Learning, teaching and seeking valuable United Methodist Women’s history

Sara D. Bayles

Sara D. Bayles

By Sara D. Bayles
Special Contributor

In March of 1869, eight women met at Tremont Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston and organized themselves to send medical missionary Clara Swain and educator Isabella Thoburn to India. This gathering of women first became the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society, and is now known throughout the denomination and the world as the United Methodist Women.

The recent “United Methodist Women’s History: Voices Lost and Found” conference provided an occasion for rediscovering, remembering, and reinterpreting the forgotten and untold stories of women throughout United Methodist traditions.

From May 28-30, United Methodist scholars and United Methodist Women from throughout the worldwide connection of the church gathered at Methodist Theological School in Ohio for this conference, devoted to the study and collaboration of research relating to the history of women in Methodism and Evangelical United Brethren traditions. These three days provided an opportunity for understanding the historical impact of women in Methodist traditions and sought to identify areas of further exploration.

I was able to attend this conference and present my research, “Places of Transformation: The Homes and Hearts of the Women Called Methodist” which explores the ministry of women that takes place within their homes. Throughout the process of my research, I continued to be transformed as I learned from the lives of women throughout church history, who in their simple gestures—baking pies, collecting school supplies, knitting blankets and caring for their families and communities—furthered the missions of the church.

Artifacts, rare publications and archives on lesser known women in Methodism surfaced as those gathered sought to learn more about the often untold and frequently forgotten stories of the women within the Methodist movements. The United Methodist Women’s national leadership organized this gathering to celebrate and collect the stories of women in Methodism as the 150th anniversary of the organization approaches in 2019.

As I have transitioned this past month into my new appointment at First United Methodist Church Fort Smith, I continue to find many pleasant surprises. Most recently, in the archives room of our church, I discovered that Franklin Wilder, the author of my favorite—and now out of print—book about Susanna Wesley, Immortal Mother, was a former member of the church I serve and now a member of the church triumphant.

I have also uncovered reports of an 1882 visit from Frances Willard, a key leader of Women’s Home Missionary Society and Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to the Methodist gatherings in Fort Smith. These sorts of discoveries lie at the heart of the historical remembering of women in Methodism. Often the stories of women get left out of church history, yet women shape and give great input into the mission of Methodism.

For United Methodist Women, the task of telling and retelling the stories and histories of all women throughout Methodism values the past, anchors the present and inspires the future. From now until the 150th anniversary celebration in 2019, all United Methodists are encouraged to share stories of the women in mission and ministry as part of an ongoing project that seeks to collect these stories, online at www.unitedmethodistwomen.org/150.

These often untold stories are voices that have far too long been lost in the history of Methodism, and in finding their stories, we continue to discover the powerful witness of women within our denomination.

The Rev. Bayles is a provisional elder in the Arkansas Conference and associate pastor at First UMC Fort Smith. She is a May 2015 graduate of Duke Divinity School, where she earned her Master of Divinity degree and a Certificate in Gender, Theology, and Ministry for her research on women in American Methodism, Susanna Wesley and the missiology of United Methodist Women. For more information, or to schedule Bayles to visit your United Methodist Women circle or other church group to share more about this project or United Methodist Women’s history, contact her at sara.bayles@arumc.org.