I retired. As ultra-conservatism began to grow among Baptists of the South, ironically a constant stream of newly ordained women appeared.

In 1982, the SBC met in New Orleans and the W.M.U. sponsored a dinner at which the speaker challenged both clergy women and laywomen to become their own support system for ministries and roles in the denomination. Soon the Southern Baptist Women in Ministry formed (later the BWIM) and gave strength both on the national and state levels. Their publication FOLIO and their meetings reinforced them against the growing fundamentalism in the denomination. They have grown beyond the number of clergywomen in other Baptist denominations.

From the beginning of the Alliance of Baptists in 1987, its Executive Director Stan Hastey has maintained that it has been more a movement than an organization. Within five years it established an identity apart from the SBC, claiming deeper roots in the freedom movement of the 17th century. It estimates a constituency of 125 churches, 60,000 persons, and 200 clergy and gives recognition to clergywomen. Other groups, such as the Baptist Joint Committee in Washington DC (representing some 15 of the known 19 Baptist bodies) have supported the rightful status of women, having eight women now on their board, and often serving as officers.

The last decade saw continued increase in the number of ordained women, though it became difficult to get their names through state papers. The growth and support of Baptists Today under John Pierce has been helpful to keeping accurate files of ordained women. The founding of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991 increased the opportunities of women in lay and clergy roles at home and abroad...in a variety of roles on the national and local levels.

In closing, note these comparisons with certain evangelical bodies. United Methodists lead out with approximately 11,000 clergywomen and 5-6,000 serving as elders. Their 8.5 million size puts them 3rd behind Roman Catholics and Southern Baptists. They have 210 women chaplains, compared to at least 420 SB women and 484 CBF ordained women who serve as chaplains and pastoral counselors.
Presbyterians USA, with a membership of over 2.4 million have about 4,152 clergywomen, with 53 pastoring churches of 500 or more. They began ordaining women elders in 1930, clergy women in 1956. American Baptists have passed 1.5 million, with almost 1,400 clergywomen, who represent about 21% of the ordained, but only about 9% of their pastors. They have just over 100 women chaplains. Episcopalians have just under 2.5 million members, with just over 2,000 women priests, 17% of the total and 12 women bishops in the U.S.

Women who have been ordained in Southern Baptist or CBF related churches near 1,900 in my files, which leads me to estimate we move steadily toward a 2,000 figure. Some of these have moved to other denominations. Approximately 37 serve as copastors. The largest groups serve as chaplains in institutional, military, and community roles. After 5 decades and in a new millennium, we have seen the retirement and death of a number of those early ordained.

In this new century, we applaud the beginning work of Global Women, as they are in liaison with some five Baptist bodies who concentrate on the problems of women in poverty, prostitution, poor health and low social status. We are 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, our larger Baptist organizations and boards. May God continue to bless them and us who appreciate them!