Where Did All the Women Go? The Importance of History for Cultivating a Culture of Women Leading in Ministry

As churches continue to discuss the roles of women, understanding church history can help cultivate a culture of normativity for women preachers. Historically, The Wesleyan Church has held positions and published statements allowing women to participate in all areas of ministry, and, over time, there have been advancements toward increasing the number of women in ministry in the church; however, one specific category and position has been lacking. Currently, there is a lack of advancement in the specific role of women in spiritual authority positions in the church, such as women preachers. In some ways, it seems as though the movement toward a culture that tears down the implicit biases against women in the church has made great progress, but in reality, more work is necessary for the church to flourish.

In order to understand how to implement a culture of normativity, we need to start with the history and positions of women in ministry within The Wesleyan Church. Women ministering and leading in all areas is a rallying cry for The Wesleyan Church, and it has been a part of its DNA from the very beginning. John Wesley himself was an advocate for women ministers. He allowed women to join him in preaching and in his evangelism efforts. When he was questioned about this, he pointed out that God seemed to be using women in ministry and was elevating them, so why should he stand against God?[1] During John Wesley’s life and work, Methodist women served as leaders in classes and bands, but they also served as traveling preachers with full authorization at conferences.[2] He was also strongly influenced by women in his life, especially his mother Susanna, and he saw that God was using and working through women.[3] While it took Wesley a little convincing at first to allow women to join him in preaching, he began to see that it was natural to include women preachers, given his sense of the “extraordinary call” that he believed God bestowed on people.[4] Wesley, then, believed that women could be ministry leaders.[5]

After Wesley’s theological ideas of social reform and holiness came to America, the Wesleyan Methodist Connection formed in 1843 when Orange Scott, LaRoy Sunderland, Jotham Horton, Luther Lee, and Lucius Matlack left the Methodist Episcopal Church to form a denomination firmly committed to abolitionism.[6] From the very beginning, The Wesleyan Church has been about the pursuit of holiness with a profound importance on social holiness and reform. The founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection were abolitionists who sought to break away from the episcopal structure of the church, and they were the ones who paved the way for the church to go against cultural norms in order to uphold truth. The new denomination that formed was full of trailblazers who understood that upholding Scripture would lead to social reform and continued communal holiness. Understanding and knowing that the Wesleyan Methodist Connection and Pilgrim Holiness Church believed in and supported women in all areas of leadership from the very beginning shows that the question of women in ministry is not a recent issue.

In 1848, the Wesleyan Methodists continued their social reform through the history making efforts at Seneca Falls Wesleyan Methodist Church, where they welcomed the women’s rights convention that led to the creation and signing of the Declaration of Sentiments.[7] A few years after this momentous event, Antoinette Brown became the first American Christian woman to be ordained and when her fellow Congregationalist pastors refused to preach at her ordination, she turned to her Wesleyan Methodist friend Luther Lee as she knew he was an advocate for women’s ordination and would preach at her service.[8]

The momentous occasion of Antoinette Brown’s ordination and Luther Lee’s proclamation of equality for women led to the licensing of Mary A. Will in the Illinois Conference in 1860 and then her ordination in the summer of 1861, which made her the first Wesleyan Methodist woman to be given the authority to fully minister.[9] For the remainder of the 1800s, the denomination went back and forth on whether women could be ordained after resistance arose, and ordination was placed in the hands of the individual conferences.[10]

Throughout the 1900s, the statistical data of women in ministry fluctuated from decade to decade. This could potentially be attributed to the denomination’s lack of granting full clergy rights to women until 1956.[11] On June 26, 1968, the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Wesleyan Methodist Connection agreed to merge together to form The Wesleyan Church, and the denomination worked to empower and encourage women in ministry.[12] With that, 2008 became a year that was marked by Jo Anne Lyon joining the team of General Superintendents as the first woman to ever be elected into the General Superintendents office.[13] Her election was seen as a reminder of the denomination’s historical efforts to allow women to fully minister and lead in all areas. And the denomination has a statement today that claims,

“On the basis of the total teaching of Scripture, the sovereign call of God to women, and the demonstration of divine sanction and empowerment of women in ministry in our own denominational history, as well as that of the larger holiness movement, The Wesleyan Church affirms that woman is full equal to man in terms of her responsibility, as directed by the Holy Spirit and authorized by the Church, to preach, teach, lead, govern, or serve in any office or ministry of the Church.”[14]

Today, we know that there has been an increase of women in ministry as a whole, but there is a lack of women in head, leadership roles in the church, such as Senior Pastor or Lead Pastor. In fact, out of 4,078 ordained personnel in the denomination in 2018, only 133 of those people were women in Lead Pastor, Co-Pastor, or Supply Pastor roles.[15] The majority of women are not able  

to minister in all areas as the culture around preaching does not consistently allow for women to do so; therefore, churches need to cultivate a culture in which it is normal for a woman to preach.

In the assessment of the history of women in ministry and the overall history of The Wesleyan Church, periods of silence and lack of documentation about ordained women pastors and preachers were noted. In the book, The Story of The Wesleyan Church, which is the most recent account of the history and the most widely read and used source in the denomination, there are accounts of the Wesleyan Methodist Connection’s efforts to allow women to be able to minister in all areas. Beyond the accounts of Antoinette Brown and Mary A. Will in the 1800s, the discussions of women in ministry have to do with women as missionaries, not as preachers and pastors in United States churches. The topic of women having full clergy rights in the denomination does not come up again until 1956. Before this time, it was left up to the individual districts to determine if they were going to allow women to be ordained, but this account of history does not expound on which conferences allowed for ordination and which ones did not. Additionally, this account of history provides a brief summary of women in ministry toward the end of the book that simply explains the statistical data of women in ministry in the 1900s, but it does not expand much beyond that until 2008 when Jo Anne Lyon was elected to the General Superintendent office. Gaps and silences in history in regard to women in ministry in all areas infiltrates the writings and documents of for the entirety of Wesleyan history. The lack of acknowledgement of women in all roles is not to be blamed on any one person or book because it can be seen throughout the entirety of church history, but that is not an excuse for action not to be taken to fill in the gaps. There have been some attempts to increase knowledge of women in ministry, including Celebrate Our Daughters by Lee and Maxine Haines, but even these attempts are scarce. Beyond the pinnacle events of Antoinette Brown, Mary A. Will, and Jo Anne Lyon, the majority of accounts simplify the information to statistical data to show the number of women in ministry, rather than telling the stories.

With this knowledge of the silences in history, it is imperative that the history of women in ministry be revisited and revised to include the accounts of women in all roles. While some of the history may already be lost, there needs to be a movement from the denomination to intentionally find these stories and write them into the history. History shapes culture as it allows for people to learn from the past and to acknowledge the ways in which the past informs the present and future. The lack of documentation of women in ministry throughout the history of The Wesleyan Church has led to a denominational culture that is unaware, which in turn has resulted in a lack of cultivation of women in pastoral leadership roles. When the church decides to include the entirety of the history of women in ministry, it acknowledges the importance of the topic and the significance of the events in history that have shaped and formed the church to become what it is today.


[1] Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of The Wesleyan Church, Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2018,18.

[2] Ibid., 66.

[3] Kenneth Collins, A Real Christian: The Life of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 11.

[4] Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists: Second Edition, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2013), 276-277. Stephen Tomkins, John Wesley: A Bibliography, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 174-175.

[5] Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of The Wesleyan Church, Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2018,18.

[6] Orange Scott, “The Grounds for Secession from the M.E. Church,” (New York: C. Prindle, 1848), 46. Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of The Wesleyan Church, Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2018, 29.

[7] Orange Scott, “The Grounds for Secession from the M.E. Church,” (New York: C. Prindle,

1848), 46. Robert Black and Keith Drury, The Story of The Wesleyan Church, Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2018, 29.

[8] Robert Black and Keith Drury. The Story of The Wesleyan Church. (Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2018), 65.

[9] Robert Black and Keith Drury. The Story of The Wesleyan Church. (Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2018), 65.

[10] Robert Black and Keith Drury. The Story of The Wesleyan Church. (Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2018), 65.

[11] Robert Black and Keith Drury. The Story of The Wesleyan Church. (Indianapolis: The Wesleyan Publishing House, 2018), 74.

[12] The Minutes of the First General Conference of The Wesleyan Church: Uniting Conference for the Pilgrim Holiness Church and the Wesleyan Methodist Church into The Wesleyan Church, July 15, 1968.

[13] Minutes of the Eleventh General Conference of The Wesleyan Church, 2008, 39, 193.

[14] Task Force on Women in Ministry, “Position Paper on Women in Ministry in The Wesleyan Church,” the General Board of The Wesleyan Church, 2019.

[15] Ron McClung, “The Wesleyan Church-Women in Ministry-2018,” The Wesleyan Church. file:///Users/CourtneyDunn/Downloads/Women%20in%20Ministry%20condensed%20chart%20- %202018%20(1).pdf.

About the Author: Courtney Dunn is currently a student at Asbury Theological Seminary studying for her Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies. She recently graduated from Indiana Wesleyan University with her Bachelor of Arts in Global Ministries and Honors Humanities. While she was studying for her undergraduate degree, she completed a research project called, “A Rallying Cry: The Call for the Cultivation of a Culture of Normativity amongst Women Preachers in The Wesleyan Church” for the John Wesley Honors College. Courtney is currently in the ordination process with the Crossroads District of The Wesleyan Church, in which she plans to serve as a long-term missionary. Courtney has a passion for the local church, and she longs for all people and churches to live more and more into the likeness of Christ.

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