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The “Archbishop of Deaconesses” Who Took On The Fundamentalists 1849-1922
By John G. McEllhenney

It is said of the first college in the United States to award degrees to women, Oberlin (1841), that it is peculiar in that which is good. A compliment equally applicable to an Oberlin graduate, Lucy Jane Rider. She became a physician when most medical schools barred their doors to women. She revived the ancient female diaconate in America. And she refused to close her eyes to theories about how the Bible was composed.

Born in Vermont, Lucy Rider taught in a North Carolina school for freed slaves, went to college in Ohio, and studied medicine in Pennsylvania. When the man died, whom she expected to marry and work with as a medical missionary, she threw herself into a succession of activities.

She taught chemistry at the prep school and college levels, authored The Fairy Land of Chemistry, wrote songs for children, spoke at religious conferences, organized Sunday schools, and attended the 1880 World Sunday School Convention in London. In 1885, she became the first principal of the Chicago Training School for City, Home, and Foreign Missions.

Her first brush with fundamentalists came when they attacked the school, saying that all the training women needed for the Christian work they could do was provided by church and Sunday school. Mrs. Meyer?she married Josiah Shelly Meyer, a former Y.M.C.A. secretary, in 1885?defended her school’s curriculum that included biblical studies, theology, church history, sociology, economics, basic medical training, and courses chronicling the accomplishments of women. She argued that women needed thorough intellectual training in order to minister to the temporal and spiritual needs of urban Americans.

Meanwhile, she had studied the ancient female diaconate and its revival in Germany (1836) and England (1861). Based upon biblical precedent, the office of deaconess was fully developed by the fourth century. Deaconesses cared for the poor and the sick, were present at interviews of women with clergy, instructed women preparing for baptism, and assisted at their baptisms. Then the office disappeared for centuries.

Mrs. Meyer, seeing the possibility of reviving it in America, asked the Training School’s executive committee to allow some of the students to remain in Chicago during the summer of 1887, to concentrate on a ministry of visitation in tenement communities. A few of these moved into a house, soon called a deaconess home, and began to do all they could to alleviate the plight of recent immigrants to rapidly industrializing America?health care, instruction in child care and homemaking skills, and Christian education.

Lucy Meyer’s second encounter with fundamentalists came when she designed a deaconess uniform, which they criticized as a step toward Roman Catholicism. She countered that it clarified the deaconesses’ role and helped to make them welcome. In 1888, her denomination, the Methodist Episcopal Church, recognized the office of deaconess. By late in her career, her achievements had achieved such recognition that she could be introduced as the “Archbishop of Deaconesses.”

But the fundamentalists found another avenue of attack. Meyer’s biblical studies led her to the conclusion that the Bible had not been dictated by God, but written by a host of inspired authors and assembled by editors, who sometimes blended several older documents to create an expanded narrative. She defended her conclusions, even in the face of her husband’s objections.

Mrs. Meyer retired as head of the Chicago Training School in 1917 and died five years later, honored as a woman who had been peculiar in that which is good.

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