Dr. Heather Murray Elkins spent her childhood in two places.
Winters were spent in West Virginia, summers near Tuscon, Arizona. Her parents brought their United Methodist roots with them to the west, and started a church “with about 28 people.
The church first met in people’s homes, and included a Women’s Society of Christian Service (WSCS) chapter, a predecessor to the United Methodist Women. “I remember watching women get together in kitchens,” said Elkins. “As the group developed, I saw their consciousness change when they realized they weren’t alone.”
She recalls the important role women’s groups have played in the United Methodist Church. “John Wesley has a series of “Letters of Laywomen” he paid to have published about the ministry women were doing in prisons at the time,” she said.
Elkins says whenever she is confused - or doubts where the church is headed - she remembers those letters.
“There I find women who were not afraid to go out and do the work that needs done, according to their gifts and graces,” she said.
Today, that might sound normal. But the Methodist Church began in a society that was heavily patriarchal; it was not a place where women had access to political power or leadership.
Women in the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren traditions organized about the same time in history (1869-1893) when women and children were legally classified as “chattel, legally dead, non-persons.”
In 1869, Mrs. William Butler and Mrs. Edwin Parker, wives of missionaries to India, were home on furlough. They spoke to a group of women in Boston. Mrs. Butler told about the desperate spiritual and physical needs of women in India. A male doctor could not treat women. Schooling for girls was almost non-existent.
Single, trained and dedicated women were needed for medical and educational work.
The six women present called another meeting, wrote a constitution, and organized the Methodist Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society (WFMS). By November 1869, the newly formed organization raised funds and sent Isabella Thoburn, an educator, and Clara Swain, a doctor, to India.
Those roots, says Elkins, should be a point of inspiration for the United Methodist Women of today and the denomination in general. “These women were fearless and creative,” she said. “They knew what community was all about.”
Understanding that church is optional for women today is also important, she says. “For our mother and grandmothers, church was the center of our life out of the home,” she said. “Today, that is no longer true.”
The majority of women in the United States now work outside the home.
According to a 2010 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 59.2% of women over the age of 16 are in the work force. The same report found women held 51.4% of management, professional and related positions in the U.S.
Elkins points out the important role early groups for women in the Methodist church played in giving women opportunities to lead when few were available.
“There was a time when women didn’t know how to run a meeting, because they couldn’t serve on a committee, much less lead one,” she said. “Women’s Society groups gave them a chance to grow as leaders.”
At the end of the day, says Elkins, the message has not changed. “It’s about human beings needing the power of Christ.”
The church has a chance, in the midst of chaotic, challenging times, to reclaim it’s relevancy. “Times like this are when the what has happened in the past resurfaces, and can inspire us to move forward,” she said.
Rev. Dr. Heather Murray Elkins was the keynote speaker at the WV Conference UMW Fall Meeting in October 2010. She is a professor of worship, preaching, and arts at The Theological School at Drew University in Madison, NJ. She is the author of Holy Stuff of Life and Worshiping Women: Re-forming God’s People for Praise, and is an ordained elder in the WV Conference.