Gender Equality in the Black Church

Who was the first black woman bishop?

Leontine Turpeau Current Kelly (1920–2012) became the first woman bishop of a major denomination, the United Methodist Church; she was consecrated on July 20, 1984. In addition, she was the first woman of any race to preach on the program National Radio Pulpit of the National Council of Churches. Born in Washington, D.C., Kelly’s call to the ministry came after the death of her second husband. Made an elder in 1977, she had experience at both the local and the national levels. Upon the retirement of the first, and only, woman bishop in the church, she was elected and supervised the California and Nevada conferences until her retirement in 1988. Kelly was born in the parsonage of the church that her father pastored, Mount Zion Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. She was the seventh of eight children. Later the family relocated to Pittsburgh and then settled in Cincinnati by the late 1920s. The basement of their Cincinnati parsonage had been used as a station on the Underground Railroad and connected the house to the church. Leontine Kelly interrupted her college education when she married and had children. After a divorce, she remarried and returned to school, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1960 from Virginia Union University in Richmond. After her second husband died, the congregation of Galilee United Methodist Church in Edwardsville, Virginia, where James Kelly was pastor, asked her to succeed him. Already she was active in the church and a popular speaker. By now she also felt a divine calling and served as layperson in charge of the church. She began theological study at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and graduated in 1976 with a master of divinity degree. She was ordained as a minister and became a deacon in 1972. In 1977 she was ordained an elder. After holding several posts, she joined the national staff of the United Methodist Church, located in Nashville, from 1983 to 1984 and received the prominence she needed to become a candidate for bishop. In 2002 she received the Thomas Merton Award. She was also inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.


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