The leadership of the Office of Archives, Statistics, and Research (ASTR) of the North American Division (NAD) hosted the first annual conference to explore the significance of women in Seventh-day Adventist history on October 12–14, 2023. The conference also aimed to advance scholarly research. Presentations highlighted the larger context of Adventist history, and many papers showcased the effectiveness of individual women. The conference took place on the campus of Washington Adventist University in Takoma Park, Maryland, United States.
The conference was attended by 150 people—women and men—who traveled from North America, Europe, South America, and Africa, as reported by the news service of GC leadership.
Not Just Ellen White
If you ask about an influential woman in the history of Seventh-day Adventists, the name Ellen G. White, a co-founder of the church, usually comes to mind immediately. However, other women have also made an important contribution to the development of the Adventist Church. They worked as missionaries, evangelists, and Bible workers, but also as teachers and doctors. Much of their work has been largely forgotten; for example, Sarah Lindsey, whose sermons were so influential that they drew crowds away from the Barnum & Bailey Circus; or Lulu Whitman, who baptized more people in one year than did all her male colleagues combined; or even Lauretta Kress, a doctor who founded and ran several sanitariums alongside her husband, Daniel, a physician.
In his opening address, G. Alexander Bryant, president of the NAD, said, "It is good to recognize and honor the women on whose shoulders this church was built" and thanked the women present for their contribution. "We would not be the Seventh-day Adventist Church we are today if it had not been for the women who have been at the forefront for decades." The speakers, including female professors, independent researchers, students, pastors, church administration leaders, and others brought different perspectives to the table.
Dwindling Support for Women
Of particular interest were the presentations by author Anneke Stasson, who dealt with women in missions throughout church history, and Laura Vance, who researches the Adventist Church from a sociological perspective. She found that in the early days of the Adventist Church, dozens of women, including Ellen White, were admitted as ministers. Although Ellen White did not take a clear position on women's ordination, she advocated that women should follow their calling and talents and be paid equally.
Over time, however, as the church became more established and leaders at times turned to fundamentalism, support for women in leadership positions dwindled. Nevertheless, women continued to find ways to be active in the Adventist Church. At the same time, Vance expressed how incongruous it was that in a church where women have had such great influence in the past, they are still not recognized accordingly today.
In her sermon titled "Hidden Heroines," Ella Simmons, retired General Conference (GC) vice president—the first woman elected to that position in 2005—compared the history of the Adventist Church to the history of the little-known African-American women mathematicians and engineers who helped launch the United States into space. Her message built on the premise of the conference: publicizing the contributions of women not only enriches the church’s history but also paves the way for the continued participation of women in church leadership. Simmons concluded by calling for a more inclusive narrative of the church's past and present development. "When we change our stories, we change the world."
On the final day of the conference, two panel discussions moderated by Celeste Ryan Blyden, the first female executive secretary of the Columbia Union, featured "living legends," including women leaders at various church levels. Another theme centered on men and women being stronger together, especially in a church and a world where women are the majority. Participant Ardis Stenbakken, retired director of Women's Ministries for the GC, said, "We make decisions today based on our history and our understanding of that history. And we need the participation of women. Women think differently. Women act differently. And we need the strength, ideas, and creativity of all of them."