By Susan Mack-Overla
Brethren Press’ Forerunners card game has me curious about the new faces that were added in the second edition. One of the new faces is a Northern Plains woman, Julia Gilbert (1844-1934). Marlene Moats Neher of Ivester, Iowa, is a great-grand niece of Julia.
“Persistent” is one of the attributes noted on her cards. In reading more about Julia Gilbert and her story of bringing about change for women in the church, I would say persistence is an understatement.
As I started to read, the following quote stood out: “Julia was baptized at the age of 14. That’s when the trouble started. Of course, this depends on your perspective.” Source: Church of the Brethren: Yesterday and Today, edited by Donald F Durnbaugh, 1986.
The privilege of breaking bread and passing the cup of communion was denied to women in the early church. The Annual Conference queries questioning this practice began in 1899 and they were being authored in Grundy County, Iowa, by Julia. She became known as “The Woman Who Wanted to Break Bread.” Decades of denominational study, reports, speeches, and criticism followed, along with courage and persistence. It wasn’t until the 1958 Annual Conference held in Des Moines, Iowa, 24 years after Julia’s passing, that women would gain “full and unrestricted rights in the ministry.”
The question of the role of women in the Church of the Brethren continued after the 1958 statement with another query from the Ivester Church in 1975. Northern Plains District and the denomination benefits from the leadership and persistence of its women.
Long live persistence and courage.
— Susan Mack-Overla is the Northern Plains District moderator for 2022. This piece was first published by the district newsletter as a “Moderator Moment.”
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