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Helenor Davisson

Featured Helenor Davisson

Through many dangers toils and snares, I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.

– “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound,” vs. 3, The United Methodist Hymnal


I sang this stanza a week ago Sunday at the dedication of United Methodist Historic Site No. 487.  The words came to life in the remembrance of the Rev. Helenor Alter Davisson and a cluster of places where she ministered around Rensselaer, Indiana.

I did not know about Davisson until prepping for my first official historic site visit as General Commission on Archives and History General Secretary.  It has been recently discovered that she is the earliest known woman ordained in the Methodist tradition, (1866), predating Anna Howard Shaw (1880).  Both women came from the Methodist Protestant branch of our tradition, living at a time when the Methodist Episcopal Church refused to ordain women.

The story of Davisson’s life and ministry journey stops me in my tracks.* The abridged version finds her heading westward with family from Allegheny County, Pennsylvania roots.   The trek took her mother’s life, so Helenor, at age 14 became caregiver to 7 younger siblings while her father, Rev. John Alter, ran the family saw mill and rode a Methodist preaching circuit.  When a debilitating fever struck the household so hard they almost died, Helenor, both nurse and saw mill operator, literally “ran” the 3-4 mile course between her duties.  When the fever caught up with her, there was no time to be sick.

Resettling in northwest Indiana, the family was run out of their first hometown because of her father’s ardent abolitionist preaching.   Roots were set in Rensselaer where she married, abided the death of an infant child – her first and only – then the illness and death of her first husband.

When Davisson was a child, people who knew her said she was called “the pest,” bugging everyone who would listen with questions about why things are the way they are.  Watching her father carry the message of the gospel from place to place, I am sure she wondered, once she had experienced that gospel for herself, why she could also not be a Methodist minister.

A good question for the first woman to be ordained in our or any American Methodist tradition.   All the dangers, toils, and snares she had come through, all the grace that led her safe thus far and grace that led her home.  And this person couldn’t do pastoral ministry?  Why?  Her gender?  Because we didn’t ordain women?  How come?

Hindsight is 20/20 but still… Davisson’s passion to know and experience what her father knew and did in taking the Gospel to the frontier, her resilience and sense of purpose, her inquisitiveness and no-quit determination. Think of all her life experience gave her to uniquely teach and preach, how this equipped her to relate to peoples’ lives and experience. Think of the Spirit and love of God that could be loosed in her pastoral care.

We need to know this woman.  We need to lift up Davisson and anyone – WHOSOEVER – with such passion, resilience and stick-to-itiveness of calling and service, whenever we think about those included or excluded in discerning ordained ministry.

Rev. Helenor Alter Davisson, our United Methodist “Ministry of Memory” celebrates you and your father John, not only because of what you have meant to the past but what your powerful story means to our vision for ministry on the frontiers of today.

*Thanks to the Rev. Chris M. Shoemaker whose article “A Small Work: The Story of Helenor Alter Davisson, Methodism’s First Ordained Woman” (Methodist History, January 2003) was the impetus to the Indiana Conference Commission on Archives and History beginning the process to designate the Helenor Alter Davisson Cluster as a United Methodist Historic Site.  Rev. Shoemaker is the Pastor of Wadley First/Lamb’s Chapel charge in Jefferson County, Georgia, part of the Northeast District of the South Georgia Conference.

The portrait of Helenor Alter Davisson is a collaboration between the Rev. Chris Shoemaker, Harry Phillip Pratt, a forensic artist for the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation and the portrait artist, Clay Michael Powers, of Cataula, Georgia, having carefully reviewed the Helenor Alter Davisson literature and one very faded family photograph.  The original will reside in the World Methodist Museum at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, with copies presented to members of the Alter Family, Bishop Michael Coyner, Dr. Richard Stowe for the Indiana Annual Conference, and the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church located in Madison, New Jersey.


Additional Stories at: Indiana Annual Conference News Article and Photos: