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Gender and the Construction of Models of Christian Activity: A Case Study

  • Dale A. Johnson (a1)


In my review of previous presidential addresses, I found it interesting to discover that only one had built upon one of the most significant cultural and scholarly developments of the past generation and perhaps the past century, that is, women's and, later, gender studies and their relevance for our respective fields. That was Jane Dempsey Douglass's address twenty years ago as the first woman president of this Society on “what Calvin learned at the school of women,” an event that will surely be recognized in the program session tomorrow on “Women in the American Society of Church History.”



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1. Journal of Ecclesiastical History 36 (1985): 162.

2. For the early modern period in England, see Crawford, Patricia, Women and Religion in England 1500–1720 (London: Routledge, 1993). No comparable survey exists for the later period. Two recent studies take up the subject of gender and women from the angle of social history. Shoemaker's, Robert B.Gender in English Society 1650–1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? (London: Longman, 1998) devotes part of one chapter to religion. Gleadle's, KathrynBritish Women in the Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001) organizes her subject in relation to class, treating the topics of work, politics, and families in each section of the book. Shiman, Lilian Lewis is especially successful in integrating attention to religious themes into a larger topic in Women and Leadership in Nineteenth-Century England (New York: St. Martin's, 1992). For a consideration of the contribution of evangelicals to the construction of a separate-spheres ideology, see Davidoff, Leonore and Hall, Catherine, Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). Two broadgauged essays should also be noted. Rosemary O'Day uses the resources of the Charles Booth Archive Collection to explore, among other things, “the space which women created for themselves to occupy outside the domestic sphere,” in “Women in Victorian Religion,” in Retrieved Riches: Social Investigation in Britain, 1840–1914, eds. David, Englander and Rosemary, O'Day (Aldershot, U.K.: Scolar, 1995), 339–63, citation on page 357. Jocelyn, Murray's “Gender Attitudes and the Contribution of Women to Evangelism and Ministry in the Nineteenth Century,” in Evangelical Zeal and Public Faith: Evangelicals and Society in Britain 1780–1980, ed. John, Wolffe (London: SPCK, 1995), 97116, concludes that although the “Christian ideal” for women held them back from leadership roles, by the end of the period “the women themselves had begun to find their own way,” 113.

3. Recent collections of essays offer some suggestions of the range of scholarship that is being explored. See Anne, Hogan and Andrew, Bradstock, eds., Women of Faith in Victorian Culture: Reassessing the Angel in the House (Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan, 1998), and Sue, Morgan, ed., Women, Religion and Feminism in Britain, 1750–1900 (Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). A few essays in Linda, Woodhead, ed., Reinventing Christianity: Nineteenth-Century Contexts (Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2001) also deal with gender issues.

4. Christine, Trevett, ed., “Womens Speaking justified” and Other Seventeenth-century Quaker Writings about Women (London: Quaker Home Service, 1989), 4. Margaret Fell married George Fox in 1669 and eventually became the most prominent “mother in Israel” in the Society of Friends. For a careful analysis of the document, see Thickstun, Margaret Olofson, “Writing the Spirit: Margaret Fell's Feminist Critique of Pauline Theology,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63:2 (1995): 269–79.

5. Ibid., 5. Mack's, PhyllisVisionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth-Century England (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) explores the complexity of gendered discourse and understandings of the self in this period.

6. Cassandra.” An Essay by Florence Nightingale (Old Westbury, N.Y.: Feminist, 1979), 32 and 50.

7. Wollstonecraft remarked extensively on the relationship between education and activity, as in the following: “Women have seldom sufficient serious employment to silence their feelings; a round of little cares, or vain pursuits frittering away all strength of mind and organs, they become naturally only objects of sense. In short, the whole tenour of female education (the education of society) tends to render the best disposed romantic and inconstant; and the remainder vain and mean.” A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792; London: J. M. Dent, 1995), chapter 4.

8. As an example, in 1798 Priscilla Wakefield, even within a vigorously class-conscious framework, wrote, “It cannot be expected that young females will of choice apply themselves to serious studies, or be willing to become industrious members of the community, whilst they are impressed from infancy with a notion, that they are born only to create admiration, and that they are excluded from the necessity of any regular occupation, beyond that of domestic superintendance, or what conduces to the acqui- sition of elegant accomplishments.” Reflections on the Present Condition of the Female Sex, with Suggestions for its Improvement (London: J. Johnson, 1798), 7071.

9. The Christian Lady's Magazine 19 (June 1843), ii. The same issue of the Quarterly Review that contained the “muslin divine” reference offers a glimpse into the social context surrounding women of an Evangelical persuasion. A review by Elizabeth Eastlake of a series of novels by Mrs. Sherwood stated the common gender stereotypes with respect to woman's nature rather well: “feelings of women in the cause of religion are easily excited”; they concur with “whatever system assumes the greatest amount of present devotional activity”; they should be guarded by Christian men “from that contagious fervour to which they are by nature liable”; “knowing that whatever charm a woman's heart may find in the apparent self-devotion contained in the doctrines we have described, the union of sound manliness and sound religion in the other sex has in the same heart, by the blessing of Providence, a higher charm still.” “Evangelical Novels,” Quarterly Review 72 (May 1843): 5253.

10. Personal Recollections, in The Works of Charlotte Elizabeth, 5th ed., 2 vols. (New York: M. W. Dodd, 1847), 1:15.

11. Ibid., 1:94.

12. Adburgham, Alison, Women in Print: Writing Women and Women's Magazines from the Restoration to the Accession of Victoria (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1972), 271.

13. It is easy to be condescending about such journals. In a survey of women's periodicals in mid-Victorian Britain, E. M. Palmegiano writes regarding the decade of the 1840s, “edited by such notoriously pious women as Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and Mary Milner, these publications propagandized a life most often described as typically Victorian where mothers managed their households and children sensibly and wives manifested their personalities as little as possible.” “Women and British Periodicals 1832–1867: A Bibliography,” Victorian Periodicals Newsletter 9:1 (March 1976): 4. Such a description does not begin to recognize the subtle ways in which The Christian Lady's Magazine offered mixed messages and tested the boundaries perceived for the Evangelical female.

14. A good example of such an argument can be found in The Christian Lady's Magazine 7 Qanuary 1837), 72.

15. The Christian Lady's Magazine 1 (January 1834), 73.

16. Ibid., 1 (February 1834), 160.

17. Ibid., 1 (April 1834), 350; 3 (January 1835), i.

18. Elizabeth, Charlotte, The Wrongs of Woman, 2 vols. (London: W. H. Dalton, 18431844).

19. The exercise of vocation by women in religious writing became prominent in the seventeenth century, and thus as an example of a model of Christian activity for women antedates the period under consideration here. By the early nineteenth century, at least from the time of Hannah More, sales of women's religious writings became a force to be reckoned with. While scholars have explored the contents and arguments of these writings, little attention has been given to the position that a number of women had in serving as publicists to the larger society on behalf of particular movements, ideals, and religious views. Charlotte Yonge (1823–1901) was such a person for High Church Anglicanism, publishing some 160 books over fifty years and editing The Monthly Packet, a journal directed toward young women, for thirty years. Isabel (Mrs. G. S.) Reaney (1847–1929) did the same for the temperance movement, writing nearly 60 books in a forty-year period mainly intended for adolescents and often given as prizes in Sunday Schools and other religious contexts. Within the Nonconformist evangelical world, Marianne Farningham, a pen name of Mary Ann Hearn (1834–1909), had a wide readership for some fifty years through her short writings in The Christian World and other religious magazines, collections of essays in book form, and an autobiography.

20. Krueger, Christine L. devotes a chapter to her in her fine study, The Reader's Repentance: Women Preachers, Women Writers, and Nineteenth-Century Social Discourse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992). See also two articles by Fryckstedt, Monica Correa, “Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna: A Forgotten Evangelical Writer,” Studia Neophilologica 52 (1980): 79102, and “Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and The Christian Lady's Magazine,” Victorian Periodicals Review 14:2 (summer 1981): 4351.

21. The Christian Lady's Magazine 5 (February 1836), 133; 6 (October 1836), 323–26. The preface to volume 6 declared, “Christian females must not expect to be always at ease in Zion: they have many and solemn duties to perform. And if this humble periodical, established solely for their use, may in any measure become subservient to the great end of rousing and encouraging them, it will be a matter of present and eternal thanksgiving.” Ibid., 6 (July-December 1836), iii.

22. In 1838 Charlotte Elizabeth lamented that the frequent mention of causes needing support had led to the situation where “we are now assailed on all sides by societies … which, if we admitted them, would really so occupy our pages, and weary the minds of our readers, that we must alter our title into that of the Monthly Mendicant, or at least the Monthly Advertiser.” Ibid., 9 (January-June 1838), ii.

23. [Pusey, Edward B.], “The Royal and Parliamentary Ecclesiastical Commissions,” British Critic 23:46 (1838): 525.

24. Voluntary societies with religious motives or tasks had begun in the late seventeenth century, but the establishment of women's auxiliaries or independent women's societies for such purposes was an outgrowth of the evangelical movement and the emergence of Bible and missions societies at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Prochaska, F. K. reports that “by 1819 there were 350 female associations in the Bible Society with about 10,000 women ‘regularly employed’; they were bringing in tens of thousands of pounds each year.” Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 27.

25. Woman's Work in the Great Harvest Field 3 (1874), cover page. Since it covered a broad range of topics and issues, Woman's Work can be distinguished from such single-issue journals as India's Women, dealing with foreign missions (begun 1881), or Pioneer, focusing on moral reform (begun 1887). Woman's Work did not deal with the suffrage question or the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Acts that ran from the late 1860s to the mid 1880s, and thus it is not included in David, Doughan and Denise, Sanchez, eds., Feminist Periodicals 1855–1984: An Annotated Critical Bibliography of British, Irish, Commonwealth and International Titles (Washington Square: New York University Press, 1987).

26. Ibid., 1 (1872):35.

27. “Daughters at Home,” ibid., 15 (1886):126.

28. “Some Aspects of the Christian Life,” ibid., 15 (1886):39–44; “A Christian's Contact with the World,” ibid., 19 (1890):65–70, 97–100.

29. “What is the Duty of Women with regard to Politics,” ibid., 18 (1889):133.

30. Firth, C. B., Constance Louisa Maynard, Mistress of Westfield College: A Family Portrait (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1949), 288.

31. Taft, Zechariah, Biographical Sketches of the Lives and Public Ministries of Various Holy Women, 2 vols. (Leeds, 1825,1828; facsimile reprint, Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1992).

32. MAM PLP 104.5, no. 2 (n.d.), Methodist Archives and Research Center, Manchester, U.K., An account of her early ministry was published as Memoirs of the Life of Mrs. Mary Taft, Part I (York, 1827; London: J. Stevens, 1827); an epigraph on the title page cites Galatians 3:28 along with two other biblical passages. To show her intent to follow the Methodist regulations regarding women preachers, she notes in the preface that she made it a rule “never to go to any place to labour, without a previous invitation from the travelling preacher, as well as the friends of the circuit I visited.” Yet she acknowledges an occasional exception, “when I have been so sensible of its being my duty, and the will of God, for me to go, that I durst not at the peril of my soul neglect going,” viii-ix. For an important insight into the meanings of biological motherhood for Methodist women, see Mack, Phyllis, “Giving Birth to the Truth: A Letter by the Methodist Mary Taft,” Scottish Journal of Religious Studies 19:1 (1998): 1930.

Many of the letters to Mary Taft over the years testified to her contributions through preaching. In 1805 Robert Harrison wrote from the Methodists in Carlisle “to humbly desire your help (you and your husband) as the preachers of their choice for the ensuing Conference etc. I hope your good man will not be umbraged at my putting his wife first.” MAM PLP 104.1.8. Among those who acknowledged having been brought to conversion under her preaching were Mary Anderson (letter of 1811, regarding preaching nine years earlier—MAM PLP 104.1.3), Joseph Bakewell (letter of 1840, relating to preaching forty years earlier—MAM PLP 104.1.4), and John Stobart (letter of 1827, regarding preaching in 1793—MAM PLP 104.2.4). Stobart added, “ever since, I have found a pleasure in pious females speaking a word for God. My mind has got satisfied that those passages of Holy Writ has [sic] been misunderstood that are brought forth, to set such aside. The Almighty cannot be against what he blesses, & owns for the salvation of sinners, & comfort of saints.”

33. For the biographical note, see Vickers, John A., ed., A Dictionary of Methodism in Britain and Ireland (Peterborough: Epworth, 2000), 221; Lloyd, Gareth, The Fletcher-Tooth Papers, vol. 1 (Manchester, U.K.: John Rylands University Library, Methodist Archives and Research Centre, 1997), MAM Fl–1.12/2 (13 March 1830), and MAM Fl–1.12/9 (26 January 1841).

34. “Symposium: The Position of Woman in the Church,” The Primitive Methodist Quarterly Review and Christian Ambassador, N.S. 7 (1885): 223–41, 241–45, 423–35, 436–42, 676–82, 683–86; the citation is from Robert Bryant, 425. The activities of female local preachers in three Methodist denominations in the nineteenth century are traced by Graham, E. Dorothy in “Women Local Preachers,” in Workaday Preachers: The Story of Methodist Local Preaching, eds. Geoffrey, Milburn and Margaret, Batty (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 1995), 165–91, 319–21.

35. Dews, D. Colin, “Ann Carr and the Female Revivalists of Leeds,” in Religion in the Lives of English Women, 1760–1930, ed. Gail, Malmgreen (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 6887; Anderson, Olive, “Women Preachers in Mid-Victorian Britain: Some Reflections on Feminism, Popular Religion, and Social Change,” Historical Journal 12 (1969): 467–84. In Women in God's Army: Gender and Equality in the Early Salvation Army (Waterloo, Canada: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2003), Andrew Mark Eason argues that “with the exception of preaching, where feminine passion was seen to complement masculine reason, this type of gender complementarity fostered a profound culture of separate spheres within the denomination,” the result being that “most female officers assumed subordinate and sacrificial roles in corps (church) ministry, social work and the home,” xii. Walker's, Pamela J.Pulling the Devil's Kingdom Down: The Salvation Army in Victorian Britain (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) gives more attention to the stories of individual Salvationists and offers a much more positive assessment of the roles and activities of women in the early years of the movement. Her summary judgment is that “the Hallelujah Lasses were pioneers in establishing an authoritative, public, religious voice for women,” 243.

36. Anderson, , “Women Preachers,” 484. But the work of such women preachers did not represent progress for many. One contributor to the previously mentioned Primitive Methodist symposium declared, “No doubt the crass ignorance, the vulgar zeal, the unseeming boldness exhibited by some women preachers of late have pained many pious souls, and have led them to denounce the whole thing. This off-putting of womanhood is one of the calamities connected with recent evangelism. Whilst we admit the validity of women preaching, we would certainly restrict it. It is the abuse of it that has rendered it as nauseating of late, and we as a Connexion are not altogether guiltless.” “Symposium: The Position of Woman in the Church,” 682.

37. See Diary of C. M. Ricketts, 1879–1906, 3 vols. Presbyterian Church of England Archives, box 1, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, especially vol. 2. The 1886 annual meeting of the denomination's women's missionary association reported one vignette regarding Ricketts's work: “When some of the Biblewomen were taught, Miss Ricketts changed her plan somewhat; in the winter she went round the country visiting villages, and getting a crowd collected, she preached until her voice gave way, and then the Biblewomen would preach.” Our Sisters in Other Lands: A Record of Mission Work among Women (Published for The Women's Missionary Association of the Presbyterian Church of England, 1883–86), 2:170–71.

38. Ladies' Committee for Ameliorating the Condition of Women in Heathen Countries, Female Education, &c, Occasional Paper, No. 1 (March, 1859), 5; Occasional Paper, No. 7 (November, 1860), 124.

39. A similar development occurred among English Presbyterians, though it began in earnest about twenty years later. A Ladies' Association in the Aid of Missions began in the mid 1840s and ran for about twenty years, focusing much of its work on the island of Corfu. From 1864 to 1878 there was no independent organization for mission work by Presbyterian women, but a women's conference in 1878 led to the establishment of The Women's Missionary Association of the Presbyterian Church of England in the following year. The third annual report noted seventy-four congregational associations, and a year later there were ninety-three, about one-third of the total number of congregations in the denomination. That number grew more slowly, but by late in the century more than two-thirds of congregations had established local associations, and financial contributions increased substantially. One agent from the central office traveled extensively among the congregations to advance the work. The association sent women missionaries chiefly to China and India. At the 1889 meeting the chair declared, “It is one of the remarkable signs of our times that women are stepping out into public life and work. It has been said by some that this is a result of the great democratic movement which is surging in upon the social life of the world. But I claim for Christianity the honour of what is best and most helpful in the movement.” Our Sisters in Other Lands (18871890), 3:129.

40. The Life of Hugh Price Hughes, by his Daughter (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1905), 201.

41. “Responsibility of Women with Regard to Public Life,” Methodist Times 7 (1891): 353–54.

42. Methodist Times 4 (1888): 469–70.

43. Rowntree, John Stephenson, Quakerism, Past and Present: An Inquiry into the Causes of its Decline in Great Britain and Ireland (London: Smith, Elder, 1859). I have considered the subject in greater detail in “From Pilgrimage to Discipleship: Quaker Women's Ministries in Nineteenth-Century England,” Quaker History 91:2 (fall 2002): 1832.

44. Sermons Preached by Members of the Society of Friends (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1832), 42 and 53.

45. For a study of women's friendships, often nurtured and sustained in the course of their ministries, see Wright, Sheila, “‘Every Good Woman Needs a Companion of Her Own Sex’: Quaker Women and Spiritual Friendship, 1750–1850,” in Women, Religion and Feminism in Britain, 1750–1900, ed. Sue, Morgan, 89104.

46. As one, no doubt extreme, example of the extension of this perspective into other evangelical traditions, Andrew Mark Eason notes that Catherine Booth's mother did not permit her to associate with neighborhood children “because of her mother's aversion to worldliness.” Women in God's Army, 95.

47. Richardson, J. M., “An Address to Christian Women,” The Friend (1870): 261; Alexander, Alice, An Appeal to Christian Men on the Subject of Female Attire (Dublin: John Gough, 1872), 2.

48. Stewart, Louisa, “A Word to our Sisterhood,” Friends Quarterly Examiner 1 (1867): 579 and 583.Stewart, followed this essay with a small book entitled The Missing Law, or Woman's Birthright (London: W. Tweedle, 1869), in which she declared her subject to be “the pernicious order of caste which … I shall call the Order of Ladyhood, the first essential of whose existence is that of having ‘nothing to do!’” 6. Her proposals included the need for more sources of occupation for women and for the education of girls in the same subjects as boys, 41–42.

49. Sturge, Elizabeth M., “Women's Suffrage,” The Friend (1873): 15.

50. Robinson, Ellen, “The Higher Education of Women,” Friends' Quarterly Examiner 26 (1892): 557.

51. Quoted in Graham, E. Dorothy, Saved to Serve: The Story of the Wesley Deaconess Order 1890–1978 (Peterborough: Methodist Publishing House, 2002), 7.

52. The Pan-Anglican Congress of 1908 focused in part on “The Ministry of Women.” Louise Creighton's lead paper considered such topics as marital status (chiefly the large numbers of single women in the society), the kinds of parochial work open to women, remuneration, and the relative expectations of work done by women and by men. She concluded, “Only common work on an absolutely free and equal basis will show what part of any work or what kind of work can best be done by women or best left to men.” None of the contributors to the Congress raised the subject of the possibility of women clergy. “The Ministry of Women. Its Relation at the Present Time to Work Done by Men,” Pan-Anglican Papers (London: SPCK, 1908), unpaginated. Just a few years later, Zoë Fairfield, a product of the Student Christian Movement, sounded a new direction when she linked the themes of the women's movement to questions facing the church: “What is the place of women in the work of the Church in general? What has it been in different eras of the life of the Church? Where have we fallen back, where should we seek opportunities for fuller service? What is the true place of women in the ministry of the Church? (Nothing is being taken for granted by the younger generation.)” The Women's Movement (London: SCM, 1913), 27.

53. Sue, Walrond-Skinner, ed., Crossing the Boundary: What will Women Priests Mean? (London: Mowbray, 1994); Christina, Rees, ed., Voices of this Calling: Experiences of the First Generation of Women Priests (Norwich: Canterbury, 2002).

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Church History
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