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Remembering our Roots: Helenor M. Davisson and the Ordination of Women in American Methodism

As we prepare for General Conference in May, and as we move forward with what becomes of our denomination afterward, it is important to also understand where we came from. By exploring our history as a denomination through the work of some of our ancestors, we can better understand our values. Once a month, we will be sharing information about someone from our denomination’s history.

Today, January 24th, is what would have been the 197th birthday of Helenor M. Davisson, who is often attributed as the first woman ordained in American Methodism. There are many details missing about her life, but we do know she was consistently active in the church. The General Commission on Archives and History for the United Methodist Church writes that she acted as a circuit rider with her father, and eventually that she was ordained as a deacon in August 1866 by the Wabash Annual Conference of Indiana.

It would not have been easy for a woman to be a circuit rider at this time, but Helenor was not one to be trifled with. In a blog post by Susan Ozmore for Wingate UMC, Ozmore writes, “When her mother died, Helenor was 14 and found herself responsible for the family home and seven siblings. At one point, she nursed the entire family, ill with typhoid fever, while keeping the family sawmill going. By the time her physician uncles arrived to help, she had become ill and almost died.” Taking care of seven siblings, running a sawmill, and surviving typhoid may be some of the few details we still have about Helenor, but they paint a portrait of a woman who would do whatever it took to carry out her responsibilities.

The fact that her name is unknown to many Methodists today is disheartening, but it is not surprising. During her lifetime, there were multiple branches of the Methodist church in America, two of which were the Methodist Protestant denomination and the Methodist Episcopal denomination. The Methodist Episcopal Church would not ordain women until the 1920s, and even then this was short-lived as Methodist denominations began to merge in the 1930s. Therefore, women in the mid-to-late 1800s who wished to be ordained in the Methodist Church did so through the Methodist Protestant denomination. Women’s rights to be ordained as clergy were not secure in American Methodism until the formation of the United Methodist Church in 1968.

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