A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
"Sisterhood is powerful" was a popular slogan during the feminist movement of the 1970s and 1980s.
It also is a way to speak about the extraordinary work of Evangelical Deaconesses in the history of the United Church of Christ.
The city of St. Louis was teeming with immigrants and urban problems in the 1880s. One day, when a German Evangelical pastor found one of his ill parishioners being cared for by a Roman Catholic nun, he suggested to other Evangelical pastors that they needed to train young women in their church to care for the poor and the sick. He knew of the Deaconess movement in Germany and he believed that Deaconess work on the American frontier could provide important vocational opportunities for single women and meet pressing needs. Shortly thereafter, on Aug. 18, 1889, Katherine Haack, a minister's widow who was already a trained nurse, was consecrated as the first deaconess in the Evangelical Synod.
Most deaconesses, however, were young, unmarried women. They did not take lifetime vows, and if a young woman wanted to leave to marry or to care for her family, that was fine. Some deaconesses, however, remained in the work throughout their entire lives.
The power of the deaconess sister was legendary. Dressed in simple, modest attire, she moved around the city as nurse, teacher and/or parish worker. She founded hospitals and homes for orphans and the aged.
When the Evangelical Deaconess Society was organized, it was decided that one third of the new board of directors would be women. Electing women to policy-making boards in the late 19th century was revolutionary. At that time, women in immigrant German Evangelical congregations sat apart from men during worship. Women rarely said anything in church meetings. They relied upon their husbands to speak and vote for the entire family.
When women got involved in the Deaconess movement, however, as deaconesses or members of a governing board, they discovered new ways to contribute to their church and to make a difference in the wider community.
By the late 20th century, vocational opportunities for ordained women meant that fewer and fewer women wanted to become deaconesses, yet the Evangelical Deaconess Society should not be forgotten. Early deaconess sisters were pioneer professional women in the church, and the Evangelical women who supported their ministries gained vital experience as effective leaders in church and society. The United Church of Christ continues to benefit from this legacy.
Church historian the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund is the series editor of The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.