“Women as Pastors”: Rhoda E. Lee

At the General Conference of 1894, Rhoda E. Lee stood before the all-male delegate body and read a paper compelling them to invest in a foreign mission endeavor. Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.

Not all of the women who served in the Brethren in Christ Church over the years have been pastors. For instance, the subject of today’s “Women as Pastors” installment — Rhoda E. Lee — made her mark on the church (at least in popular memory) by stirring the consciences of its General Conference delegates toward foreign missions.

Writer Helen Johns sets the stage this way:

[The 1894] General Conference opened at Bethel on Wednesday. The Thursday afternoon session began at 2 p.m. The first issue discussed was how officers should be elected, the next was the general mission report, which centered mainly on the church’s current and pending home mission endeavors. The Friday, May 18, 1894, Abilene Daily Reflector refers to the next order of business on Thursday afternoon: “A very interesting paper was then read by Sister Lee, of Abilene, on ‘Mission Work.’ Sister Lee held the audience through the entire reading, and had the congratulations of the conference for her ability and eloquence.” [1]

As Johns is quick to point out, the Daily Reflector correspondent neglects to comment upon the content of Lee’s address. Yet there can be little mistake about the power her words had on the delegate body.

In her biography of Lee, Wilma I. Musser describes the result of the remarks:

Later during the conference . . . Jacob E. Stauffer of Kansas, acting under strong conviction, placed a five dollar bill on the conference table, indicating that it be used to start a fund to carry to gospel to the heathen. In what must have been a startling move, Rhoda Lee thereupon took a hat and passed it through the audience to receive an offering. [2]

As a Conference attendee later reflected in the Evangelical Visitor:

Conference sat almost spellbound. No one had any remarks to make. The Conference Minutes are silent on this event. Verbally, Jacob Stauffer was entrusted with the funds as treasurer. No statement was made as to the amount of the offering taken, but according to the writer’s recollection, it was about forty-three dollars. [3]

For many Brethren in Christ — especially those committed to the church’s mission impulse — this story has taken on an almost mythic significance. But as Johns argues, such contemporary evaluations of the 1894 Conference overlook the cultural context of the time and ignore Lee’s other accomplishments:

From his twentieth-century point of view, [Brethren in Christ historian Carlton Wittlinger] calls the hat-passing event “delightfully unconventional.” . . . Doubtless, many of [Lee’s] contemporaries saw the act as less than delightful and certainly shockingly unconventional.

. . . Too much has been left to the imagination concerning Rhoda Ellis Noble Lee. Because she passed a hat to begin a foreign missions fund at General Conference, we have tended to romanticize her, even revere her. However, her life had substance apart from that isolated act. To allow her to remain one-dimensional does no justice to her memory, to her passion and intelligence. [4]

Several studies have added “substance” to Rhoda Lee’s memory. To read more, see Helen Johns, Searching for Rhoda Lee (Nappanee, Ind: Evangel Press, 1998), and Wilma I. Musser, “Rhoda E. Lee,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 2 (June 1979), 3-21. Carlton Wittlinger, Quest for Piety and Obedience (Nappanee, Ind: Evangel Press, 1978), 179-181, describes the 1984 General Conference as well. For an excellent study of the context in which Lee came to faith, see Wilma I. Musser, “The Brethren in Christ Churches in Kansas,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 14 (August 1991), 131-314.

Notes:

[1] Helen Johns, Searching for Rhoda Lee (Nappanee, Ind.: Evangel Press, 1998), 124.

[2] Wilma I. Musser, “Rhoda E. Lee,” Brethren in Christ History and Life 2 (June 1979), 10.

[3] J.K. Forney, “A Reminiscence,” Evangelical Visitor, August 28 & 29, 1937 (50th anniversary edition), 31.

[4] Johns, 9.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
This entry was posted in Essays and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Women as Pastors”: Rhoda E. Lee

  1. KGMom says:

    Sorry that this was one of the “least popular” for 2010. It is an important topic. And perhaps some folk took the name “Brethren” in Christ too seriously, and did not give just due to a “sister” in Christ.

    • Devin Manzullo-Thomas says:

      Thanks, Donna. I agree — an important topic. Perhaps some day we’ll convince a talented writer-historian to pen an essay about the significance of women leaders to the BIC Church.

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