Rachel Henderlite: Presbyterian Trailblazer
Rachel Henderlite was born in 1905. The child of a Presbyterian minister, she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 1928. Her education was prolonged due to bouts with tuberculosis that interrupted her studies. She later remarked that while there, "startling new ideas would sweep in… shattering the protective covering of my unquestioning childhood."
She then attended Biblical Seminary (now New York Theological Seminary) where she received a Master’s Degree. Later, she studied at Yale Divinity School, but left to teach before completing her dissertation. During her time at Yale, her studies included a particular emphasis on Christian ethics. She went on to become a distinguished theologian and scholar who taught at Montreat College, the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. She retired in 1971 and remained in Austin, Texas, until her death in 1991.
Reverend Henderlite was ordained as a Presbyterian minister in the church in the U.S. in 1965. She was the first ordained female pastor in that denomination and one of the earliest ordained female pastors among protestant denominations in general. Her ordination was not without controversy and in fact, she received a yearly postcard from one male detractor who sought to remind her of his belief that the ordination of women “is a grievous sin because it says in the Bible, ‘Let the women keep silent in the churches.’”
During the course of her career, Ms. Henderlite participated in various social causes, notably including the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement. In 1963 she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Washington, D.C., in support of the rights of African-Americans.
Her activism and participation in social witness activities was not without criticism. Following her participation in a particular march in Richmond,Virginia, she received a letter criticizing the fact that she was observed “bringing up the rear of a line of demonstrators… with long curly beards [and] peculiar dress” — “misfits” who he feared might be “communist inspired individuals.” Reverend Henderlite replied, stating:
As I read the Bible, I find that the people of God have long been marked as a “peculiar” people. They have generally been “misfits” in the world. They have usually felt called upon to obey God rather than man, even when this meant opposing the leadership of the land….I believe these demonstrations for the cause of justice have been conducted out of honest conviction and generally as an expression of faith in Christ….I believe Martin Luther King’s demonstrations…have been consistently carried out in ways keeping with the Constitution….I suspect you and I are concerned for the same goals and would differ only with regard to methods….I rejoice that there is room in America and in the Christian church for difference.
Reverend Henderlite reminds us of our ever-reforming understanding of our faith and the role in that process of people like her, who had the courage to speak for the marginalized and to proclaim the Gospel, whether or not their words or participation were welcome.
Ty Gomez is a current NorthPark Presbyterian ruling elder, chair of the Communications Committee, and soccer dad. In his spare time, he practices law, plans more unfinished woodworking projects, and cooks for the women in his home.