Fifty-five years ago, on August 9, 1964, Addie Davis became the first ordained woman minister in Southern Baptist circles. On that Sunday, Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, North Carolina, set her apart for the gospel ministry. In years since that historic ordination, thousands of Baptist women called and gifted by God have been ordained, some of whom do not even know Addie’s name even though they walk on the trail that she blazed. And even those who know her name don’t know her story. To celebrate this fifty-fifth anniversary, read a bit of her story, which are shared on this blog yesterday and today.
Addie Davis spent the months before her 1963 graduation from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary looking for a church to pastor. Wanting to stay in the South, she contacted several state executives about placement. None of the executives knew “of any church that would consider a woman,” she recalled, “and the truth is that they weren’t willing to recommend a woman to any church. I had the feeling that most of them were a little bit afraid to be the first to make a suggestion like this.”
Addie’s search for a pastorate continued for over a year, and finally after realizing that she would not find a Southern Baptist church open to her leadership, she contacted her college friend, Elizabeth Miller, who worked for the American Baptists. After college, Miller had been pastor of First Baptist Church in Readsboro, Vermont, and the church was in 1964 without a minister. Miller recommended Addie for the position. In June, Addie traveled to Vermont, interviewed with the search committee, preached to the congregation, and was soon called as pastor. She was forty-seven-years-old.
With this invitation, Addie now needed to be ordained. She first approached her home church, Covington Baptist Church. She had grown up in that church, served there, and still had family connections in Covington. Addie was hopeful that the congregation would bless and affirm her new ministry.
The minister who was there at the time I went to the seminary was very much opposed to women ministers. I think the people in my church would have approved because I grew up there and they knew me. . . . My letter (asking for ordination) was addressed to the church, but of course, it apparently went to the minister and he took it to the board of deacons. So I simply withdrew the request. . . . I simply felt that it was better to withdraw the request, which I did, because I did not want to be the center of any controversy.
Addie then contacted several churches in Raleigh about the possibility of their ordaining her. When those churches declined, she began to believe that she might never be ordained in a Southern Baptist church. She was aware, however, that she could seek and be granted ordination by an American Baptist church, but as a life-long Southern Baptist, she very much wanted to be affirmed by the denomination that had birthed and nurtured her faith and of which she had now been affiliated for forty-seven years.
She held on to that hope and contacted the church that had licensed her the year before. The deacons at Watts Street reviewed her request for ordination, and Warren Carr sat with Addie to talk about her calling. In a 1979 interview, he recounted his conversation with her, noting that she was certain that God had called her “to be a preacher.” Not once, according to Carr, did Addie express a desire to be the first woman ordained by a Southern Baptist church, although she clearly was aware that she would most likely hold that honor of “being first.”
Carr proceeded to select an ordination council to examine Addie, and all council members promised to evaluate her based on her calling and confession. On the day of the examination, she was one of two candidates for ordination. The council voted to recommend the other candidate, the chaplain to Baptist students at Duke University, despite what they believed to be young man’s unorthodox belief concerning the Virgin Birth.
Addie’s theology, however, posed no problems for the council, but two members confessed that despite their previous assurances, they could not recommend a woman for ordination. After a heated discussion, one supportive council member asked the two holdouts to explain their apprehension: “Brethren, you leave me confused. In the case of our first candidate, you were quite insistent that he believe that a Virgin bore the word. How is it that you are now so adamant that a virgin should not preach the word?” The council ultimately voted unanimously to ordain Addie, with only one member abstaining.
The ordination service at Watts Street Baptist Church was then scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on August 9, 1964. Addie remembered the service as meaningful and noted that “the whole congregation wholeheartedly backed me.” Two of Addie’s professors at Southeastern Seminary participated. Luther Copeland, who taught Christian missions and world religions, offered the charge to the candidate, and R. C. Briggs, who taught New Testament at Southeastern, led the ordination prayer.
All the ordained ministers in attendance were invited to be part of the laying on of hands. While those in attendance and leading the service were aware of the specialness of the day, most likely they “remained largely unaware of the event’s historic significance.”
Not everyone, of course, was supportive. Soon after the ordination, Carr received nearly fifty letters criticizing him and the church. Addie also was the target of criticism. A Richmond, Virginia, man demanded, “Renounce your ordination!” Another man told her to learn from her husband, an ironic demand given that Addie was unmarried. Another labeled her “a child of the Devil.”
Addie Davis was a Baptist pioneer. She encountered numerous obstacles and barriers. Her journey to seminary, ordination, and the pulpit was a long and hard one, but Addie was unwavering in her conviction that God had called her and tenacious in her commitment to faithful pursuit of that calling.
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.
This blog is based on the article “Remembering Addie,” in The World is Waiting for You: Celebrating the 50th Ordination Anniversary of Addie Davis, eds. Pamela R. Durso and LeAnn Gunter Johns (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2014), 2-26.