The Wesleyan Church's Roots in Women's Equality

The first time I visited the famed historical site for women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York, my emotions surprised me.

By: Jo Ann Lyon & Jake Hreha

The first time I visited the famed historical site for women’s rights in Seneca Falls, New York, my emotions surprised me. The Women’s Rights National Historical Park is where the first Women’s Rights Convention took place. There, in the summer of 1848, suffragettes, abolitionists, and other 19th-century reformers gathered to fight for civil rights, human rights, and equality.

In the history of America and the world, the fight for women's rights and gender equality has been a long journey. There are still women in the world that are fighting for women's suffrage and to be recognized by their government as an equal part of society. The fight has not been easy for women who have been the victim of domestic violence, sexual violence, fair and equal wage discrimination, and gender discrimination in the eyes of the government. Women in the world still face gender-based violence and do not feel safe. These atrocities are just a few of the many struggles women have had to overcome and still are in many ways.

An issue that is prevalent, even in America today, is the gender pay gap. Women are often not paid the same as their male counterparts. In recent years equal pay has improved but there are still companies and industries where most women are paid less than men. Thankfully there has been more attention brought to the issue of equal pay and changes are being made.

Today, women's suffrage takes action in countries across the world. Women and girls in America have been given the right to vote and be fully present in the United States government. This is not the case with governments around the world. Many women do not have a say in political life in their countries. In these countries there are often not equal educational opportunities. Sadly, in countries where women are not treated equally it is more common for women to have experienced sexual violence. Women's rights is a continuous battle throughout the world and something that should not be overlooked.

A Struggle For Gender Equality

Before my visit, I had studied the “Declaration of Sentiments” written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott. This manifesto described women's grievances and demands and called on women to fight for their equal rights. I thought of how courageous these women were amid a culture that limited their personhood by preventing them from voting, owning land, or acting independently. These thoughts overwhelmed me.

When I stood in front of the small brick wall, the remains of the Wesleyan Chapel where the first meeting took place in 1848, unexpected tears rolled down my face. This significant historical moment in the United States has had an important impact on my faith heritage.

In 1853, shortly after the 1848 Seneca Falls event, Antoinette Brown became the first woman to be ordained in the United States. She was ordained by Luther Lee, the founder of the Wesleyan Methodist Church. I connected with her story as a woman in ministry.

Why Women's Rights Matter

Through further study, it became evident that the fight for women’s rights was not just a social movement, but one grounded in scripture and the will of God. We are all created in the image of God, designed to do His work, and called to bring hope and healing to a broken world. No one is unqualified to do the will of God, despite what society may say.

During the early 1900s, the call for women to preach, minister, and lead was prevalent. Seth C. Rees was one of the founders of the new Wesleyan Church. He made this statement in a booklet he wrote:

“Nothing but jealousy, prejudice, bigotry, and a stingy love for bossing in men have prevented women’s public recognition by the church. No church that is acquainted with the Holy Ghost will object to the public ministry of women. We know scores of women who can preach the Gospel with a clearness, a power, and an efficiency seldom equaled by men. Sisters, let the Holy Ghost fill, call and anoint you to preach the glorious Gospel of our Lord.

My heritage sounded a call in my soul when I read those words—but I must admit, I would probably be removed from the pulpit if I made that statement publicly today. However, as I think of the context in which Rees wrote those words, I realize they must have been even more radical then! Our early leaders were serious about women’s value and contribution to the church and society.

Our world needs more courageous leaders who live according to scripture and apply the lessons of our rich history. We should encourage women to live to their full potential and lead at all levels of society and the church—just as God intended.

Jo Ann Lyon

General Superintendent Emerita, The Wesleyan Church

Jake Hreha

SEO Copywriter, IWU

Jake Hreha is a graduate of Ball State University, where he majored in advertising with a concentration in media presentation and design. He is passionate about design, and in his free time he enjoys cycling, traveling, and reading.

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