This coming Sunday is Mother’s Day, a day when we honor and give thanks for our mothers. All of us, however, have been shaped by multiple women. Perhaps our mothers were the principal caregivers when we were growing up, but many feminine hands have shaped us, encouraged us, and corrected us. This is a day when we can give thanks for all the faithful women who in one way or another have “mothered us” and remember how they enriched and brighten our days.
One of my enduring memories of my own mother comes from a family fishing trip when I was a child. It is 6:00 a.m. on rainy day in mid-November; we are drifting along the shore of a Tennessee lake. My 2 brothers, my father, and I are casting minnows under the rock ledges at the water’s edge hoping to entice a large bass to strike. My mother is sitting in the front of the boat in a heavy coat with a plastic sheet pull over her head. She is reading a copy of “The Ladies Home Journal,” carefully turning the pages with gloved hands. We are staying in a cabin at a fishing camp where we cook all our own meals and must clean the place before we leave.
We made this trip twice a year. It never occurred to me that this was not my mother’s vacation of choice. In retrospect, I suspect it was not. In the 1980’s, she went back to work as a nurse and began to earn money. She and my dad started going on cruises about that time. Apparently she found her voice concerning vacations.
Women have been finding their voice in Baptist churches for centuries. In 17th century England, when women were allowed no leadership role in the Church of England, Baptists were part of the nonconformist movement, which permitted women to preach and engage in ministry. In 1846, Ruth Bixby was licensed to preach in Iowa by her Baptist church. The first extant record of a woman’s ordination in America dates from 1869 when a Rev. A. Gerry was ordained among northern Free Will Baptists. Rev. Susan Elizabeth Cilley Griffin (1851-1926), of the Elmira Heights Baptist Church, NY State, was the first woman whose ordination was nationally recognized by our denomination (called the Northern Baptist Convention, at that time).
Rev. Edith Hill is an excellent example of a woman finding her voice among her fellow Baptists. On Friday April 13, 1894, at 8:00 pm, the ordination council for Miss Hill convened. The church was full to capacity. Miss Hill recited eighty-five scriptures affirming the place of women in the public work of the church. The Rev. Scott preached a sermon on Psalm 68:11 and Galatians 3:28. Then Miss Hill was asked about her Christian experience, her call to public ministry, her experiences in pursuing that calling, and her theology. The ordination council was quite impressed. They conferred and then recommended that the (Eden) First Baptist Church of Pittsburg, KS, delegate her to the work of an evangelist and, in the absence of an ordained person, that she be authorized to administer the ordinances. Upon hearing this recommendation, Miss Hill replied: “I hope that the church will remember that the condition under which I [accept] the pastorate is that I shall be regularly ordained as a minister of the Gospel.” This was said quietly and distinctly amid the profound and sympathetic silence of the congregation. The mover of the motion explained that he had misunderstood and withdrew his motion. Since the crowd that day was in no mood for the compromising of what they felt to be the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the committee conferred a second time and recommended full ordination. Rev. Scott offered the prayer of ordination, a Brother Martin gave the charge to the candidate, and Rev. Hill offered the benediction. They probably ate potato salad and chicken after that. In that crowded church, the voice of Rev. Hill was heard. Rev. Hill spent three years as the pastor of [Eden] First Baptist Church of Pittsburg, where she immersed 170 men and women.
Quietly and distinctly, boldly and faithfully, women have been speaking words of grace, challenge and healing in our lives and our churches. As mothers, teachers, neighbors, friends, and pastors, they have enriched our lives and our congregations by exercising their gifts and pursuing their diverse callings under God. This is one reason why I am proud to be an American Baptist. The full partnership of women in our churches is not universally affirmed, but it is characteristic of our ABC/USA family. This is a character trait that sets us apart from many other Baptist groups. As we worship on this Mother’s Day and give thanks for the women who have nurtured our spirits, we can have a sense of pride that the voices of women have been and are being heard in our churches. We can give thanks for courageous women like Rev. Edith Hill who would not permit their voices to be muted.