Nevertheless, She Preached

by Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff

Author’s Statement Added on 3/27/2021

This article was clarified on 3/27/2021 at the request of the author, myself Ashley B. Dreff. In attempts to be more intentionally inclusive of Black Methodist women, I was unintentionally exclusive of Black Methodist denominational histories. I embodied the white Methodism that I was attempting to dismantle. For this, I take full responsibility and offer my clarifications and sincerest apologies. Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth were members of the African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion denominations, respectively. These denominations left the Methodist Episcopal Church in the early nineteenth-century because of the white supremacy and racist biblical interpretations of white Methodist clergy and lay persons. Their legacies live on in those denominations today. It was wrong of me to explicitly name “United Methodism” without also naming African Methodist Episcopal and African Methodist Episcopal Zion. In true Wesleyan spirit, I will seek to continue to strive for perfection when it comes to detailing and honoring our pasts.

“O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God.” — Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, 1849

From the pulpit to the podium, from the preaching circuit to the campaign trail, Methodist women have broken barrier upon barrier, ensuring not only their successes but the successes of future generations. The handful of women highlighted in these next few paragraphs skim the surface of those who have changed the religious and political landscapes, primarily in the United States. There are countless others whose stories have yet to be told or uncovered. But as we celebrate Women’s History month, let us acknowledge the persistence of these women.

Jarena Lee, member of the African Methodist Episcopal church, felt a call to preach twice in her life. When she informed Bishop Allen after experiencing her first call, he told her that the church Discipline, “did not call for women preachers.” Jarena was actually relieved by this information as it removed the social burden from her of becoming a public figure in a time when women were demeaned for daring to step out of their so-called “proper place.” She wrote, “This I was glad to hear, because it removed the fear of the cross.” However, her call to ministry came again. 

In her journal she recollects her second call, a call which came eight years later. She was listening to Rev. Richard Williams preach at Mother Bethel on Jonah 2:9, and, as she records, “he seemed to have lost the spirit.” In this moment, she writes, “I sprang, as by altogether supernatural impulse, to my feet, when I was aided from above to give an exhortation on the very text which my brother Williams had taken.” The words that proceed from her mouth describe her relationship to the text and her denial of her call to preach eight years prior. Upon recollection of her testimony she writes, “During the exhortation, God made manifest [God’s] power in a manner sufficient to show the world that I was called to labour according to my ability, and the grace given unto me, in the vineyard of the good husbandman.” She felt God’s power residing in her, leading her to this moment. When she was finished exhorting, she recalls, “I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop [Allen] rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that he now as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present. These remarks greatly strengthened me, so that my fears of having given an offense, and made myself liable as an offender, subsided, giving place to a sweet serenity, a holy joy of a peculiar kind, untasted in my bosom until then.” Despite being told originally that she wasn’t allowed to preach, Jarena listened to and embodied the Spirit of God for nevertheless, Jarena preached. 

When asked about the history of women preaching within the Methodist tradition or within the Christian tradition, I always turn to the story of Jarena Lee. She was a free Black woman living at the beginning of the nineteenth-century. She feels a call to preach but knows deep down that embodying that call is dangerous for it would place her as a social outcast, as someone who dares to believe that they have the authority to speak on behalf of God in a public setting. She is relieved when she’s told by her Bishop that she isn’t allowed to preach. But the Spirit doesn’t leave her. For eight years she resists this call until she can no longer do so. And when she lives into that call, she is actually supported by the very Bishop who had previously told her it was improper. 

Jarena’s story is a rare one. It was quite rare to have male religious authorities actually support women preaching.

This story, in my eyes, relates to the story of other Methodist women (and non-Methodist women) who have been told that they are not qualified to be leaders, who have been ridiculed for dreaming big dreams, who have been told to sit down and shut-up. For how often, even in 2021, are women told that they are not good enough to be leaders? That they’re too assertive, too ambitious, or too shy and home-like? That their sex is not becoming of a preacher? That they are not pretty enough to occupy a pulpit or that they are too pretty to occupy a pulpit? That their very presence (i.e. their bodies) is too distracting for persons to focus on God? How often are women told that they are to be submissive to their husbands, because that’s what Scripture dictates. Or does it?

For millennia, women have been intentionally written out of the Christian narrative. Their submissive roles have been assigned to them by the leaders of society and by those who write history—not by biblical mandates. Their theologies, stories, missions, calls, and contributions have been pushed aside, deemed improper, unauthoritative, unimportant. But women have continued on. They kept writing, kept preaching, kept calling others to God. They maintained missions, wrote declarations, gave speeches. They occupied pulpits, legislatures, and homes.

In more recent memory, Senator Elizabeth Warren, a proud United Methodist, was speaking against the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions to become Attorney General. In response to her speech, Senator Mitch McConnell, who was at the time Senate Majority Leader, invoked a rule to silence Sen. Warren saying, “Sen. Warren was giving a lengthy speech . . . . She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Jarena, too, was warned, given an explanation, and nevertheless she, too, persisted for nevertheless, she preached.

Countless Methodist women have had this experience when called to preach, and they, too, have persisted in their ministries, whether those ministries are in the pulpit, the mission field, the episcopacy, or the political arena. 

Susanna Wesley, the mother of Methodism, was told to be silent, to stop leading. While her husband, Samuel, was on a trip to London, Samuel left their parish in the hands of Rev. Inman. Finding his sermons lacking sustenance, Susanna began hosting Sunday afternoon gatherings in her home where songs were sung, psalms read, and Susanna preached. Word got out about Susanna’s so-called inappropriate religious meetings, and she wrote a letter to Samuel to try to get ahead of the news. In his reply, he asked her to cease the meetings. She responded, “If after all this you think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send your positive command in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting this opportunity for doing good when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, she felt called to preach in her husband’s absence and wanted to ensure that if she stopped that he would be held responsible for impeding the Spirit of God, not her. Nevertheless, Susanna preached.

The spirit of God manifesting itself in and through women continued into the nineteenth-century. An enslaved woman had an immense religious experience at a Methodist camp meeting that resulted in her taking the name, Sojourner Truth, and aligning herself with the African Methodist Episcopal Zion tradition. After escaping slavery, she joined the woman’s suffrage lecture circuit where she gave one of the most memorable speeches of her time. In Ain’t I a Woman? Sojourner calls out the different ways that white women and Black women were treated. She criticized the way that men repeatedly go out of their way to help white women but Black women are left to their own accord. Despite this egregious misogynoir, Sojourner’s point in the speech is to address the inconsistencies that men made about women not deserving equal rights before the law because Jesus was a man. She says, “Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.” She continues, “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.” In these few lines, Sojourner Truth connects the stories of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Eve, the alleged-first sinner. She connects the two most powerful women in the Scriptures. She uses these references to show that no matter what, women in the nineteenth century, would persist, and in their persistence the world might once again be made right.

Anna Howard Shaw felt a call to preach while a teenager. Her family threatened to disown her is she dared live into that call. But she couldn’t resist. She enrolled in Boston School of Theology, the only woman of her class. The men who studied alongside her were given free room and board and a guaranteed appointment. Anna was not. She had to pay for her apartment, find her own food, and hope that she would be paid in cash, not compliments (or insults) for her preaching. In her autobiography, she recalls overcoming the fear of starvation for the sake of her call to ministry. Anna went on to also earn a medical degree and to be president of the National American for Woman Suffrage Association. She is one of the first women ordained in the Methodist tradition. After graduating Boston School of Theology, the Methodist Episcopal Church refused her ordination, based solely on her gender. She transferred to the Methodist Protestant tradition where her ordination was granted in 1880. Despite being treated so differently from her male peers, Anna preached.

These women’s persistence paved the way for others. One hundred years after Anna, in 1980, Marjorie Matthews was the first woman elected Bishop in The United Methodist Church and in a mainline Protestant denomination. In later interviews, Bishop Matthews recalled the obstacles that she had to overcome, not as a Bishop, but as a female preacher: “They would tell people in my church they were going to hell for having a woman minister.” But, nevertheless, she preached.

Lifting as she climbed, Bishop Matthews broke the stained-glass ceiling for others like Leontine T. Kelly, the first Black woman elected Bishop. Bishop Kelly recalled a story from her baptism when the Bishop who baptized her said, ““How I wish you were a boy, so that my mantle could fall on you.” In 1983, the then Rev. Kelly was endorsed as a candidate for the episcopacy, but was not nominated for this role by her home jurisdiction, the Southeast. It was the Western Jurisdiction that had the courage to break barriers, electing Bishop Leontine Kelly as the second woman and first woman of color to serve as bishop. Bishop Kelly lived into the notion that the work of the Spirit, the call of God, knows no barriers, those of gender or of jurisdiction.

Methodist women in the political sphere have also moved mountains and broken ceilings. In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton, another proud United Methodist, was the first woman nominated to run for President of the United States as the candidate of a major political party. On her campaign trail, she often quoted John Wesley and credited her Methodist upbringing with the phrase, “do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” In her work as Senator and as Secretary of State, Clinton centered the care of women and girls around the globe, again living into a Methodist mandate and Methodist emphasis. Her groundbreaking nomination paved the way for other women to seek and hold this high-office, women like, now, Vice President Kamala Harris, the first Black and South Asian woman to hold an office this high in the United States (but certainly not the last!). Like others before them, Kamala and Hillary faced undue pressure and high expectations. They were judged prior to opening their mouths based solely on their gender, and in Kamala’s case, the color of their skin. They knew going into debates or speeches that every word and movement would be judged not for its merits (or lack thereof) but because a woman dare say it. Women approaching the political stage or the pulpit face the same stigma, the same high standard, the same pre-conceived notions. They have to intentionally, and gracefully, claim their space. This is perhaps no more apparent than when, after repeated interruptions, Kamala dared tell, then, Vice President Mike Pence, “I’m Speaking.” 

“I’m speaking.” Those two small words spoke volumes. With them, Kamala claimed her place, her space on the podium. She insisted that she be heard. Kamala spoke these words with a smile on her face and with a steady, assertive sense of place. It should be noted that these words of hers came in stark contrast to the invective rife on both sides during the presidential debate, overtly enacting white privilege as a white male speaking to another while male while on a public stage. Nevertheless, Kamala spoke her truth. 

Many things strike me as I reflect on these women, Methodist and non. But one thing that certainly sticks out is their ambition. Susanna, Jarena, Sojourner, Leontine, Hillary, Elizabeth, and Kamala all faced obstacles in their lives particularly when it came to their speaking in public. They were told to sit down, to shut-up, to assume their “proper place.” But they didn’t. They were called. They preached. They persisted. And now it’s our turn to pick up where they left off and to continue to find our own places and spaces to persist and say, “I’m speaking.”


Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. She is the author of Nevertheless: American Methodists and Women’s Rights (2020) and Entangled: A History of Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (2018). Dreff earned her PhD from Drew Theological School’s Graduate Division of Religion, specializing in both Methodist/Wesleyan Studies and Women’s/Gender Studies. She earned an M.A. from the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, specializing in American Religious History. She has previously worked as staff at the General Commission on Archives and History (2012-2014) and the Connectional Table of The United Methodist Church (2014-2016). She was the Director of United Methodist Studies and Assistant Professor Christian History at Hood Theological Seminary (Salisbury, NC), an AME Zion Seminary, from 2017-2019 and was the Director of Women’s and Gender Studies and Assistant Professor of Religion at High Point University (High Point, NC) from 2019-2020. Dreff is a lay member of the Arkansas Annual Conference and the daughter of two ordained United Methodist ministers. Her Methodist lineage dates beyond this, back to the early 19th century when her great-great-great grandfathers were Methodist circuit-riders.

Methodists and the Struggle for Women’s Suffrage

by Rev. Dr. Susan Lyn Moudry

There is a well-known song from Mary Poppins that rings out like a battle cry: “Cast off the shackles of yesterday! Shoulder to shoulder into the fray! Our daughters’ daughters will adore us, and they’ll sing in grateful chorus, ‘Well done! Well Done! Well done, Sister Suffragette!’” Although the song was written with England in mind, it seems fitting to recall as the United States marks the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The amendment, adopted on August 26, 1920, was the culmination of a century-long struggle to secure women’s right to vote. United Methodists might wonder what role the church played in that fight. Many know that Methodists have a long history of strong, leading women. Susanna Wesley, John and Charles’ mother, is often called the mother of Methodism for her role in teaching and spiritually forming her children. John Wesley accepted laywomen preachers and class leaders. In America, names like Barbara Heck, Phoebe Palmer, and Fanny Crosby quickly come to mind. In fact, American Methodists played a crucial role in the advancement of women in the nineteenth century. While there is much history of Methodist involvement with the women’s suffrage movement left to uncover, Methodists did play a significant role in securing women the right to vote. Knowing some of this history is critical to a full understanding of Methodist DNA.

Historians typically trace the beginning of an organized women’s suffrage movement in the United States to the Seneca Falls Convention in July 1848. This convention, held in Seneca Falls, New York, marks the first women’s rights convention. In terms of Methodist connections, there are few in this era. However, the convention took place inside the Wesleyan Chapel, built in 1843. This chapel was part of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, a denomination which had split from the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1842 over the issues of slavery and church governance. Wesleyanism at large, then, was involved from the outset of the movement.

Although most were not early participants in the struggle for women’s suffrage, Methodists did lay groundwork throughout the nineteenth century that contributed to the advancement of women broadly speaking. This background in and of itself could fill a book,[i] but some highlights are worth mentioning in order to understand the context in which Methodist participation in women’s suffrage occurred. Higher education, for example, became a significant focus for Methodists in the nineteenth century. Part of this emphasis included the promotion of women’s higher education, which was viewed as part of Methodism’s evangelistic and social responsibility. Coeducational institutions also began to form, particularly in the Midwest, and these places encouraged the development of a new social group in American society. Kristin Bloomberg indicates that, “By establishing coeducational colleges…Methodists created a transitional social space…that allowed for the identification of women as a political class.”[ii]

As mentioned previously, women like Hannah Pearce Reeves (Methodist Protestant Church) and Lydia Sexton (United Brethren Church), acted as traveling preachers in the early 1800s. Periodicals began to be developed specifically targeting women audiences. The Ladies’ Repository founded in 1841, is a prime Methodist example. Additionally, Methodist women continued to move more into public roles through a variety of women’s organizations founded after the Civil War. These included groups like the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS), Women’s Home Missionary Society, the Deaconess movement, and the Ladies’ and Pastors’ Christian Union (L&PCU). In fact, by 1872 the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) created a Committee on Woman’s Work in the Church, officially supporting the WFMS and L&PCU. Although still limited, Methodists were creating an environment in which women and men were able to engage with the evolving role of women in American society.

Perhaps one of the most significant developments for Methodist involvement with women’s suffrage was the formation of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in 1874. The WCTU was not an official Methodist organization, but there is a clear relationship stemming from the early leaders. Annie Wittenmyer, first president of the WCTU, was a Methodist and also had been the first leader of the L&PCU. In 1879, Frances Willard became the second president. She, too, was a Methodist. The WCTU quickly became the largest women’s organization in the country with a mission to reform both church and society. Although temperance was a primary goal, suffrage soon became a method of addressing the issue. The 1876 General Conference of the MEC supported temperance and encouraged the creation of temperance societies in all congregations and Sunday Schools. Likewise, many Methodist women supported the WCTU and participated in its endeavors. Quickly, temperance and suffrage went hand-in-hand. From this point on, leading Methodist women and men were directly involved in the battle to secure the vote. While not all Methodists supported women’s suffrage, Methodists had created a space for women’s participation and voice in the public sphere.

Frances Willard, a central figure in the women’s suffrage movement at the end of the nineteenth century, was the first woman to be depicted in Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol.  She joined the MEC after her family moved to Wisconsin. Willard worked in higher education, serving as president for Evanston College for Ladies. When the college was subsumed under the umbrella of Northwestern University she became the first Dean of Women at Northwestern, a Methodist-affiliated school in Evanston, Illinois. Willard credited the Methodist church for her later commitments to temperance and suffrage, writing, “Much do I owe to a Methodist training and the social usages of my grand old mother church.”[iii] Methodist women-led Willard into the temperance crusade and as she became more informed, Willard indicated she felt the need to move from passive to aggressive for the cause, an idea she encouraged in others through her teaching.[iv] Through her work in temperance, Willard determined she needed to enter into the issue of enfranchisement for women. By her account, God spoke to her while she was on her knees in prayer saying, “You are to speak for woman’s ballot as a weapon of protection to her home and tempted loved ones from the tyranny of drink.”[v] After that encounter, Willard began speaking regularly about suffrage, even against the advice of her friends like Wittenmeyer. By the time Willard became president of the WCTU in 1879, she believed that the ballot issue was “part and parcel of the temperance movement.”[vi] For Willard, giving women the ballot meant protecting the home from the very real societal dangers which alcohol presented. She is largely responsible for the shift in using “Home Protection” to convince the average woman to support the idea of women’s right to vote. In fact, when traveling in the South attempting to gain momentum, Willard found, “The Methodist church is in the van, and here I found my firmest friends.”[vii] Bishops even advocated alongside her. Soon the WCTU adopted the “Do Everything Policy,” as they not only worked for temperance but also issues surrounding legislation and the right to vote.

Willard’s voice was critical in the fight for women’s suffrage, but her mother church was not always as welcoming as she envisioned. In 1888, the Rock River Conference in Illinois elected Willard as a lay delegate to General Conference. Four other women were also elected by their respective conferences; however, all were denied a seat. Women’s representation was an issue that received increasing denominational attention; yet, women were not seated at General Conference until 1904 in the MEC. Willard held out hope for her denomination, believing that a church that educated women and worked for their advancement would in time realize equality of women was necessitated, even in terms of ordination.[viii]

Another key Methodist leader for women’s suffrage at the end of the nineteenth century was Anna Howard Shaw. Shaw was a graduate of Boston University School of Theology and applied to the New England Conference of the MEC for ordination in 1880. When this was denied, Shaw was ordained by the Methodist Protestant Church at the New York Annual Conference. However, by 1885 she was devoting all her energy to the work of temperance and suffrage. Shaw worked alongside suffrage leaders like Susan B. Anthony, whom she called, “Aunt Susan,” and Elizabeth Cady Stanton on campaigns throughout the 1890s. Shaw was also a frequently requested speaker, once debating James Buckley, a fierce antagonist of women’s suffrage and editor of the influential Methodist paper, the New York Christian Advocate. Buckley lost the debate according to Shaw because of his poor temperament; in fact, Shaw recalls that her friends referred to the event as “the day we wiped up the earth with Dr. Buckley.”[ix] Shaw led the National American Women’s Suffrage Association as President from 1904-1915. For Shaw, working for women’s right to vote was not only an issue of equality and justice but also represented her greatest ambitions in life.[x] The subject is a focus of her autobiography. Interestingly, Shaw recalls that once, when Susan B. Anthony introduced her to a crowd, Anthony said, “I am glad you are a Methodist, for now they cannot claim that we are not orthodox.”[xi] Anthony and many of the earliest leaders in the movement were Quakers, and the impression given is that Methodism garnered the movement respectability. This influence, along with Willard’s appeal to suffrage being an issue connected to the home, helped move the needle in terms of the advancement of women’s right to vote.

Many other Methodists were active in the push for women’s suffrage. While the full history cannot be traced here, a few individuals should be mentioned to show the depth and spread of the work. Isabella Baumfree, who was born a slave, was converted in 1843, giving herself the name Sojourner Truth. Truth became a Methodist briefly upon her conversion and would speak at camp meetings, preach, and evangelize. She was an early advocate of equal rights for all women, and although she did not remain a Methodist long, demonstrates the way Methodism was laying the groundwork for women who felt called into leadership and engagement of social issues. Less well known is Franc Rhodes Elliott, a founder of P.E.O., one of the second oldest women’s societies in America. As a Methodist and graduate of Iowa Wesleyan University, she worked for women’s right to vote and also ecclesial representation for women.  Women were not the only ones in the fight, several of the MEC’s leading bishops consistently promoted women’s equality. Bishop Matthew Simpson, for example, was a strong advocate of women’s education and after the Civil War, became active in the fight for women’s suffrage. Major women activists, like Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, and Susan B. Anthony, recognized his support and attempted to use it as leverage for their cause.[xii] These requests were well-founded. In a speech in 1873, Simpson remarked, “Society must go down or women must vote…Wyoming and Utah have adopted women’s suffrage; strange to say, the sun still rises and sets there.”[xiii] Bishop Gilbert Haven was another supporter of women’s right to vote and also corresponded with Stone and others.[xiv]

Southern Methodists, of the MEC South, were also active in the cause. In particular, Jessie Daniel Ames, who is primarily remembered for her significant work against lynching, participated in suffrage work. She organized the Georgetown Equal Suffrage League in 1916 and wrote weekly pieces about women’s suffrage for the local newspaper. Ames also established the Texas League of Women Voters in 1919, after Texas was the first Southern state to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment. Other Southern Methodist women active in pro-suffrage efforts included prominent names such as, Elvira Beach Carré President of the City Mission Board in Louisiana and Mary Werlein, also of Louisiana, a leader of the Woman’s Parsonage and Home Mission Society.

As alluded to previously, interrelated to the fight for political enfranchisement was the issue of ecclesial suffrage. Lay representation was an ongoing debate at the MEC General Conference throughout the 1800s. In 1868, lay representation was finally granted for the MEC, but as noted previously, in practice, this did not include women. Recall it was 1904 when women were seated at a General Conference. Other predecessors of The UMC made this move earlier; the MPC first seated women in 1892 and the UBC in 1893. The MEC South did not seat women until 1922, after the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Women were not part of an Evangelical Church General Conference until 1946. All of this shows that although some Methodists worked to promote women’s voting rights, there was still significant opposition within the denomination. Just as in society, the fight for women’s right to representation in church governance was long and hard-fought. Ellen Blue has pointed out that the success of women securing laity rights in General Conferences cannot be underestimated denominationally, because there is a direct correlation to the eventual granting of ordination to women.[xv] Furthermore, there is a connection between women’s lay representation at General Conference and the church taking a definitive stance on the issue of women’s suffrage.

Methodism then, in terms of its various national bodies, was long in making a statement on women’s suffrage. The General Conference of the MEC, for example, was slow to support women’s right to vote. In a resolution, adopted by the General Conference in 1916, its members finally declared the belief that women should be given political franchise. The rationale was largely about women’s faithfulness in working for the church and how they might assist the advancement of practical Christianity through political voice. Yet, the resolution does indicate the belief that justice was at stake. By the time the United States ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, Methodist papers largely reflected the denominational declaration. One example is the Pittsburgh Christian Advocate that called the success of the women’s rights movement a response to “palpably unjust and unreasonable discrimination.”[xvi]

Suffice it to say, the work to secure women’s suffrage was long and hard-fought. What is more, Methodists—although certainly not in a unified way—played an active role in the cause, and the case can be made that Methodism itself provided room for the advancement of women which aided the cause of women’s suffrage.  Even so, the story was not as complete as some thought, like a reporter who suggested the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment “will probably prove to have been the last battle of a long campaign.”[xvii] Obstacles still persisted in allowing all people to vote; African American women, Hispanic women, Asian American women, and Indigenous women all serve as examples of the inequality that remained as they faced significant challenges and discrimination in securing rights to the ballot box. The work of the church and societal reform was far from complete, but Methodists continued to engage these issues in the coming years. Mary McLeod Bethune is a prime example of bridging women’s rights and Civil Rights. She worked on both fronts, registering voters after the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and playing a major role in developing Civil Rights work.

There is so much more historical work to be done on the women’s rights movement and its connection to American Methodism. As Ellen Blue has written, “When women don’t know our history, we keep making the same surge of progress and falling back, and later covering the same territory under the impression that we are creating something new.”[xviii] We might modify her statement to say that all of us—men and women—are responsible for knowing our history. Methodists worked for societal and personal transformation; this is in the DNA of the Methodist movement. So we can proclaim, “Well done!” on this hundred year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, while still yearning and working for true equality and justice.

[i] An excellent resource is:  Jean Miller Schmidt, Grace Sufficient:  A History of Women in American Methodism, 1760-1939 (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1999).

[ii] Kristin Mapel Bloomberg, “Nineteenth-Century Methodists and Coeducation:  The Case of Hamline University,” Methodist History 47, no. 1 (October, 2008):  49.

[iii] Frances E. Willard, The Autobiography of an American Woman:  Glimpses of Fifty Years (Chicago:  Woman’s Temperance Publishing Association, 1892), 334.

[iv] Willard, Autobiography, 335.

[v] Willard, Autobiography, 351.

[vi] Willard, Autobiography, 368.

[vii] Willard, Autobiography, 372.

[viii] Willard, Autobiography, 465.

[ix] Anna Howard Shaw, The Story of a Pioneer (New York:  Harper and Brothers Publishing, 1915), 259.

[x] Shaw, Story of a Pioneer, 287.

[xi] Shaw, Story of a Pioneer, 192.

[xii] See correspondence in the Matthew Simpson Collection, Drew University Methodist Collection, Madison, New Jersey. (Hereafter:  Simpson MSS, Drew.)

[xiii] Address:  “Women’s Suffrage,” February 7, 1873, Simpson MSS, Drew.

[xiv] See correspondence in the Bishop Gilbert Haven Papers, Drew University Methodist Collection, Madison, New Jersey.

[xv] Ellen Blue, “Parenthetically Speaking:  Methodist Women (In And) Out of Their Brackets,” Methodist History 55, no. 1 & 2 (October 2016 and January 2017), 28.

[xvi] “The Nineteenth Amendment Ratified,” Pittsburgh Christian Advocate, Vol 87, no. 35, August 26, 1920.

[xvii] “The Nineteenth Amendment Ratified,” PCA, August 26, 1920.

[xviii] Blue, “Parenthetically Speaking,” 19.

Susan Moudry 7-2-2019Rev. Dr. Susan Moudry is Coordinator of Clergy and Lay Leadership Excellence for the Western Pennsylvania Conference of The UMC. She holds a Ph.D. in the History of Christianity from Baylor University. Her research interests include American Methodism in the nineteenth century, as well as the intersection of religion and politics. She lives in the suburbs of Pittsburgh with her husband and two children.

Walking in the Way: A Deacon’s Journey

by Rev. Sherry Bryant-Johnson

I imagine my calling to be like the voice of the Teacher in Isaiah 30:21, a Presence within that whispers to me: “This is the way; walk in it.”  For many years these gentle marching orders led me on what I thought was a random path of learning and doing. The ladies of St. John African Methodist Episcopal Zion (my hometown church) who taught Sunday School and directed the Christmas and Easter pageants fascinated me.  So, when I reached adulthood, I taught Sunday School and directed Christmas and Easter pageants. The power of talk therapy to transform intrigued me.  So, I studied psychology at Indiana University.  A southern gentleman captured my heart.  So, I let go of my life in Hammond, Indiana and settled in his rural Mississippi community.  Questions about God, prayer, and life gripped me.  So, I immersed myself in the the Bible, went to workshops, and devoured books by spiritual writers.  Love, frustration, passion or curiosity moved me to learning and service—I thought.  It did not occur to me that the road I traveled was carrying me to a specific destination.

Sherry B Johnson

Rev. Sherry B. Johnson

I meandered into a job as assistant to the pastor at a United Methodist Church in 1991.  As I worked as program staff/administrative assistant, my path began to make sense.  I had entered a new world where my eclectic collection of learning, experiences, and skills were valued and affirmed.  I realized that through my wanderings, God had molded and made me into a minister of the gospel.   My proclamation of the Word was in my teaching, my listening, and in my praying, both in the church and beyond the church’s walls.  After three years as a diaconal minister, I was ordained with the inaugural class of deacons in 1997.

As I journeyed through candidacy to ordination and met wise mentors along the way, I received the gift of words to describe the connection between my learning, doing, and serving— Christian faith formation.  Practicing and teaching the means of grace have permeated my every appointment— associate pastor of a two-church charge, executive director of a United Methodist Mission Agency, and associate director for a center devoted to developing Christian leaders through lifelong learning.  I also weave spiritual practice into training events and other nontraditional settings because of my passion to assist others, to hear more clearly, and to respond more faithfully to the Presence that calls to them, “This is the way; walk in it.”

I live out my own call these days as a spiritual director, retreat designer/leader, Bible teacher, workshop leader, and author.  And I am currently exploring a new interest— offering spiritual direction and Bible study online.

In the 22 years since my ordination, I’ve encountered many along the way who do not appreciate or understand my ministry.  I cannot allow the reality of rejection to stop my work or to divert my attention from the many sisters and brothers who celebrate with me.

I see the celebration of the unique ministry of the deacon as a gift as diverse and surprising as the ministry itself.   This rejoicing breaks forth both in the church and in the community.  It can be as subtle as a feeling of oneness in Christ with a directee, as endearing as a card from a parishioner during Clergy Appreciation Month, or as unexpected as a thank you hug from a pastor in the produce aisle in Kroger.

Whether my ministry is celebrated or ignored, appreciated or reviled, the Presence that whispers, “This is the way; walk in it” still speaks, and I must follow where it leads.

Rev. Sherry Bryant-Johnson is an ordained deacon with extensive training in spiritual direction as well as United Methodist professional certification in spiritual formation.  Her ministry encompasses retreat leadership, teaching, small group facilitation, and writing.  She was an editor/essayist for the anthology, Embodied Spirits:  Stories of Spiritual Directors of Color (Morehouse, 2014) and the contributing writer of Journey to Joy: Jesus is the Strength for Life, a VBS study for adults (Abingdon, 2016).  Based in Jackson, Mississippi, she has served as the executive director of Bethlehem Center, Inc. and the associate director of the Center for Ministry at Millsaps College.

“I don’t want to be a deacon; God wants me to be a deacon.”

by Rev. Sue Pethoud

I don’t want to be a deacon; God wants me to be a deacon.  It’s not like when a young child wants to be a firefighter or a dancer.  It is something much more than that.  I was content to be a middle school math teacher.  It wasn’t an exciting job, but it had purpose and I did it well, but God was not content.  God tried for a long time to let me know that, but it wasn’t until a Friday night, after a week of serving in Appalachia, that I really got the message.  It was an emotional experience and one that took me a long time to understand.


Rev. Sue Pethoud

I got it right away that God was calling me to work in a setting where I would be connecting people and their faith to the world around them, but I didn’t jump right into a deacon studies program.  Hours of prayer led me to become more involved with our youth and to seek out ways to become more educated in my own faith.  I found The United Methodist certification program and it seemed to be where I needed to be.  I thought I was following God’s call in my life, but I was really trying to fit that call into the life I already had.

The certification program was a good place to start, and I am thankful now that I began there, but it was evident very early on that that was not the end of the story.  I had to figure out how this call of God’s was to fit into my life as a wife, mother, and teacher.  Through classmates, professors, and our young pastor, I was encouraged to continue to pray about where I really needed to go with all of this.  Clergy friends gave me books to read, prayed for me, and gave me encouragement to follow where I was being led.  It was pretty apparent that I was really being called to ordained ministry in the role of a deacon, but I was very reluctant to follow that call.  The practicality of it all kept getting in the way of actually following the path that God had set before me.

I was in my 29th year of teaching and the logical, sequential part of me knew that financially, retirement with 29 years of experience would be less than practical.  I was bargaining with God over this very thing when the state stepped into the process, offering a financial incentive to retire early!  Perfect!  The huge roadblock had been removed and I was ready to finally jump in, feet first!

Seminary was exciting and full of learning and listening.  During that time, I continued to be involved with the youth of my own church and through them found Cass Community Social Services.  It was more than evident, that was where I was being called.  I began volunteering there one day a week in 2010 just as I was getting into a full-time seminary schedule.  I was hired for that one-day-a-week job in 2013 just before graduation.  It became a three-day-a-week position by June and by Christmas, it was full-time.  I have been there ever since.

I was commissioned in 2014 and ordained in 2017.  My primary appointment is to Cass as an ABLC (Appointment Beyond the Local Church) with the title of Church and Community Relations Liaison.  I coordinate the over 7,000 volunteers that serve at Cass each year, correspond with donors, speak at churches and other community organization gatherings, run fund raising events and supervise Cass Green Industries.  My secondary appointment is to Cass Community UMC, the church that “birthed” Cass Community Social Services.  There I sing in the choir, preach in the absence of the pastor, and help to coordinate the behind the scenes tasks necessary to keep a church running.  Within the Annual Conference, I am the editor of the Order of Deacons newsletter and have begun a program for all districts to send youth to serve at Cass during the summer.

I often hear from other deacons that they struggle with feeling that though they are following a different call than elders, they are not treated as equals among their elder counterparts.  I get that, but don’t experience it, at least most of the time.  There was a learning curve in the beginning and, occasionally, there still is, but a little education and self-advocacy goes a long way.  If we as deacons, can explain our call and how it may be different but equal to that of an elder in a non-defensive way, we will all be better for it.  We do have to remember that elders who came into the system before 1996 were deacons once and many of them still think of the Order as a stepping stone to elder.

Though I have needed to do some educating both with my congregation and with the clergy I come in contact with, and still do from time to time, I am fully part of the clergy team at Cass Community UMC.  I work with three very supportive elders and share the responsibilities of running a church with them.  It helps that one of those elders is also the Executive Director of Cass Community Social Services along with her Senior Pastor position at the church and understands the demands of my week-day job.  We work together well and I have never been happier.

Rev. Sue Pethoud is the Church and Community Relations Liaison for Cass Community Social Services (CCSS), a Detroit nonprofit agency which responds to poverty with programs for food, health care, housing and employment.  She is also an ordained deacon in the United Methodist Church serving both Cass Community Social Services and Cass Community United Methodist Church in Detroit.

Prior to coming to Cass, Sue taught math and science for 30 years primarily to middle school students in Howell, MI.  She also taught in both New York State and Ohio.

Sue has a Bachelor of Science degree from Central Michigan University and a Master of Arts degree from the State University of New York. She received a Basic Theological Studies (BGTS) certificate from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL in 2013.

Her interests include reading, and travel.  She has one son who is a middle school band director and two grand dogs.  Rev. Pethoud lives in Detroit during the week and with her retired husband in Brighton, MI on the weekends.

“Once God has a hold of you, it’s hard to be let loose.”

By Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

There is this thing amongst clergy who say, “Once God has a hold of you, it’s hard to be let loose.”  As I reflect back on my own call story, I can attest to that understanding of getting into God’s grip and then recognizing that in reality, you don’t actually want God to let you go.  As a pastor’s kid, I was all too familiar with the gifts and challenges of being a family in ministry. And in many ways, I didn’t think I wanted that for me, my spouse, or my children.  But, God did get a hold of me and my soul has never been settled since.  The tug for me to serve God is the driving factor of my life in ministry.

AVB photo

Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

The question I had to answer was, “How will I serve God?”  I continued to debate with God about how I could serve God without ever pursuing a seminary degree or serving as clergy.  Again, the discontent and the hunger in my soul kept growing and the more I dabbled in seminary learning, the deeper I went.  I loved learning more about my faith, about my church and about religion’s influence in the world.  I loved working with people and serving people.  In every position that I held prior to ministry, I loved serving.  From a waitress in restaurants to an account manager in an advertising company, I loved accompanying people and serving people.  At the end of the day, I knew that was my calling.  However, those kinds of roles never fully satisfied me.

Finally, I gave in and just relaxed in God’s grip.  I no longer wanted to resist, but rather, I leaned into the visions for my life that God was placing in front of me.  The themes of learning, loving and connecting constantly arose in my life experiences.  Learning manifested itself in seminary learning.  I couldn’t get enough of it, so I pursued the Master’s followed by the Ph.D.  I never wanted to stop learning.  Loving was a part of my nature as I constantly wanted to share God’s love with youth, young adults and the people on the edges who never felt God’s love.  Youth Ministry, Young-Adult Ministries, and Mission were ways in which I could live out the call to love.  And finally, “connecting” was something that I had been good at in both my private social life and in my working world.  Connecting people across annual conferences, across the general church and now connecting people in mission.  As a learner, lover, connector, God had a vision to use these gifts for God’s mission in the world.

This is my understanding of a deacon’s call.  As deacons in The United Methodist Church, we have a specialized call to ministry that is unique from elders.  We serve in a variety of roles and responsibilities throughout the church, but at the heart of it is the way in which we connect the church and the world.  As deacons, we have many of the rights and responsibilities as elders in the church, but we take on the role of stretching a little differently in our calling by connecting.  We are doctors, lawyers, teachers, police officers, directors and much more who have responded officially to God’s call and pursued the credentialing of The UMC ordained ministry process so that we can link in our workplaces the work of the church.  We also take this responsibility of bringing the world to the church seriously as well.  Too often, the church can be isolated and insular thinking, but because as deacons we live in both worlds, we help the church remember what the world needs from the church.  Deacons are critical partners for God’s mission in the world.  One of my close mentors said to me as I was discerning my call, “The church will be strengthened when one day the deacons outnumber the elders.”  The way I understood that comment was we need more people with theological training, ordained ministry credentialing and a clear understanding of calling to bridge the church and the world in ways that are effective and relevant in a 21st-century mission field.  By God’s grace, deacons like me and the many others serving the church are doing our best to keep that connection alive and the bridge strengthened so that God’s “kin-dom” work is known.

Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker serves as the Executive Director for the Global Mission Connections Unit of Global Ministries for The United Methodist Church.  She leads a staff that relates to partners in the worldwide United Methodist and ecumenical mission network, seeking to foster collaborative interaction for church development and Christian service. She has extensive experience on the connectional level of the church, having worked for the Connectional Table, a program and policy coordinating agency, from 2010 to 2017, four years as the top executive.   She is an ordained deacon in full connection with the North Georgia Annual Conference.  Most recently, she completed a book with Abingdon, called “Trust By Design: The Beautiful Behaviors of an Effective Church Culture,” taking the Towers Watson Research about the denomination’s lack of trust and exploring ways in which the church needs to rebuild trust internally and beyond church relationships.  You can reach her for more information at