When Mennonites consider the history of women in congregational leadership, they generally assume this began in the last quarter of the 20th century. I was surprised to learn the first female pastors in Ontario Mennonite congregations served almost one hundred years earlier – in the 1880s.
The Mennonite Brethren in Christ (now known as the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada) began in the 1870s, and were deeply influenced by the holiness movement. One feature of the holiness movement was early acceptance of women in leadership roles.
The very first of these women pastors was Janet Douglas, a young woman born near Brussels, Ontario in 1863. When she was a young girl her family moved to Michigan. There she was converted in a Mennonite Brethren in Christ evangelistic meeting. When she was 21, she began to help lead prayer meetings and evangelistic services, and was recognized as an evangelist by the Indiana conference of that body.
She visited Ontario in 1885 and preached in many Mennonite Brethren in Christ congregations and at summer camp meetings. The following year, when she was 22, she established a church in Dornoch, Ontario (south of Owen Sound) and served as its first pastor. The next year she established another church at Kilsyth, even closer to Owen Sound.
Janet Douglas was never formally ordained, but she was recognized as a minister, and attended ministers’ conferences for several years. As others followed her example they became known as “ministering sisters” in the denomination, and founded many small churches that became cornerstone congregations in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ denomination.
Her picture, as a pioneer woman minister, is on the cover of In Search of Promised Lands.
More can be learned about Janet Douglas at: http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hall,_Janet_Douglas_(1863-1946).