After their disappearance during the Middle Ages, deaconesses were “rediscovered” by Protestants in Holland in the sixteenth century. By the nineteenth century, they were trained for nursing, teaching, and parish work, on both sides of the Atlantic. Leslie McFall quotes an eighteenth-century source saying deaconesses were to “assist at the baptism of women, to instruct children and women before baptism, to supervise the women in Church and rebuke and correct those who misbehave.”1

The Seventh-day Adventist Church grew up at the time when the office of the deaconess was gathering strength. It cannot be considered strange that Adventists also considered the possibility of having women serve as deaconesses.


As early as 1856, Joseph Frisbie wrote about deaconesses as church workers. He referred to the choosing of the seven deacons of Acts 6 and Phoebe the deaconess (Rom. 16:1), noting that they “were considered servants, helpers or laborers with the apostles in the gospel, not that they preached the word, but ministered or served their temporal wants.” He approvingly quoted from Clarke’s commentary: “‘There were deaconesses in the primitive church, whose business it was to attend to the female converts at baptism; to instruct the catechumens, or persons who were candidates for baptism: to visit the sick, and those who were in prison; and, in short, perform those religious offices, for the female part of the church, which could not with propriety be performed by men.’”

Frisbie then asked, “Would it not be well then brethren to appoint in all the churches deacons and deaconesses who may answer the qualifications that are laid down clearly in the Bible, with an understanding of what their duties are”? He then summarized these duties:

1. To see to the poor and destitute, the widows and orphans, the sick and afflicted.

2. To raise funds and care for church finances.

3. To make preparation for the ordinances, including keeping on hand good [unfermented] wine from grapes or raisins.2

In 1870, J. H. Waggoner published his ideas about “The Office of Deacon.” His presentation, based on Acts 6:3 and 1 Timothy 3:8–12, emphasized the spiritual characteristics of the deacons. Where Frisbie had earlier included deaconesses, Waggoner makes no mention of them.3


A large number of books, sermons, and pamphlets regarding deaconesses and their work were published in the United States in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Ellen White had none of these in her library.4

A search for White’s position on the appointment, ordination, or work of deaconesses proved disappointing. Only one reference was found: a letter written in September 1902. In it White scolded A. T. Jones for listening to the private woes of women: “When a woman comes to you with her troubles, tell her plainly to go to her sisters, to tell her troubles to the deaconesses of the church.”5

Yet White’s 1895 message on the setting apart of women is key to the Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the work of the deaconess. “Women who are willing to consecrate some of their time to the service of the Lord should be appointed to visit the sick, look after the young, and minister to the necessities of the poor. They should be set apart to this work by prayer and laying on of hands. In some cases they will need to counsel with the church officers or the minister; but if they are devoted women, maintaining a vital connection with God, they will be a power for good in the church.”6

Records show that on the strength of this declaration, at least three ordination ceremonies for deaconesses took place. The first was August 10, 1895, at the Ashley Church in Sydney, Australia, where “Pastors Corliss and McCullagh of the Australian conference set apart the elder, deacons, deaconesses by prayer and the laying on of hands.”7 The second known ordination took place at the same church on January 6, 1900, with W. C. White officiating, as he noted in his diary.8 The third occasion was an ordination service in February or March 1916, when E. E. Andross, then president of the Pacific Union Conference, officiated, citing as his authority Ellen White’s 1895 Advent Review and Sabbath Herald article.9


Not having to prove their existence, we will consider only two of the three aspects considered in the first article. The two are ordination and tasks.

Ordination of deaconesses. The early ordination of deaconesses in the Seventh-day Adventist Church was soon forgotten. In the Church Officers’ Gazette of December 1914, deacons and elders are to be ordained, for “until this is done they are not properly qualified to attend to all the duties of their office.” The work of the deaconess, “closely associated with the deacon in looking after the many interests of the church,” is “of the greatest well-being of the church,” with nothing said about the deaconess’s ordination.10 In spite of this, in 1921, F. A. Detamore described a visit to a church in Sarawak (Malaysia), and noted the ordination of “Sister Lee [as] deaconess.”11

With the publishing of the first Adventist Church Manual in 1932, the New Testament origin of the deaconess was noted. The manual stated that “there is no record, however, that these women were ordained, hence the practice of ordaining deaconesses is not followed by our denomination.” This sentence appeared in the Church Manual through the edition of 1986.12

The Annual Council13 of 1984 recommended that the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual delete the sentence about not ordaining deaconesses and include Ellen White’s 1895 statement about laying hands on women who would “consecrate some of their time to be of service to the Lord.” The 1985 General Conference Session took up an amended statement for consideration: “The church may arrange for the ordination of deaconesses by an ordained minister who holds current credentials from the conference.”14 After a delegate objected to calling Phoebe a deaconess, the General Conference Session of 1985 voted to refer the amendment to the standing Church Manual Committee for further consideration.15 The 1990 session voted to use the word “induction” rather than “ordination.” Thus the 1990 Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual reads, “The church may arrange for a suitable service of induction for the deaconess by an ordained minister holding current credentials.” The recognition of Phoebe as a deaconess was included.16 This same sentence appears in the 2000 edition.

This “appropriate ceremony” may include the laying-on of hands, but ordination of deaconesses is still not generally practiced. For example, in the year 2000, the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Southeastern California reported that only 38 percent of its congregations ordained women as deaconesses.17

The tasks of deaconesses. Possibly the oldest reference to duties performed by deaconesses is W. C. White’s recollection of his father’s calling out the Battle Creek deaconesses in 1863 to repair a torn evangelistic tent.18

Further perusal of historical Adventist materials provides no information until 1909, when T. E. Bowen wrote in the Advent Review and Sabbath Herald that “the work of the deaconess, properly carried on, is of great importance, and will bring much blessing into the church.” Besides attending to the Communion service, they should visit “the sick and those in need of loving help.”19 In the same year, in a plea for the use of proper baptismal robes, Mrs. S. N. Haskell pointed out that “Those who accept, at the hand of the church, the office of deaconess, obligate themselves to spend time to attend to the things pertaining to the Lord’s house.”20

In June 1914, the Seventh-day Adventist Church began to publish instructions for local church officers in The Church Officers’ Gazette. Its first two issues carried articles delineating the duties of deaconesses: “caring for the appointments of the church building, and looking after the welfare of the members of the church.”21 The article emphasized “systematic visiting” and rendering “such assistance as may be required.” Deaconesses were to care for the sick, provide food and clothing for those in need, help people find work, and teach the sisters how to cook and care for home and children. In this work deaconesses were to involve other church members, “thus leading them to become interested in one another’s welfare and uniting the church as one family.” Finally, the deaconess was to keep record of the “poor fund . . . administered by the deacon and deaconess.”22

The second article spoke of the care of different aspects of the church building: arranging the platform, placing flowers on the desk, and dusting the sanctuary. Deaconesses were entrusted with the preparations for communion and the women’s ordinance of humility, which consists of washing the feet of another person. They were also to care for baptismal robes and help the women who were baptized. Summarizing their duties, the unknown author stated, “To faithfully perform the duties that belong to the office of a deaconess means much hard work and self-denial.”23

The article “Deacons and Deaconesses” in the October 1919 Church Officers’ Gazette gives only one short paragraph to the care of the sick and the poor. Much more importance is given to the deaconess’s part in preparing for the “quarterly [Communion] service.”24 The Gazette recapitulates the duties of deaconesses in its issue of July 1923. While the practical help deaconesses may render “in the home or sick-room” did not disappear, the emphasis shifted from caring for and visiting the members to a concern with “dishes, decanter, goblets, and linen cloths” for Communion.25

The first Adventist Church Manual, published in 1932, dedicates five short paragraphs to the work of deaconesses. Their major tasks were preparing the Communion table, overseeing the footwashing ceremony, assisting in baptisms, and doing “their part in caring for the sick, the needy, and the unfortunate, co-operating with the deacons in this work.”26

In The Church Officers’ Gazette of October 1948, deaconesses were instructed regarding the highly choreographed Communion service. After folding the napkins covering the bread, “the deaconesses, always moving ‘in sweet accord’ and unison, return to the table to remove and fold the large cloth that covers the wine service. Somehow, women’s fingers can do this so much more skillfully than men’s.”27

Child care during church services is added in a 1940 issue of Ministry. The deaconess should be in charge of the mothers’ room, supplying “picture books, crayons, blocks, and other busywork . . . for the little tots.”28

In a 1956 article in Ministry, Bess Ninaj delineated six major duties of deaconesses: (1) Communion service, including preparation of bread and wine; (2) ordinance of humility; (3) baptisms, especially of women; (4) caring for the sick and poor; (5) greeting people at the door; and (6) visitation of members, at least quarterly but better each month. Ninaj noted that the last of these tasks was “neglected or unrecognized.”29

The emphasis on the deaconess and the Communion service, including preparation and footwashing, appears in a two-part Ministry article in 1972. The later article even contains a recipe for Communion bread.30

A half century ahead of his time, Leif Tobiassen suggested in 1952 that the church be divided into small groups under the leadership of deacons and deaconesses. “This ideal,” wrote Tobiassen, “can most surely be reached by the pastor if he takes pains to educate the deacons and deaconesses to enlarge their vision of the significance of the part they should take in the spiritual and missionary management of the remnant church.”31

A ministry description, dated 2002 and prepared by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America for deacons and deaconesses, lists the duties of deacons and deaconesses. Deaconesses are to help with the baptismal service, which includes preparing robes, laundering and storing equipment, and assisting women candidates. The functions regarding footwashing and Communion follow the earlier pattern. One item, however, is new: “It is appropriate for either deacons or deaconesses, who have been ordained, to assist in distributing the emblems and uncovering and recovering the table during the service.” In addition, “They will join with the pastor and elders in visiting church members. Some churches assign a geographic area or certain number of members for deacons and deaconesses in teams of two or three to visit.”32

In 1999, Vincent White published a book, Problem Solvers and Soul Winners, based on a workshop given for deacons and deaconesses. The more traditional duties include helping to maintain reverence in the service and seeing that the preacher has a glass of water by the pulpit. Deaconesses make arrangements for funeral dinners and “serve as flower bearers.” In addition, deaconesses are to “privately call the pastor’s attention to candidates who may be wearing colorful cosmetics and jewelry.” If dressed appropriately in white, deaconesses may participate in the Communion processional and veil and unveil the table (for which activity specific details are given). Deaconesses also prepare the Communion kits for those who were unable to attend, form part of the team that takes Communion to shut-ins, and dispose of the emblems of Communion by burning the bread and pouring out the wine on the ground.33

But Vincent White goes further—as the title of his book suggests. Deaconesses should participate in visitation of church members so that all families receive one 10 to 15 minute visit per quarter. When they find problem situations, they are to use a nine-step problem-solving method to meet the physical, social, and spiritual needs of those they work with. They are backed up by interdisciplinary teams in the local church. In addition, the head deaconess, together with her male counterpart, organizes the telephone committee and helps train those who participate. Deaconesses are to be soul winners and help disciple new members.34

With Vincent White’s book and the 2002 ministry description, one might say that Seventh-day Adventists have returned full circle to the early vision of the deaconess: consecrated women carrying out a ministry of caring for things and people. Whereas for much of the century, the emphasis was on details, now the deaconess has a place in the pastoral team.


Adventism was born as a grassroots movement. Everyone—including females—was needed to spread the message.35 As early as 1856, Frisbie called for women deacons. Later Ellen White pleaded for women who gave part-time service to be ordained by the church. The women that Frisbie and White envisioned as serving the church were not to be ascetics or members of sisterhoods, living separate from the world. They were to be people involved in everyday life, giving of themselves; they were not clergy, but lay people ordained to specific tasks.

Twentieth-century Seventh-day Adventists, for the most part, lost the impetus and potential of the early deaconess movement. Deaconesses in pastoral ministry became a rarity; instead, to a great extent, they were lovely ladies who poured wine and water and kept Communion linens and baptismal robes. Selective tasks, such as greeting people at the church door and distributing welfare to the poor, were sometimes added, but deaconesses were not a force to be reckoned with. Suggestions for instructing and organizing deaconesses appear as isolated calls to use the female talents in the church, but seem not to have been heeded.

Perhaps twenty-first century Seventh-day Adventists can learn from history. Deaconesses may yet be recognized as lay ministers. Perhaps the church will find ways to instruct and enable them so that they may serve the church and their Lord with love and creativity, becoming a force for strength and growth within the church.


1 Leslie McFall, Good Order in the Church, http://www.btinternet.com/~lmf12/HTMLGOITC/women_as_elders.htm, chaps. 4, 5 (accessed May 21, 2007).

2 Joseph Birchard Frisbie, “Deacons,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald 8, no. 13 (July 31, 1856): 102; the quotation is from Adam Clarke’s Bible Commentary on Romans 16:1, 2.

3 J. H. Waggoner, “The Office of Deacon,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, September 27, 1870, 116.

4 Warren H. Johns, Tim Poirier, and Ron Graybill, comps., A Bibliography of Ellen G. White’s Private and Office Libraries, 3d. ed. (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1993); she did, however, have Clarke’s Bible Commentary, quoted by Frisbie in 1856.

5 Ellen G. White, Letter to A. T. Jones, Manuscript Releases 21, MR no. 1520, 97.

6 Ellen G. White, “The Duty of the Minister and the People,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, July 9, 1895, par. 8.

7 Jerry Moon, “‘A Power That Exceeds That of Men’: Ellen G. White on Women in Ministry,” in Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1998), 201–203.

8 Arthur N. Patrick, “The Ordination of Deaconesses,” Adventist Review, January 16, 1996, 18, 19.

9 See Ellen G. White, appendix C to Daughters of God (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 1998), 253–255.

10 O. A. Olsen, “The Duties of Deacons and Deaconesses,” The Church Officers’ Gazette, December 1914, 1.

11 F. A. Detamore, “First Fruits in Sarawak, Borneo,” Review and Herald, December 8, 1921, 11.

12 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Church Manual (Washington, DC: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1932), 34; General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1986), 64.

13 The Annual Council is the full meeting of the Executive Committee of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Its worldwide membership consists of some 300 individuals.

14 Minutes for the 1984 Annual Council, October 15, 1984, 253–284G.

15 “Ninth Business Meeting, Fifty-fourth General Conference Session, Tuesday, July 2, 1985,” Adventist Review, July 4, 1985, 9.

16 General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 1990), 64.

17 Kit Watts, “SECC Members Value Gender Inclusiveness,” Pacific Union Recorder, August 2000, 31.

18 W. C. White, “Memories and Records of Early Experiences, Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 28, 1932, 6.

19 T. E. Bowen, “Questions Answered,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, January 7, 1909, 19.

20 Mrs. S. N. Haskell, “Baptismal Robes,” Advent Review and Sabbath Herald, March 11, 1909, 10.

21 “The Duties of the Deaconess,” The Church Officers’ Gazette, June 1914, 2.

22 Ibid.

23 “The Duties of the Deaconess,” The Church Officers’ Gazette, July 1914, 2.

24 J. Adam Stevens, “Deacon and Deaconesses,” The Church Officers’ Gazette, October 1919, 2.

25 M. A. Hollister, “Deacon and Deaconess,” The Church Officers’ Gazette, July 1923, 2.

26 Church Manual, 1932, 34.

27 Dorothy Foreman Beltz, “Communion Service and True Worship,” The Church Officers’ Gazette, October 1948, 4.

28 Howard J. Capman, “Reverence in the Church Service” The Ministry, October 1940, 18.

29 Bess Ninaj, “The Deaconess and Her Work,” The Ministry, December 1956, 35, 36.

30 Dalores Broome Winget, “The Deaconess and the Communion Service,” two parts, The Ministry, October 1972, 28–30; November 1972, 41, 42.

31 Leif Tobiassen, “Adventist Concepts of Church Management,” The Ministry, November 1952, 20.

32 Church Resources Consortium North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists, Responsibilities in the Local Church, rev. ed., 2002. Also available at http://www. plusline.org/article.php?id=236.

33 Vincent E. White Sr., Problem Solvers and Soul Winners: A Handbook for Deacons and Deaconesses (Knoxville, TN: AVA’s Book Publishers, 1999), 11, 12, 14, 15, 18, 19.

34 Ibid., 47–58, 59–65, 67–79, 87–93.

35 See Michael Bernoi, “Nineteenth-Century Women in Adventist Ministry against the Backdrop of Their Times,” in Women in Ministry: Biblical and Historical Perspectives (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 1998), 211–234.


This article first appeared in the July 2008 issue of Ministry,® International Journal for Pastors, www.MinistryMagazine.org and it is reprinted by permission.


Nancy Vyhmeister, PhD, is professor emeritus of missions at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.