Pastor Bridget and Pastor Kris at the Wisconsin Annual Conference of United Methodists, June 2023.
But why the Red Shoes?
The Tradition of the Red Shoes
The tradition of United Methodist Clergywomen wearing red shoes for Ordination services (as well as for seminary graduations!) began at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL.
It begins with a story that Georgia Harkness used to tell about her great-grandmother, Abigail.
As Georgia told the story, “Abigail was not only a Quaker, but was known as a ‘worldly woman,’ who affronted neighbors by ‘appearing out of plainness’ and was referred to scornfully as ‘the woman in the red coat.’ Whether because of the red coat or more abiding charms, she won the heart of Daniel Harkness and they were married in November, 1802.
In response, the Society of Friends presented Daniel Harkness with a letter of dismissal for ‘marrying out of the meeting.’ To ‘make satisfaction to the meeting’ he would only have had to say he was sorry he married her. But he was not sorry, and he would not say it!” we have!
Pastor Bridget and Pastor Kris robed and ready for the Service of Ordination at the Wisconsin Annual Conference of United Methodists, June 2023.
The couple was expelled from the Society of Friends and soon found their home within the Methodist Church where Abigail could wear her red coat without judgment.
Georgia Harkness was proud of her great-grandmother’s unwillingness to hide or diminish herself simply because members of the community wanted her to do so and Abigail’s red coat became of symbol of courage and empowerment for Georgia.
But, who was Georgia Harkness and why is she important?!
Harkness was the first professional female theologian in the United States. She served as the first ever Professor of Applied Theology at Garret Biblical Institute (one of the institutions that merged to form Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary) from 1939-1950.
Georgia Harkness was a prolific author and hymn writer, but when she applied to the Ph.D. program at Boston University in the 1920’s she was initially questioned as to whether she was “all that exceptional” and deserved a place in the Ph.D. program. The professor overseeing the program said of Harkness that she “had the preparation, probably the brains, but that [she] lacked the stick-to-itiveness.” Harkness set out to prove him wrong.
The story of Abigail and her red coat was first recorded and printed by another Garrett-Evangelical professor, Rosemary Skinner Keller. She feared that Georgia’s story, and with it, the history of women’s entry into professional theology in the United States, might be lost. So Keller, who was on the faculty at Garrett-Evangelical from 1978-1996, and who served as the seminary’s first female Academic Dean, took to wearing red shoes to honor the legacy of Georgia Harkness and her great-grandmother, Abigail Cochran. The tradition spread to other female faculty members and then became a tradition of many women in the student body. Since then, clergywomen across the United Methodist Church have chosen to wear their red shoes, not only for seminary graduation, but for Ordination services around the United States.
So, why do we wear red shoes?
We wear red shoes to remind us to be courageous women in leadership and ministry. We wear our red shoes to as a reminder that we are called by God, and need not hide. We wear our red shoes, not because we’ve earned a privilege, but because we have a history to claim. We wear red shoes to honor Georgia Harkness, Rosemary Skinner Keller, and so many other strong and brilliant women of faith. In wearing our red shoes, we proclaim our willingness to be bold, to be ourselves, and to show the world how much stick-to-itiveness we have!
Bishop Hee Soo Jung poses with clergywomen prior to the Service of Ordination, June 2022.