Theodor Fliedner 5 October 1864 and William Passavant 3 January 1894
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Paintings of Theodor Fliedner and William Passavant

(From the Lutheran Calendar)

In the early church, some women, principally widows, were formally entrusted with helping to carry out the work of the church, particularly in ministering to the sick and needy of the congregation. (See 1 Timothy 5, where it appears that the women so set aside made a lifetime commitment to their work.) However, the order of deaconesses (as they were called) had largely died out by the seventh century, although some orders of nuns, and some less formally organized groups, undertook to carry out similar work.

In modern times, the order of deaconesses has been revived among Lutherans, chiefly by the efforts of Theodor Fliedner. Fliedner was born in Eppstein, Germany, in 1800, studied for the ministry, and in 1822 became pastor of a small parish in Kaiserswerth. Moved by their example, he began a ministry at the Dusseldorf Prison, walking to and from Dusseldorf every other Sunday until a regular prison chaplain was appointed. Under his influence and example, more and more prisons acquired chaplains and regular worship services for the prisoners. He opened a half-way house for released women prisoners, and a nursery school (then an innovation) that eventually became a school for future teachers.

Soon after, he encountered deaconesses among the Moravians, who had revived the institution in 1745. As Fliedner became more and more involved in what might be called social work with a Christian basis, he became convinced that the order of deaconesses ought to be revived, and he opened a hospital and deaconess training center in Kaiserswerth on 13 October 1836. (Florence Nightingale came there in 1850 to train as a nurse.) By 1838 he was able to send deaconesses to another hospital. He opened another deaconess motherhouse in Pittsburgh (USA) in 1849, and another in Jerusalem in 1851. Others followed in Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere. By the time of his death on 4 October 1864, there were 30 motherhouses and 1600 deaconesses worldwide. By the middle of the 20th century, there were over 35,000 deaconesses serving in parishes, schools, hospitals, and prisons throughout the world.

Together with Fliedner, American Lutherans remember William A. Passavant, born in 1821, who brought the deaconess movement to the United States in 1849, and was a founder of missions, hospitals, orphanages, colleges, and seminaries. He died 3 January 1894.

written by James Kiefer

[editor: see the order of deaconesses in the following denominations: Lutheran (ELCA) | Lutheran (Missouri Synod) | Methodist | Reformed Episcopal Church | Anglican | Presbyterian | United Church of Christ]


We praise your name, O God, for all the dedicated women from the time of the apostles down to the present, who have undertaken to minister in the name of Christ to the needs of the church and of the world; and we thank you for moving your servants Theodor Fliedner and William Passavant to recognize their calling, and to work for its formal recognition; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen.