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by Josephine Benton

There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free,
there is neither male nor female;
for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

 —Galatians 3:28, RSV

Opening Thoughts

"I Knew a Woman Minister"

During June 1973, Elder N. R. Dower and I met in a crowded aisle of the book exhibit at Potomac Conference camp meeting. He was ministerial director of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists; I had just been asked by the Potomac Conference Committee to become an associate pastor at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church, an action considered to be highly innovative by most people.

"Josephine," Elder Dower asked me in his genial way, "Did you know that I started in the ministry under a woman?"

I was too nonplussed to ask many questions. I did manage to write down, "Elder Dower interned in the ministry under Jessie Weiss Curtis in Pennsylvania." Looking at that note afterward, I wondered, "Who was this woman minister? Why have we never heard of her?"

Several months later, as I shook hands with worshipers departing from Sligo Church, a guest grasped my hand warmly and exclaimed, "I knew a woman minister!" She was assuring me that as a woman pastor I was not unique, for her sister-in-law had also been an Adventist minister. She offered to send me the relative's ministerial license.

Suggesting that the family should keep the original document, I said I would be glad to receive a copy, along with other material that was being offered. Thus I learned more about Jessie Weiss Curtis.

During the 1980s I interviewed several of Mrs. Curtis' family members and had the privilege of preaching in the church that she raised up in Drums, Pennsylvania. There I visited with several of her converts, friends, and relatives. What I learned about this capable, dedicated, yet humble evangelist thrilled me (chapter 5).

The following letter to the editor of Insight magazine in 1974, with the heading under which it was published, aroused my interest concerning another woman minister:

A Real Lady Preacher
I have been interested in the various discussions about women ministers in our denomination. It may interest you that my mother was baptized into the SDA Church back in the early 1900s by an ordained minister, a Mrs. Minnie Sype. I quote from a recent letter of my mother:
"I met Mrs. Sype in Hawarden, Iowa, in 1908. That's when I first heard of the Adventist faith. She was a minister. Her husband did the housework at home and he also led the song services for the tent meetings. She was a powerful speaker as I remember." . . .

—Thomas E. Durst, Colville, Washington.1

In the Yearbook for 1908, the year specifically mentioned, I found Minnie Sype among the ministers of the Iowa Conference. Although she was not ordained, it was significant that she was functioning in 1908 as a licensed minister; moreover, she was not alone, for the Iowa Conference had another female licensed minister that year also, Mrs. G. R. Hawkins.

Becoming curious concerning whether women ministers may have been serving in other conferences as well, I leafed through the little 1908 Yearbook. I found Mrs. Bertha Jorgensen among the licensed ministers of the North Dakota Conference; in the General Conference, Mrs. E. G. White appears as an ordained minister and Mrs. H. H. Haskell as a licensed minister; Mrs. J. S. Wightman is listed as an ordained minister of the California Conference.

Naturally the question arises, How is it that Mrs. White and Mrs. Wightman are included among the ordained ministers? As much information as I have been able to assemble in answer to this question will be found in the coverage of Ellen White in chapter 7 and Lulu Wightman in chapter 3.

Pleasantly surprised to find six women listed as ministers in 1908, I looked in other Yearbooks. I made a list, simply going by names that seemed obviously to be those of women. Later, the General Conference Archives staff enhanced this list, which you will find in Appendix B. It is by no means exhaustive, and a great deal more work could be done in this area.

Like fragments of glass, bits of information have come to me concerning some of these ministers, here a bright scrap and there a colorful piece, gradually forming together into stained glass cameos of women who have been active in ministry over the years but whose history has been largely forgotten.

Several women's ministries are described in some detail in chapters 1-7; brief coverage of additional pioneer women evangelists and pastors is provided in chapter 8. The account is brought to the present in chapter 9 with the briefest mention of a group of living women who are active or retired ministers. Chapter 10 considers a Biblical analogy, and in the conclusion we take a look into the future in light of the past and present.

My purposes in writing are three:
(1) I believe that readers will take inspiration for their own lives from the dedication shown by these women ministers in times of challenge, crisis, and rich reward as they have answered their individual calls to ministry.

(2) For women who today understand themselves to be called to the ministry, these courgeous women who have led the way can serve as role models.

(3) I hope church leaders and lay members will realize that women ministers are not an innovation of the 1970s in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination, but rather have been woven into the warp and woof of our denominational fiber from the earliest years. Although in the minority, they have served with distinction, bringing hundreds, yes, thousands of converts to rejoice in Christ and the church. Today Adventist women ministers continue this tradition.


1 Thomas E. Durst, "A Real Lady Preacher," Insight (May 7, 1974): 2-3

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