By Sasha A. Ross
Those familiar with the history of the Adventist church know that women worked extensively to advance the gospel even before our earliest 19th-century days as a fledgling denomination. A motion was made for the General Conference to discuss women’s role in ministry in 1881.1 Long before that, Adventist women were giving Bible readings, praying with families, conducting Sabbath School, preaching the Word, organizing camp meetings, training church workers, and ministering to students alongside their male counterparts.
Ellen White’s lifelong service for the gospel
In 1878, Ellen G. White proclaimed, “Sisters, God calls you to work in the harvest-field and help gather in the sheaves.”2 In 1886 she wrote, “It was Mary who first preached a risen Jesus; and the refining, softening influence of Christian women is needed in the great work of preaching the truth now.”3 And in 1898 she asserted, “There are women who should labor in the gospel ministry. In many respects they would do more good than the [male] ministers who neglect to visit the flock of God.”4
White began her 70-year public ministry in 1844 at age 17, sharing her personal testimony and using her prophetic gift to speak publicly. Alongside her husband, James, she promoted Sabbath keeping, exposed incorrect practices and beliefs, called listeners “back to the purity of Bible truth,” and traveled “seeking to bring souls into Christ’s kingdom.”5 In 1881, following her husband’s death, White moved to California and resided with her son Willie in Oakland. While there, she spoke at a camp meetings in Sacramento and helped establish Healdsburg Academy (now Pacific Union College) in 1882.6
In 1884, when the SDA Yearbook began publishing annual lists of credentialed ministers, White was recognized as an “ordained” minister, with credentials listed under the General Conference.
In 1884, when the SDA Yearbook began publishing annual lists of credentialed ministers, White was recognized as an “ordained” minister, with credentials listed under the General Conference. Her distinction of serving as an ordained minister continued for many years, including under the California Conference (1888).7 She served alongside an increasing number of women evangelists who were given ministerial licenses, including Sarah A. Hallock Lindsey, Adelia Patten Van Horn, Ellen S. Edmonds Lane, and Julia A. Owen.
In 1890, after various travels, White moved again to California and purchased the Elmshaven estate in St. Helena that she used as a home base for the rest of her life. She continued preaching and writing about God’s grace and provenance throughout human history. White was, and remains, an incredible role model for both women and men who seek “to minister in His church and to evangelize among the unsaved” as she did despite many challenges and constraints.8
While in Melbourne, Australia, White sent a letter to church leaders in 1898 to report on the work, wherein she pled the case of four ministers’ wives who were giving their whole time and yet were told they would receive nothing for their labors “because their husbands receive their wages.” White argued against this practice, saying that the ministers’ wives had to pay for childcare despite not themselves being paid, and she compared their treatment to the proofreaders and housekeepers who were paid fairly. White vowed to create a fund to pay women working in ministry from her own tithe money if the conference would not. She wrote, “I know that the faithful women should be paid wages as is considered proportionate to the pay received by ministers. They carry the burden of souls, and should not be treated unjustly.”9
Other licensed women ministers in early Adventism
Several founding church mothers, or “sheroes,” served in ministerial capacities alongside Ellen White in the early Adventist Church, including Lindsey, who received a license from a local conference in 1872, well before the 1878 General Conference Session that adopted the resolution “to issue a ministerial license to those competent and sound in doctrine.” Similarly, Lane and Owen were both licensed in 1878, with Owen serving in ministry for over two decades, including as a licensed minister in the California Conference from 1888 until her death in 1898.10
In 1884, Heady Hurd—then a public school teacher in Lemoore, California—attended a Seventh-day Adventist camp meeting in Oakland, where she was intrigued by the music as well as the sermons on prophecy and Bible truths. She enrolled in Bible studies and decided to join the Adventist church in her hometown, as well as a training program for Bible workers in San Francisco. She was so convicted that she left her teaching career and began preaching, giving Bible readings, and teaching others to evangelize. In 1901, she became a licensed minister for the Adventist Church and served in the California Conference from 1910-1911, continuing on behalf of the General Conference until 1919. She is known for training church workers in Africa as well as in Australia and England.11
In 1901, Mrs. Carrie V. Hansen was listed as a licensed minister in the Utah Conference. Mrs. J.E. Bond served as a licensed minister in the Arizona Conference from 1904-1906. In 1908, Mrs. Lulu (J.S.) Wightman was called from New York State to Reno, Nevada, then a part of the California Conference, and was listed as an ordained minister similar to Mrs. White. She was a well-known Seventh-day Adventist evangelist and public speaker, especially passionate on the subject of religious liberty.12 Mrs. Ella H. Osborne served as a licensed minister in the Northern California Conference for at least a decade, from 1920 to 1930.
In 1921, Mary E. Walsh began her work as an evangelist and licensed minister in New England. Born in 1892, she was a British subject, although being raised Catholic in the northern part of Ireland. She emigrated to New York City as a young woman to live with extended family and work as a nurse. After attending several evangelistic lectures by Professor C.T. Everson and studying carefully on her own, Walsh converted to Adventism and—despite being ostracized by her family—grew in faith and quickly joined an evangelistic team in the northeast in 1917.
Walsh published articles in denominational periodicals so often she was issued a press pass by the denomination in addition to her ministerial license. She was known for training many lay people and church employees for evangelism. In 1953, the Pacific Union called her to serve in the home missionary department, where she worked until applying for retirement a decade later, although she remained licensed in the Pacific Union through 1965. In total, Walsh devoted 60 years to the ministry. In 1981, the General Conference nullified her credential.13
Adventist women’s evangelism and church leadership declined after Ellen White’s death in 1915, and for many years Adventist women ministers remained poorly recognized and under-compensated.14 Their work nevertheless continued and laid the framework for the growing role that women in gospel ministry play in the Pacific Union today.
1Bert Haloviak, “Route to the Ordination of Women in the Seventh-day Adventist Church: Two Paths,” unpublished paper (March 18, 1985). The agenda and resolutions passed at the General Conference business proceedings held in Battle Creek, Michigan, on Dec. 5, 1881, are also reprinted in Appendix C of Josephine Benton’s Called by God: Stories of Seventh-day Adventist Women Ministers (Smithsburg, MD: Blackberry Hill Publishers, 1990), p. 235. The motion proposed to ordain qualified women as pastors: “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.” The motion was not acted on.
2Ellen G. White, “Address and Appeal, Setting Forth the Importance of Missionary Work,” The Review and Herald (Dec. 19, 1878), para. 14.
3White, “Women as Christian Laborers,” The Signs of the Times (Sept. 16, 1886), para. 10.
4White, “The Laborer Is Worthy of His Hire,” Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 13 (13LtMs), manuscript 43a (March 22, 1898), para. 9.
5Called by God, pp. 139, 140ff.
6Called by God, p. 47. Around the turn of the century, she also traveled by train through Southern California and found it so beautiful that she recommended the purchase of land and buildings to form the College of Medical Evangelists (established in 1905), which would later become Loma Linda University and Medical Center.
7The California Conference predated the Pacific Union, which was established in 1901. Its constitution was expanded in 1906 to include California, Nevada, Utah (which received statehood in 1896), and the territory of Arizona (which would not receive statehood until 1912). Pacific Union Recorder (March 8, 1906), as discussed online at https://www-puconline-org.adventistfaith.org/our-history.
8Called by God, p. 152.
9Excerpt from a letter from Ellen White to “Brethren Irwin, Evans, Smith and Jones” on behalf of four ministers’ wives (“Sisters Starr, Haskell, Wilson and Robinson”), Letters and Manuscripts, vol. 13 (13LtMs), letter 137 (April 21, 1898), par. 24. Reprinted in Called by God, Appendix A (section 7.4), p. 228.
10She is listed in the SDA Yearbook by her husband’s initials (G.K.) from 1888-1891, and by her own initials (J.A.) from 1892-1898. Called by God (Appendix B), pp. 229-231.
11Called by God, pp. 154-155. N.B.: Hurd is listed by her husband’s initials, Mrs. S.N. Haskell, in the SDA Yearbook.
12Called by God, p. 80.
13The GC changed the definition of licensed ministers relative to Internal Revenue Service requirements, thereby making women ineligible. This change is discussed in Called by God, p. 210 (fn. 2), as well as p. 135.
14Gary Chudleigh noted in 2014 that before Merikay Silver’s lawsuits against the Pacific Press in the 1970s, “church policy enabled almost all Adventist Church entities in the United States…to balance their budgets by paying women a lot less than men, even for the same work.” His research is reprinted as Appendix B in Martin Hanna and Cindy Tutsch’s book, Questions and Answers about Women’s Ordination (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 2014), p. 144. See also Merikay Silver, Betrayal: The Shattering Sex Discrimination Case of Silver v. Pacific Press Publishing Association (Austin, TX: Mars Hill Publications, 1985).
Sasha A. Ross holds a double B.A. in history and French from La Sierra University and an M.A. in church-state studies from Baylor University. From 2013-2016, she served as director of the Women’s Resource Center and taught in the global studies program at La Sierra University. She lives with her family in Riverside, California.