Henrietta Blackmore, ed., The Beginning of Women’s Ministry:  The Revival of the Deaconess in the 19th-Century Church of England, Church of England Record Society, Volume 14, The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester NY, 2007.

Henrietta Blackmore, ed., The Beginning of Women’s Ministry:  The Revival of the Deaconess in the 19th-Century Church of England, Church of England Record Society, Volume 14, The Boydell Press: Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester NY, 2007, £33.75 ISBN 978-1-84383-308-6 (hardback) pp. l + 150.

Reviewed by:  Joy Frith, Middlesex University, July 2008.


When Isabella Gilmore humbly accepted the Bishop of Rochester’s offer to serve as head of his South London parish nascent deaconess training institution, the profundity of her decision overwhelmed her:  ‘God’s voice had called me, & the intense rest and joy were beyond all words.’ (73)  By placing herself under the spiritual direction of the Bishop and within the institutional framework of the diaconate movement, Gilmore not only experienced a sense of spiritual awakening, but also accepted a position of responsibility and influence within the Church.  Gilmore, who served as head deaconess of the Rochester Diocesan Deaconess Institution from 1877 to 1906, effectively illustrates that the late nineteenth-century female diaconate was a ‘decisive factor in the fight for women’s autonomy and authority within the Church of England’ (xlii).

Through this collection of primary documents, Blackmore challenges the notion that the deaconess movement was inherently conservative in nature, arguing that it enabled women to carve out a significant sphere of active Christian ministry within the hierarchical structure of the Church of England.  The book encourages historians to reassess the impact and significance of the revival of the female diaconate. Effectively contextualised by an informative, detailed introduction, and featuring the writing of women such as Isabella Gilmore and her more familiar counterpart Elizabeth Ferard, this volume will undoubtedly allow scholars to begin this important re-evaluation.

The book’s comprehensive introductory essay reveals the depth of Blackmore’s scholarship – her doctoral thesis examined this subject (Oxford, 2004) – as it explains the revival of the deaconess movement, charts the main themes explored by the documents, and places them in context.  She focuses both on general issues pertaining to the movement, as well as on two specific institutions and the individuals at their helm:  the North London Deaconess Institution, under the leadership of Ferard, and the abovementioned RDDI, led by Gilmore. Like Anglican Sisterhoods, whose establishment from 1845 created considerable controversy within the Church, the deaconess movement struggled with issues of status, recognition, clerical authority, and the nature of work undertaken, with nursing and teaching becoming increasingly professionalised as the nineteenth century progressed.  The primary sources reflect such issues, with lists of rules, instructions, and ‘some present difficulties of the deaconess system’ indicating the need to create order and structure for these institutions. One of the most significant issues revealed by these sources is the extent to which the deaconess movement struggled to recruit candidates.  Future scholars of the movement might effectively mine these sources to determine the reasons why.

The documents are arranged thematically into five sections:  the revival of the female diaconate, work and worship, the parish deaconess, the relationship between deaconesses and the church, and the deaconess in the early church.  Photographs highlight central aspects of deaconess life, including uniforms and places of worship.   Appendices usefully list the deaconess institutions established between 1861 and 1907, together with their locations and the number of women involved. Although only a total of 431 women became deaconesses between the 1860s and 1919, these lists depict a movement national as well as international in scope.  Each of the documents is accompanied by detailed and informative explanatory notes.  While this material is certainly helpful, in places it repeats information provided in the introductory essay.  The documents would benefit from individual introductions and might usefully have been arranged chronologically within each section in order to more easily chart the evolution of the deaconess movement.  While the selection of texts includes a diverse range of materials, from diaries to devotional guides, most are from the perspective of those who supported the movement:  it would also be useful to include commentary from a detractor of the movement to provide a greater sense of the ways in which these institutions were challenged. The documents would also be enriched by material relating to overseas and colonial expansion, as this was clearly an important part of the diaconate’s development.

Blackmore has assembled a collection of documents vital to any historian interested in this often-overlooked dimension of Victorian women’s religious expression. Gilmore’s diary provides an excellent introduction into the daily life of a deaconess working in south London, and the rules governing work and worship reveal fascinating insights into how the identity of deaconesses was being imagined, constructed and performed. The book raises a number of important questions surrounding these institutions, particularly in relation to their place within the Church.  As Blackmore points out, deaconesses represented a dilemma for the Church: they provided an essential volunteer workforce, yet the revival of this ancient order held the potential to destabilise gender hierarchies and ideas about women’s ministerial role.  As Convocation debates reveal, the Church’s continual attempts to define and regulate this order testify to the trepidation with which it approached women’s collective organisation.  It is here that we see the potential of the movement to develop a sphere of female authority in the Church most effectively.  The ambiguity surrounding the deaconess movement could be utilised to argue for the development of women’s ministry, in a less threatening, but no less powerful, form than that offered by Anglican sisterhoods. As this book clearly illustrates, the degree of autonomy and authority provided by the female diaconate varied widely, much depended on the relationship among individual deaconesses, bishops and the local clergy.  However, as Isabella Gilmore’s response to ‘the call’ reveals, by providing a space for women to carve out innovative vocations, the deaconess movement validated and promoted individual Christian devotion within an active collective ministry. This volume will better enable scholars to determine the complexity and significance of this process.