| Ellen G. White Estate

What did Ellen White say about women preaching?

In the days in which Mrs. White began her ministry and through a good portion of her ministry, many people in the general society of the United States felt that it was improper, unladylike, for a woman to speak in public. The issue was not so much preaching but speaking at all in public. Among the substantial part of the populace that professed to believe and follow the Bible, many took Paul’s counsel in such verses as 1 Corinthians 14:34 and 1 Timothy 2:11, 12 as forbidding women to speak in church.

Neither Mrs. White nor our other pioneers upheld such a view. From time to time, the Review and Herald of the 1850s and on through the 1890s, and Signs of the Times after it came along, would carry articles addressing the issue by the title “May Women Speak in Church?” or something similar. Their answer always was Yes. When I first saw these articles, I thought that our pioneers were writing in this manner to defend Mrs. White’s ministry. I soon came to the realization that they were not—they were defending the right of any woman to testify or otherwise participate orally in the services of the church.

By her example and by a few specific counsels, Mrs. White encouraged women to speak publicly. This is not the same as saying that she encouraged them to seek the position of minister or elder, for I do not find her doing so. But she believed—and acted on this belief in her own life—that women had a contribution to make to the work of God, and that this might legitimately involve speaking in church—even preaching.

Mrs. White never occupied the pulpit on Sabbath morning if her husband, James, was there and available. He would preach in the morning, and she would speak in the afternoon. After his death, though, she did accept invitations to preach on Sabbath morning. But she did so not as a minister or preacher but as—to use her own preferred designation for herself—a “messenger of the Lord.”

Mrs. White herself wrote once of an objection that was circulated against her public speaking.

I had in the evening, it was stated, the largest congregation that had ever assembled at Arbuckle. The house was full. Many came from five to ten and twelve miles. The Lord gave me special power in speaking. The congregation listened as if spellbound. Not one left the house although I talked above one hour. Before I commenced talking, Elder Haskell had a bit of paper that was handed in, quoting certain texts prohibiting women speaking in public. He took up the matter in a brief manner and very clearly expressed the meaning of the apostle’s words.—Letter 17a, 1880, page 2. (Written from Oakland, California, April 1, 1880, to James White.) [Manuscript Releases, 10:70].

I think the key thing for someone like your friend to see is that the Bible permits—even encourages—women to do certain kinds of speaking in the church, so the other texts cannot be blanket prohibitions. In that case, we can examine what Scripture says to find out what kind of speaking it approves of and what is out of harmony with it.

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