The earliest recorded use of the term 'deaconess' in Methodism, anticipating the developments outlined below, was at Bolton in September 1868, during the ministry there of T.B. Stephenson, when there was a reference to 'Miss Entwistle, our deaconess'.
The Wesley Deaconess Institute was founded in 1890 by Stephenson, who recognized that an Order of dedicated women had a valuable part to play in the life of the Church. His thinking (like that of Archbishop Tait) was influenced by the work of Pastor Fliedner's Deaconess House at Kaiserswerth in Germany. In his Concerning Sisterhoods (1890) he set out three basic principles: 'There must be vocation, though no vow. 2. There must be discipline without servility. 3. There must be association, not excpuding freedom.'
Initially the Institute was closely connected with the Children's Home (later the NCH), but in time the two organizations became separate entities. Its first residential House was in London, named Mewburn House after its donor. Others were opened in Norwich (Bowman House), Leicester and Salford. Stephenson was Warden of the Order as well as Principal of the NCH until 1900, when he moved to the Ilkley Circuit. The headquarters of the Order was transferred there when a former boys' school was purchased in 1902, providing accommodation for the warden and 27 students. An extension known as 'theMaltby Wing' was opened in 1939 and a nearby house, 'Linnburn' was bought in 1945. The Order's headquarters remained in Ilkley until transferred to *Birmingham in 1967, following the closure of Headingley College, Leeds. From 1968 to 1970 it was associated with Handsworth College; then followed it to Edgbaston, where its new headquarters in Pritchatt's Road were opened in 1971.. Subsequently it was located in St James Road, Edgbaston, until it moved to be based in Methodist Church House in Marylebone Road, London, in 2014.
Decreasing numbers of women offering for service as deaconeses by the mid-20th century was noted by Rupert Davies in the Methodist Recorder of 21 June 1962. Among the reasons he gave for this were social changes such as the decrease in serious poverty and disease, fear of old age and loneliness. Following the opening of the presbyteral ministry to women in 1973, recruitment to the Order ceased in 1977.
Stephenson's ministerial successors as Warden were: William Bradfield, 1907-1920, W.R. Maltby (1920-1940), W.H. Beales (1940-1952), T.M. Morrow (1952-1972) and Brian J.N. Galliers (1972-1980). In 1921 the possibility of a woman warden was approved in principle, but this was not acted upon until the appointment of Sister Yvonne Hunkin in 1980. She was succeeded by Sister Sheila Parnell (1984-1989) and, with the establishment of the new Diaconal Order, by Sister Christine Walters in 1989.
A quarterly report for supporters of the work was published between 1901 and 1915 under the title Flying Leaves. It ceased publication during World War 1 and was eventually succeeded in 1921 by The Agenda.
Until 1901 deaconesses were 'recognized'; between 1902 and 1936 they were 'consecrated'; and from 1937 on they were 'ordained', following an order of service included in the new Book of Offices. Ordination was to lifelong service, but until 1965 they were required to resign on marriage. They met together in an annual Convocation. The Sisters engaged in pastoral, mission, evangelistic, social and prison work, and in nursing, teaching and work overseas
About the same time as Stephenson, the Rev. Alfred Jones, UMFC Connexional Evangelistic Secretary, had plans to use women for evangelism and visitation work, but failed to gain Conference support. However, the following year the Conference endorsed plans of the Rev. T.J. Cope for a Deaconess Institute organized along very similar lines (see Bowron House.) At the Union of 1907 the Deaconess Institute became part of the United Methodist Church. Cope's successors as warden of the UMFC/UM Institute were all ministers: Henry Smith (1912-1918), John Moore (1918-1920), Tom Sunderland (1920-1922) and Robert W. Gair (1922-1932).
Primitive Methodism did not have an organized 'order', but there were deaconesses who 'learned on the job', though they attended some lectures at the UM Institute. With Methodist Union in 1932 the WM Order and UM Institute were united, with the 22 PM Sisters joining in 1934. The Order was closed to recruitment from 1978 to 1987 and renamed the Methodist Diaconal Order when it was opened to both women and men in 1988.
See also Diaconate.
'I find myself wondering more and yet more at the courage and patience with which our Sisters are facing difficulties and discouragements, and at the bewildering variety of the things they are expected to do. They must take services, preach sermons, address women's meetings, superintend Sunday Schools, teach scholars, lead classes, captain Guides, visit the sick, sit up with the dying, make beds, smooth pillows, companion the lonely, haunt the prison gates, take drunk people home, raise money, run jumble sales, oil the ecclesiastical machine, and know everybody, as well as read, think, pray and keep their peace of mind. All needing to be done? Yes, and it is weakness to grouse about it. Yet I am in a strait betwixt two. I believe we must not decline the tasks of service in all their variety, and we must do what we can to fill empty lives with rational and healthy interests of many kinds. But often those who are busy with these activities are half dismayed with the fear that the real message is not being conveyed, but only drownedin all this serving.'
W.R. Maltby in The Agenda, June 1929, pp.3-4