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Prologue: Religion in the Shaping of 20th Century America (an occasional series)

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      In a well-publicized speech delivered to the Ministers’ Association in the fall of 1911, the Reverend Charles M. Fillmore, pastor of Third Christian Church, declared that the biggest problem confronting Indianapolis religious institutions was the presence of “too much woman and not enough man in the church today.” Deploring what he described as the “effeminacy” of the modern church, Fillmore attacked the omnipresence of the “ladies aid society” and the substitution of “pink teas for red blood” in the conduct of the church’s work.  Arguing that the “army the of the Lord” had exchanged the “sword” for the “needle,” Fillmore concluded his remarks by warning the assembled men that the “pulpit is the last place in the world for a mollycoddle.”1

     In reviewing the place of women in the city’s religious life throughout the 20th century, Fillmore’s speech appears in equal parts amusing, uncharitable, and oddly prophetic.  Many of the city’s historic philanthropic organizations originated as projects undertaken by women’s groups.  Indeed, laywomen working within the framework of church associations continue to play a critical role in many of the city’s human service agencies and charitable institutions. Inspired by their personal faith, Indianapolis churchwomen led a variety of social reform and social welfare initiatives, ranging from temperance and women’s suffrage at the start of the 20th century to civil rights and women’s rights at century’s end.  It is in the area of women and the ministry, however, that Indianapolis emerged onto the national stage, starting with a series of historic appointments and ordinations in the 1970s.  Today the actions of women of faith comprise an important and on-going chapter in the history of the city. 

Laywomen and the Church

     Since the organization of an interdenominational Sabbath School Union in 1822, in which women constituted half the teaching staff, Indianapolis laywomen have undertaken religious work.  Nationally, most women’s associations were allied with churches prior to the 1830s.  Even as women began to join the social reform organizations that emerged in the following decades, churches clearly continued to be their primary focus.  The Indianapolis Benevolent Society, organized in 1835 by a coalition of local clergy and laymen and women, provided food, clothing, and grocery vouchers to the city’s poor.  In 1851, a group of sixteen laywomen founded the Widows’ and Orphans’ Friends Society; in 1859, women of Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation organized the Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society.  Only a few denominations, such as AME Zion and the Society of Friends (Quakers), allowed women to participate in the governance of their churches.  This charitable work often represented the only way for women to assume leadership in faith-based activity, since most churches prohibited women from either holding positions of authority or even voting in congregational meetings.  Ironically, in many instances, Indianapolis churches at times owed their survival to the efforts of women’s groups, such as when Second Presbyterian’s Ladies Sewing Society (1845) supported the church by making and selling food, clothing, and handicrafts.

     Following the Civil War, women of faith increasingly responded to their exclusion from church-wide leadership by developing separate women’s societies, circles, guilds, and clubs.  In doing so, they not only enlarged church programming but also provided a church-sanctioned setting in which women developed leadership and management skills.  Although small groups of Indianapolis laywomen successfully banned together to form interdenominational organizations—for example, Female Bible Society for Distribution of the Scriptures Among Neglected Classes (ca. 1890) and Church Women United (1898)—most women limited their membership to groups within their own congregations.  Typical of this sort of organization was the Women’s Mite Missionary Society, later known as Flora Grant Missionary Society, formed by the women of Allen Chapel AME Church in 1896.

     By the early 20th century women’s church associations tended to fall into a few broad categories ranging from missionary and ladies aid societies to support groups and social service organizations.  In Indianapolis, churches of every stripe boasted countless examples of these groups.  Through both the Ladies Aid Society and Women’s Missionary Society, the women of Second Presbyterian Church supported female missionaries in Japan (Lucy Mayo), China (Henrietta Mayo Capen), and India (Jane Goheen) for years at a time.  Closer to home they helped fund the Mayer Chapel Mission and its work among the city’s south-side immigrant population for decades after it opened in 1892.  In the early 1920s, laywomen from Second Presbyterian were also being urged to volunteer their services to the local Americanization Society.2  Members of Women’s Union of First Congregational Church routinely provided a combination of material and financial support, as well as much-needed volunteers, to local agencies such as Fairview Settlement, Flower Mission, Hurley Gibbs Settlement, and Free Kindergarten Association.  In 1909, they took the lead in organizing the Travelers Aid program for “friendless women and children” arriving at the Indianapolis Traction Terminal.3  Following the demise of Hebrew Ladies Benevolent Society in 1908, the women of Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation continued to provide food, clothing, and shelter to Jewish immigrants by forming a local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women.  In 1925, members of the Ladies Alliance of Corinthian Baptist Church raised enough money to cover construction costs for a new building.

     During World Wars I and II the city’s laywomen demonstrated their patriotism by organizing units of Red Cross, volunteering for nursing duty and contributing money and goods to refugee relief efforts.  In addition, they managed a number of popular servicemen’s centers during both World War II and the Korean Conflict.  Among the most notable of the centers were Christ Church Canteen and one at Roberts Park Methodist Church, which together served over 90,000 meals between 1942 and 1945.  In the 1950s, laywomen again concentrated on foreign missions and local social service work in their various associations.  For example, the American Baptist Women’s Society at First Baptist Church focused most of its attention on Wheeler Mission, East Side Christian Center, and Marion County Juvenile Court.4  At Roberts Park Methodist, the Women’s Society of Christian Service divided its efforts between financial and material support for a leper colony, missions in Korea and India, and volunteer work with Wheeler Mission, Fletcher Place Community Center, and Goodwill Industries.

     Starting in the 1960s, Indianapolis laywomen began to abandon traditional women’s associations as their denominations gradually removed the barriers that prevented them from assuming leadership roles.  Many churches merged separate men’s and women’s associations or orders.  For instance, in 1975 Central Christian Church formally combined the board of deacons with the deaconess board and formed a diaconate; First Baptist Church took the same action a decade later.  In some cases, however, traditional groups such as women’s circles or missionary societies simply faded away due to a failure to attract new members, which is what happened to several of the oldest circles at First Baptist.  Elsewhere, other groups were replaced by new church organizations—for example, social concerns committees or commissions on community service—as churches responded to changing social and economic conditions.  Still, some laywomen’s groups and their projects continue to thrive, as demonstrated by the ongoing success of Christ Church Cathedral’s popular Strawberry Festival held each spring on Monument Circle under the sponsorship of its women’s organization. 

Churchwomen and Reform

     Inspired by their religious beliefs, women in Indianapolis have a long history of active service in social welfare and social reform endeavors.  In some cases, as in the examples of Indianapolis Benevolent Society (1835), Indianapolis Asylum for Friendless Colored Children (1870), Alpha Home (1886), or even Church Women United (1898), their work was endorsed if not actively sponsored by their own congregations.  In other instances, work for controversial social reform movements—women’s suffrage, temperance, and civil rights, among others—often failed to receive such official sanction.  Even so, the women of Indianapolis, as in the nation as a whole, worked tirelessly in all of these areas and more throughout both the 19th and the 20th centuries.

     Although many Indianapolis laywomen actively supported both the women’s suffrage movement and the temperance movement between 1870 and 1920, the efforts of May Wright Sewall and Luella Smith McWhirter are especially instructive.  A cofounder of the Equal Suffrage Society of Indianapolis, Sewall served as chair of the executive committee of the National Woman’s Suffrage Association from 1882 to 1890 and as president of the National Council of Women of the United States three times between 1891 and 1904.  Long interested in the peace movement, she also chaired the International Council of Women’s standing committee on peace and international arbitration from 1904 to 1914.  In 1915, she was among the individuals who sailed on Henry Ford’s much-ridiculed “Peace Ship.”  For much of her adult life Sewall was a devout Unitarian, but unlike some of her more mainstream contemporaries her religious life remained largely personal and received little public attention.  In her later years she regularly attended services at First Presbyterian Church of Indianapolis, but again her religious views remained private.  A few months prior to her death in 1920, however, Sewall’s belief in spiritualism gained national notoriety upon the publication of her book Neither Dead Nor Sleeping, and her reputation never recovered.5

     In the case of Luella Smith McWhirter, the link between religion and reform was much clearer.  A life-long Methodist, McWhirter served as president of Indiana Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) from 1896 to 1900 and edited its monthly magazine, The Message, from 1897 into the 1940s.  In 1911, she was among the organizers of the Women’s Franchise League of Indiana and president of the group until 1916.  McWhirter also helped organize the Legislative Council of Indiana Women in 1914; as president of the organization, she was credited with “aiding significantly in getting the prohibition and woman’s suffrage amendments to the U.S. Constitution approved” by the Indiana General Assembly.  As a member of Central Avenue Methodist Church, she belonged to the deaconess board and the women’s missionary society for many years as well as leading a number of statewide Methodist women’s organizations. McWhirter’s most controversial public act was to support evangelist E. Howard Cadle’s efforts to build his tabernacle in Indianapolis in the face of opposition from the city’s Methodist ministers.  In doing so, she demonstrated the determination with which Indianapolis laywomen followed the dictates of their personal convictions even when it challenged local religious authorities.6

     African-American laywomen also used their club work to implement a reform agenda.  Under the inspired leadership, Lillian Thomas Fox and Mary E. Cable, both of whom belonged to Bethel AME Church, African-American churchwomen used organizations such as the Women’s Improvement Club (WIC) and the Colored Women’s Civic Club to support local human service agencies, including Flanner Guild, YWCA, and Alpha Home for Aged Colored Women.  From 1905 to 1916, WIC operated the Oak Hill Convalescent Tuberculosis Camp, and in 1912 Cable helped organize the first Indiana chapter of the NAACP.7  Well into the 1950s church-inspired club activity remained characteristic of the reform efforts of Indianapolis African-American laywomen.  During these same years, the city’s Jewish laywomen funneled much of their faith-inspired social service work through ethnic-based groups, among them the National Council of Jewish Women, while the city’s Catholic laywomen worked through the Catholic Women’s Association.

     Interdenominational associations like Church Women United offered still a different approach to churchwomen’s philanthropic endeavors in Indianapolis.  First known as the Missionary Social Union of Indianapolis, the group organized in 1898 and provided long-term support to Flanner House, Goodwill Industries, Central State Hospital, the Marion County Home, and Wheeler Mission Ministries.  In the 1930s, the first African-American women were admitted to its board (the first black president was elected in 1971), and in the 1960s the group reorganized under its present name and opened its membership to Catholic women.  Since 1990, the organization’s projects have expanded to include work with the Julian Center, a ministry at the Women’s Prison, and the Indianapolis Juvenile Correctional Facility.

     Christamore House, Julian Center, Craine House, and Edna Martin Christian Center represent another aspect of local women’s efforts to put their faith to work in service to the city.  In 1905, Christamore House was opened by urban missionaries Anna C. Stover and Edith D. Surbey.  Even though the agency was private and was not affiliated with any particular institution, Stover and Surbey heavily promoted religion in their programming.  After the pair resigned in 1911, however, Christamore’s new managers quickly eliminated all religious services at the settlement.8  Julian Center and Craine House have been sponsored by the Indianapolis Episcopal Diocese since their inception.  Founded in 1975 by the Reverend Natalie “Tanya” Vonnegut, the Julian Center initially served Indianapolis as one of the first shelters for battered women.  In the 1980s, the center became affiliated with United Way and expanded its programming to include work with adult female victims of sexual abuse in childhood, rape, and domestic violence.  In 1978, the Episcopal Diocese also opened Craine House.  Designed as a half-way home providing a transition between prison and life in the community for women, Craine House grew out of the Reverend Jackie Mean’s ministry at the Women’s Prison.  Following a different path altogether, Edna Martin Christian Center was initially the private enterprise of a single individual, but it now operates under the auspices of the local American Baptist Association.  Edna Martin, an African-American Baptist laywoman, opened the East Side Christian Center in 1942 with the goal of providing food, clothing, and classes for neighborhood residents.  Following her death in 1974, the Center was renamed in her honor and became an American Baptist mission.  Today all four agencies continue to thrive, and the Julian Center entered the new century engaged in a major expansion project. 

Women and Ministry

     Historically, most branches of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have barred women from ordained ministry.  Among the earliest exceptions in the Christian tradition was the Society of Friends (Quakers), which permitted women to serve as ministers from its inception in 17th century England.  In the United States, the Church of God sanctioned the ordination of women by 1876, as did Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1888.  AME Zion began ordaining women in the 1890s, and the American Baptist Convention allowed women to serve as lay ministers in 1894.  Most women, however, were still prohibited from holding positions of church-wide authority, let alone entering the ministry, well into the 20th century.  In 1930, the United Presbyterian Church voted to ordain women as ruling elders but not until 1956 did it agree to the ordination of female clergy.  Methodists accepted the ordination of women in 1956, but both Lutherans and Episcopalians waited until the 1970s to accept women as clergy.  Similar patterns emerged in most of the mainstream historic African-American churches and in the various branches of Judaism.9

     Although a few Indianapolis churches allowed laywomen to take church-wide leadership roles prior to World War I, most did not do so until the 1920s.  Among the early exceptions were Downey Avenue Christian Church, which agreed to allow women to stand for election to the official board in 1916, and Tuxedo Park Baptist Church, which placed Ollie Burnett in charge of its Emerson Avenue Chapel that same year.  In 1920, All Soul’s Unitarian Church admitted the first woman to its governing board and hired Edith E. Beane to serve as the first female parish assistant.  At Second Presbyterian Church three women were appointed to the pastoral search committee in 1921, and the following year the new minister, Reverend Jean S. Milner, received permission to have women assist him in the visiting ministry.  Indianapolis Methodist churches, led by Roberts Park and Central Avenue, also began adding women to their official boards in the 1920s.

     Following the death of her husband in 1942, Ola M. Cadle served as director and president of Cadle Tabernacle’s board of trustees until her own death in 1955.  Christ Church Cathedral agreed that women were eligible for election to the vestry in 1966, but it was not until 1969 that Helen Basch became the first woman to join that body.  The first women elders at Second Presbyterian Church were also elected in 1966, and in 1979 June Herman became the first woman to serve as president of Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation.  In the 1980s, Valerie Dillon became the first Catholic laywoman to be a director in the Indianapolis Archdiocese; in the 1990s, another laywoman, Susan Magnant, became the first woman to serve the Indianapolis Archdiocese as Chancellor.  During these same years Sister Nancy Crowder opened and operated Holy Family Shelter, the city’s first facility for the homeless.  Although the Catholic Church continued its policy of not ordaining women, by 1998 six Catholic nuns were serving as parish life coordinators, responsible for the administration of their parishes and leadership of their congregations.  Also reflecting the growing acceptance of women in ministry was the rise in the number of women enrolled at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS).  In 1961, only 8 percent of the student body was comprised of women, but by the 1990s over 50 percent of the students at CTS were women. 

     One of the earliest women to minister to an Indianapolis congregation in the 20th century was evangelist Maria Woodworth-Etter.  From 1884 to 1904, Woodworth-Etter was licensed to preach by the Indiana Eldership of the Churches of God.  During those years she routinely conducted her signature combination of faith-healing and tent revivals in Indianapolis.  After severing her ties to the Church of God, Woodworth-Etter became a Pentecostal minister, maintaining a loose association with the Assemblies of God.  Between 1904 and 1912, when she retired to Indianapolis, Woodworth-Etter crisscrossed the nation leading a series of Pentecostal revivals.  In 1918 she opened the 500-seat Woodworth-Etter Tabernacle at the corner of Miller Street and Belmont Avenue and ministered there until her death in 1924.  Although her ministry continues as the Lakeview Christian Center, Woodworth-Etter is best remembered today as the prototype of later nationally prominent women evangelists such as Aimee Semple McPherson and Kathryn Kuhlman.10 

     Elsewhere in Indianapolis women were assuming clergy roles.  In 1925, Hester Anna Greer, sister of Crispus Attucks principal Matthias Nolcox, founded the Eastside Church of God.  Ordained in 1913, Greer left her Indianapolis ministry in 1930 to become a missionary.  In 1950, she returned to the city and built a second church on New Jersey Street where she was eventually succeeded as pastor by her son-in-law.  Upon the death in 1953 of Bishop Veatrice Hopkins, founder of World Wide Redeemer Spiritual Church, the Indianapolis Recorder noted that she was one of the few women pastors serving in the city at the time.

     Although the national governing bodies of many denominations had approved the ordination of women earlier, it was only in the 1970s that Indianapolis moved to the forefront of the on-going national debate among mainstream denominations over the ordination of women.  Jeannie C. Rae’s 1972 ordination made her the first female minister in the Indianapolis Baptist Association.  Five years later on January 1, 1977, Jackie Means became the first woman in the United States to be ordained an Episcopal priest.  Eight days later, Natalie “Tanya” Vonnegut became the city’s second female Episcopal priest.  In March 1977, Reverend Dorothy H. Nevill became the first female assistant pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, and later that same year Sandy Eisenberg Sasso became the nation’s first woman Rabbi to serve a Conservative congregation when she and husband Dennis were installed as co-Rabbis of the Beth-El Zedeck congregation. 

     The 1990s also proved to be a remarkable decade for women in ministry in Indianapolis.  In 1991, the Reverend Anne Henning Byfield, senior pastor of Robinson Community AME Church, became the first woman to be elected both a member and chair of the Indiana delegation to the AME National Assembly.  She later served as the first woman elected president of the AME Ministerial Alliance of Indiana.  In 1995, the Reverend Angelique Walker-Smith became both the first African-American and the first woman to be appointed executive director of the Church Federation of Greater Indianapolis.  By the latter half of the decade, a woman was serving as executive presbyter of the regional body of the Presbyterian Church, and Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation had its first female cantor.  Finally in 1998, the Reverend Catherine M. Waynick became the first woman to lead the Indianapolis Episcopal Diocese and only the seventh woman to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church.11


     When considering the relationship between women and religion in Indianapolis throughout the 20th century, it is impossible not to be impressed by the scope of their accomplishments and the importance of their faith-inspired contributions to the community.  Whether in leading national reform movements or in working to ease local problems, religious women in Indianapolis entered the 21st century with the assurance of a vital, activist heritage and the promise of new opportunities to express their faith.

Questions for Discussion

1.      How have women in your congregation contributed to the life of the city?

2.      How have women contributed to the life of your congregation?

3.      How have national movements affected women in your congregation?

Recommended Readings

Bodenhamer, David J. and Robert G. Barrows, eds., The Encyclopedia of Indianapolis


Endleman, Judith E.  The Jewish Community of Indianapolis, 1849 to the Present (1984).

Geib, George W.  Lives Touched by Faith:  Second Presbyterian Church 150 Years


Keller, Rosemary Skinner and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds., In Our Own Voices: 

            Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writings (1995).

Warner, Wayne E.  The Woman Evangelist:  The Life and Times of Charismatic

            Evangelist Maria B. Woodworth-Etter (1986).


1 Indianapolis News, 18 September 1911.

2 George W. Geib, Lives Touched by Faith:  Second Presbyterian Church 150 Years (Indianapolis:  1988), 107-109.

3 “Minutes of the Women’s Union of First Congregational Church:  1908-1916.”

4 “Minutes of the Women’s Society/ABW of First Baptist Church:  1957-1971.”

5 Jane Stephens, “May Wright Sewall:  An Indiana Reformer,” Indiana Magazine of History, 78 (Dec., 1982), 273-295.

6 Indianapolis News, 20 May 1921; Indianapolis Star, 10 October 1921.

7 Earline Rae Ferguson, “The Woman’s Improvement Club of Indianapolis:  Black Women Pioneers in Tuberculosis Work, 1903-1938, Indiana Magazine of History, 84 (Sept. 1988), 237-261.

8 Ruth Hutchinson Crocker, “Christamore:  An Indiana Settlement House from Private Dream to Public Agency, Indiana Magazine of History, 83 (June 1987), 112-140.

9 Barbara Brown Zikmund, “Women and Ordination,” 291-307 in Rosemary Skinner Keller and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds., In Our Own Voices:  Four Centuries of American Women’s Religious Writings (San Francisco:  1995).

10 Wayne E. Warner, The Woman Evangelist:  The Life and Times of Charismatic Evangelist Maria B. Woodworth-Etter (Metuchen, NJ:  1986).

11 Indianapolis Star/News, 17 November 1999.

Author:  Jeffery Duvall
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