On May 4, 1956, the General Conference of the Methodist Church approved a change to the Book of Discipline granting full clergy rights to women. Two women, Maud Jensen and Grace Huck, were the first ordained after this historic decision, however, they were not the first women to preach or even be ordained in the Methodist tradition.
John Wesley was the first Methodist to license women to preach. In his famous sermon “On Visiting the Sick” he attacked the idea that women be required to be submissive and said of the idea that “women are only to be seen but not heard”, that it was “the deepest unkindness . . . and I know not how any women of sense and spirit can submit to it.” However, after his death, ideas began to change. In 1828, the Methodist Protestant Church split off from the Methodist Episcopal Church and it was this branch of Methodism which was the earliest to recognize women’s gifts in this area. The first woman to receive ordination was circuit rider Helenor Alter Davisson when she was ordained to preach by her father Rev. John Alter on July 25, 1863 at the Conference of the Bradford circuit in Indiana.
Helenor was born on January 24, 1823, the oldest child of Rev. John Alter and his first wife, Charity VanAusdall. When her mother died, Helenor was 14 and found herself responsible for the family home and seven siblings. At one point, she nursed the entire family, ill with typhoid fever, while keeping the family sawmill going. By the time her physician uncles arrived to help, she had become ill and almost died.
In 1842, at the age of 19, Helenor married John Draper. Not much is known of this time in her life, but the history of UMC in Remington, Indiana, states that in the 1840s there were two local circuit riders, Rev. John Alter and his daughter, Mrs. Helenor Draper. Together they organized a Methodist Protestant Church at Alter’s Grove in 1849. A few years later they joined with another congregation to form the Grand Prairie Circuit (later known as the Bradford Circuit). Both Helenor and her father are listed as starting the charge, as well as “ministers”, as opposed to the other categories of “preacher”, “exhorter”, or “class leader.”
The fate of Helenor’s first husband is unknown, but on March 4, 1864, she married Thomas Davisson, son of Moses Davisson, another Methodist preacher. In 1865 and 1866, Helenor chaired the Quarterly Conference meetings. Although it is clear that she was a very active leader and minister in the church, it wasn’t until August of 1866 that she was designated as approved for Deacon’s orders and became the first official female ordinand in American Methodism. The next year she is listed as the pastor of the Grand Prairie Circuit.
There were challenges to Helenor’s official ordination, but in spite of this, she continued to travel the circuit and preach until her health began to fail shortly before her death on October 9, 1876.
Originally published in the Wingate UMC newsletter for August 2015.
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