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Louisa Woosley c. 1891

Louisa Mariah Layman Woosley (March 24, 1862 – June 30, 1952) was the first woman ordained as a minister in any Presbyterian denomination. In the entire Reformed tradition, only Antoinette Brown, a Congregationalist, can claim an earlier ordination (1853). Antoinette's ordination, however, was never recognized by the Congregational denomination and Antoinette departed for the Unitarian Church. Louisa, on the other hand, was eventually recognized as a legitimate member of the Cumberland Presbyterian clergy and served in a variety of church offices for over 50 years.

Woosley, a Cumberland Presbyterian from Kentucky, was ordained by Nolin Presbytery (Kentucky Synod) in that denomination on Tuesday, November 5, 1889. Although the constitution of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church did not exclude women from ordination, neither did it include them. A great controversy developed in various church judicatories over the legality of her ordination. Eventually, Kentucky Synod of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church instructed Nolin Presbytery to remove Louisa Woosley from their rolls. This the presbytery did by granting her the status of minister in transitu ("lettering her out" in presbyterian terms) to another presbytery. Clearly, although Nolin Presbytery complied with the instructions of the superior judicatory, they had denied their intent. In 1891, Louisa published her only book, Shall Woman Preach which explained and justified her position.

Louisa Woosley, with the aid of various Kentucky presbyteries sympathetic to her cause, outlasted the synodic objection to her ordination. In 1906, the partial reunion of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church with the Presbyterian Church USA removed some of the most vocal opposition to the ordination of women. Although the official position of the denomination remained unchanged, clergy women were able to participate in all levels of polity without a great deal of opposition. In 1920, the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination ruled that the word "man" as used in its constitution was to be considered as a gender neutral reference to a human being. More recently gender inclusive language came into broader use in the denomination.

Almost a hundred years after Louisa's ordination, the Cumberland Presbyterian denomination elected their first female General Assembly moderator, Beverly St. John.


  • The History of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in Kentucky to 1988 by Matthew H. Gore. Published by the Joint Heritage Committee of Covenant and Cumberland Presbyteries (Memphis, Tennessee), 2000.


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