Privilege or Silence: Women in Churches of Christ (1897-1907) II

My previous post provided the common ground upon which Churches of Christ distinguished themselves from the “digressives” in the first decade of the 20th century regarding “women’s work in the church.” The editors of the major journals among Churches of Christ were agreed that (1) women are not permitted to preach the word publicly (as evangelists in the field or speakers in the assembly), (2) women are not permitted to exercise ruling authority over the church as elders or bishops, and (3) women should avoid participation in the various societies associated with the progressives.

Some, primarily those associated with the Tennessee Tradition (e.g., David Lipscomb and James A. Harding), grounded their conclusions in a broad understanding of the role of women in society. They believed that women were forbidden any kind of public leadership whether in the home, church or society. Consequently, not only should they not speak publicly in the worshipping assembly, they should not speak publicly anywhere.  Not only should they not function as elders in the church, they should not become business leaders, presidents, or school teachers. Some, like R. C. Bell, believed that they should not even publish in the papers. After all, “if it is a shame for a woman to be a public speaker, why is it not a shame for her to be a public writer?” (Bell, The Way, 1903, 777). Consequently, they should not lead in church or society; they should not lead, for example, temperance societies or become involved in any kind of social activism in a leadership capacity.

Elisha G. Sewell, co-editor of the Gospel Advocate, argued this point in several 1897 articles. Based on Genesis 3:16, Sewell believed that (GA, 1897, 432):

From the time that sin entered into the world, and entered through woman, she has been placed in a retiring, dependent, and quiet position, and never has been put forward as a leader among men in any public capacity from the garden of Eden till now…This seems to have been a general decree for all time, for God has never varied from it an any age or dispensation….’Thy desire shall be to thy husband,’ is indicative of dependence—not in any slavish sense, but in the sense that she is to look to man as a leader and protector, and, in certain measure, supporter and provider….God himself never changed this decree, and does not allow man to change it.

The woman’s sphere of influence is the home, not public life. This is where she finds her purity and peace rather than engaging in the “busy cares of life” (Sewell, GA, 1897, 461).

While editors Lipscomb, Sewell and Harding all shared this perspective, probably the clearest case was made by R. C. Bell who studied at the Nashville Bible School and taught with Harding at Potter Bible College.  He suggested that women are superior to men in emotion but inferior in will while equal in intellect.  These differences reflect the function God has given to males and females.  Excelling in emotion, woman is tailored for home life but lacking in “will power” she “is not fitted for public life” since “she lacks, by nature, the will power to combat successfully against the cruel, relentless business world.”  The fact that woman was created from man’s side indicates that “she is to walk through life by man’s side as his helpmeet and companion, sheltered and protected from the world, and the rough, degrading contact of public life, by his strong, overshadowing arm.”  Bell’s conclusion then is that (The Way, 1903, 776):

woman is not permitted to exercise dominion over man in any calling of life. When a woman gets her diploma to practice medicine, every Bible student knows that she is violating God’s holy law. When a woman secures a license to practice law, she is guilty of the same offense. When a woman mounts the lecture platform or steps into the pulpit or the public school room, she is disobeying God’s law and disobeying the promptings of her inner nature. When God gives his reason for woman’s subjection and quietness, he covers the whole ground and forbids her to work in any public capacity…She is not fitted to do anything publicly….Every public woman—lawyer, doctor, lecturer, preacher, teacher, clerk, sales girl and all—would then step from their post of public work into their father’s or husband’s home, where most of them prefer to be, and where God puts them….You are now no longer a public slave, but a companion and home-maker for man; you are now in the only place where your womanly influence has full play and power

These are strong words and they are so distant from our contemporary context that we might cringe or at least blush reading them.  But one may admire the consistency, I suppose. If God created woman to serve under man’s protecting arm and God determined that man should rule over the woman as a result of the Fall, then this would apply not only to home and church, but also to society.  “That man should rule is the ordinance of God that grows out of the natures of man and woman. “God put in him the ruling qualities,” according to James A. Harding. While women are “very much superior to men” in many ways, “her superiority is not in leadership” (CLW, 1904, 9). Woman was designed for domesticity and reigns as queen in the home as a symbol of purity and love. “Woman may be queen, but she can never be king” and if she “seek and gain public place and power, then all is lost” (Hawley, The Way, 1903, 810).

This view was not only pushed by particular men but was also endorsed by some women. Effie S. Black, for example, scolded women who worked outside the home because “every woman who follows a profession or engages in a business makes it more difficult for some man to  provide the necessities for an invalid wife, an aged mother, helpless children, or whoever may be dependent upon him.”  Wives, of course, should work but in the home “for something better than gold,” that is, “better homes, nobler manhood and womanhood, higher ideals, purer thoughts, holier living, and all that can make our country–yes, and the whole world–better for having lived” (The Way, 1903,  397). 

Interestingly, this approach to the relationship of women to society and the church ran parallel with a strong cultural movement in the United States, particularly in New England and the South. It was called the “Cult of True Womanhood” or the “Cult of Domesticity.” This movement idealized women as the true embodiment of “piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.” Such idealization excluded women from public life but honored their influence in the home (See, for example, Smith, CLW,  1906, 2-3). This perspective was pervasive until the “New Woman” movement appeared in the late 19th century pressing for the vote and a larger role in public life.

The clash of cultural movements is reflected, for example, by John T. Poe (a native Tennessean who moved to Texas) when he noted that “since woman took her hand from the cradle and grabbed at the ballot box a few years ago, her course has been away from her God given path and mission into paths of her own blazing out, and as a consequence the world is growing worse.”  Poe insisted that “God made women as helpmeets for man. Her place is at home” and not in public speaking. “If God had intended for women” for public speaking, “He would have given them a voice adapted to public speaking.” As it is now, her “squeaky voice, weak lungs and generally weak mental ability” disqualify her (FF, 1901, 2).

Cultures were in conflict.   The editors of the Tennessee Tradition had grown up and ministered in the cultural atmosphere of “True Womanhood.” But now a new cultural movement was rising which would lead to female suffrage, political leaders, and business women.  This cultural shift was terra incognita, and the Tennessee Tradition was wholly opposed to it.

But that was not true of everyone within Churches of Christ at the turn of the 20th century.

More to come…..


R. C. Bell, “Woman’s Work,” The Way 5 (6 August 1903) 775-777.

Effie S. Black, “Whould Wives Work?” The Way 4 (19 February 1903) 397.

James A. Harding, “Woman’s Work in the Church,” Christian Leader & the Way 18 (8 March 1904) 8-9.

Henry Hawley, “Woman and Her Work,” The Way 5 (20 August 1903)  810.

John T. Poe, “Female Evangelists,” Firm Foundation 16 (29 January 1901) 2.

Elisha G. Sewell, “What is Woman’s Work in the Church (Again)?” Gospel Advocate 39 (22 July 1897) 432.

Elisha G. Sewell, “Woman’s Real Position in the Church,” Gospel Advocate 39 (29 July 1897) 469.

F. W. Smith, “The Glory of  True Womanhood: A Sermon Delivered by F. W. Smith to Graduates of the Horse Cave High School,” Christian Leader & the Way 20 (1 May 1906) 2-3.

9 Responses to “Privilege or Silence: Women in Churches of Christ (1897-1907) II”

  1.   Dottie Says:

    Looks like it was alright for Effie to take pen in hand…

  2.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    🙂 Nice point, Dottie. I’m still smiling. 🙂

  3.   clyde s. Says:

    Gr8 posts, JM–I lk fw to the next one.

    My wife is a SAHM which I think in itself is very telling for how far we’ve come from the attitudes you’ve posted about–we feel like there should be an acronym for a woman who stays at home to raise her children! That’s crazy.

    I can tell you that there have been a few in the churches we’ve served who have looked down on her for not “doing something” with her life. She earned a Bible degree and some have thought it was a waste of money because she wasn’t getting it in order to make money. It has made her a better woman, wife, mother and Bible class teacher. But those aren’t things some people affirm or value in our society or even in the church.

    I’m not endorsing the attitudes of 1897-1907. There are some major problems there. But I think we (“we” as a society and church–not you, JM!) have a blind spot today whenever we denigrate or devalue a woman choosing to be a worker at home.

  4.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    Thanks, Clyde. I recognize that your comment is not directed at the post as much as it is the society in which we live, and I agree with your point. Women and families who choose “SAHM” should be respected rather than critiqued.

    One major problem with the attitude in the “Cult of True Womanhood” (and expressed clearly in the discussions among Churches of Christ as noted above) is the assumption of female inferiority that sanctifies the assertion of male power over women. This was used to justify the exclusion of the female voice from the assembly.

    Thanks for reading, my friend…and I truly appreciate your point.

  5.   K. Rex Butts Says:

    Very interesting! I look forward to reading more. Thanks for your well researched post!

    Grace and peace,


  6.   Terrell Lee Says:

    The role of woman in church was a simple issue for me back in my west Tennessee college (FHU) days in the late 70’s. The Bible seemed pretty clear to me.

    Then I discovered an intrepretive principle that really caused me some chaos, that much of Scripture is occasional in nature. Now I read 1 Cor. 14 through different colored lenses and wonder how I could have ever read otherwise! It’s true…my “much” learning is making me crazy.

    So, someone tell me…why is it that education doesn’t always give answers? Sometimes it simply provides more questions mixed with humility!

    The best I hope for is that maybe I’m asking better questions of the text and learning patience with those who lack my orientation even as I seek their patience.

  7.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I don’t think I will answer your question, Terrell, but perhaps humility is exactly what we need through education. Paradoxical, is it not? Many use education to build their ego, but actually the true piety of education is humility.

  8.   Daniel Oden Says:

    Thanks. Was the presence of a woman minister among the DoC the straw that broke the camel’s back in 1906? I have heard such, but have not seen any citations.

    Will you bring out that the suffrage movement, like abolition, began among groups Christian women, many of them ardent abolitionists, who, having pressed for equal rights for slaves, found themselves saying – “hey, what about us?” I know that this focused on CoC experience, but it is often forgotten that the ‘feminist’ movement has many sources and one was faithful christian women.

  9.   John Mark Hicks Says:

    I don’t think it was female pastors and evangelists that “broke the camel’s back.” It contributed, but it was actually a small, though growing, dimension of Disciples at the time. Christian Churches/Churches of Christ never adopted the practice of female pastor. However, in 1892 when Nashville hosted the combined Missionary conventions, Lipscomb strongly warned about the prominence of women. So, it was a major concern.

    From 1897-1907 it was more the “church federation” (ecumenical issues) and “higher criticism”–both of which the CC/CoC aslo opposed that was on the forefront. These all fueled the perception that the Disciples had forgotten or left “biblical authority” and thus the root cause of the symptom of instrumental music and missionary societies.

    I will not be commenting on the suffrage and abolitionists movements in this series of posts. But you are quite correct to see these as ancestors of the Feminist movement. That, of course, is the very thing Lipscomb warned about! 🙂


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