response: March/April 2019 Issue

Writing Our Legacy

Mission study author Ellen Blue reflects on writing Women United for Change: 150 Years in Mission.

Writing Our Legacy
Ellen Blue

Long before I began to work on the 2019 United Methodist Women mission study on the organization’s 150-year history, I wrote the history of St. Mark’s Community Center, established by Methodist women in 1909 and run by Methodist deaconesses for many decades. It took 12 years from the time I began researching until St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans appeared. There were several moments when I should have been smart enough to quit. Most of the records had been thrown out at St. Mark’s itself and at the national level, and I pretty much pieced the history together with tweezers. It was probably that work that led United Methodist Women to ask me to write this history. It gave me a big head start.

For instance, I went to the Brooks-Howell Home for retired deaconesses and missionaries in Asheville when I researched St. Mark’s, so I knew about their library. I love visiting there. I’d been to other relevant archives, too, and knew whom to ask for some things I needed. I especially appreciate the librarians at the United Methodist General Commission on Archives and History. 

In the preface of Women United for Change, I recount my visit about 20 years ago with a very different librarian who worked at a seminary renowned for its Methodist history collection. When I told him my research was on Methodist women’s history, he responded, “Women’s history? That’s not even a question we were asking.” Unfortunately, their collection of Methodist materials reflected that lack of interest.

We are all responsible for continuing to ask the questions about women’s history and its absence from mainstream Methodist scholarship. Finding the voices of our foremothers is, in my view, the most important agenda for Methodist historians of our time.

Honoring women’s work

I thought I had a feel for how much work this would require. I was wrong. Women in the many predecessor denominations had both foreign and home mission societies, and several had separate groups for women who worked outside the home. The challenge of finding information about each of them was immense.

I learned that while there were some differences among the groups, the similarities were overwhelming. Their values were similar, and their methods were, too. The men of the churches were usually alike, too, and the women’s societies experienced times when, against their will, their boards were subsumed into men’s mission boards, where they were given little representation.

The other thing that continually struck me was the vastness of the societies’ work. The mission study could address only a few of the stories from 150 years of work, but many millions have experienced God’s love and care through the work of our women.

Writing about the struggles our foremothers faced brings up many emotions. I feel pride in what women have accomplished, along with admiration at their ability to achieve it. I felt anger whenever I learned about yet another instance where men took over the women’s work, certain that they could do so much better than the women could—or perhaps afraid that the women might be doing just fine without them.

It’s crucial for Christians to recognize the distinction between the Holy One we worship and the church through which we attempt to serve the Holy One. Nowhere is this clearer than in the study of Christian history, so I’m accustomed as a seminary professor to talking about this with students. Any institution composed of humans is imperfect, and the church is no exception. It has made mistakes, and it’s also accomplished great good. Keeping in mind that God’s grace is always poured out on us is crucial.

I worked hard to keep the text interesting and readable despite the complexity of the predecessor organizations’ work. As a professor, I know students won’t recall every fact, but there are ideas I can leave with them. That’s my hope with the book, too.

Persistent women

Women in the societies were very much in the tradition of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, who was an ardent evangelist but who also started free health clinics and schools for poor children. He insisted his members should visit poor people and care for them in person. Methodist women studied Scripture and heard Jesus’ call to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger. They believed that bringing life abundantly meant proclaiming the Gospel, helping people spiritually and meeting physical needs. Their courage in establishing such ministries was remarkable. I hope their stories will fuel readers’ passion for following Jesus.

Sometimes we think belonging to organizations was easier in the past, a simpler time when people weren’t so busy. In fact, life was not easier 150 years ago. Women’s obligations were different, but there were not fewer of them. Imagine, for instance, trying to organize a group without telephones or electronic media, when every note or communication had to be handwritten. Unable to vote or serve as delegates within the church, they had to build support from men and persuade them to the rightness of the cause. Furthermore, working together was no easier back then than it is now. Personality conflicts and differences in leadership styles have always existed. But women did work together, and that work mattered.

I love Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow who asked a judge to give her justice (Luke 18:1-8). The judge repeatedly refused to help. Nevertheless, she persisted, and finally the judge said that, even though he didn’t care about God or people, he would grant what she asked just so she would stop bothering him. It’s clear to me that United Methodist Women members have brought life more abundantly to millions around the world because they simply wouldn’t stop trying to do what God had called them to do. I want readers to be filled with hope that God is still using United Methodist Women and still bestowing the courage, creativity and persistence they need to make such an impact in their own communities.

Ellen Blue is the Mouzon Biggs Jr. Professor of the History of Christianity and United Methodist Studies at Phillips Theological Seminary, ordained elder in the Louisiana Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church and author of the 2019 United Methodist Women mission study Women United for Change: 150 Years in Mission.

Posted or updated: 3/6/2019 12:00:00 AM

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