A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of ChristHistorians often state that the 1853 ordination of Antoinette Brown in a Congregational Church in upstate New York was the first ordination of a woman in a major Protestant denomination in North America. That may be true if one focuses only on ordination; but many unordained "female laborers in the gospel" played key roles in the development of religious life much earlier. These women were involved with the "Christian Connection," a group that eventually joined with the Congregationalists and later the UCC. "Christians" participated in early 19th-century frontier religious revivalism. They sought to uphold simple biblical Christianity and preserve "gospel liberty" in the new nation.
Christian women preachers confronted two problems: On the one hand, orthodox Congregationalists were appalled by their theology. Led by a one-time Calvinist Baptist named Abner Jones (1772-1841) and a maverick religious journalist named Elias Smith (1769-1846), Christians consistently questioned the authenticity of traditional Calvinist doctrines and practices. They rejected all creeds and the Trinity. Some people called them "evangelical Unitarians." Others accused them of heresy and infidelity.
In addition to doctrinal dissatisfaction, early female laborers also confronted resistance to women's leadership. The Christian's defense of women preachers was interesting. Building upon their critical stance toward establishment religion and their questioning of the usefulness of settled clergy and even ordination, they made a distinction between public revival preaching and church leadership.
In 1841, Rebecca Miller (1814-1844) argued that the biblical word "prophesying" meant "exhorting, edifying, instructing, comforting, and testifying of Jesus." The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that, "all may prophesy" (1 Corinthians 14:21), and he meant all. "Until it can be proved that there were no females in the Corinthian church, these passages must stand as indubitable testimony in favor of females publicly teaching the word."
Within the church, however, the situation might be different, she continued. The government of the church, "under the great head, devolves on men and not on women." Paul wanted to keep decorum in the church and protect women from dealing with issues that were "of too indelicate a nature for women to discuss publicly." For this reason he wrote that women should not "usurp authority over a man." Yet, Paul does not intend this passage "to interdict female public improvement," because if he does "he is at war with his own writings, and evidently contradicts himself..."
Today, although most of us are uncomfortable with this argument, we need to remember and applaud the accomplishments of Christian "female laborers in the gospel."
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund—a distinguished Ôfemale laborer in the gospel'—is a church historian and editor of "A Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ."