Often we forget what was going on at various times in history. As we look at some American history and see how Christians were active in social issues at that time, we are reminded that not everyone believed the same way. It is, therefore, a good habit to look back at the historical record and grapple with what freedoms, or lack of freedoms, were experienced by people in their time.
I find that history is quite revealing. It allows us to better grasp how things really were, ponder the implications, and consider how we look at these things today. One topic that continues to draw my attention is how women were ‘considered and treated’ at various points in history! Let’s consider some of the implications of patriarchy found in the 19th century.
The following is an excerpt from a book detailing some history during that era. I have taken these thoughts from historian and theologian, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. Her book is entitled: Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism. This is an excellent book. It provides a keen historical overview as well as biblical and cultural insights. Rebecca clarifies much of the haze around these issues and provides excellent references for further study.
I invite you to consider ‘evangelical feminism’ in order to understand its solid Christian roots and then to recognize the impact that it has had on society as a whole. I ask you to reflect on what motivated people to change the way things were in favor of following Kingdom principles.
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“In the 19th century, the political ideas of classical liberalism interacted with the religious zeal of the Second Great Awakening to energize numerous social reform movements in the quest of a godly society of free individuals. Many of these reform efforts were led and supported by Christian women and men.”
Women and Slaves
“The ideology of anti-slavery was equality and independence for all human beings; many abolitionists became feminists when they realized that the principle that “all men are created equal” applied as well to women as it did to slaves.”
The following is a look at the legal rights of women then and how some godly people saw the need to take action and oppose what was an unjust and unreasonable reality regarding marriage laws at that time. From our perspective, their situations are often hard to fathom while living with the many freedoms in our day.
“The similar state of women and slaves prior to the reform movements is particularly notable. The 18th century English common law of William Blackstone—which early America inherited from England—upheld the “civil death” of women who married. Blackstone asserted in his Commentaries: “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during her marriage, or at least, is consolidated into that of her husband under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.” Even as he owned his slaves, so a man owned his wife. Andrew Sinclair notes,
“Early American women were almost treated like Negro slaves, inside and outside the home. Both were expected to behave with deference and obedience towards owner or husband; both did not exist officially under the law; both had few rights and little education; both found it difficult to run away, both worked for their masters without pay; both had to breed on command, and to nurse the results.”
In early America, neither women nor slaves had rights as individuals. Both were under the legal cover and control of their male masters.
The early feminists’ objection to legalized domination of wives by husbands led some couples publicly to renounce such laws upon their marriage. Before John Stuart Mill married Harriet Taylor in 1851, “he wrote out a ‘formal protest against the law of marriage’ for conferring on the husband ‘legal powers and control over the person, property, and freedom of action of the wife’; and he made a ‘solemn promise never in any case or under any circumstances’ to use such powers.”
At the wedding ceremony of evangelical abolitionists Theodore Weld and Angelina Grimke, Weld disclaimed any right that the law gave him to own and control his wife’s person or property. Their marriage of mutual love and equality served as an example to others, particularly to Henry Blackwell who diligently courted suffragist leader Lucy Stone for some time before she agreed to marry him. In his letters of persuasion to her, he wrote concerning Angelina and Theodore Weld, “If ever there was a true marriage it is theirs—Both preserve their separate individuality perfectly.”
Blackwell also wrote . . . The idea of equality and mutual submission is rarely considered as a possibility. Only two options are recognized: either a man dominates his wife, or he is dominated by his wife. Because the idea of a man being dominated by his wife is particularly repugnant to most people, his “right” to dominate her is retained. But Henry Blackwell saw through this false dilemma and promised Lucy that he would “repudiate the supremacy” of either woman or man in marriage. “Equality for me is a passion,” he wrote to Lucy. “I dislike equally to assume, or to endure authority.”
The minister who married Henry Blackwell and Lucy Stone commented, “I never perform the marriage ceremony without a renewed sense of the iniquity of . . . a system by which ‘man and wife are one, and that one is the husband.’” . . .
Because of the blatant injustice of the law toward women, early feminist efforts were directed toward equalizing marriage and property laws. Also promoted, however, were women’s rights to education, to decent working conditions, and to public speaking and leadership. As American feminists were successful in legal reform, “it allowed American lawyers to boast of the superiority of their legal system to those of European countries, most of which now possessed a version of the Code Napoleon that was based on his dictum, ‘woman is given to man to bear children; she is therefore his property, as the tree is the gardener’s.’”
Women’s suffrage was slower in coming than other legal reforms. The idea of women having the right to vote struck at the very heart of male authority by presupposing that women had minds of their own, that they had thoughts and opinions independently of their husbands, and that the ideas of female minds should be counted equally with those of male minds in determining the laws and leaders of the country.
The application of the principle of equal rights for all people—regardless of race, sex, or economic class—is characteristic of classical (pre-modern) liberalism. The legal rights that were traditionally granted only to free men began to be extended to slaves and women in the nineteenth century. This advocacy of the rights of the individual was part of a trend in Western society toward abandoning the traditional practice of ascribing roles to people solely on the basis of the circumstances of their birth—their sex, race, socioeconomic status, and father’s vocation. The pattern in Western society has been an increasing awareness that these characteristics ought not determine a person’s role in life and that the only valid determining factor should be each individual’s competence to perform a given role or job. . . .
Abolitionism and the Church
The anti-slavery impetus did not come only from 19th century political ideals. Christian abolitionists believed the abolition of slavery to be in obedience to biblical principles. Most of the exegetical arguments of northern Christian abolitionists went along the lines of Presbyterian minister Albert Barnes’s 1846 publication, An Inquiry into the Scriptural Views of Slavery. He upheld that “The principles laid down by the Savior and his Apostles are such as are opposed to Slavery. . . . the spirit of the Christian religion is against it; . . . it is an evil and is displeasing to God.”
The pro-slavery faction in the church responded by firing a volley of proof texts against the abolitionist appeal to biblical principle. . . . But “Christian abolitionists rested their hermeneutical case not just on what decontextualized, individual passages of Scripture said but on their perceptions of where scriptural revelation in its entirety was heading.”
As theologian Cornelius Plantinga explains, “Despite what Paul says to slaves about obedience, despite what Peter says about obedience even to bad masters, the bigger historical-redemptive line of Scripture tells us that humans made in God’s image cannot be owned by anyone but their maker . . . and especially, that Jesus Christ came to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” Those abolitionists who “learned to defend the egalitarian and liberationist ‘spirit’ of the Bible against status quo literal interpretations found that the same arguments could be used in support of the women’s movement. . . .
The pro-slavery proof text assault rested on the assumption that the apostles Paul and Peter simply accepted existing social institutions as God’s order for society. Christian abolitionists, on the other hand, contended that, “for the sake of advancing God’s kingdom in a given time and place, temporary compromises can and often must be made with the societal status quo.”
Hence, a biblical command to cooperate with a particular cultural institution does not necessarily constitute an endorsement of that institution as God’s ultimate will for society. . . . Pro-slavery Christians had no patience with the notion that the Bible merely tolerated slavery rather than advocated it—any more than traditionalists accept the biblical feminist contention that biblical revelation accommodated itself to patriarchy but was not itself patriarchal.
Similar to the antifeminist of today, 19th century anti-abolitionists grounded the practice of slavery in order of creation, or the God-ordained order of things. African people were viewed as designated by God for poverty, hard labor, and subservience. Slavery was rationalized by the belief that the subjugation of certain classes of people to other classes of people is somehow built into the hierarchical order of the universe. . . . God, they said, had ordained slavery even as he had ordained the subordination of women.
In the biblical case for slavery, proof texts were exalted to the status of universal applicability, and fundamental biblical principles such as the equality of all believers in Christ were qualified and conditioned by cultural pre-under standing—the precise antithesis of the procedure that would normally occur in unprejudiced biblical interpretation.
In addition, anti-abolitionists claimed that because OT law allowed slavery and because people in both the OT (Abraham) and NT (Philemon) owned slaves and the Bible contained no specific rebuke of such activity, slavery was God-ordained. . . .
The assumption here is the same one that seems often to be made by antifeminists today: any aspect of the culture of biblical times that was not specifically condemned or prohibited in the Bible must be God-ordained. . . .
The correlation between the abolitionist cause and the feminist cause was not missed by the anti-abolitionists, who further defended their position by pointing out that if slaves were freed, women would most likely be next, and this, of course, would never do.
[T]he proof-text hermeneutic is still applied by evangelicals to the question of women’s roles but the broader hermeneutic of biblical principle is applied to the issue of slavery.
The traditionalist tendency is always to assume that tradition rests on Scripture and that any new or contrary idea is therefore a violation of biblical authority. Martin Luther exhibited this tendency when he wrote in support of slavery in his day, employing all four weapons of the anti-abolitionists: the example of the culture of biblical times, the proof texts commanding slaves’ obedience, emotional rhetoric, and an appeal to the God-ordained social hierarchy: “Did not Abraham (Gen. 17:3) and other patriarchs and prophets have slaves? Read what St. Paul teaches about servants, who, at that time, were all slaves.” The idea of freedom for slaves, therefore, “absolutely contradicts the gospel. It proposes robbery, for it suggests that every man should take his body away from his lord, even though his body is the lord’s property. . . . A worldly kingdom cannot exist without an inequality of persons, some being free, some imprisoned, some lords, some subjects.”
In propounding the biblical doctrine of justification by faith, the Protestant Reformers were able to counter elements of false theology in church tradition. Nonetheless, they were blinded by tradition when it came to defending not only slavery, but male supremacy, the divine right of kings, and a geocentric universe.
When Copernicus advanced his theory of a heliocentric cosmology in the 16th century, Martin Luther found biblical grounds for disapproving of that “upstart astrologer” in the fact that “sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.” John Calvin demanded, “Who will venture to place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?” Puritan leader John Owen deemed the Copernican theory “a delusive and arbitrary hypothesis, contrary to Scripture.”
The lesson to be learned from such historical misuses of Scripture to support tradition is not that traditional biblical interpretation is always or even usually wrong, but that in some cases it can be wrong, and we ought not assume that the traditional is always the biblical. Neither may we assume that any traditional biblical teaching may be evaded simply by dismissing as proof texts those references which support that teaching, and by claiming allegiance instead to some overarching biblical theme or principles to the contrary.
In the first place, there are objective criteria for determining which texts are culturally specific (i.e., applicable primarily to biblical cultures) and which texts are universally applicable. These criteria must not be dismissed in favor of personal preference. In the second place, those texts which seem to contradict a clear biblical principle and are rightly deemed culturally specific nonetheless mean something for us today, and that meaning must be determined by understanding the biblical author’s reason for writing the passage to that specific culture.
Suffrage and Temperance
After the cause of abolition had been won in 1865, the cause of temperance drew the enthusiastic support and leadership of many Christians, including Jonathan Blanchard and A.J. Gordon, founders of Wheaton College and Gordon College, respectively. . . .
After women’s right to vote was legally acknowledged in 1920, traditionalist Christian leaders were obliged to regroup, they redoubled their efforts to keep women subservient in the spheres over which they still had control—a project which in some denominations extended even to denying women the right to vote in church elections.
Today, of course, few if any traditionalists believe that women ought not be granted the right to vote in public elections; it is assumed instead that the biblical texts are intended to place women under male authority only in the church and the home, and to silence women only in the public worship service. There are, however, some conservative denominations that even today prohibit women from voting on matters of church governance.
Evangelical Reform Movements
While abolition, suffrage, and temperance were broad movements that drew followers form both within and without the church, the extent to which these movements were fueled by the evangelistic and reformist zeal of the Second Great Awakening (1795-1840) should not be under-estimated. . . .
Charles Finney was a principal leader behind evangelical social concern. In an issue devoted to North American spiritual awakenings, Christian History magazine notes that when Finney “propelled the awakening onto center-stage in America” its “side-effects became more widespread than ever before: out of it came power for the antislavery crusade, women’s rights, prison reform, temperance, and much more.”
Although Finney did not identify himself as a feminist, his insistence on women’s freedom to testify and pray aloud in mixed gatherings flew in the face of the traditional silencing of women in church meetings. Bur Finney’s “new measures” regarding women were not without precedent. In 1825 Theodore Weld had urged women to speak and pray in public meetings, and a number of women had responded, confessing their sin of being “restrained by their sex.”
The refusal of revivalists such as Finney to consign women to silence and inactivity in church affairs served as an important first step for the 19th century evangelical women’s movement. Ahlstrom notes that “one breakthrough [for women’s rights] resulted from the revivals, especially in the West . . . notably by Charles G. Finney’s new measures.” . . . that women be encouraged to pray publicly in “promiscuous” or mixed meetings. “Traditionalists considered Finney’s practice of having women and men pray together the most dangerous of the new measures, for it implied new kinds of equality between the sexes. Indeed some harried husbands recognized the revival as subversive of their authority over their wives.”
Not only did Protestant church membership increase from one in fifteen Americans in 1800 to one in seven by 1850 as a result of the Second Great Awakening, but thousands of evangelical societies for social betterment were formed during this time—to which “the support of local women’s groups came gradually to be almost essential.” . . .
Finney and other revivalists and preachers helped women “to achieve an attitude of self-confidence and a sense of mission that infected many of their later activities. Surely it is no coincidence that the areas where Finney’s revivals and women’s religious education flourished . . . were early centers of women’s reform work and feminism.”
According to the Dictionary of Christianity in America, “The rise of American feminism had its roots in the Christian reform movements of the 1830s and 1840s that were in turn generated by the Second Great Awakening. Following the Civil War, as the women’s movement increasingly focused on the suffrage issue, the traditional link with Christian thought remained strong.” George Marsden notes that the “ministries [of prohibition and women’s rights] were a part of the wider holiness revival,” which followed the Second Awakening later in the 19th century.
As sociologist David Lyon points out, “A simple correlation of feminism with secularism is hard to square with 19th century evidence. . . .What may appear to some today as the permeation of ‘secular’ ideas into the churches as a 19th century precedent which was quite the other way round! The ‘secular’ movements were initiated or boosted by the ‘religious.’” Lyon notes, “Of course, these feminisms were pro-family—a far cry from some contemporary counterparts (not of Christian origin) which doubt the necessity of any form heterosexual relationship for the nurture of children.”
1920-1960s: The Decades Between
Feminism began to fall out of favor after 1920 as reformist zeal waned in both church and society. The slaves had been freed, women had gotten the vote, and prohibition was in full swing. Suffragists and other reformers believed there was nothing more to do after the legal battles had been won, so they gave up the fight for social reform. . . . Women, for their part, did not take advantage of the legal freedoms that had been won for them. Succumbing instead to the prevailing cultural climate, they retreated from the public arena and sank back into retiring domesticity.
Feminists had assumed that once women were granted equal opportunity under the law everything would turn out as it ought. But it did not. The hidden force of patriarchal social custom prompted a cultural return to female subservience. . . .
Traditionalists contend that women and men had been perfectly content with the gender role prescriptions of the 1950s until feminism came along to unsettle and disturb everyone. But there is evidence that change had been on the way for some time prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s. . . .
The groundswell that developed in the wake of The Feminine Mystique instigated a wide variety of feminist thought, from the revival of the evangelical and classical liberal ideas of early feminism to the fairly recent woman-centered ideology of radical feminism.
Comparing Early and Modern Feminism
Both early and modern feminism developed in a general cultural milieu of social discontent and reformist idealism. Social concern for the rights of African-Americans (the anti-slavery movement beginning in the 1830s and the civil rights movement beginning in the late 1950s) served as a catalyst for both feminist movements. When women began to fight against racism, it did not take them long to become aware of the ways in which sexism violated their own civil rights.
Their awareness of discrimination against themselves was hastened by their systematic exclusion by the male leaders of the movements: in 1840 women were denied seats at the anti-slavery convention, and in the 1960s women who were active in the civil rights movement “increasingly became conscious that they were not included in any of the decision-making processes but were instead saddled with domestic and ancillary chores.
Although the women’s movements in both centuries have been diverse, with internal squabbles and factions, they hold in common an insistence upon the idea of woman as an individual, as her own person, who does not need to be dependent on a man for her value and identity. Fundamental to any feminist agenda, therefore, is that woman’s personhood and equality be established, verified, and protected through social change wherein inequitable laws and social customs are made equitable.
. . . There is a conviction that woman’s silence and subservience unfairly restricts her from important spheres of activities. Feminism has therefore encouraged qualified women to take part in political, social, or church leadership. . . .
Nineteenth-century feminism testifies to the fact that sexual license is not inherent to the idea of women’s rights. The accusation that evangelical feminism is an offshoot of modern feminism and therefore intrinsically endorses sexual immorality betrays historical and cultural ignorance.
The evangelical denominations at the turn of the century that were most committed to women’s equality were part of the holiness movement—which could hardly be said to be promoting sexual promiscuity. The only motivation of these groups to “liberate” women was the desire to open up all the channels through which God wanted to bless the church. The notion of using liberation to engage in a lifestyle of sexual irresponsibility could not have been more alien to the convictions of early evangelical feminism.
. . . But early feminists campaigned to make home and family values central to the lives of both men and women in both the public and the private spheres. . . . Domesticating the marketplace, not commercializing the domestic realm, was the central focus of much early feminist thought. . . .
While 19th century feminism was not composed entirely of Christians or supported by the entire evangelical church, its goals and motives were in line with biblical principles. A significant percentage if not a majority of those involved in the suffrage movement were Christians or at least “God-fearing.” . . .
The anti-Christian element was a minority one in the 19th century, whereas today it characterizes the secular feminist movement. The evangelical support for women’s rights in the 19th century is apparent in the fact that a significant number of evangelical institutions encouraged women to be pastors and evangelists. This situation can hardly be said to prevail today!
Nineteenth-century feminists—both Christian and non-Christian—rightly viewed abortion as an instrument of male oppression rather than as a means of women’s liberation. Specifically, it was seen as an act that devalued women and enabled men to evade responsibility for the children they fathered. . . .
The roots of early feminism are in the evangelical efforts of social reform following the Second Great Awakening, as well as in the premise of classical liberalism that “all men [including women] are created equal.” Early feminists understood inequality as a function of inequitable laws, so the solution was perceived in legal terms.
. . . Observing that sexism remained even after most of the legal inequities had been removed, modern feminists have focused on the force of traditional social convention that views women as essentially—even if no longer legally—the property of men. In view of this vestigial patriarchy, feminists are now putting more energy into changing discriminatory social structures.
In this respect the feminist movement has seemed to follow a pattern roughly similar to that of the black civil rights movement. In the 19th century, the goal was to secure equal legal rights for both blacks and women. . . . The 1960s saw blacks fighting to realize their constitutionally guaranteed legal equality by protesting the segregation customs of the South.
Following the inception of the civil rights movements by about a decade, women began to organize resistance to patriarchal custom. While legal reform continued as an element in both movements, both women and blacks were realizing that there was something deeper than law which accounted for their social subjugation. It was a deep-seated attitude, a cultural mindset that even new legislation would not budge. Members in both movements tended to respond with belligerence and anger to this intangible, ineluctable creation of culture called prejudice.”
History is a great teacher. What we have learned about how things were and what people then did to change things, by the power of the Holy Spirit, along with a clear understanding of the biblical message of freedom for all, inspires us to seek justice—especially for women in the church and in the home.
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The quotations for this article are taken from Chapter 3 of the following book by historian and theologian, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis.
Dr. Groothuis’ book is entitled: Women Caught in the Conflict: The Culture War between Traditionalism and Feminism. Publisher: Baker Books, 1994. Updated version: Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, 1997.
The excerpts from this chapter provide a small taste of the expertise that Dr. Groothuis has regarding the context of evangelical feminism in church history and invites the curious reader to explore her entire book for themselves.
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For Further Reflection
Two sites which provide Free Articles for personal research are Christians for Biblical Equality and God’s Word to Women.
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© 2014 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.