A History of Protestant Deaconesses
Published by: NYU Press
288 pages, 6.00 x 9.00 in
- ISBN: 9781479860630
- Published: October 2019
The first history of the deaconess movement in the United States
In the late nineteenth century, a new movement arose within American Protestant Christianity. Unsalaried groups of women began living together, wearing plain dress, and performing nursing, teaching, and other works of welfare. Modeled after the lifestyles of Catholic nuns, these women became America’s first deaconesses.
Sanctified Sisters,the first history of the deaconess movement in the United States, traces its origins in the late nineteenth century through to its present manifestations. Drawing on archival research, demographic surveys, and material culture evidence, Jenny Wiley Legath offers new insights into who the deaconesses were, how they lived, and what their legacy has been for women in Protestant Christianity.
The book argues that the deaconess movement enabled Protestant women—particularly single women—to gain power in a male-dominated Protestant world. They created hundreds of new institutions within Protestantism and created new roles for women within the church. While some who study women’s ordination draw a line from the deaconesses’ work to the struggle for women’s ordination in various branches of Protestant Christianity, Legath argues that most deaconesses were not interested in ordination. Yet, while they didn’t mean to, they did end up providing a foundation for today’s ordination debates. Their very existence worked to open the possibility of ecclesiastically authorized women’s agency.
"With deft strokes, sparkling wit, and memorable turns of phrase, Legath shows how thousands of largely unheralded women sought a holistic life in the re-making of hospitals, asylums, shelters, schools, orphanages, and prisons. Legath is deeply empathetic to her subjects’ aspirations yet alert to the elusive ironies that marked them. At the same time, she embeds the deaconess story in contemporaneous trends in American culture. In book jacket blurbs the word brilliant is often overused. Sometimes no other word will do." ~Grant Wacker, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Christian History, Duke Divinity School
"Recounts the history of the Protestant deaconess movement in the United States, telling the story of these immigrants and daughters of immigrants whose vocation led them to leave home and perform the works of Christian mercy while living together in community, from 1880 into the twenty-first century. Well-written and carefully researched, this book is an essential read for anyone studying U.S. religion and gender." ~Margaret McGuinness,Author of Called to Serve: A History of Nuns in America
"A powerful tool for women and men to better understand the trajectory and history of their denominations’ attitudes about gender and power." ~Carol Coburn, Avila University
"Legath skillfully and evenhandedly considers the deaconess movement within the social, economic, and women’s history from the latter nineteenth century to the present, providing a detailed, thorough, and unbiased work. This much-needed book is lucidly written, broad in coverage of all American denominations, and copiously researched in primary source documents, complete with interviews of contemporary deaconesses. This will become the gold standard of work on Protestant deaconesses in the United States, indispensable for modern Christians, for students of church and women’s history, and for university and research libraries." ~Jeannine Olson, author of Deacons and Deaconesses through the Centuries