What Did Happen in 1881?
By Monte Sahlin, December 29, 2012: It is becoming widely known that at the 1881 General Conference Session the delegates voted a resolution that it is OK for “females possessing the necessary qualifications to … be set aside by ordination to the work of the Christian ministry.” Because this is a surprising fact and because it runs counter to those who want to believe that their opposition to women’s ordination is in line with the Adventist heritage, considerable debate has sprung up. History is often not as simple as we would like it to be, and this is a case in point.
There are two original versions of the minutes from the 1881 GC Session. One was published in The Review & Herald and the other in The Signs of the Times. To further confuse things, there is also a third version of the minutes retyped in the late 20th century, about 100 years after the fact. All of these can be seen by anyone on the GC Archives web site.
One version includes the notation that the resolution was referred to the General Conference Executive Committee. The other version does not include this note. Some who are opposed to the ordination of women pastors point to that note as if it negates the resolution all together. In fact, there is no contemporary documentation to support that view, only the fact that the practice did not actually get started.
If you look through all of the published, contemporaneous minutes of GC Sessions around the time, you will see that there are many resolutions that include referral to a committee. When it is the intention of the body to have something studied further, the notation of referral says that clearly. When it is simply referred to the executive committee without specific language calling for “study,” the usual outcome was that the committee accepted the basic principle that was voted and gave attention to how to implement it. It appears that may have been the intention of the delegates in 1881.
Over the last three decades, researchers have scoured thousands of documents from the time and no one has ever found any document indicating that anyone among the Adventist leadership was opposed to the idea of ordaining women. The delegates repeatedly, session after session, for decades, voted to give Ellen White credentials as an ordained minister. (More about that in a minute.) Researchers have gone through the annual editions of the Seventh-day Adventist Yearbook listing all of the ministers and their credentials, and found that in the years after this vote in 1881, more and more of the women serving as ministers were given a Ministerial License. In the Adventist system, this has always been the first step toward ordination, followed five or more years later with ordination itself.
In fact, it is not until the second half of the 20th century that any Adventist has written anything suggesting that the ordination of women is “not biblical” or not proper. The founders simply did not believe that. If you look at the articles published in The Review & Herald on this topic, you will find that (1) they support women in ministry, (2) they answer most of the very same Bible texts that are brought up against the idea of women’s ordination today, and (3) these objections came largely from people outside the leadership of the Adventist movement and those who were opposed to the prophetic ministry of Ellen White.
Ellen White knew about the resolution voted at the 1881 GC Session. Her son and assistant, W. C. White, was present when the delegates voted it. He always informed his mother of all the business at such meetings. She was in California at the time, located a short distance from where The Signs of the Times was published and saw that version of the minutes.
The question that opponents of women’s ordination must answer is this: If it is important for the Adventist denomination to refrain from ordaining women to the gospel ministry, why did not the Messenger of the Lord speak out at the time? There is zero record of her ever suggesting there was anything wrong with the resolution voted by the delegates in 1881. If it is essential for Adventists to oppose this view, why did God not send some message indicating so?
Ellen White wrote thousands of messages giving guidance on hundreds of issues. She did not hesitate to convey even the most unwelcome message from the Lord. Does anyone believe that she ditched a message on this topic?
The ordained minister credentials issued to Ellen White for decades can be seen on the Web, in photographs in her official biography and under glass at the White Estate vault. Some have pointed out that in a few years (not the vast majority) a line was run through the word “ordained” with an ink pen. No one knows who did this. Some have proposed that she did it herself, but there is no evidence that this is true.
Some have said that these were not “real” credentials for an ordained minister, despite the fact that she was paid the wages of an ordained minister, but simply a tool to get discounted railroad fares. It is evidently true that her credentials were used to get a clergy discount on railroad tickets. But, if one is to argue that Ellen White did not consider herself a “real” minister in some sense, then we are left with the prophet of our church engaged in defrauding the railroad companies for decades. Is that a moral posture that you are comfortable with?
I don’t know in precise detail what happened in 1881. I was not there. Neither were the people who are so convinced they do know precisely what happened. We are left with a document trail that can be interpreted in various ways. We all need to be honest that how we interpret it is susceptible to our opinion on the larger issue.
What is clear to me is this: Early Adventists were not opposed to women’s ordination in the strong way that many who fancy themselves “historic” Adventists are today. That is something that leaked its way into the Adventist movement after Ellen White died in 1915 and after A. G. Daniels was not re-elected GC president in 1922. Historians have documented that from that time on, the number of women employed in the ministry in our denomination declined until, by the World War II era women ministers had almost disappeared.
I am not arguing here for or against the current issue. What I am suggesting is that we must be honest with ourselves about our history. If we make a decision based on false assumptions, we cannot expect the Lord to bless it, no matter how “biblical” we think it to be.