The debate over women’s roles in the Southern Baptist Convention’s conservative ascendance is often seen as secondary to theological and biblical concerns. Elizabeth Flowers argues, however, that for both moderate and conservative baptist women—all of whom had much at stake—disagreements that touched on their familial roles and ecclesial authority have always been primary. And, in the turbulent postwar era, debate over their roles caused fierce internal controversy. While the legacy of race and civil rights lingered well into the 1990s, views on women’s submission to male authority provided the most salient test by which moderates were identified and expelled in a process that led to significant splits in the Church. In Flowers’ expansive history of Southern Baptist women, the “woman question” is integral to almost every area of Southern Baptist concern.
The following is an excerpt from chapter 1 of Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women and Power Since WWII (pp. 27-29):
On August 9, 1964, Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, ordained Addie Davis to the gospel ministry—the first ordination of a woman by a Southern Baptist church. It came well ahead of many mainstream Protestant bodies and only one year after the publication of The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.
Davis was a well-educated, professional, and single woman from a long line of Virginian Baptists. She grew up in Covington Baptist Church, the very church that her great-great-grandfather had pastored. From an early age, Davis felt called to preach. Speaking in the measured Virginian brogue that also characterized her sermons, she later narrated her story: “I was baptized between the ages of eight and nine. I have, as long as I remember, had a very strong religious interest. As a child I felt a call to preach but women were not preachers so I never expressed this openly.” It took Davis years to follow her sense of call. She graduated in 1938 from Meredith College, a Baptist women’s college in Raleigh, North Carolina, with a degree in psychology. She served briefly as the education director for a local Baptist congregation and then became the dean of women at Alderson Broaddus College, a Baptist school in West Virginia. When her father died four years later, she left her academic post to help her mother run the family furniture business. During this time, Davis became critically ill and vowed that “if I was permitted to live, I would do what I’d always felt in my heart that I should do, which was to be a preacher.”
In 1960, at the age of forty-three, Davis matriculated at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. When her home pastor in Covington made it clear that he would not recommend her or any woman for ordination, she turned to Watts Street Baptist. Davis knew Watts Street’s pastor, Warren Carr, as both he and Watts Street had achieved something of a reputation for their civil rights activism. In recalling his conversations with her, Carr said she was actually unaware that no other Southern Baptist congregation had ordained a woman. Davis’s strong sense of call swayed Carr, who insisted that “she belonged in the center pulpit, according to our tradition, to proclaim the gospel on the Lord’s Day.”
One might assume that her ordination would create a storm of controversy across the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). After all, during their first 100 years, Southern Baptists had debated almost every change in women’s denominational and ecclesial status, from their organizing for missions in 1888 to their being seated as convention managers in 1918. In 1929, the issue of women’s public speaking practically brought the annual convention in Memphis to a halt. Reaction to Davis’s ordination, though immediate, was also limited. Carr reported about fifty angry letters to Watts Street over the occasion, and Davis puzzled why people as far away as California would bother to write, one even denouncing her as a “child of the Devil.” As an unmarried woman, she must have found the letter instructing her to learn from her husband rather humorous. But by and large, the protests ended there. Like Davis, those who participated in the 1964 service remained largely unaware of the event’s historic significance. The SBC’s official news service, Baptist Press, simply ran a single story announcing the ordination with the veiled conclusion that “women graduates of Southern Baptist seminaries usually enter church vocations in education or music, become teachers or are appointed as unordained missionaries.” At the 1965 convention in Dallas, the topic was not raised, at least from the floor. Even more astounding, when asked in 1966 about women’s ordination, Marie Mathis, president of the Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU), insisted, “I’ve never heard of a woman wanting to be a minister, and I’ve been connected with women’s organizations in this faith since 1938. . . . I think it is women’s intuitive feeling that ministers should be men.”
Scholars have explained the event as an anomaly or aberration in Southern Baptist life. Davis was an unassuming and modest personality who dreamed of a pulpit rather than a debating chamber, and when she could not find a Southern Baptist placement, she moved to Vermont. Out of sight meant out of mind. Still, one is hard-pressed to accept that the major milestone for Southern Baptist women in the twentieth century could be so easily forgotten. It seems more likely that Mathis and the WMU were intentionally avoiding any hint of controversy. Like their male counterparts, WMU officials operated from the center. If Davis’s ordination became the symbol of progress for Southern Baptist women, as it was later touted, its downplaying also embodied the spirit of compromise that marked Southern Baptist life during the 1950s and early 1960s. By 1966, though, compromise was in jeopardy. The SBC was mired in an inerrancy debate, and despite the WMU’s best efforts, women were soon to be implicated. In fact, the controversy in 1971 surrounding the second ordination of a Southern Baptist woman by a Southern Baptist church stood in stark contrast to that of Davis’s ordination seven years earlier. The second ordination revealed the extent of which compromise had been eroded as well as the presence of the new interpretive lens of feminism.
From Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women and Power since World War II by Elizabeth H. Flowers. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Elizabeth H. Flowers is assistant professor of American religious history at Texas Christian University.
- Durso and Durso, “‘Cherish the Dream God Has Given You,'” 19. Davis’s story, as told in this section, comes primarily from Durso and Durso, “‘Cherish the Dream God Has Given You.'” See also Davis interview and Davis, “Called of God-Press On,” Boyce Centennial Library and Archives.↩
- Durso and Durso, “‘Cherish the Dream God Has Given You,'” 20.↩
- Ibid., 22-23.↩
- Pierce, “Addie Davis, First Woman Ordained as Southern Baptist Pastor, Dies at 88,” Associated Baptist Press, December 9, 2005.↩
- “Church Ordains Woman to Pastoral Ministry,” Baptist Press, August 12, 1964.↩
- “Southern Baptists Tell Why ‘Ministry Is for Men Only,'” Detroit News, May 24, 1966.↩
- Morgan, Southern Baptist Sisters, 174.↩