(part of the Baptist Heritage in the 21st Century Pamphlet Series)
by Charles W. Deweese
Women deacons played a key role in Baptist origins almost four centuries ago. Led by John Smyth, Baptists organized the first Baptist church in history in 1609, in Amsterdam, Holland. Led by Thomas Helwys, Baptists formed the first Baptist church in England in 1611-1612. Documents written by Smyth and Helwys in the early 1600s clearly favored women deacons.
The first reference to women deacons in Baptist literature appeared in a 1609 writing by Smyth in which he claimed that “the church hath power . . . to Elect, approve & ordain her own Deacons both men & women.”
Written by Helwys in 1611, the first English Baptist confession of faith included among church officers “Deacons Men, and Women who by their office relieve the necessities off the poor and impotent brethren concerning their bodies, Acts. 6:1-4.” Along with other officers, women deacons were to be chosen “by Election and approval off that Church or congregation whereof they are members, Act. 6:3, 4 and 14:23, with Fasting, Prayer, and Laying on of Hands, Act. 13:3 and 14:23.”
Amazingly, other documentary evidence for ordained women deacons, fully equal to men deacons, is rare in Baptist life between the early 1600s and the early 1900s. For about 300 years, deaconesses prevailed in Baptist church life, at least in those churches that chose to use them. Baptists typically did not ordain deaconesses and viewed them as assistants to deacons. Deaconesses usually met separately from deacons.
Two key factors, among others, led to the demise of women deacons in the 1600s and converted them into deaconesses: general cultural resistance to women as leaders in the church and the influence of John Calvin, Protestant Reformer of the 1500s. Calvin’s 1541 list of church officers (pastors, doctors/teachers, elders, and deacons) was the most important church order produced by the Protestant Reformation. That order exerted heavy influence on Baptist development, and it did not include women.
Most major Baptist confessions of faith written by English Baptists in the 1600s put women in their place. Typical was the Somerset Confession of 1656, which stated unequivocally that “THE women in the church [are] to learn in silence, and in all subjection.”
Times have changed. In 2005, thousands of Baptist churches in the United States include women in their deacon bodies with equal treatment with men in nomination, election, ordination (or non-ordination, as among American Baptists), and duties. And hundreds of deacon bodies in these churches have named women as chairs. Many factors have contributed to these developments. Examples include:
1. The Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s-1970s
2. The adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
3. Discussions about women’s ordination resulting from the ordination of Addie Davis to the ministry in 1964 by the Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, as the first Southern Baptist woman so ordained
4. The 1971 Supreme Court ruling that treating persons unequally based solely on sex violated the 14th Amendment
5. Discussions of a possible Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s
6. Formation of American Baptist Women in Ministry in 1974
7. Freedom themes inherent in the American Bicentennial Celebration of 1976
8. The human rights initiatives of President Jimmy Carter
9. The publication of such books as Evelyn and Frank Stagg’s Woman in the World of Jesus (1978) and H. Leon McBeth’s Women in Baptist Life (1979)
10. Official human rights pronouncements adopted in the 1960s-1980s by the American Baptist Convention (American Baptist Churches, USA), Southern Baptist Convention, and Baptist World Alliance
11. Formation of the Women in Ministry SBC organization in 1983 (later Southern Baptist Women in Ministry and still later Baptist Women in Ministry)
12. The rise of the Southern Baptist Alliance in 1987 (today the Alliance of Baptists)
13. The rise of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 1991
14. Escalation of interest in the topic resulting from the Southern Baptist Convention’s 1984 resolution opposing women’s ordination and the SBC’s limiting of pastoral service to women in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message; and from the SBC North American Mission Board’s 2002 decision not to endorse ordained women as chaplains and its 2004 decision not to provide new church-start money to churches with ordained women deacons.
Women deacons exist in Baptist churches all across the United States. For example, in Missouri they serve or have served in such churches as First Baptist, Jefferson City; Kirkwood Baptist, Kirkwood; Memorial Church, Columbia; Second Baptist, Liberty; University Heights in Springfield; and Webster Groves Church, Webster Groves.
Among states in the South, North Carolina probably has more churches with women deacons than any other state, with Virginia a close second. Dozens and dozens of North Carolina churches use women deacons, and many have made them chairs.
The percentage of churches with women deacons related to the American Baptist Churches, USA, is much higher than churches related to the Southern Baptist Convention. Most American Baptists do not ordain deacons, male or female; therefore, ordination is not the barrier to women that it often is in the South. A far higher percentage of churches related to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ordain women deacons than do Southern Baptist churches. Most African-American Baptist churches tend to use deaconesses, although some have women deacons.
A new resource details the full history of women deacons and deaconesses among Baptists: Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service (copublished by the Baptist History and Heritage Society and Mercer University Press). This 259-page book can be ordered by calling 800-966-2278 or by e-mailing Pam Durso at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles W. Deweese is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society in Atlanta, Georgia.
 John Smyth, “Paralleles, Censures, Observations,” The Works of John Smyth, 2 vols., ed. W. T. Whitley (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1915), 2:509. Spelling updated.
 William L. Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith, rev. ed. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1969), 121-22. Style and spelling updated.
 John Calvin, “Draft Ecclesiastical Ordinances,” in Calvin: Theological Treatises, trans. J. K. S. Reid, Library of Christian Classics 22 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 58.
 Lumpkin, 210.