Interim Stated Clerk Bronwen Boswell and the Women Who Paved the Way
In July, the Rev. Bronwen Boswell was appointed as the Acting Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the PC(USA), filling the term of the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II. In doing so, Boswell became the first woman Stated Clerk of the denomination.
When asked for her reaction on taking on this new role in an interview with the Presbyterian News Service, Boswell shared that, “I am humbled and excited by this opportunity to serve the denomination in this way. It truly is a call, by COGA and the Holy Spirit.” Rev. Boswell has made history within the denomination by accepting this call. She, like many Presbyterian women before her, have proved that it is possible to rise to positions of power within the faith, though resilience, passion, and the grace of God.
The naming of Rev. Boswell as the first woman Stated Clerk echoes other firsts, and other women, in Presbyterian history—Louisa Woosley, Margaret Towner, Rachel Henderlite, Katie G. Cannon, and Thelma Adair being only a few of the names that come to mind.
Louisa Woosley became first woman minister of record from an American Presbyterian denomination when she was ordained in 1889 by her home church in Kentucky, a member of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church (CPC). Despite having the full confidence of her congregation, Woosley’s ordination was not fully recognized by the CPC General Assembly. This minor detail did not halt Woosley—rather, she continued to speak from the pulpit for years and years.
Tillie Paul Tamaree was the first Native American woman elected as a ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. in 1930. Before her election, Tillie Paul worked as a translator, civil rights advocate, and missionary educator within the Tlingit community in the Pacific Northwest. In doing so she paved the way for future generations of proud Native American women like Elona Street-Stewart—the first Native American to serve as a synod executive and Moderator of the PC(USA).
Margaret Towner made history, and headlines in 1956, over sixty years after Woosley was ordained and welcomed to the pulpit. That year, Towner became the first white woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA). In a 1978 interview, she reflects on her experience, saying that “There's still people who are offended by [ordained women] because they go back literally to First Corinthians and, you know, women should not speak in church, et cetera. I think that is getting less and less.”
Rachel Henderlite was parallel to Margaret Towner, becoming the first white woman ordained in the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) in 1965. Despite the progress—made obvious by the ordinations of Towner and Henderlite in the mid-twentieth century—there were still roadblocks. Many did not support these women in their new positions. Henderlite received an annual letter from a retired pastor in South Carolina with a message about the ordination of women: “[it] is a grievous sin because it says in the Bible, ‘Let the women keep silent in the churches.’” Henderlite did not sway and continued to heed the call of the Holy Spirit.
When Katie G. Cannon was ordained by the Catawba Presbytery in 1974, she became the first Black woman minister in the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (UPCUSA). A founding voice in Womanist theology, Cannon did not only serve behind the pulpit—she also spoke at the front of classrooms, teaching at Temple University and Union Presbyterian Seminary for years. In 2018, she founded the Center for Womanist Ethics at Union in Richmond; she died in August of that same year. Her memory lives on through the various lives she influenced and touched.
Being the first requires a certain level of grit and determination. Thelma Adair made headlines two years after Cannon, in 1976, when she was elected Moderator of the 188th General Assembly of the UPCUSA. When she took to the podium, she became the first Black woman to serve as Moderator. (Lois Stair became the first white woman elected to this position four years earlier, in 1972.) As moderator from 1976 to 1977, Dr. Adair traveled the world to over, visiting seventy countries and conducting meetings with local and national leaders such as President Gerald Ford.
Reverend Blanca Estrella Otaño-Rivera—also known as Blanqui Otaño—became the first Hispanic clergywoman ordained in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA), in June 1975. She earned a bachelor’s from the University of Puerto Rico, and a Divinity degree from the Latinoamerican Biblical Seminary in Costa Rica. Immediately after graduation she received an invitation from her Presbyterian Church in Caparra Terrace, to serve as local “missionary”. Since that call, Blanqui served the Church in various roles, including her time on staff in the Women’s Program in the Program Agency (UPCUSA).
The names above are only a few of a much larger number. As we celebrate Rev. Boswell’s position as Stated Clerk, let us simultaneously look back and feel gratitude toward the vast number of Presbyterian women who helped to pave the way forward.