Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Celebrate Helen Barrett Montgomery’s Birthday, Today

hbmontgomery1.jpgHelen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934) was born 146 years ago, today, 31 July 1861.  A friend of Susan B. Anthony and, like Anthony, a pioneer feminist and suffragist, Montgomery was active in social reform and became elected to the Rochester, NY city council–in a day when it was still considered shocking for women to walk outdoors unaccompanied or to speak up in mixed gender public assemblies.  A graduate of Wellesley College(A.B., 1884), Montgomery placed first in her Greek course, which came in handy later.  A Baptist layleader, Montgomery worked hard for the cause of missions, writing books on missions and prayer.  She also became the first known woman to translate the New Testament from Greek to English and have the translation published professionally.  Montgomery’s translation of the New Testament was published by the American Baptist Publication Society (forerunner of Judson Press) in 1924 as a celebration of ABPS’s 100th year of publication–which is why it was called the Centenary New Testament.  It remained in print until the 1990s (and I used to give it to women ministers when they were ordained).  Montgomery’s translation appears to have been the first to put titles on chapters and sections of the Bible and moved the verses to the side of the page to make it easier to read the text in paragraphs. 

In 1921, Montgomery was elected President of the Northern Baptist Convention (now American Baptist Churches, USA), the first woman to serve as head of a major Christian denomination and one of the few laypeople to hold such an office.  Although never ordained, Montgomery was licensed to preach and frequently led the worship at Lake Avenue Baptist Church, Rochester, NY when the pastor was absent.  For ten years she was president of the Women’s American Baptist Missionary society and she was also elected president of the National Federation of Women’s Boards of Foreign Missions. 

In addition to missions and the struggle for universal suffrage, Montgomery  also championed such causes as the elimination of poverty, free public education, and peace. 

Happy Birthday, Sister Helen! May your life and witness inspire many today, especially among women and Baptists!

July 31, 2007 - Posted by | Baptists, Bible, heroes, progressive faith


  1. Thanks for this post about Helen Montgomery. I appreciate the way you are trying to tell the Baptist story as an alternative to the way the Baptist story is usually told in the American South. You are really trying to “out-narrate” the fundamentalists and the religious right, so more power to ya!

    Sorry if this is too far off the subject of this post, but you did mention this: as a representative of the free-church tradition, what is your understanding of ordination?

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | July 31, 2007

  2. Baptists, like some others in the Believers’ Church tradition, have had some tensions between rival strands of tradition on ordination. I hold that all Christians are ordained to ministry in their baptism. A baptized Christian, as most Baptists would agree, can preach the Word, celebrate communion, baptize others, perform weddings and officiate at funerals (Caesar might be upset at these last 2 acts, but that’s a different matter), etc. However, unlike unprogrammed Quakers, Baptists “set aside” persons (pastors) to lead congregations and these pastors USUALLY do the preaching, celebrating communion, etc.

    Ordination is the community of faith recognizing God’s calling of certain persons to positions of leadership based on their natural talents, study and preparation, and Spiritual gifts.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | July 31, 2007

  3. Consider this woman encouraged. I’ve never been introduced to Montgomery before. Thank you for telling an often untold part of my (our) heritage.

    Regarding your comment in #2: I keep telling my more conservative friends: If the Holy Spirit would quit gifting and setting apart women for leadership, I’d quit saying they can and should lead. Its really that simple.

    Comment by Emily Hunter McGowin | July 31, 2007

  4. I think most Christians would agree that we are all ordained to do ministry in our baptisms; I certainly do. The part about presiding when the sacraments are celebrated is a more complex question.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | August 1, 2007

  5. The reason why presiding at the eucharist is “more complicated” is due to bad theology–either views of the eucharist which are magical rather than celebratory or views of ministry which are heirarchical–or both. A Believers’ Church view sees the eucharist as celebratory, commemorative, and forming a distinct people through ritual–but not as magical. And we do not think that an ordained minister is needed to make something “happen” at the eucharist. Just as, in Judaism, any 10 boys who are bar mitzvah can form a minyan and thus lead any synagogue meeting, so in a Believers’ Church perspective, any baptized member can lead worship, including celebrating the eucharist or baptizing a new member, etc.

    Some believe this view of ministry does away with the concept of ordained ministry. No. We do away with “laity,” with a passive listening church that is different from the teaching church. We have a discipleship of equals.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 1, 2007

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