Did Ellen White support the ordination of women?

If no direct support for ordination of women can be found in Ellen White's writings, can we perhaps find evidence that she supported it in her actions?

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

What does Adventist history show us about Ellen White and the ordination question? If she simply did not address the matter as an issue in her writings, and therefore neither endorsed nor explicitly forbade ordination of women (see "Did Ellen White Call for Ordaining Women?" Ministry, December 1988), can we perhaps discover her attitude by studying her actions? This article will ex amine claims made on the basis of certain historical documents and events in an effort to see whether these can show that she supported ordaining women as pas tors or elders. Some key statements by Mrs. White on women's role in gospel work will be presented at the end.

Was Ellen White herself ordained?

There is no record of Ellen White ever having been ordained by human hands. Yet from 1871 until her death she was granted ministerial credentials by various organizations of the church. The certificate that was used read "Ordained Minister. " Several of her credential certificates from the mid 1880s are still in our possession. On the one from 1885 the word ordained is neatly struck out. On the 1887 certificate, the next one we have, it is not.

Had she been ordained in the interim? Some have argued that she had. But the question is settled definitely by her own hand. In 1909 she filled out a "Bio graphical Information Blank" for the General Conference records. On the blank for Item 19, which asks, "If ordained, state when, where, and by whom," she simply inscribed an X. This is the same response she made to Item 26, which asked, "If remarried, give date, and to whom." In this way she indicated that she had never remarried, nor had she ever been ordained. She was not denying that God had chosen and equipped her, but she indicated that there had never been an ordination ceremony carried out for her. 1

Why then do some of her credentials say "ordained minister"? The fact that "ordained" was sometimes crossed out highlights the awkwardness of giving credentials to a prophet. The church has no such special category of credentials. So it utilized what it had, giving its highest credentials without performing an ordination ceremony. In actuality, the prophet needed no human credentials. She functioned for more than 25 years prior to 1871 without any.

Licensing of women ministers

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 man date 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 Tuttle was licensed.2 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, 1871.3 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, 4 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 re quests 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." 5

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." 6 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." 7

After discussion in which eight delegates spoke to the issue, the resolution was referred to the General Conference Committee.8 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?

Ellen White's silence

Mrs. White was not present at the 1881 General Conference session. She likely read the report of the resolutions in the Review a few weeks later or heard about them from her son W. C. White, but we have no record of her making any comment one way or the other on the matter. This is harder to explain from the position that she favored ordination than from the position that she opposed it. Proponents of ordination today deny that her silence lent approval to the handling of the matter. They say that her silence must at least be viewed as permissive in light of her encouragement to women to participate in the work of the church and her responsibility to warn the church against error.

Ellen White's silence, by itself, neither promotes nor precludes ordination for women. But if she favored it, why didn't she speak out when the church veered away from ordaining women? She may simply have felt that the issue was not important. Or if she felt that the church should not ordain women, she may have made no comment on the resolution simply because none was necessary. No corrective was needed, because the church was not about to begin ordaining women.

She took a similar course at first in relation to the pantheism crisis a few years later. In connection with this crisis, which came to a head with the publication of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg's book Living Temple, she wrote that:

"About the time that Living Temple was published, there passed before me, in the night season, representations indicating that some danger was approaching, and that I must prepare for it by writing out the things God had revealed to me regarding the foundation principles of our faith. A copy of Living Temple was sent me, but it remained in my library, unread. From the light given me by the Lord, I knew that some of the sentiments advocated in the book did not bear the endorsement of God, and that they were a snare that the enemy had prepared for the last days. I thought that this would surely be discerned, and that it would not be necessary for me to say anything about it." 9

Had the church leaders discerned the danger of the concepts in Living Temple and moved against it, evidently Mrs. White would have said nothing. Yet her silence would not have been permissive in regard to pantheism. Only when it was clear that the error was gaining ground did she speak out.

Charged to protest injustice

If denying ordination to women were (as some today claim) arbitrary, unjust, and oppressive, we could expect Ellen White to speak out. She stated, "I was charged not to neglect or pass by those who were being wronged. I was specially charged to protest against any arbitrary or overbearing action toward the ministers of the gospel by those having official authority. Disagreeable though the duty may be, I am to reprove the oppressor, and plead for justice. I am to present the necessity of maintaining justice and equity in all our institutions." 10

The women who might have been affected by the 1881 resolution were licensed as ministers of the gospel, but church officials did not see fit to permit their ordination. Mrs. White spoke strongly in favor of the women workers being paid and paid fairly, even from the tithe; 11 she spoke about the importance of supporting aged ministers; 12 she protested against unfair treatment of Black ministers; 13 but she had nothing to say when the General Conference declined to ordain licensed women ministers. Evidently she did not see this as "arbitrary," "overbearing," or a matter of "justice and equity."

Again, one must be careful not to claim too much on the basis of silence. Yet Mrs. White's silence on the ordination issue should make one slow to claim that she gave her support or influence to the cause of bringing women into the ordained pastoral ministry.

The final claim of the scenario we have been examining is that Ellen White called for women to be ordained and for them to be paid from the tithe. We have already examined the passages that are used to say that Mrs. White called for women to be ordained to the gospel ministry (see "Did Ellen White Call for Ordaining Women?" Ministry, December 1988), and we have found that they do not make such a call. Yet we must recognize that Mrs. White did call for women to be involved in an active personal ministry, and that she envisioned paying from the tithe the women workers who gave themselves whole-souled to this work, "although the hands of ordination have not been laid" 14 upon them. But there is no basis in her writings nor in Adventist history for saying that Mrs. White supported ordination of women to the gospel ministry.

Mrs. White's view

What then was Mrs. White's view of the ministry of women? Though there are no indications that she called for women to serve as ordained elders or pas tors, she presents a broad view of service for women in God's work. She saw women as able to do a great work for Christ in personal contacts, bringing the message for this hour into homes and families. And she recognized and cited important contributions they could make in various leadership responsibilities in the church as well.

For instance, she called for training to be offered for women in our schools. Speaking of Avondale, the newly opened school in Australia, she said, "The Lord designs that the school should also be a place where a training may be gained in women's work." After enumerating certain domestic and educational training to be included, she added, "They are to be qualified to take any post that may be offered superintendents, Sabbath school teachers, Bible workers. They must be prepared to teach day schools for children." 15

She described the important mission women could fulfill: "Wonderful is the mission of the wives and mothers and the younger women workers. If they will, they can exert an influence for good to all around them. By modesty in dress and circumspect deportment, they may bear witness to the truth in its simplicity. They may let their light so shine before all, that others will see their good works and glorify their Father which is in heaven. A truly converted woman will exert a powerful transforming influence for good. Connected with her husband, she may aid him in his work, and become the means of encouragement and blessing to him. When the will and way are brought into subjection to the Spirit of God, there is no limit to the good that can be accomplished." 16

While Mrs. White emphasizes a husband-wife ministry here, single women ("the younger women workers") are also included. The type of work is not designated, but would surely include the various lines of work that we have noted before. She says that with modesty and propriety, with the will and way brought into subjection to God, women may let their light shine and may exert a limitless influence for good.

Personal ministry

In Testimonies, volume 6, Ellen White published an article called "Women to Be Gospel Workers." Presumably it rep resents fairly what her view of women as gospel workers really entailed. In it she stressed the importance of personal work for others, then went on to write of the work that women are to do> after first speaking of what they are to be. "The Lord has a work for women as well as men to do. They may accomplish a good work for God if they will first learn in the school of Christ the precious, all-important lesson of meekness. They must not only bear the name of Christ, but possess His Spirit. They must walk even as He walked, purifying their souls from everything that defiles. Then they will be able to benefit others by presenting the all-sufficiency of Jesus.

"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.

"A direct necessity is being met by the work of women who have given them selves to the Lord and are reaching out to help a needy, sin-stricken people. Personal evangelistic work is to be done. The women who take up this work carry the gospel to the homes of the people in the highways and the byways. They read and explain the word to families, praying with them, caring for the sick, relieving their temporal necessities. They present before families and individuals the purifying, transforming influence of the truth." 17

So the core of her burden for women was that they do personal work with women and families. If done in the right spirit, under the influence of Christ, "the light of His countenance . . . will give them a power which will exceed that of men. . . . Their labor is needed."

This need is still with us today. Though some urge this need as a reason that women should be ordained, Mrs. White envisioned women performing this ministry without reference to their serving as ordained elders or pastors. She said that such ministry is capable, when rightly done, of exhibiting a power greater than that of men. It is noble work, needed work. In defining women's work in this way, she has in no way belittied it. 18

Such statements appear in many places in Mrs. White's writings. 19 Her view is consistent: without calling for ordination of women as pastors or elders, she urged a vigorous participation of women especially in personal ministry.

Ellen White's view of women's ministry requires no change in church structure or polity, yet its implementation would revolutionize the church's practice. There would be a great increase in personal work being done, both by paid full- and part-time workers and by volunteer laborers. If the work were done in the spirit of Jesus, the women would show a power greater than that of the men. There would be an explosion in the numbers of people won to Christ and His truth through the gentle, appealing ministry of women. There would be healing in the home relationships, as godly women workers challenged men to reflect the self-sacrificing headship of Christ in their own relationship with their wives, and women to honor that headship as they would the headship of Christ. Families would be strengthened, and the church would make a start on the road to showing a world filled with hurting and broken families what a difference the practice of the Lordship of Jesus really makes.

1 Arthur L. White, "Ellen G. White the
Person," Spectrum 4, No. 2 (Spring 1972): p. 7.
The Biographical Information blank is on file at the
White Estate office in Washington, D.C. A photo
copy is in Document File 701 at the White Estate
branch office, Andrews University.

2 Review and Herald, Aug. 26, 1875, p. 63.

3 Ibid., Sept. 12, 1871, p. 102.

4 Ibid. June 12, 1879, p. 190.

5 Letter 32a, 1880.

6 Ibid. This was evidently a problem affecting
the church at large, for in the next year Mrs. White
published an 82-page pamphlet entitled Bible Sanctification:
A Contrast of the True and False Theories
(Battle Creek, Mich.: Steam Press, 1881). This
was an edited version of a series of 10 articles
published in the Review and Herald between January 18
and May 3, 1881. Their appearance in pamphlet
form in the same year of their pubication in the
Review indicates the importance they held for the
church. Bible Sanctification was later republished as
The Sanctified Life (Washington, D.C.: Review
and Herald, 1937).

7 Review and Herald, Dec. 20, 1881, p. 392.

8 Ibid.

9 E. G. White, Selected Messages, book 1,
pp. 202, 203.

10 Review and Herald, July 26, 1906, p. 8 (also in
Selected Messages, book 1, p. 33).

11 E. G. White, Evangelism, p. 492; see also
491 concerning fairness in pay.

12 Ibid.

13 Testimonies, vol. 9, p. 223.

14 E. G. White manuscript 43a, 1898 (also in
Gospel Workers, p. 452).

15 Evangelism, p. 475 (letter 3, 1898).

16 Ibid., pp. 467, 468 (manuscript 91, 1908).

17 Testimonies, vol. 6, pp. 117, 118.

18 She cautioned others concerning that danger:
"Seventh-day Adventists are not in any way to
belittle woman's work" (Evangelism, pp. 492, 493).

19 See, for example, Christian Service, pp. 27-29;
Evangelism, pp. 459-461,464-478,491-493; Gospel
Workers, pp. 452, 453; Welfare Ministry, pp. 143-
166; and Counsels on Health. She also calls for
women to become involved in medical missionary
work, some as doctors and nurses, and others as
nonprofessionals.

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

February 1989

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