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Mary Phillips (1858-1880), Class of 1879, the First Woman to Graduate from Garrett

Mary Adelia Phillips was born to Jeremiah and Adelia Phillips on October 25, 1858 in Lansing, Michigan, and grew up in Olney, Illinois. She underwent a conversion, perhaps at a revival, when she was fifteen years old. In that same year, 1874, she finished high school at the recently-formed Olney High, and over the next two years struggled with the sense that she was called to preach the gospel. Her father, a physician and Methodist lay preacher, described her as “a sensitive plant” who shrank from the thought of becoming a minister. But Mary eventually accepted her calling and began to prepare by secretly reading theological works. Two years later she took the audacious step of applying for admission to a theological school, Garrett Biblical Institute. The school’s catalogue stated that admission was “open to all young men from an evangelical church, who are proper persons to study in preparation for the Christian ministry.” Mary could only hope that the faculty would interpret “young men” as young persons. Because she lacked a license to preach, she had to obtain a letter of recommendation from the quarterly conference to which her Methodist church in Olney belonged. Sometime in the summer of 1877, the ministers of that conference voted to recommend her to Garrett.

Among the Garrett faculty, it was Henry Bannister, professor of New Testament, who was the most ardent advocate of theological education for women. Women’s suffragist and educator Frances Willard would later recall hearing Bannister rail against those who objected to the idea of women receiving ministerial training. “I tell you once for all,” he said, emphasizing his words with thumps of his cane, “while I am here any reputable woman that wants to study shall study, and any one that wants to graduate shall graduate.”

In the fall of 1877 Mary began her studies at Garrett Biblical Institute, and in spring of 1879, having finished the three-year curriculum in just two years, she became the first woman to graduate. It is likely that she was only the third woman in the United States, perhaps in the world, to be awarded a theological degree.

Back home in Olney, Mary sought ordination in the Southern Illinois Conference but was blocked by Bishop Edward Andrews, who refused to permit a vote when her name was put forward at the meeting. Although Andrews died not long after, the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church responded to escalating national debates about women’s ordination by tightening church law on women’s ministry, rewriting the Book of Discipline to explicitly bar women from both ordination and licensure to preach.

Mary died of tuberculosis in 1880 at the age of twenty-one, but her father Jeremiah, ever her strongest supporter, became an outspoken advocate for women’s ordination, drawing a parallel with the anti-slavery fight of the preceding generation. “Slavery is dead,” he declared, “and the Bishop is dead. The day will come when the women of the Church will enjoy equal rights.”

For more information about Mary’s story and women’s ordination in the late nineteenth century, see The First Woman to Earn a Theological Degree at Garrett Biblical Institute: Mary A. Phillips, Class of 1879.

-Dr. Charles Cosgrove, Professor of Early Christian Literature, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary