The nineteenth century saw an enormous increase in all sorts of evangelical ministry activity, including charitable efforts, political advocacy, as well as both local and global mission. Women were heavily engaged in all of this work. The history of theological and practical thinking from this period helps us today in several ways.

We can learn from our brothers and sisters—their reading and applying of Scripture, and the roles and systems they built to facilitate ministry. Today, as local churches and denominations think about deploying men and women for ministry, there are patterns we can appeal to, some of which, for various reasons, dropped out of popular consciousness and church practice over the last century.

A careful reading of history also addresses common but inaccurate claims. Some conservatives insist that appointing women to any formal ministry role is a concession to the rise of feminism. Some evangelical feminists make almost the same claim, arguing that evangelicals only mobilised women for ministry due to the insights, or insistence, of feminists. Others dismiss the theology and practice of complementarianism as an eccentric novelty invented at the end of the twentieth century.

This article gives an example of how these claims are overly simplistic. On the one hand, women were very active in ministry work and formal ministry roles well before the 1970s. On the other hand, Christian leaders sought to preserve a theological distinction between male and female ministry roles well before the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Women became increasingly involved in ministry for a range of reasons and with a range of motivations and self-understandings—social, philosophical and theological.

I’m going to describe how a conservative evangelical denomination proactively endorsed female ministry involvement from within its theological and ecclesiological tradition. By zeroing in on the history of just one denomination—the large and influential turn-of-the-century Presbyterian Church of Victoria—I hope we can also learn from the specifics of their particular history.


Deacons in the Presbyterian Church of Victoria

Sixteenth-and-seventeenth-century Presbyterian confessions and books of order recognised the office of deacon as an ordained office, alongside the minister, elder and doctor.[1] In the Second Book of Discipline (SBD), it is the power and responsibility of deacons to receive, and:

distribute the whole Ecclesiastical goods unto them, to whom they are appointed … [these goods include] the patrimony of the Kirk … all such things, as by laws or custom, or use of countries have been applied to the use and utility of the Kirk … which by common and municipal laws and universal custom are possessed by the Kirk.[2]

However, when the Presbyterian Church of Victoria (PCV) was founded, it did not explicitly recognise the deacon as an ordained office. The connection between managers and deacons was a common one, but it should be noted that in the PCV church managers were not ordained to a formal office. There was a curious and unsuccessful ‘memorial’ from the Board of Management of Kyneton to the 1877 General Assembly of Victoria (GAV) that proposed that since elders weren’t, in practice, adequately contributing to the Church Courts, Boards of Management should be formally recognised as Deacons Courts and so empowered to contribute.[3] In his 1910 history, Macrae Stewart also equates deacons with members of Boards of Management.[4] The explicit recognition of the office of deacon was therefore strangely refracted by institutional custom. The Church was not ordaining and empowering deacons, as such.

The introduction of the position of deaconesses to the PCV developed in its own direction. The PCV did not use the manager-deacon as a reference point, making seats on Boards of Management explicitly open to women. Rather, they went back to first principles.


The Case for Deaconesses

Before deaconesses were formally recognised by the PCV, women had actually already been active in a range of church and missionary activities in both home and foreign missions. The Presbyterian Women’s Mission Union (PWMU) was formed in 1890. While endorsed by the Assembly, it preserved a large amount of independence.[5] The PWMU proactively supported, funded and deployed many of the women involved in mission work.[6] But the formal establishment of the role of deaconess further normalised the employment and theological training of women. It widened the scope of practical, pastoral and evangelistic ministry by women in both church and home mission settings.

The proposal was first raised at the Commission of the GAV in 1894. A report from a special committee (the Committee Relative to Setting Apart of Women for Special Service in the Church) was then submitted to the next General Assembly. This report presented the scriptural and historical case for the ordination of deaconesses:

The word diakonos (deacon) is found in Romans xvi.i applied to a woman. And the mention in the 1st Epistle to Timothy, of the qualifications of women for service, occurring as it does in the middle of a passage referring to those of deacons, gives some ground for thinking that there was a kind of order of female workers in the early Christian Church …

In Titus ii. 3, there is a reference also to the demeanour required of aged women. And one of their duties is—to ‘teach that which is good.’ And the mention in 1st Timothy v. 9, of certain widows being enrolled in a special way, has been supposed to imply the existence of an official list of women-workers in the Church.

The quotations given, however, are somewhat vague, and it is questionable whether any one of them, or all of them put together, constitute sufficient ground for affirming that an order of deaconesses was really established in Apostolic times. It is not till the fourth century that we meet with a clearly defined order of Deaconesses regularly set up in the Christian Church.

The report was theologically cautious, conceding that its arguments were not conclusive. It drew attention to precedents for the appointment of deaconesses in the churches of Scotland, England, Germany and even the example of the Anglican Church in Australia. The committee argued that the appointment of women for special service was desirable, even without definitive evidence of an explicit scriptural office. In the light of all of this, the 1894 Assembly recognised “the expediency of setting apart suitably qualified women for special service in the Church”.

Clearly some members of the Assembly considered the role of deaconess to be a biblically sanctioned church office, and so for them, this move was one of restoration. The fact that the proposal was endorsed on the broader rationale of expediency reveals the way in flexibility in church structure was acceptable in the Presbyterian Church, without undermining its framework of biblical offices and church courts.

The committee’s report to 1895 Commission of Assembly observed that women were already “acting as Church visitors or Bible-women (whether with or without salary), in connection with our various Congregations” as well as “women Missionaries, now working in the foreign field”. Their proposal would give more formal recognition and structure to these arrangements:

in future all women who shall have been received as Missionaries by our Church, before proceeding to the foreign field, shall be set apart as Deaconesses by the Presbytery within whose bounds they shall have been residing.

The title deaconess is used, but the language of ‘set apart’ is chosen to describe their appointment, rather than ‘ordain’. This might show some hesitancy to imply that deaconess was a biblical office? But then again, the term ‘office’ itself is freely used to describe the role in PCV reports and minutes. Maybe a somewhat low view of the role is revealed in the lack of any doctrinal content in the proposed questions to be put to deaconess candidates at their public appointment—merely a promise to submit to the courts of the Church.

The report also anticipates the future establishment of a training institute for deaconess candidates, as existed in the Church of Scotland. Finally, the report proposes a “Guild” for other women, active in Church work, but unable to offer themselves to be set apart as deaconesses. At the 1895 Assembly the Committee assumed in-principle support for the Presbyteries for the proposal and successfully proposed a series of lectures to provide training to would-be deaconesses.[7]


The Training, Appointing and Deploying of Deaconesses

The following year, the Assembly approved the committee to proceed with the establishment of a formal training institute. Six deaconesses were admitted at the Commission of Assembly in 1898. Deaconesses were soon engaged in home mission, parachurch work, charitable work and foreign missions.[8] Deaconesses quickly made a significant contribution to urban ministry, but this required external funding. The 1906 Deaconess Report notes

that it is just in our city parishes, which are least able to support Deaconesses, that they are most needed. We have therefore appealed to our larger and wealthier congregations to help us to place Deaconesses in such localities.

It does need to be recognised that, with limited resources in the Victorian Church, there are some indications that deaconesses experienced comparative neglect. In 1908 the PWMU requested that the unmarried women missionaries be allowed to join the Infirm Ministers’ Fund and this was declined. The Union subsequently established its own “scheme for insuring the lives of our lady missionaries, with the view of providing them with a small retiring allowance”. Also in 1908, a motion requesting that the Theological Hall Committee “consider the advisability of arranging for a residence for lady students in connection with the College” met with no concrete results. In 1913 the salary for deaconesses supported by the Sustentation Fund was raised by from £70 to still only £72.[9]

Women didn’t sit on any Assembly Committee until 1909, when a committee was appointed by the Assembly to advise on future ‘rescue work’ in the wake of the planned closure of the Warrnambool Presbyterian Sisterhood home. This committee continued the precedent of appointing women and the closely related Girls’ Home Committee soon followed suit.[10] In 1913 the Deaconess Institute report moved “that it would be desirable to have two ladies representative of the Ladies’ Auxiliary Committee, and two of the P. W. M. U. on your Committee, as there are many interests common to all three.”

However, in spite of some indications of underappreciation, overall the ministry of deaconesses was received positively and integrated smoothly into the life of the PCV.[11]


In this survey of recognising deaconesses in the PCV, we see more than a mere grudging tolerance of women’s ministry. Australian historian Anne O’Brien goes beyond the evidence, when she generalises: “Churchmen needed women to do the work they would rather men did, but in absence of enough men, they made ideological adjustments necessary to accept women.”[12] Nor is there evidence to characterise the reasoning of the PCV as a manifestation of a drift away from traditional Presbyterianism to a generic, or even liberal, evangelicalism. Drawing on biblical and historical precedent, this cautious example of development of ministry roles increased the capacity of the Church for a whole range of ministry activities. The formalisation of the role of deaconess added recognition and momentum to the strategy of setting apart women for pastoral, charitable and evangelistic work.[13]

[1] See The Second Book of Discipline (SBD) chapter 2 and The Form of Presbyterial Church-Government, sec. Of the Officers of the Church. The Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) speaks only of “church officers” and provides little detail regarding church government, including the number and nature of offices in the church (chapters XXX–XXI).

[2] Chapters 8–9, 12. The authors are careful, however, to emphasise the subordination of deacons to the elders and ministers of the church even in these matters. The brief section “Of Deacons” in the Form of Presbyterial Church Government does not use the language of “power” to describe the deacon—their office is “to take special care in distributing to the necessities of the poor”—which might suggest a diminution of the office. (sec. Of Deacons).

[3] The memorial treated the both elder and deacon as lay rather than ordained offices. It intended to provide lay representation in the church courts.

[4] Stewart, The Presbyterian Church of Victoria: Growth in Fifty Years, 1859–1909, 106. In 1870, Irish Presbyterian theologian Witherow wrote: “Besides, the office of the deacon, existing at present only in some congregations, should be revived in every Church.” Witherow, The Apostolic Church: Which Is It? An Inquiry at the Oracles of God as to Whether Any Existing Form of Church Government Is of Divine Right, 59–60.

[5] The PWMU was formed in 1890 as an independent organisation with female leadership. A series of motions at the 1898 Assembly began with the proposal that members of the PWMU be given representation on the Foreign Missions Committee (FMC) and eventually led to formal denominational recognition of the Union. The 1899 Assembly resolved that the PWMU would retain its own Treasurer and Committee, that it would report annually to Assembly, that its finances should all pass through the Church accounts, that the Assembly has the right to appointment four members of the PWMU committee (but the Union may nominate two of these), that the FMC might appeal PWMU appointments and dismissals to Assembly.

[6] The FMC reported to the 1891 Assembly on “three carefully-selected lady missionaries” the PWMU sent to Korea, as well as work it hand begun among Chinese women and children in Melbourne.

[7] “The lectures might deal with such subjects as ‘Women’s Work in the Church’, ‘The Principles of Presbyterianism’, ‘District Visiting’, ‘Sick Visiting’, ‘Sick Nursing’, ‘Cookery for the Sick’, ‘Rescue Work Amongst Children’, ‘Methods of Bible Study’, ‘Women’s Work in Heathen Lands’”. Curiously no formal motion approving the proposal was put; merely a motion to commence the practicalities of training. More detailed rules were drawn up by the Deaconess Committee in 1904 and adopted in 1905.

[8] In 1909 deaconesses were active in Victoria: “Presbytery of Bendigo—Miss I. Bruce. Presbytery of Melbourne North—Miss Pye (Chinese School); Miss M. Stewart Neglected Children’s Aid Society; Miss Storie, Fitzroy; Miss A. McKenzie, N. Melbourne; Miss M. E. Downes, Fitzroy; Miss Young, Collingwood; Miss Barr, Brunswick. Presbytery of Melbourne South—Miss V. Bruce, Montague Mission; Mrs. Dick, Girls’ Home, Elsternwick; Miss Silk, Port Melbourne; Miss M. Mitchell, South Yarra; Miss Robertson, St. Kilda. Presbytery of Mortlake—Miss Laing, Collector for the Neglected Children’s Aid Society; Miss J. Henderson, Organising Secretary of the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union.” Deaconesses sometimes married Ministers and Missionaries as well.

[9] By comparison, the Sabbath School Agent’s salary was £150 and the incoming Director of Sabbath Schools was to £400. One rationale for comparatively lower salary was the expectation that deaconesses, unlike a married minister or assembly agent, would not be responsible for providing financially for their husband and children.

[10] Two member of this 1909 committee were deaconesses, a third, Mrs Eddington, was likely the widow of a Warrnambool benefactor. The Girls’ Home committee separated from the Sisterhood committee in 1908 and first appointed women in 1911.

[11] A move for the committee to exercise “general supervision” of deaconesses in 1910, possibly implying the unease of some members of the Assembly, stands out as exceptional. This suggestion was referred to the committee who took no further action.

[12] God’s Willing Workers: Women and Religion in Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2005), 38–39.

[13] This article has been adapted from my previous research: Faithful Flexibility: The Evolution of Ministry Roles in the Presbyterian Church of Victoria 1883–1913.