Over the past three months I have been doing extensive study on the development of ministry among early Seventh-day Adventists, from 1863 to 1881, and specifically, the practice of ordination. I’ve highlighted a few sources recently that pinpoint to a significant discussion during the late 1870s that culminated with a discussion on the topic at the 1881 General Conference session.
From what I can tell there were about 15 women who received a ministerial license from during this time period. I will be highlighting these various women in the coming weeks. I have noticed three sources for early Adventist women who were ministers: (1) some were previously ministers from other denominations; (2) others were Adventist young people who grew up and “labored” as ministers for a year or two before they “settled down” to raise a family; and, (3) there were a few female ministers who married ministers and formed a team ministry (similar to James and Ellen G. White).
Over the past few months I have seen a wide variety of papers for and against the ordination of women, and many use Ellen G. White’s writings. I think there is an important point that has been overlooked so far in the discussions. During Ellen G. White’s lifetime there were two prevalent views about the sphere of women in society, which included the church as well. On the one hand there were those who advocated the “cult of domesticity” that essentially women should obey their husbands, that they were not capable of thinking for themselves (and generally should not be encouraged to even read), and that their primary role was to raise children and maintain the “home circle.” On the other opposite side was the “women’s rights movement” that rose to primacy in 1848 at the Seneca Falls Convention in New York. This movement ultimately culminated in the Nineteenth Amendment (1919) with the right for women to vote. Obviously both movements had positive as well as negative aspects to it.
So where does Ellen G. White fit in?
I do not believe she fits in either category. And to make her advocate one or the other just does not do her justice.
Instead, I believe Ellen G. White advocated a biblical feminism that avoided either extreme. She clearly uplifted the role of women. The wife is the equal of her husband. She frequently rebuked husbands for being oppressive and counseled men to make decisions with their wives, not for them. The mother and wife is the queen of the home and her influence was the most important in the home circle. One of my favorite “testimonies” by Ellen G. White is where she rebuked a husband for not being more considerate of his breastfeeding wife. The same “testimony” included advice for the discouraged wife: “You are the woman.”
At the same time Ellen G. White expressed caution about the women’s rights movement. Some of the leaders were affiliated with spiritualism, from her perspective, and this was not something she felt Adventist women should be preoccupied with either. She consistently expressed caution to not get involved (unlike the “Woman’s Christian Temperance Union” of the 1870s and 1880s that she actively supports).
It seems to me that those who are either for against the ordination of women in the current debate tend to use Ellen G. White’s quotes that favor their position. Instead, I believe the historical context and the overall context of her writings demonstrate that she had her own unique perspective. Frankly, although we know she did talk on several occasions to groups of young ministers (especially in conjunction with an ordination service) that she did express views about the sacred nature of ordination, but she never comments specifically about the ordination of women to gospel ministry.
I think that if she were alive today, like any other theological conflict during her lifetime, she would urge people to resolve their differences through a careful study of the Bible. At least as far as she was concerned, she was far more interested in making sure that all church members, including ministers, were converted. Ellen G. White warned early Adventist ministers about getting caught up in titles, which is why she repeatedly called for ministers to become “laborers.” Only those who were converted could become effective in the Lord’s work. And Ellen G. White definitely saw a role for women as laborers in the Lord’s work.