Did Ellen White call for ordaining women?

What was Ellen White's belief regarding ordination of women? Are the statements some cite in favor of ordination really relevant to the issue?

William Fagal is director of the branch office of the White Estate at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

What was Mrs. White's stance in regard to the ordination of women? Her prophetic role and her involvement in the founding and nurturing of the Seventh-day Adventist Church make this a question of interest to Adventists today. In recent years some have proposed that we may find support in Mrs. White's writings for ordaining women as pastors or elders. This study examines the main passages that people are using in support of women's ordination to see what those passages actually teach.

The "ordination" statement


In 1895 Ellen White wrote the following: "Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister; but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church. This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor. Not a hand should be bound, not a soul discouraged, not a voice should be hushed; let every individual labor, privately or publicly, to help forward this grand work. Place the burdens upon men and women of the church, that they may grow by reason of the exercise, and thus become effective agents in the hand of the Lord for the enlightenment of those who sit in darkness."1

Careful reading of this statement reveals that:

1. This ministry is part-time. "Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time ..." Therefore from the start it does not seem to be referring to pastoral ministry.

2. The work is something other than that which the church was already doing. "This is another means of strengthening and building up the church. We need to branch out more in our methods of labor."

3. Since "in some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers 2 or the minister," she does not equate them with the minister, nor does she regard them as the officers whose responsibility it is to lead the local congregation.

Was Mrs. White here calling for an ordained woman ministry? If one uses the term ministry in its broad sense of service, yes. But she has clearly distinguished this ministry from that of the pastor or the leading church officers.

Further, the article from which the statement comes is entitled "The Duty of the Minister and the People." It calls for involvement of the laity in the work of the church. Its purpose is not to change the structure of the pastoral ministry, but rather to change its emphasis from a focus on the minister's work to one in which the laity is active and motivated.

Ordination of women physicians

Since Mrs. White said that women should train as physicians, 3 and in another statement calls for a "setting apart" of physicians who are engaged in missionary work and soul winning, some have felt that the two statements together indicate that she felt that women should be ordained. The statement about physicians reads as follows:

"The work of the true medical missionary is largely a spiritual work. It includes prayer and the laying on of hands; he therefore should be as sacredly set apart for his work as is the minister of the gospel. Those who are selected to act the part of missionary physicians are to be set apart as such. This will strengthen them against the temptation to withdraw from the sanitarium work to engage in private practice." 4

Does Ellen White here call for physicians to be ordained as ministers? She could have said so much more directly: "He therefore should be set apart as a minister." But instead, she said the physician is to be "as sacredly set apart... as is the minister." He is "to be set apart as such." As what? As a missionary physician. That is made even clearer by the motivation for doing it"to strengthen [him] against the temptation to withdraw from the sanitarium work to engage in private practice." Ordaining physicians as ministers would not be likely to have a bearing on that, but ordaining them as missionary physicians would.

When studying Mrs. White's calls for ordination, one must not fail to consider the positions those calls concerned. Neither of the above statements supports the assertion that she called for women to be included in the ordained pastoral or church elder ministry.

Women in the gospel ministry

Ellen White said clearly, "There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry. In many respects they would do more good than the ministers who neglect to visit the flock of God."5 Women who do such labor, especially full-time, were to be paid fairly from the tithe for their work. "The tithe should go to those who labor in word and doctrine, be they men or women." 6 She added, "Seventh-day Adventists are not in any way to be little woman's work."7

Some believe that Mrs. White thus called for elimination of any role distinction between men and women in the ministry of the Adventist Church. The fairness she urged in the treatment of women workers, they say, should be understood to include ordination to the gospel ministry irrespective of gender.

Yet Mrs. White did not make that connection. Her statement "There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry" comes from a manuscript whose opening paragraph says: "The ministers are paid for their work, and this is well. And if the Lord gives the wife as well as the husband the burden of labor, and if she devotes her time and her strength to visiting from family to family, opening the Scriptures to them, although the hands of ordination have not been laid upon her, she is accomplishing a work that is in the line of ministry. Should her labors be counted as nought, and her husband's salary be no more than that of the servant of God whose wife does not give herself to the work, but remains at home to care for her family?" 8

The subject under discussion is the pay of ministers' wives, and the kind of work they are doing is described as visiting homes and opening the Scriptures to the families. Further, rather than seeing ordination as a remedy to the injustice regarding pay, Mrs. White dismisses it as irrelevant to the issue. Her point is simply that those ministers' wives who function as what we would call Bible instructors are "accomplishing a work that is in the line of ministry," and they should be paid for it.

It is in this setting that Mrs. White's statement "There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry" appears. The sentence that follows it underscores the nature of the work she envisioned for these women: "In many respects they would do more good than the ministers who neglect to visit the flock of God." Immediately she adds, "Husband and wife may unite in this work, and when it is possible, they should. The way is open for consecrated women." 9

So it seems that she was not calling for women to function in the same roles as do men, but rather to have a complementary ministry that focuses on personal work. She noted that women were not ordained, but gave no hint that that practice should change though she called in strong terms for reform in pay practices: "The Lord has settled it. You are to do your duty to the women who labor in the gospel, whose work testifies that they are essential to carry the truth into families." 10 She even thought of setting up a fund from her own tithe money to pay certain ministers' wives who were giving their whole time to giving Bible studies and working with families, but who were not being paid. 11

Women as pastors to the flock

In the above statement about women who should labor in the gospel ministry, she describes that labor as we would the work of a Bible instructor. She associated this work with care for (visiting) "the flock of God." This statement may provide a key to understanding more clearly a statement published a short time later in an article entitled, "The Canvasser a Gospel Worker": "All who desire an opportunity for true ministry, and who will give themselves unreservedly to God, will find in the canvassing work opportunities to speak upon many things pertaining to the future, immortal life. The experience thus gained will be of the greatest value to those who are fitting themselves for the ministry. It is the accompaniment of the Holy Spirit of God that prepares workers, both men and women, to become pastors to the flock of God." 12 The remainder of the paragraph describes the character-building benefits of engaging in the canvassing work.

Was Ellen White here calling for women to be appointed pastors of churches, and therefore perhaps even to be ordained to that ministry? There are several indications that she was not.

First of all, when Ellen White wrote about ordained church pastors, she typically referred to them as ministers rather than pastors. In cases in which she used the term pastor she seems to have done so with a specialized meaning in mind, using the term to refer to a person doing personal labor in the nurture of the flock, rather than a particular church office or position.

For example, she wrote about an Elder H who told "the poor sheep that he would rather be horsewhipped than visit. He neglected personal labor, therefore pastoral work was not done in the church and its borders. . . . Had the preacher done the work of a pastor, a much larger number would now be rejoicing in the truth." 13

Speaking of ministers who devote excessive time to reading and writing, she said: "The duties of a pastor are often shamelessly neglected because the minister lacks strength to sacrifice his personal inclinations for seclusion and study. The pastor should visit from house to house among his flock, teaching, conversing, and praying with each family, and looking out for the welfare of their souls." 14

She again expressed her concern for personal care for the flock this way: "Responsibilities must be laid upon the members of the church. The missionary spirit should be awakened as never before, and workers should be appointed as needed, who will act as pastors to the flock, putting forth personal effort to bring the church up to that condition where spiritual life and activity will be seen in all her borders."15

In each instance here the concept of pastor is associated with the function of personal work for the flock of God, even when it is done by members of the church other than the minister. One who visits families, who teaches and prays with them, who shows personal care and interest, is doing pastoral work.

If Mrs. White intended to open the regular pastoral ministry to women, we might well expect her to give strong emphasis to the point rather than simply mentioning it as an aside in an article focusing on the canvassing work. In the same volume of Testimonies we find an article entitled entitled, "Women to Be Gospel Workers." 16 Its focus also is on personal work in families and with other women, with no mention of the workers being ordained ministers.

The same volume also includes a chapter entitled "Young Men in the Ministry," 17in which, after saying that "the Lord calls for more ministers to labor in His vineyard," she adds, "God calls for you, young men. He calls for whole armies of young men." 18 The whole chapter is a call for men to enter the ministry, with no mention of women doing so. The same sort of gender-specific call for the ministry of men also appears in the chapter "The Need of Educational Reform." 19 It seems only natural to expect these articles to urge women also to join the ranks of ministers if Mrs. White believed that women canvassers were preparing for ordination.

It seems that Mrs. White did not envision men and women doing the same work of ministry. Rather, she called for women especially to undertake a personal ministry of visitation and instruction in the home. 20 Such a work was necessary, important work, and was "in the line of ministry," 21 though often neglected by the men. The work of these women would complement rather than duplicate the regular ministry of the men. And there is no call for ordination connected with it.

Women engaged in the ministry

Some have thought the following pas sage calls for women to serve as ministers in the same capacity as men: "Young men and young women who should be engaged in the ministry, in Bible work, and in the canvassing work should not be bound down to mechanical employ ment."22 The context is a call for our institutions to train young people for evangelistic work.

One could argue that in this statement Mrs. White is urging both young men and young women to go into all three lines of labor. But that is not necessarily the case. The statement may be under stood simply as urging young people to go into whichever line of evangelistic work that is suitable to them, without trying to specify what is appropriate to each gen der. The burden of the message is not to change church policy to make room for women to serve in the same capacities as men, but rather to encourage the employment of both men and women in soul-winning work.

"Woman ministry"

"Address the crowd whenever you can."23This injunction, published in Evangelism in a section the compilers en titled "Women in Public Ministry," was directed to Mrs. S.M.I. Henry, who had been granted a ministerial license the previous year. Some have taken it as Mrs. White's encouragement for women to seek a preaching ministry, which today is equated with being an ordained minister of the church.

But in this injunction Ellen White is not promoting the employment of women as ministers in the usual sense of the term. The statement is in a letter from Mrs. White, published in Mrs. Henry's column in the Review, express ing a concern for the women of the church to be instructed in how to be servants of Jesus.24 Earlier paragraphs make it plain that Mrs. White was encouraging Mrs. Henry to minister to and address groups of women:

"If we can arrange, as you are now working, to have regularly organized companies intelligently instructed in regard to the part they should act as servants of the Master, our churches will have life and vitality such as have been so long needed.

"Christ our Saviour appreciated the excellency of the soul. Our sisters have generally a very hard time, with their increasing families and their unappreciated trials. I have so longed for women who could be educators to help them to arise from their discouragement, and to feel that they could do a work for the Lord." 25

Mrs. Henry spoke to Adventist and non-Adventist groups throughout the United States and Canada, presenting her plan for "woman ministry," which stressed the role of the mother in the moral education of society. Her work was the first approach the Adventist Church made to training parents and helping them with their problems. 26

When Ellen White herself published the material she had written to Mrs. Henry, she did not publish the entire letter, but reworked portions of it for general use. She published it in Testimonies, under the title "Women to Be Gospel Workers."27 And she left out the section containing the words "address the crowd whenever you can."


Mrs. White called for greater involvement of women in the work of the church. She encouraged a greater diversity of methods of labor, and she wanted women to see what great things they could accomplish for the Master. But she had no concern with today's social agenda. Her statements neither support ordination for women nor explicitly for bid it. None of her writings deal directly with this issue. It appears to me that she envisioned women fulfilling a role complementary to that of men, without concern for ordination as pastors or elders. God would bless their efforts.

"Women may take their places in the work at this crisis, and the Lord will work through them. If they are imbued with a sense of their duty, and labor under the influence of the Spirit of God, they will have just the self-possession required for this time. The Saviour will reflect upon these self-sacrificing women the light of His countenance, and this will give them a power which will exceed that of men. They can do in families a work that men cannot do, a work that reaches the inner life. They can come close to the hearts of those whom men cannot reach. Their labor is needed." 28

1 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, July 9,
1895, p. 434.

2 The assertion, advanced by some, that
"church officers" here refers to conference officials
is unlikely in view of Ellen White's use twice in this
article of the term "conference officers" to refer to
this group and her corresponding single use of "of
ficers of the church" to refer to the local church
leaders. She seems to have been able to avoid am
biguity on this point.

3 See, for instance, Ellen G. White, Medical
Ministry (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press,
1932), p. 140.

4 Ellen G. White, Evangelism (Washington,
D.C.: Review and Herald, 1946), p. 546
(manuscript 5, 1908).

5 Ibid., p. 472.

6 Ibid., p. 492 (see also p. 491 for fairness in

7 Ibid., pp. 492, 493.

8 Ellen G. White manuscript 43a, 1898. (She
protests such practices through much of the manu
script. More of what she says here may be seen in
Evangelism, pages 492, 493, though the material is
credited to other, later books and manuscripts of
Mrs. White.)

9 Ibid., (manuscript release 330). (Manuscript
releases are available from the Ellen G. White
estate, 6840 Eastern Avenue NW., Washington,
D.C. 20012.)

10 Ibid.

11 Ellen G. White letter 137, 1898 (manuscript
release 959), pp. 1, 2.

12 ____, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain
View, Calif.: Pacific Press, 1948), vol. 6, p. 322.

13 ____, "Experiences in Australia," p. 53,
written in Adelaide, Australia, Oct. 11, 1892
(manuscript release 763, pp. 5, 6).

14 ____, Gospel Workers (Washington, D.C.:
Review and Herald, 1948), p. 337.
15 Testimonies, vol. 5, p. 723.

16 Testimonies, vol. 6, pp. 114-118.

17 Ibid., pp. 411-416.

18 Ibid., p. 411.

19 Ibid., pp. 126-140.

20 We are reminded again of the statement quoted earlier:
"There ate w omen who should labor in the gospel ministry. In
many respects they would do more good than the ministers
who neglect to visit the flock of God" (Evangelism, p. 472;
italics supplied).

21 Ellen G. White manuscript 43a, 1898
(manuscript release 267, p. 1).

22 Testimonies, vol. 8, pp. 229, 230.

23 Evangelism, p. 473.

24 Ellen G. White, in Review and Herald, May 9,
1899, P . 293.

25 Ibid.

26 SDA Encyclopedia. (Washington, D.C: Re
view and Herald, 1976), pp. 581, 582.

27 Testimonies, vol. 6, pp. 114-116.

28 Ibid., pp. 117, 118.

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William Fagal is director of the branch office of the White Estate at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

December 1988

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