Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Presbyterian and Methodist Churches in the United States approved the ordination of women as ministers, several years before the start of the modern women’s movement in America.

Summary of Event

One of the issues that is identified with a basic change in American life, the changing role of women, received a boost in the 1950’s when the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches decided to ordain women as ministers. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Montgomery bus boycott were beginning to make churches centers of social debate and change. As the churches were involved in the debate over civil rights Civil Rights movement;and women’s rights[womens rights] and equality for racial and ethnic minorities, the question of equal opportunity for women also surfaced. Presbyterian Church Methodist Church Women;as clergy[clergy] Christianity;clergy [kw]Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women, Presbyterian and (May, 1955-May, 1956) [kw]Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women (May, 1955-May, 1956) [kw]Churches Approve Ordination of Women, Presbyterian and Methodist (May, 1955-May, 1956) [kw]Women, Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of (May, 1955-May, 1956) Presbyterian Church Methodist Church Women;as clergy[clergy] Christianity;clergy [g]North America;May, 1955-May, 1956: Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women[04830] [g]United States;May, 1955-May, 1956: Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women[04830] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;May, 1955-May, 1956: Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women[04830] [c]Organizations and institutions;May, 1955-May, 1956: Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women[04830] [c]Women’s issues;May, 1955-May, 1956: Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women[04830] [c]Social issues and reform;May, 1955-May, 1956: Presbyterian and Methodist Churches Approve Ordination of Women[04830] Lloyd, Ralph Waldo Wright, Paul S. Johnson, Zack

There were three major Presbyterian bodies in the United States in 1955. The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) was composed of the descendants of the colonial Puritans and other “old family” Americans who had come together into a single church following the Civil War. Although originally there had been many ethnic divisions within this group, the basis of union within one church was a common acceptance of the teachings of the sixteenth century Protestant reformer John Calvin. The PCUSA was the largest of the Presbyterian bodies and would be the one to approve the ordination of women in 1955. A second body was the United Presbyterian Church of North America, the organizational descendant of the church founded by Scottish settlers in the eighteenth century. This group would unite with the PCUSA in 1958. The third Presbyterian group was the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), a group found almost entirely in the South and tracing its roots to the independent church formed in the Confederacy during the Civil War.

In the Presbyterian system of government, issues to be voted on at the national level originate with the governing body of a local congregation, the Session of Elders. The session of any church can write and forward an overture requesting action on any issue or idea. The overture is forwarded through the local representative assembly, or presbytery, made up of elected representatives from each congregation in its jurisdiction, and, if accepted, goes on to the annual general assembly. If an overture is approved by majority vote in the general assembly, it is then returned to the presbyteries for final debate. If a majority of these local representative bodies approves, it then becomes binding as church law or policy.

As the PCUSA gathered in Los Angeles in 1955 for its 167th general assembly, several overtures were scheduled to come before the body to permit the ordination of women as ministers. The moderator who had presided over the placing of these overtures on the agenda was the Reverend Doctor Ralph Waldo Lloyd. Lloyd was president of Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee, a church-affiliated school. Maryville College had always supported a tradition of social liberalism. The school was founded early in the nineteenth century to educate young men from the mountains of Appalachia. During the Civil War, the college was pro-Union, and blacks were admitted to study during Reconstruction. Women enrolled at Maryville College long before state-supported schools admitted them. Lloyd, a native of the Maryville area, was a firm supporter of this liberal tradition. He was very supportive of the idea of ordaining women and, in his final address to the assembly prior to the election of his successor, Lloyd pointed out that women had been accorded the right to serve on the Session of Elders in local churches in 1930.

In 1955, more than three thousand women were serving as governing officials in their local congregations. Women had been admitted to these posts of leadership because the Presbyterian Church saw no theological barrier to their so serving and because, in the New Testament, Christian Scriptures women were seen occasionally in similar roles. It was Lloyd’s opinion that the life of the church would be enriched by allowing women to become ministers and to bring to the service of the church their insights on life and theology. Several prominent women in the Presbyterian Church agreed with this point of view.

Louise Brady Brady, Louise pointed out that women had been accepted as missionaries for over a century, and asked “Are we to believe it is appropriate for a woman to present the gospel to African or Asian males but not to American men?” Others, such as Mary Taggart Taggart, Mary , pointed out that as elders women could exercise authority within the church, work in executive positions as heads of boards and committees, and even serve on the committee that chose the pastor for a congregation. It made no sense, she argued, for women to be allowed to serve in all church positions except one. The most telling argument was raised by Geneva Iradell Iradell, Geneva , who reminded the church that its historical belief was that God called to the ministry those chosen and predestined by the deity. “Who are we,” she asked, “to deny ordination to those God has chosen?” The criteria for ordination applied to men were confession of a “call” from God, completion of theological studies, and an upright life. The same criteria, it was argued, should be applied to women.

The person elected as moderator to succeed Lloyd was the Reverend Doctor Paul S. Wright of Portland, Oregon. Wright agreed with the views of his predecessor, but not all the delegates did. The debate over the proposal was fierce at times. The committee reporting on overtures made several points in favor of ordaining women. The Presbyterian Church, for example, already ordained women as deacons and elders. In other areas of life, such as business, industry, and government, there was increasing cooperation between men and women. Saint Paul taught that “in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.” Moreover, the committee concluded, there was no theological ground for denying ordination of women simply because of their gender.

Opponents of ordaining women also made several points. They pointed out that, in the New Testament, only men made up the group of twelve apostles called by Jesus to follow him. The language used in the Bible for God uses male imagery such as “Father” and “Son.” Also noted were the historical instances in which female church leadership had led to cults and heresies. Finally, the opponents cited the writings of Saint Paul, who had ordered women to be silent in church. When the vote was taken, the nine hundred delegates voted by an overwhelming margin to approve the ordination of women and to send the matter back to the local presbyteries for final ratification. During the following year, almost all these local bodies made binding the policy of ordaining women as ministers.

The governmental structure of the Methodist Church differs from that of the Presbyterian Church. Pastors of local congregations are assigned by bishops, and the elected representatives meet only once every four years in a quadrennial conference. This conference has authority to adopt policies without reference to the local congregations. In 1956, the quadrennial conference, meeting in Minneapolis, Minnesota, had before it about four thousand “memorials,” requests for action from local congregations. More than two thousand of these memorials dealt with the issue of ordaining women.

For some years prior to 1956, Methodist women had been permitted to be “lay supply pastors,” which meant they could help on a temporary basis churches that had no pastor. This allowed women who wished to be ministers a halfway approach, but they were still barred from full ministerial rights and service. Specifically, women were barred from the “itinerancy,” the rotation system of pastors in which an area bishop is required to assign a church to every ordained minister. Indeed, it was this right to assign pastors that was cited by opponents of female ordination, since bishops could then “inflict” women pastors on churches that did not want them. Women such as Nora Neal Neal, Nora argued that such views called into question the good judgment of bishops and showed a rather low opinion of the process of assigning pastors to churches. Further, she argued, how could the church recognize a valid ministry for a woman by allowing her to serve a church on a temporary basis but then deny that ministry by refusing to allow her to exercise it on a full-time basis? How could something be valid only half the time?

When the report of the committee on memorials came to the floor of the conference, it called for ordination of women. This report was countered by a minority report submitted by the Reverend James A. Chubb Chubb, James A. of Grand Island, Nebraska, which would have allowed full ministerial status for single and widowed women only. This idea was soundly rejected. The majority report was then moved by Zack Johnson of Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky. The debate among the Methodists mirrored the arguments presented among the Presbyterians the year before and had the same result. The majority report was adopted by a majority of 389-297.


Since 1955, the presence of women pastors in mainline Protestant churches has become more frequent but has not become commonplace. In addition to the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches, the Congregational Christian Churches, the Disciples of Christ, the United Churches of Christ, and the American Baptist (northern) church accept women as ministers, as does the Anglican Church. In the late 1990’s and early twenty-first century, there were more than thirty-five hundred women serving as Presbyterian ministers and more than three thousand female Methodist clergy.

The Presbyterian Church has elected to its highest office of leadership, the moderator of the general assembly, such women as Thelma Adair, Isabell Wood Rogers, and Joan Salmon-Campbell. The Methodists have had a number of female district superintendents as well as some female bishops, including Marjorie Matthews, Leontine Kelly, and Susan Morrison.

As more women have been ordained as ministers and have become pastors, some trends have emerged. Women ministers often take the lead in speaking to churches on issues related to social justice and sexual policies. As agents of change, female pastors face the risk of being labeled overly aggressive, but they also have the opportunity to use their perceived level of sensitivity as a positive force. Women pastors have developed a theologically sophisticated method of scriptural interpretation to deal with many portions of the Bible that reflect a male-dominated world. Women pastors also find themselves in excellent positions to deal with problems unique to many women, such as being single mothers, wives and girlfriends who are battered and abused by their husbands and partners, and being part of families abandoned by husbands.

Problems faced by women ministers have included the reluctance of many congregations to abandon the tradition of male leadership. For this reason, many female pastors have found themselves either in small churches, where economic necessity sometimes forces the acceptance of a woman who will accept a lower salary, or on the staff of a large church, where women often serve as “associates,” often dealing largely with “women’s” problems and the concerns of youth. Another growing phenomenon has been that of “clergy couples,” in which both husband and wife are ordained and either serve one congregation as co-pastors or are employed to serve two congregations within driving distance of their home.

As more Protestant churches have come to focus on the more modern—and ever changing—ideas and values of Christianity instead of the literal interpretation of the Bible, a new approach to the role of women has emerged, and doors are opening for women. Moreover, in most congregations in the United States, the majority of members are women, a fact that, it seems, would lead to continued growth for women in leadership roles in the church. Presbyterian Church Methodist Church Women;as clergy[clergy] Christianity;clergy

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cameron, Richard. The Rise of Methodism: A Source Book. New York: Philosophical Library, 1954. This historical treatment of the early days of the founding of the Methodist Church shows quite clearly the role women played in founding the movement. This historic role aided the arguments of women seeking ordination in 1956.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaustad, Edwin S., and Leigh H. Schmidt. A Religious History of America. 1966. Rev. ed. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002. A history of the impact of religion on America. In detailing this impact, the role and contribution of women both as ministers and lay members of the church is described.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendry, George S. The Westminster Confession for Today. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1960. The Westminster Confession of 1648 is still among the classic statements of faith of the Presbyterian Church. This theological examination of the confession shows how the church has separated the historical circumstances from the essential message to employ a contemporary as well as a historical understanding of the reformed tradition. This has included changing attitudes toward the role of women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lloyd-Sidle, Patricia, ed. Celebrating Our Call: Ordination Stories of Presbyterian Women. Louisville, Ky.: Geneva Press, 2006. Personal stories of women in the Presbyterian ministry. Chapters include “Didn’t Know Where I Was Headed” and “From the Kitchen to the Pulpit: A Korean Woman Pastor’s Journey.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loetscher, Lefferts A. A Brief History of the Presbyterians. 4th ed. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983. Beginning with the European background, the author traces the growth of the Presbyterians and includes a discussion of the debate over the ordination of women and the development of a racially inclusive church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacGregor, Geddes. The Thundering Scot: A Portrait of John Knox. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1957. This short biography of the founder of Presbyterianism in Scotland helps readers understand the attitudes toward women and the Bible that Scots settlers brought to the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Matthews, Rex D. Time Tables of History for Students of Methodism. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2007. A comprehensive history of the Methodist movement, written especially for students. Places in context the social, political, and cultural history of Methodism, from 1700 to 2004.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parker, T. H. L. Portrait of Calvin. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1964. A brief sketch of the life of the Protestant reformer John Calvin, whose teachings are the basis for all Presbyterian and Reformed Churches. Those seeking ordination for women and many women Presbyterian ministers appealed to the open-minded attitude toward the Bible developed by Calvin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Short, Roy H. United Methodism in Theory and Practice. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1974. Written by a bishop in the Methodist Church, this is a practical guide to understanding the operation of the church and how women and men are appointed pastors of churches.

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