Amidst the squalor of the poorest immigrant neighborhoods in late 19th
century Chicago, she walked neatly attired in her street-length black skirt, black shirtwaist and black bonnet with white ties. She educated young children, attended the sick and launched urban ministries. This young woman, full of love and compassion, called to be with and minister to those whom society had overlooked, was one of the first deaconesses of the former Methodist Episcopal Church.
The first generation of Methodist deaconesses who served at the turn of the last century lived in communal homes, chose not to marry, received a modest allowance, and wore a prescribed uniform of black dress and bonnet. These women, called by God and set apart for ministry, served in positions acceptable for their gender at that time: nurses, teachers, social workers and pastors’ assistants."
Creating a place in the church’s structure, polity for women called to social service ministries took many years of diligent work convincing skeptics and making a case for training and educating women, particularly middle-class women, to do work outside of their own homes. Looking to Paul’s commendation of Phoebe in Romans 16:1-2, Methodist women claimed the deaconess tradition in 1872, inspired by Theodore Fliedner who first restored the deaconess office to the Lutheran Church in Germany in 1836. Critics of the growing deaconess movement feared the similarities between deaconesses and nuns, and were reluctant to condone the formation of Protestant nuns.
Lucy Rider Meyer, founder of the Chicago Training School for City, Home and Foreign Missions, initiated Methodist deaconess work as an experiment. In the summer of 1887, Meyer took a group of her students into the city’s immigrant neighborhoods for house visits. Later, she joined by Isabella Thoburn, (the first single woman commissioned to serve in a foreign mission field by the Women’s Foreign Mission Society) to mentor and train this unofficial band of deaconesses.
At the 1888 General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Bishop James Mills Thoburn, brother of Isabella Thoburn, spoke in favor of legislation to create a denominational office of deaconess. He proved to be a persuasive and powerful ally for the deaconess movement as an all-male assembly of voting delegates approved the office of deaconess that spring. By October 1888, the first three deaconesses were consecrated and licensed by the Rock River Annual Conference (which included Chicago and much of what is now the Northern Illinois Annual Conference).
The deaconess office grew rapidly within Methodism. The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, created a deaconess office in 1902, as did the Methodist Protestant Church in 1908. Training schools, much like the one Meyer founded in Chicago, sprang up in other cities across the United States. When those three denominations merged in 1939 to become the Methodist Church, there were more than 1,000 deaconesses serving around the world.