Deaconess (ἡ διάκονος; διακόνισσα, diaconissa), the title of an office of women in the early Church; an office supposed by some to have originated under the apostles, by others to be of later origin.
I. Deaconesses in the Apostolical Church. — The title (usually rendered minister or "deacon") is found in Ro 16:1, associated with a female name (Phoebe, ο῏υσαν διάκονον), and this has led to the conclusion that there existed in the apostolic age, as there undoubtedly did a little later (Pliny, Ep. ad Traj.), an order of women bearing that title, and exercising, in relation to their own sex, functions which were analogous to those of the deacons. On this hypothesis it has been inferred that the women mentioned in Ro 16:6,12, belonged to such an order (Herzog, Real-Encykl. 3, 368). The rules given as to the conduct of women in 1Ti 3:11; Tit 2:3, have in like manner been referred to them (Chrysostom, Theophylact, Hammond, Wiesinger, ad loc.). Some writers (e.g. Rothe; Schaff, Apost. Church, § 135) suppose that the "widows" of 1Ti 5:3-10, were deaconesses. Herzog, on the other hand, holds that the passages in Timothy cannot be applied to "deaconesses." Dr. W. L. Alexander, in Kitto's Cyclopoedia (s.v.), maintains that Ro 16:1, does not show that Phoebe held any official relation to the Church; for all that appears, she may have been simply the doorkeeper or cleaner of the place of worship. Plumptre (in Smith's Dictionary, s.v. says that "it seems hardly doubtful that writers have transferred to the earliest age of the Church the organization of a later. It was of course natural that the example recorded in Lu 8:2-3, should be followed by others, even when the Lord was no longer with his disciples. The new life which pervaded the whole Christian society (Ac 2:44-45; Ac 4:31-32) would lead women as well as men to devote themselves to labors of love. The strong feeling that the true θρησκεία, or service of Christians, consisted in 'visiting the fatherless and the widow,' would make this the special duty of those who were best fitted to undertake it. The social relations of the sexes in the cities of the empire (comp. Grot. on Ro 16:1) would make it fitting that the agency of women should be employed largely in the direct personal application of Christian truth (Tit 2:3-4), possibly in the preparation of female catechumens. Even the later organization implies the previous existence of the germs from which it was developed. It may be questioned, however, whether the passages referred to imply a recognized body bearing a distinct name. The 'widows' of 1Ti 5:3-10, were clearly, so far as the rule of ver. 9 was acted on, women who were no longer able to discharge the active duties of life, and were therefore maintained by the Church, that they might pass their remaining days in 'prayers night and day.' The conditions of ver. 10 may, however, imply that those only who had been previously active in ministering to the brethren were entitled to such a maintenance." See also Ludlow, Woman's Work in the Church, ch. 1 (Lond. 1866).
II. Deaconesses in the early Church. — The Apostolical Constitutions distinguish "deaconesses" from "widows" and "virgins," and prescribe their duties. A form of ordination for deaconesses is also given (bk. 8, c. 19, 20), in which the bishop prays as follows: "Eternal God, Fattier of our Lord Jesus Christ, Creator of man and of woman; thou who didst fill with thy Spirit Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, and Huldah; thou who didst vouchsafe to a woman the birth of thy only-begotten Son; thou who didst, in the tabernacle and in the Temple, place female keepers of thy holy gates- look down now also upon this thy handmaid, and bestow on her the Holy Ghost, that she may worthily perform the work committed to her, to thy honor, and the glory of Christ" (Chase, Constitutions of the Apostles, p. 225 (N. Y. 1848).
In the Eastern Church the notices of deaconesses in the first three centuries are few and slight, although Origen († 253) speaks of the ministry of women in the Church as both existing and necessary.
In the Western Church the notices are fuller and more clear. Pliny the younger (about A.D. 104) appears to refer to deaconesses in his letter to Trajan, in speaking of the question by torture of "two maids who were called ministers" (ex duabus ancillis quae ministra dicebantur). Tertullian (220) speaks of them often, and prescribes their qualifications (see below). In the fourth and fifth centuries all the leading Eastern fathers refer to deaconesses; e.g. Basil († 379), Gregory of Nyssa († 396), Chrysostom († 407), Theodoret († 457), Sozomen (cir. 439). Theodoret (Eccl. Hist. 3, 14, p. 652) calls Publia, who lived at the time of Julian, ἡ Διάκονος — deaconess. Sozomen (4. 14, 59) speaks of a certain deaconess who had been excluded Church fellowship because of having broken her vows.
It was a rule that the deaconesses must be widows. Tertullian (ad Uxorem, 1:7; de Virgin. veland. c. 9) says, "The discipline of the Church and apostolic usage forbid that any widow be elected unless she have married but one husband." Virgins, it is true, were sometimes admitted, but this was the exception. The widows must have borne children. This rule arose from the belief that no person but a mother can possess those sympathizing affections which ought to animate the deaconess in her duties. The early Church was very strict in enforcing the rule which prohibits the election of any to be deaconesses who had been twice married, though lawfully and successively, to two husbands, one after the other. Tertullian says, "The apostle requires them to be (universae) the wives of one man" (ad Uxorem, 4:7). Others, however, give the words of the apostle another meaning. They suppose him to exclude those widows who, having divorced themselves from their former husbands, had married again (see Suicer, Thesaurus, 1:864, 867). It is disputed whether they were ordained by the imposition of hands, but the Apostolical Constitutions (8. 19) declare that such was the case, and the 15th canon of Chalcedon (sess. 15) forbids the ordination of a deaconess under forty. Still they were not consecrated to any ministerial function; so Tertullian, De Praescript, 41, "Let no woman speak in the Church, nor teach, nor baptize, nor offer" (that is, administer the Eucharist), "nor arrogate to herself any manly function, lest two should claim the lot of the priestly office." Their duties were to take care of the sick and poor, and to minister to martyrs and confessors in prison, to whom they could more easily gain access than the deacons; to instruct catechumens, and to assist at the baptism of women; to exercise a general oversight over the female members of the Church, and this not only in public, but in private, making occasional reports to the bishops and presbyters. How long this office continued is uncertain. It was not, however, discontinued everywhere at once. It was first abrogated in France by the Council of Orange, A.D. 441. It continued in the Roman Church for some time after this, and gradually disappeared; but in the Greek Church it did not become extinct till the twelfth century.
III. In the modern Church. — It must ever be regarded as a misfortune in the Reformation that this early office was not restored. "Is it not remarkable that the office, which is so well adapted to the matronly character of the female sex, should be wholly excluded from our list of assistants in the Church?" (Robinson's Calmet, p. 336.) Its restoration was, however; seriously thought of, and even attempted, in the Reformed Church at an early period of the Reformation, namely, when the Netherland "churches under the Cross" were founded through the synod at Wesel and Emden, 1568 and 1571. Its restoration in the Reformed Church was urged on the synod the more as it already actually existed at the time among the Bohemian Brethren and the strict Anabaptists, at least in the large congregations. The subject came before the synod from the congregation at Wesel through the Classis of Wesel. That congregation had decided to restore it Ñ had, in fact, restored it in its bosom, and now asked the indicatores for approval. The Classis of Wesel, before which the matter first came, decided that the restoration of the office as inaugurated in the congregation at Wesel shall stand till the final decision is had, but deferred final action until their next meeting. In 1580 the same classis decided that "if this office, which had fallen into disuse and decay in the Church of God, is again to be restored, then it shall be established in the same form, and with the same character belonging to it, as described by the apostle Paul, namely, widows, and not married women, shall be chosen for that purpose." Classis favored the restoration of the office, and referred the matter to the next provincial synod, that by its authority it might also be restored in other localities. Accordingly, by the proper course, it came before the General Synod at Middleburg in 1581, which synod unfortunately decided against it "on account of various inconveniences which might arise out of it; but in times of pestilence, and other sicknesses, when any service is required among sick women which would be indelicate to deacons, they ought to attend to this through their wives, or others, whose services it may be proper to engage" (Max Gobel, Geschichte des christ. Lebens in der rhein-westphälischen Ev. Kirche, 1:413, 414). Here this interesting movement seems to have ended, as there is no further historical trace of it.
The Puritans in England in the sixteenth century recognized deaconesses, as appears by the following extract from the "Conclusions" drawn up by Cartwright and Travers, and given by Neal, History of the Puritans, vol. 1, ch. 6: "Touching deacons of both sorts, viz. men and women, the Church shall be admonished what is required by the apostle, and that thev are not to choose men of custom or course for their riches, but for their faith, zeal, and integrity; and that the Church is to pray in the mean time to be so directed that they may choose them that are meet. Let the names of those that are thus chosen be published by the next Lord's day, and after that their duties to the Church, and the Church's duty towards them; then let them be received into their office with the general prayers of the whole Church." "The advantages resulting to a Christian community from such an order are too obvious to require Exposition. It has been a serious misfortune to the Church at large that the office has been allowed to fall into disuse; and the wide-spread institution at the present day in the churches of Great Britain and America of ladies' district-visiting societies, Dorcas societies, etc. satisfactorily shows the necessity of practically supplying, to some extent at least, the want of this primitive office. There is a movement going on at present for the introduction of the order of deaconesses into the Church of England" (Chambers, Encyclopedia, s.v.). Its prospects of success would be greater but for the monastic tendencies of the so-called "sisterhoods" organized by the Puseyites, e.g. Miss Sellon's. This subject has been lately revived in the German Reformed Church in America. On Christmas, 1866, Hon. J. Dixon Roman, of Hagerstown, Md., gave to the congregation of that city $5000, and with it sent a proposition to the Consistory that, according to his wish, "three ladies of the congregation shall be chosen and ordained to the order of deaconesses in this congregation, with absolute control of the income of said fund, for the purses and duties as practiced in the early days of the Church." This, and the action of Lebanon Classis, which in 1867 requests the synod "to take into consideration the propriety of restoring the apostolic office of deaconesses," will bring this plain question before the highest judicatory of the Church.
In the Roman Catholic Church there are various sisterhoods answering in some degree to the ancient order of deaconesses, but without ordination; such as the Beguines, the Gray Sisters, the Sisters of Charity, Sisters of Mercy, etc. (see Ludlow, Woman's Work in the Church, ch. 3).
The first modern reorganization of the work of deaconesses on a large scale was begun in 1835 by pastor Fliedner, of Kaiserswerth, Prussia. An infirmary was established, to be served by Christian women, unmarried or widows. He required of all who would become deaconesses that they should be "'willing' to 'be servants of Christ alone, to devote their time and faculties entirely and exclusively to him, and not to look fore ward for pecuniary emoluments or honors of the World, nor yet to merit salvation by their works, but to do the work of charity and self-denial out of gratitude to him who hath redeemed their souls, and merited their salvation. After their probationary period they engage themselves to serve at least five years. But even during this time they are allowed to leave if nearer personal or family duties should make them wish for a change of situation." Many women obeyed the call, the infirmary grew rapidly into importance, and auxiliary societies were formed throughout Prussia. The institution spread into other parts of Europe, and there are now orphan- houses and hospitals under its charge at Berlin, Dresden, Frankfort, Worms, Cologne, Elberfeld, London, and other places. The mother institution has (1) a seminary to train young females as teachers for infant and other schools; (2) an orphan asylum; (3) a training-school of nurses, and for visitors to prisons, etc. The whole expense is borne by voluntary subscriptions. A branch was established at Pittsburg, Pa., in 1849 by pastor Fliedner in person. Mrs. Fry, after a visit to Kaiselswertb, established in Bishopsgate, London, an "Institution for Nursing Sisters," which still exists. A deaconesses' institute was organized at Paris in 1851, and others followed in France and Switzerland (see Ludlow's article in the Edinburgh Review, 1848, p. 223). In 1888 the Genesis Conference of the M. E. Church created the order of Deaconesses, who now have "homes" in the larger cities of the U. S. See Howson, Deaconesses, or the Official Help of Women in Parochial Work (Lond. 1862); Ludlow, Woman's Work in the Church; Jane M. Bancroft, Deaconesses in Europe and America (N. Y. 1889); also Bingham, Orig. Eccles.bk. 2, ch. 22; Siegel, Handbuch der christ. Alterthumer, 1:491 sq.; Augusti, Handb. der christl. Archaeologie, vols. 2 and 3; Ferraris, Prompta Bibliotheca, 3, 172; Coleman, Ancient Christianity, ch. 25; Neander, Ch. Hist, 1:155; 2:158 (Torry's transl.); Schaff, Apostolic History, § 135; ibid., History of the Christian Church, ii, § 52; Mercersburg Review, 14:190; Am. Quart. Ch. Review, July, 1862, art. 3.