Addie Davis, first woman ordained as Southern Baptist pastor, dies at 88

COVINGTON, Va. (ABP) -- Addie Elizabeth Davis died Dec. 3, in her hometown of Covington, Va., after a brief illness. She was 88.

Her ordination to the gospel ministry by Watts Street Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., on Aug. 9, 1964, marked the first time a Southern Baptist congregation had ordained a woman to pastoral ministry.

But those who led the 1964 service said they were unaware at the time of the occasion's historic significance. At the time, Davis was a seminary student. She told then-Watts Street pastor Warren Carr of sensing a call as a young girl to preach the gospel.

A Baptist historian said the ordination service "marked a new era for Baptists, and in the 41 years since that event, thousands of women have been ordained by Baptist churches in the South." Pam Durso, associate director of the Tennessee-based Baptist History and Heritage Society, continued: "Rev. Davis served, and will continue to serve, as a role model to the many Baptist women who have followed in her footsteps."

Durso has, along with her husband Keith, edited a recent book titled, Courage and Hope: The Stories of Ten Baptist Women Ministers (Mercer University Press). Davis is one of the book's subjects.

"What made Addie Davis so remarkable was not her place in history as the first woman to be ordained by a Southern Baptist church; it was her humility, her compassion, and her warm spirit," said Durso. "She faithfully followed God's calling, serving three churches as pastor or co-pastor. Her focus in those churches was on caring for the people and being with them in times of crisis."

Davis returned to Watts Street in 2004 to participate in a service celebrating the 40th anniversary of her ordination.

Davis recalled receiving dozens of letters objecting to her ordination. One urged her to "learn from her husband," though Davis never married.

Southern Baptists have traditionally held to a view of local church autonomy that allows individual congregations to determine persons they will ordain and call as ministers.

However, the Southern Baptist Convention revised its "Baptist Faith and Message" doctrinal statement in 2000 to include an affirmation that "the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

The controversial statement has been used to enforce agreement among missionaries and others employed by SBC agencies but is not binding on local SBC-affiliated congregations.

Davis, a graduate of Meredith College and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, both in North Carolina, served churches in Vermont, Rhode Island and Virginia. The Baptist Women in Ministry organization provides annual scholarships to female ministerial students through a fund established in Davis' honor.

Her funeral was held Dec. 7 in Covington.