Louisa Woosley was the first Presbyterian woman to be ordained. Woosley’s life coincided with a time of increasing participation by female leadership in the Cumberland Presbyterian (CP) Church, the denomination to which she belonged.1 During the late 1800s, women in CP churches were serving as teachers and officers in the Sunday schools and contributed greatly to missions efforts and to church schools and colleges. In 1877, the appointment of women serving as trustees and deacons in churches was approved by the Pennsylvania Presbytery. This decision was rather low key and noncontroversial, unlike the issue of women as elders or ministers.
Louisa Woosley was born on March 24, 1862, in central Kentucky. She was brought up in a Baptist household and committed her life to Christ at the age of twelve. Soon afterward, Woosley heard a call from the Lord to gospel ministry. This call bewildered her, because she did not know any women preachers, and, in fact, had never even heard of any. A great internal struggle ensued as she felt that publicly announcing and pursuing her call would bring shame and conflict. Woosley then decided not to follow her calling in a straightforward manner, but instead to fulfill her calling in a roundabout way by becoming a pastor’s wife.
In 1879, she married Charles G. Woosley, a farmer. Entering the marriage, she felt that her problems were solved. Charles, however, had no inclination to enter the ministry and remained a farmer. Louisa’s struggle only increased as she realized that Charles was not going to fulfill her calling for her. In 1882, she began searching the Scriptures intently for a clear word on her dilemma. She marked in her Bible everywhere that a woman was mentioned. After studying the Scriptures two times from cover to cover, she came to her conclusion in 1883: God did not play favorites, and he had great things for women to do in service to him.
Although her calling was now certain, her turmoil was now even greater as she began to contemplate all the controversy and hardship she would endure as a trailblazer for women in ministry. She asked for God’s forgiveness as she continued to put off the call in fear of the consequences. Not long after this, Woosley’s daughter became seriously ill. She felt that her daughter’s illness was a result of her disobedience to God’s call, and she promised God that, if her daughter recovered, she would answer the call. Her daughter was restored to health, and Woosley’s initial joy was dampened when she realized she had promised God something she felt was impossible to deliver. She entered into a dark depression, and her health deteriorated to the point that she was confined to her bedroom for six months. She was even unable to sit up in bed on her own.
Finally, she gave her burden to the Lord, trusting him completely to do what seemed impossible to her. She committed wholeheartedly to follow God’s calling to the gospel ministry without reservation. Immediately, her health began to improve. On January 1, 1887, the elders of the church invited her to preach in the absence of the minister. That preaching experience confirmed her calling, and she began preaching anywhere she could. The opposition she had expected did come about, even from family and friends. Since many pulpits were closed to her, Woosley would travel great distances to preach and became well known as an open-air preacher. Over time, the strained relationships with loved ones began to heal, and her level of acceptance in Cumberland Presbyterian churches increased as well.
In 1887, Woosley presented herself as a candidate for gospel ministry at the meeting of the Nolin Presbytery, and, at the following year’s meeting, she was licensed to preach after delivering a doctrinal discourse and successfully completing an examination by the committee on literature and theology. Because of the great success of her preaching, she was appointed as a presbyterial missionary as well, which gave her formal permission to preach anywhere within the bounds of the Nolin Presbytery.
In 1889, Woosley was ordained to the ministry of word and sacrament by the Nolin Presbytery. Soon afterward, controversy arose in the Kentucky Synod over Woosley’s ordination, and this controversy lasted several years, even reaching the level of the general assembly. Woosley wrote Shall Woman Preach? or, The Question Answered as a response to the controversy, and it was published in 1891. Eventually, the Nolin Presbytery was forced to remove her from their roll of ministers, but they did so by granting her the status of “in transit,” which allowed her to continue ministering. She remained in that status until she was received as a minister into the Leitchfield Presbytery in 1911. In 1914, she was elected stated clerk of Leitchfield presbytery and remained in that role for the next twenty-five years. In 1938, she was elected moderator of the Kentucky Synod, the very body that had balked at her ordination almost a half century before.
- In writing this article, I relied heavily on Mary Lin Hudson, “‘Shall Woman Preach?’ Louisa Woosley and the Cumberland Presbyterian Church,” Cumberland Presbyterian Church website, http://www.cumberland.org/hfcpc/minister/woosleyL.htm.