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LEARNING FROM BAPTIST HISTORY: The Migration of Baptist Women to Other Denominations

Eighth in a series:

In 1882, May C. Jones was ordained to the gospel ministry by a Northern Baptist church (now ABC-USA), making her the first woman ordained in that denominational body. In 1964, Addie Davis was ordained by a Southern Baptist church, making her the first woman ordained in that denominational body. In the ensuing years, thousands of Baptist women in the North and the South have been ordained.

Many of those women have expressed a calling to preach, and over the years, they sought have churches that would call them as pastor. While the majority of these gifted and called women experienced little success in finding churches, in 2005, at least 505 Baptist women were serving American Baptist and Cooperative Baptist churches as pastors or co-pastors. As far as I can tell, 505 represents the largest number ever for Baptist women pastors in the United States.

So what has happened to the other Baptist women who felt called to preach? The answer is easy. A good many of them have left. They have moved into other denominations that are more open to women pastors, and they are now serving as Disciples of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian pastors.

No one really knows how many Baptist women have left, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the number is significant. The sad fact is that 21st-century Baptists are all too familiar with this trend. But sadder still is the fact that women have for a long time been walking away from the Baptist faith in search of more tolerant and affirming denominations.

Over 200 years ago, Mary Callender, daughter of the Baptist pastor and historian John Callender, left the Baptist faith to unite with the Society of Friends. At the age of 30, Mary moved out of the denomination in which she had faithfully participated for many years, and once she settled into Quaker life, she took up preaching and began proclaiming the gospel message in the town of Newport, R.I.

Mary stood in the streets of the town and called people to repentance. According to eyewitnesses, her preaching had little success, and she never drew much of a crowd. Instead, people shut their doors and windows, concluding that this tall, slender, attractive woman was crazy or hallucinating. Some even commented that if God had truly called her, surely he would have provided her with a stronger voice and a bolder manner.

Mary’s decision to preach the gospel cost her dearly. She had to leave her Baptist roots, preach under difficult circumstances, and endure being ridiculed by those around her. Despite the opposition she experienced, however, Mary remained faithful to her calling.

When I discovered Mary’s story, I cringed as I wondered if she would have felt any more welcomed and affirmed in the Baptist tradition in the 21st century than she had in the late 18th century. In 1766, Mary would have not have been able to locate a Baptist church in which to serve as pastor. Now, some 240 years later, she still would have a hard time gaining entry as a pastor in a Baptist church.

If she sought a pastorate in the American Baptist tradition, she would soon discover that in 2005, only 7.5 percent of that denomination’s pastors were women. If Mary inquired about the possibility of serving a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church, she would be told that about 5 percent of those churches have women serving as pastors.

Chances are, if Mary were alive today, she would once again choose to leave her Baptist roots, in search of a more affirming denomination.

Baptists have lost and continue to lose too many Marys–women reared and trained in Baptist churches, educated in Baptist colleges and seminaries, and now are serving in other denominations.

A Methodist pastor once said to me, “We Methodists are most grateful to you Baptists for sending us so many gifted, intelligent, and capable women.” And I had no response to offer. I certainly was not going to say, “You are most welcome.”

What I wanted to say was that Baptists have for far too long not understood the cost that we have paid and will continue to pay because we have allowed so many women to walk away with scarcely a word being said.

Lesson:
If we as Baptists want the migration of women to end, we have to be proactive. We need to open our pulpits to them so they can gain preaching experience. We need to open our churches to them and call them as pastors. We need to stop using the tired old excuse, “My church is not yet ready to call a woman as pastor.” And we need to take these steps before it is too late–before we lose another generation of called and gifted young women.

Pamela R. Durso is associate executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.

Click here to order The Story of Baptists in the United States by Pamela and Keith Durso.

Editor’s note: Baptist Women in Ministry is inviting churches across the country to invite a woman to preach in the first-ever Martha Stearns Marshall Day of Preaching Feb. 4. Click here for details.