A saint of our own: Frances Willard, Methodist/Feminist

“So why are you interested in Orthodoxy?” asked my seminary classmate.

“I love it!  The liturgy, the history, the music, the communion of saints, the icons, the reverence for Scripture & tradition, the experiential nature of worship, the understanding of salvation, the spiritual formation, the room for mysticism…  seriously, if they would ordain women, I’d be there!”

Today, I detour from my Orthodox church visits to celebrate a Methodist woman who makes my own journey possible:

Frances Willard.

Best known as the president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, Frances (dare I call her “Saint Frances”?) pushed the Methodist Episcopal Church to include laywomen in leadership, a vital part of the movement toward full equality for women in United Methodist churches today.

In 1880, she asked the General Conference that

all male nouns and pronouns pertaining to stewards, trustees, Sunday school superintendents, class leaders, exhorters, and both local and traveling preachers be removed from the Discipline and that the word ‘male’ be expunged altogether.”

Eight years later, she did not need to WRITE to General Conference because she was ELECTED to it.
Only sixteen years after laymen were allowed to vote at annual and general conferences, five laywomen were elected to that position.  As Donald Haynes describes it:

“[Chairman of the Credentials Committee, James] Buckley insisted that if anyone had thought the word “laymen” would be interpreted to include women, no laymen would have ever been admitted! The Credentials Committee voted that the duly elected women could not serve as delegates.

For the ceremonial opening of the General Conference, the women were seated with their delegation. But acrimonious debate led by Buckley prompted his motion to pass, denying the women their rights and instructing “that the women’s train tickets be paid so they can return to their homes where they belong.”

The five women were ejected from their seats and replaced with male reserves.

Willard later wrote, ‘I confidently predict that we five women whose election was disavowed will have more enviable places in history than any who opposed us on those memorable days.’”

An enviable place, indeed.

I am grateful to Willard for her courageous, forward-thinking witness that opened the door for me and other straight women to be active participants in United Methodist polity, both as laywomen and clergywomen.  I continue to pray that the other group of women that Willard represents will soon reap the full benefits of her 19th century witness.

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