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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
(rl S&Clkol'os or Scaeovtao-a, servant, minister), the name given to a woman set apart for special service in the Christian Church. The origin and early history of the office are veiled in obscurity. It is quite certain that from the 3rd century onward there existed in the Eastern Church an order of women, known as deaconesses, who filled a position analogous to that of deacons. They are quite distinct from the somewhat similar orders of "virgins" and "widows," who belonged to a lower plane in the ecclesiastical system. The order is recognized in the canons of the councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and is frequently mentioned in the writings of Chrysostom (some of whose letters are addressed to deaconesses at Constantinople), Epiphanius, Basil, and indeed most of the more important Fathers of the 4th and 5th centuries. Deaconesses, upon entering their office, were ordained much in the same way as deacons, but the ordination conveyed no sacerdotal powers or authority. Epiphanius says quite distinctly that they were woman-elders and not priestesses in any sense of the term, and that their mission was not to interfere with the functions allotted to priests but simply to perform certain offices in connexion with the care of women. Several specimens of the ordination service for deaconesses have been preserved (see Cecilia Robinson, The Ministry of Deaconesses, London, 1878, appendix B, p. 197). The functions of the deaconess were as follows: (1) To assist at the baptism of women, especially in connexion with the anointing of the body which in the ancient Church always preceded immersion; (2) to visit the women of the Church in their homes and to minister to the needs of the sick and afflicted; (3) according to the Apostolical Constitutions they acted as door-keepers in the church, received women as they entered and conducted them to their allotted seats. In the Western Church, on the other hand, we hear nothing of the order till the 4th century, when an attempt seems to have been made to introduce it into Gaul. Much opposition, however, was encountered, and the movement was condemned by the council of Orange in 441 and the council of Epaone in 517. In spite of the prohibition the institution made some headway, and traces of it are found later in Italy, but it never became as popular in the West as it was in the East. In the middle ages the order fell into abeyance in both divisions of the Church, the abbess taking the place of the deaconess. Whether deaconesses, in the later sense of the term, existed before 250 is a disputed point. The evidence is scanty and by no means decisive. There are only three passages which bear upon the question at all. (i) Romans xvi. 1: Phoebe is called 17 S&iu ovos, but it is quite uncertain whether the word is used in its technical sense. (ii) 1 Tim. iii. 1 i: after stating the qualifications necessary for deacons the writer adds, "Women in like manner must be grave - not slanderers," &c.; the Authorized Version took the passage as referring to deacons' wives, but many scholars think that by "women" deaconesses are meant. (iii) In Pliny's famous letter to Trajan respecting the Christians of Bithynia mention is made of two Christian maidservants "quae ministrae dicebantur"; whether ministrae is equivalent to &iLKOVOC, as is often supposed, is dubious. On the whole the evidence does not seem sufficient to prove the contention that an order of deaconesses - in the ecclesiastical sense of the term - existed from the apostolic age.
In modern times several attempts have been made to revive the order of deaconesses. In 1833 Pastor Fleidner founded "an order of deaconesses for the Rhenish provinces of Westphalia" at Kaiserswerth. The original aim of the institution was to train nurses for hospital work, but its scope was afterwards extended and it trained its members for teaching and parish work as well. Kaiserswerth became the parent of many similar institutions in different parts of the continent. A few years later, in 1847, Miss Sellon formed for the first time a sisterhood at Devonport in connexion with the Church of England. Her example was gradually followed in other parts of the country, and in 1898 there were over two thousand women living together in different sisterhoods. The members of these institutions do not represent the ecclesiastical deaconesses, however, since they are not ministers set apart by the Church; and the sisterhoods are merely voluntary associations of women banded together for spiritual fellowship and common service. In 1861 Bishop Tait set apart Miss Elizabeth Ferard as a deaconess by the laying on of hands, and she became the first president of the London Deaconess Institution. Other dioceses gradually adopted the innovation. It has received the sanction of Convocation, and the Lambeth Conference in 1897 declared that it "recognized with thankfulness the revival of the office of deaconess," though at the same time it protested against the indiscriminate use of the title and laid it down emphatically that the name must be restricted to those who had been definitely set apart by the bishop for the position and were working under the direct supervision and control of the ecclesiastical authority in the parish.
In addition to Miss Robinson's book cited above, see Church Quarterly Review, xlvii. 302 ff., art. "On the Early History and 1Vlodern Revival of Deaconesses" (London, 1899), and the works there referred to; D. Latas, Xpurrtavtid 'ApxatoXoyia, 163-171 (Athens, 1883); Testamentum Domini, ed. Rahmani (Mainz, 18 99); L. Zscharnack, Der Dienst der Frau in den ersten Jahrhunderten der chr. Kirche (1902).
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Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Deaconess'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/bri/d/deaconess.html. 1910.