Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part I: Setting the Stage (The Historical Back Drop)
Chapter 2 – Evangelical Women in Ministry a Century Ago: The 19th and Early 20th Centuries. By Janette Hassey.
Dr. Hassey opens her essay with an anecdote about Mabel C. Thomas, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, class of 1913. The June 1927 Alumni News had an article that featured her work as the pastor of a church in Kansas. She testified to the value of her MBI training.
Hassey uses this to illustrate the acceptance of women in pastoral and leadership positions within several evangelcial streams, and even fundamentalist streams, in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. At that time, key evangelical figures like Dwight L. Moody, A. J. Gordon, W. B. Riley and J. R. Straton found no inconsistency between women preachers and biblical literalism. She shows how early Bible Schools like the Missionary Training College for Home and Foreign Missions (founded 1887 by A. B. Simpson), Gordon Bible College (founded 1889 by A. J. Gordon) and Northwestern Bible and Missionary Training School all trained and employed women in leadership roles. The Moody Bible Institute founded in 1889 was the leader of the pack.
The revivalist holiness churches were probably among the greatest leaders in promoting women preachers. Free Methodists, Wesleyan Methodists, the Church of the Nazarene and the Salvation Army all had women leaders. The Pentecostals, emerging from the holiness movement, also embraced female leadership. Free Will Baptists, German and Swedish Baptists had women leaders and American Baptists in the North ordained dozens of women in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Quakers, Evangelical Mennonites, Adventist Christian Church, Cumberland Presbyterians, the Evangelical Free Church and some congregational traditions also had women preachers and leaders.
Hassey says that over almost seventy year period (1859-1926) there was a steady and growing stream of publications advocating for women in preaching and leadership. Leaders included Methodist Holiness leader Phoebe Palmer (1807-1874), Catherine Booth (1829-1890, cofounder of the Salvation Army), temperance leader Frances Willard (1839-1898), Free Church leader Fredrik Franson, Free Methodist B. T. Roberts (1823-1893), Baptist A. J. Gordon (1836-1895), Methodist physician and reformer Katherine Bushnell (1856-1946), Lee Anna Starr (1853-1937) and John Roach Straton (1875-1929).
Concerning works published by authors like these, Hassey observes:
Those authors who argued primarily for women’s right to preach tended to focus on the Joel 2 – Acts 2 prophecy-fulfillment passages which state that “your daughters shall prophecy.” They viewed Pentecost as the pivotal event in women’s liberation. Other writers pushed for women’s equality in all spheres of life, not just the pulpit. They stressed the broader theological issues of creation-redemption. They saw the incarnation of Christ and his victory on the cross over Satan as the crucial event for women, since Christ’s atonement ameliorates the effects of the Fall. (45)
Hassey identifies three reasons she thinks this rising tide women's equality came about.
Evangelical Theology – Quoting Presbyterian Chalres H. Pridgeon, “We can split hairs, look wise, and hold up some possible meaning of a text or two of Scripture when the whole trend of God’s Word is on the other side; millions are going to hell while we delay.” (48) Evangelical fervor by many found the case against women to be a matter of intellectualism that stood in the way evangelism. As Hassey notes, “inerrantists sat on both side of the fence.” (48)
Charismatic Church Leadership – There was a growing emphasis on charismatic authority instead and a de-emphasis on formal education for pastoral ministry. If a woman had the spiritual gift, then she should preach.
Social Activism – Women became increasingly involved in social activism in the 19th century advocating for abolition of slavery, temperance and women’s suffrage. Especially during the period from the 1880s to 1920s, women learned organizational and public speaking skills that allowed them to confidently make their case.
So what led to the reversal of these values? Dr. Hassey list at least four factors that contributed to the shift.
Separatist Fundamentalist Subcultures – Hassey writes that fundamentalism, beginning in the 1920s, began to experience a hardening on the women’s issue. “As evangelicals turned from active social concern and reform to institution-building and theological squabbles, women lost opportunities to speak out on behalf of others as they had done in support of temperance and suffrage.” (53) Women’s voices became muted and subcultures that rejected women formed. “Significantly, fundamentalism widened geographically during the same decades in which it narrowed denominationally.” (53) It moved from north to south and became enmeshed with traditional Southern values that gave women a subordinate place in society.
Institutionalization – “With the rising social status of many churches came the demand for professional, seminary-trained clergy in place of charismatic lay ministry. As frontier churches previously viewed as home mission fields increased in numbers and wealth, congregations could afford to support a married man as minister. Some considered the presence of a female pastor a tacit acknowledgement of a church’s poverty.” (53) Credentialism and decreasing access of women to those credentials had a suppressive effect.
Fundamentalist Reaction to Social Change – “Opposition to women’s public ministry was part of post World War I reaction to vocal, extreme feminism and a perceived decline in womanhood. …The onset of the Depression undoubtedly accelerated the return of fundamentalists and evangelicals to traditional values. … The backlash in conservative Protestant circles against changing social mores can be traced in Moody Monthly magazines of the 1930s. (55) Hassey uses Moody Bible Institute as prime example of this change.
Fundamentalist Exegesis – “In reaction to perceived threats to the family and society, many fundamentalist institutions revised their earlier perspectives on biblical teaching on women. Fundamentalists no longer interpreted the passages in 1 Timothy 2 or 1 Corinthians 14 as occasional advice for specific problems; instead these passages were regarded as giving transcultural principles for all times and places.” (56) “…the premillennialism used by Gordon and Franson to advocate women preachers was utilized by later writers to restrict women. Certain dispensationalists began to interpret women’s leadership as an evil sign of the end times, identifying such women with the whore Babylon.” (56) Turn-of-the-century evangelicals committed to the imminent, premillennial return of Christ had put their intense convictions into action. The urgent need to mobilize workers to spread the gospel worldwide left no time for one sex to remain silent. Later premillennialists apparently retained intellectual assent to Christ’s soon return but relaxed considerably on the urgency of evangelizing the world. They proved more concerned with opposing evolution than promoting evangelism, and thus evangelical recruitment of female preachers subsided.
My first real exposure to this history came from reading I did in he early 1980s for a master’s thesis on the more narrow history of the Holiness Movement. Authors like Donald W. Dayton, Timothy L. Smith, Charles Edwin Jones and David Moberg were just a few of the scholars I remember reading on this topic who wrote in the 1970s. From there my learning extended to streams of the Church beyond the Holiness stream.
One thing I noticed about Hassey's presentation is that she did not make the explicit link between the rising demand for women's equality and the slavery abolition movement of the early 19th Century. Other authors I have read see a direct link in the theology and exegesis that gave rise to abolition and to women's equality.
I find that a great many in fundamentalist, evangelical and holiness traditions today are clueless about this aspect of their history. The current debate over the place of women in church and society is not something that sprang into existence with radical feminism of the 1960s and later. It is the continuation of a debate that extends back to mid-19th Century evangelicalism, which was in itself an extension of a debate that had been in play since the Reformation, which was in turn rooted in ambivalences that have existed throughout the centuries.
Janette Hassey received her M.A. from Denver Seminary and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. She is currently a missionary in the Philippines with Christus Victor Ministries. Her publications include No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry Around the Turn of the Century.
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