I grew up in a denomination in which women couldn’t (and still can’t) be ordained, but without whose labor, dedication, fundraising, and financial support the church would cease to function. Sometimes the acknowledgment of women’s contributions is used as a way to downplay the validity of women’s ordination (See, women don’t need to be ordained in order to contribute in very important ways), which serves as a distraction from the reality that the church needs to equip all its members to serve in the ways God calls them to serve.
It may be my upbringing amongst energetic, committed, and capable lay women in the church, as well as my membership now in the Episcopal Church in which women serve faithfully in all areas of ministry, that makes me appreciate women in the history of the church whose contributions enabled and equipped the ministry of others.
Two such women are Mary Abbot Twing and her younger sister, Julia Chester Emery. Julia’s life and witness has been celebrated in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar since 1997 on January 9, the anniversary of her death in 1922.
Julia Chester Emery (left) and Mary Abbot Emery Twing
Mary Sudman Donovan writes about both in a fascinating article, “Zealous Evangelists: the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions,” in the Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, vol. 51, no. 4, 1982, pp. 371–383.
In 1862 a resolution at the Episcopal Church’s General Convention “urged that the House of Bishops explore ways to incorporate more fully into the church ‘the services of women whose hearts God has moved to devote themselves to works of piety and charity.’ . . . Finally in 1871, a Board of Missions Committee proposed to form a woman’s society to assist with mission work and secured General Convention approval of a vaguely worded statement allowing ‘the formation of such Christian organizations as may consist with the government and rules of the Church.’ With that lukewarm endorsement, the Women’s Auxiliary was born” (page 371).
Julia Chester Emery, born September 24, 1852, served 40 years as the second secretary of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church, starting at age 24.
During her time as secretary, she traveled to every diocese in the Episcopal Church to coordinate and encourage support of missions and traveled the world to visit every woman worker sent abroad by the Episcopal Church, including in Japan, China, Hong Kong, and the Philippines.
Julia Emery was also instrumental in starting the United Thank Offering (UTO) in 1889 (then, the United Offering), giving women small boxes into which they could deposit coins in gratitude for some blessing in their lives. Significantly, the UTO was a way the women could raise funds for mission, something they had been doing for decades, and also control the distribution of the funds the women raised. The first offering of about $2200 went to fund a church in Alaska and a church worker in Japan. The UTO now raises over $1 million per year.
One of Julia’s several published works was A Century of Endeavor, 1821-1921: a record of the first hundred years of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
Julia succeeded her older sister, Mary Abbot (1845-1901), who served as the first secretary of the Women’s Auxiliary, a role in which she was charged with “organizing women for mission and . . . encouraging female vocations within the church.” Mary served for 4 years and resigned the position when she married, but her support of missions and working to promote women’s vocations in the church continued in other ways.
Mary Abbot Twing worked to increase employment opportunities for women in churches and in church-sponsored institutions through efforts such as organizing the Society for the Royal Law, which connected wealthy benefactors and church and charitable workers. She was responsible for the canon on Episcopal Deaconesses as an order in the church at the 1889 General Convention.
Mary traveled twice around the world, visiting missionaries and reporting on their work. She wrote articles that she later assembled and published in a book, Twice Around the World (1898). By 1900, 79 women served in domestic missions in the Episcopal Church, and 75 in foreign missions. Episcopal women eventually outnumbered men working in missions.
Mary Sudman Donovan quotes Mary Abbot’s vision: “the day is sure to come and man’s work and woman’s work in the Church will clearly be seen to be only co-ordinate parts of one great and glorious whole” (383).
Ideas about what counts as “man’s work” and “woman’s work” have changed in the Episcopal Church, in part due to the hard work of dynamic and dedicated sisters. The “glorious whole” is still ahead of us, but thanks be to God for holy women and holy men who urge us onward.
Learn more at:
Donovan, Mary Sudman. “Zealous Evangelists: the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions.” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, vol. 51, no. 4, 1982, pp. 371–383.