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First woman ordained 150 years ago

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September, 2003

September 15th will mark the 150th anniversary of the ordination of Antoinette Brown – the first woman to be ordained into ministry in a mainline Protestant denomination in North America.

And while many in the United Church of Christ today look back on that event as a joyous milestone in the life of the church, some people at the time saw no reason to celebrate.

In fact, Brown had to have a Methodist pastor preach her ordination sermon because no Congregational minister was willing. As the ordination drew near, Brown wrote a friend saying “people are beginning to stop laughing, and get mad.”

And, according to Douglas Showalter, who is researching women in ministry, Brown’s ordination was not recognized by her denomination, only by the church in South Butler, New York, that ordained her.

“Her ordination was apparently an autonomous act of the local church. No council was involved,” said Showalter, senior pastor of the First Congregational Church UCC in Falmouth.

Brown only stayed in ministry at the South Butler church for 10 months, then didn’t return to ministry for several decades.

“It’s tempting to imagine that the great new initiatives in our history have always been embraced by the church, applauded by a well honed consensus, endorsed by the majority in pulpit and pew,” said UCC General Minister and President John Thomas at a recent address. “We would do well to remember not merely her courage, but also the opposition she experienced.”

According to Showalter, women started to gain acceptance into mainstream ministry in the late 1880s – 30 years after Antoinette Brown blazed the trail.

“I’ve gone through Congregational yearbooks and magazines of the period, and have found 47 women ordained between 1889 and 1901,” Showalter said. “These women were all ordained by council, not autonomous acts of churches.”

Showalter said that unlike Antoinette Brown, these women were fairly well received.
“I’ve been reading accounts of their lives, and over and over I’m seeing very positive comments,” he said. “A number served as evangelists, in addition to being pastors. I’m sure everybody didn’t accept women in ministry, but for a number of them I’m finding glowing affirmations in print.”

Showalter said most of the women were married or were widows, and had either husbands or fathers in the ministry. Some were pioneers in the home missionary field, traveling by horseback to spread the Good News.

“These women were good speakers, and apparently the freedom of being an evangelist and itinerant worked well for some of them,” he said.

New England, Showalter says, was behind other areas of the country in ordaining women. That may be partially due to higher educational standards here, as women were not allowed into most seminaries.

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