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Licensing of Women Ministers
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A number of women received ministerial licenses from the Seventh-day Adventist Church during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most of these were the wives of ordained ministers, and most of them apparently were engaged in personal labor similar to that of a Bible instructor today. Some notable exceptions are Minnie Sype, Lulu Wightman, and apparently Ellen Lane, who functioned effectively as public evangelists. But to date I have seen no evidence that women served as the leaders of churches. Further research may shed more light on this matter.

Some have suggested recently that the circumstances surrounding the licensing of women as ministers in the Seventh-day Adventist Church comprise a mandate for ordaining women today. The argument, in brief, is this:

The year 1878 saw two important events: The church first licensed women as ministers, and the church first called for an examination to be made of candidates for license, since it was understood that licensing would put women on the path to ordination. Ellen White took an active part in examining the qualifications of candidates for license, some of whom presumably were female. And shortly after the church began licensing women, it considered ordaining them. Though the proposal was not adopted, Mrs. White did not oppose it or warn against it. Rather, she later called for ordaining women to church ministries and paying them from the tithe.

Several inaccuracies appear in this scenario. First, Ellen Lane was first licensed not in 1878, but three years earlier in 1875, at the same time that Sister Roby Turtle was licensed. 30 Further, these were not the first women to receive the ministerial license. That honor seems to belong to Sarah A.H. Lindsey, who received a license from the New York and Pennsylvania Conference on August 9, 1871. 31 The licensing of these women therefore cannot demonstrate that the church at that time assumed licensing of women would lead to ordination. The policy calling for an examination prior to licensing anyone came seven years after the first woman was licensed, and the question of ordaining women would not be considered until 1881, 10 years after their first licensing.

Second, there is no absolute evidence that Ellen White took active part in the examination of candidates, male or female, for license. The assertion that she did is based on two pieces of evidence: (1) Mrs. White attended certain conference sessions at which women were granted the ministerial license, 32 and (2) she wrote the following comment about her stay at a camp meeting in Oregon—“I was unable to sit up yesterday, for with much writing, reining myself up to meet different ones who put in requests for license, speaking in public, and showing the unfitness of different ones to attempt to teach others the truth, it was too much for my strength.” 13

The statement does not say that she took part in examinations or, as has been claimed, that she recommended that some of the candidates not receive licenses. It merely lists things she had been doing and makes no connection between “meeting” license applicants and “showing the unfitness” of certain unnamed individuals to teach the truth. The lack of connection between those two elements is shown by the fact that they are separated by another item on the list—“speaking in public.” And there is not a hint here that any of the candidates for license are female.

If Mrs. White's “showing the unfitness of different ones to attempt to teach others the truth” was not in the context of an examination for a license, then what was it about? A possible clue occurs later in the same paragraph, where she describes her sermon of the night before: “I here brought in genuine sanctification and the spurious article which is so common.” 34 Was she counteracting false doctrine that was already being taught there, and showing the unfitness of those who were already teaching it? We don't know for certain. But it goes beyond the facts to assert that Mrs. White here said that she recommended that certain applicants not receive licenses.

The third inaccuracy in the scenario lies in the claim that the church considered ordaining women shortly after it began licensing them, indicating that licensing was understood to put them on the ordination track. We have already shown above that rather than three years (1878-1881), which would correspond roughly to today's typical time between licensing and ordination in the Adventist ministry, it was 10 years after the church started licensing women that it first considered ordaining them. And the events of that consideration need some further explication.

The Committee on Resolutions at the 1881 General Conference session introduced the following for consideration:

"Resolved, That females possessing the necessary qualifications to fill that position, may, with perfect propriety, be set apart by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry.” 35

After discussion in which eight delegates spoke to the issue, the resolution was referred to the General Conference Committee. 36 Referral to committee is a way to provide for more careful study of something on which the whole body is uncertain. It has also functioned at times as a means of dealing with something that will not pass, without having to vote it down. Though General Conference sessions were held yearly until 1889 (when they became biennial), neither the committee nor anyone else ever reintroduced the matter until recent years. Apparently the idea of ordaining women had little support in the church at that time. But did Ellen White support it?
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