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

The previous post stated the specific arguments for silence. This post presents the case for “privilege.”

In January 1904 the Christian Leader and The Way merged. Though a friendly merger, it was the union of a strong Tennessee paper with a Northern paper whose roots were shared by Daniel Sommer. This entailed some substantial difference at times (e.g., pacifism), including the “woman question.” The Christian Leader had a significant history of openness toward female participation in the assembly through reading Scripture, prayer and exhortation. In 1897, for example, Ben Atkins offered “a Scriptural call for women to resume Christian activity in the church, praying, speaking, exhorting, singing, teaching, as in the apostolic age in Corinth” (CL, 1897, 2).

Consequently, Harding immediately found himself in hot water with some readers when he quickly staked out his ground on the “woman question” as co-editor of the new Christian Leader & the Way (CLW, 1904, 8). W. J. Brown of Cloverdale, Indiana, for example, cautioned that “before we force upon the churches our narrow, ignorant interpretations of the Bible, we ought to go back and study the question again” (CLW, 1904, 5). Also, Harmon rebuked some writers (presumably Harding included) with some terse words: “Don’t forbid these women, as you have been doing” (CLW, 1904, 9).  And Foster, as if to let Harding know that Northerners did things a bit different on this question, wrote that “it is not counted immodest here, in these times, for a woman to speak or pray, even in the churches” and since “we find where they prophesied” in the New Testament, “why not now?” (CLW, 1904, 4). Further, Spayd asked the question directly:  “Why muzzle the women in the Church?” (CLW, 1904, 2).

Daniel Sommer, the leader of what is often regarded as the radical right wing of Churches of Christ at the turn of the century, defended the privileges of women in the assembly and in the work of the church (e.g., deaconesses; OR, 1897, 1). His article, “Woman’s Religious Duties and Privileges in Public,” summarizes his perspective in some detail (OR, 1901, 1). “Extremes beget extremes,” Sommer began. The extreme of women evangelists had begat the extreme of silencing women in the assembly. It had now become a hobby, in his opinion, for some Southern writers. He suggested a middle ground which had been the practice of churches in his experience for years. That practice extended the privilege of audible prayer to women as well as men. “Any reasoning which will prevent women from praying in public,” he contended, “will prevent her from communing and singing.” He thought it a woman’s privilege to “publicly read in audible tones a portion of Scripture” in the assembly as long as she did not comment, apply or enforce “its meaning” since she would thereby become a “public teacher” which 1 Timothy 2:12 forbids.  However, “it is a woman’s privilege to teach a class in a meeting house” since the class is not the publicly assembled congregation. Further, since exhortation and teaching are different, even during the assembly, “if a sister in good standing wishes to arise in a congregation and offer an exhortation it is her privilege to do so.” A woman’s privilege, then, includes audible prayer in the assembly, public reading of Scripture in the assembly, public exhortation of the assembly, and teaching a Bible class of men, women and/or children.

Within the Sommer tradition the phrase “rights, privileges and duties” was almost a mantra that sought to impress readers with the sanctity of the female voice in the assembly. These universal “privileges,” according to J. C. Glover, were “singing, praying, exhorting and teaching one another, giving thanks, breaking break, and laying by in store as the Lord has prospered” on the first day of the week, and “no local legislation” should “interfere with these duties in the Lord” (CLW, 1906, 4) Frazee stressed that the “rights, privileges, and duties pertaining to the worship” belong to all and everyone has the “same rights and privileges to participate as far as their ability will permit.” While this does not include teaching that takes the “oversight of the Church,” it does include “speaking unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort” which was the function of prophecy in 1 Corinthians 14 (OR, 1904, 2). 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 was contextualized in several different ways, including restricting the forbidden speech to tongue-speaking (Black, CLW, 1907, 4), interpreting “your women” as the wives of the prophets (Williams, The Way, 1903, 1045), or recognizing the restriction as applicable to disorderly women (Atkins, CL, 1897, 2).

While some within the Sommer tradition agreed with Harding and others that “teaching and usurping authority over the man” were forbidden “even in the social family relation,” they nevertheless strongly contended that audible participation in the assembly “was a right—privilege—or duty” (Glover, CLW, 1906, 4). There was, among some, a shared cultural assumption about the exclusion of women from public society. But this did not undermine female participation in the assembly because the Church was different from human society. Whereas society is governed by the principles inherent in the “family of man” where man is the head of the woman, in the “family of God woman takes her place by the side of man” and fully participates in the assembly. Since the assembly is a “meeting of the family of God,” where “there is neither male nor female,” everyone—both male and female—should “admonish one another” as per Romans 15:14. When “the whole church is come together,” women are authorized and encouraged “to speak to the edification, exhortation and comfort of the church” (Cameron, OR, 1905, 2).


Ben Atkins, “The Woman Question,” Christian Leader 11 (2 February 1897) 2.

Charles S. Black, “That Awful Woman Question?” Christian Leader & the Way 21 (19 November 1907) 4.
W. J. Brown, “Notes of Passing Interest,” Christian Leader & the Way 18 (16 August 1904) 5.

W. D. Cameron, “Your Women,” Octographic Review 48 (11 April 1905) 2.

W. W. Foster, “Twelve Women and Two Men,” Christian Leader & the Way 18 (18 February 1904) 4.

J. C. Frazee, “Your Women,” Octographic Review 47 (5 July 1904) 2.

J. C. Glover, “Questions on the Woman Question Answered,” Christian Leader & the Way 20 (19 June 1906) 4.

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

F. U. Harmon, “The Woman Question,” Christian Leader & the Way 18 (6 September 1904) 9.

Daniel Sommer, “Church Government. Number Two,” Octographic Review 40 (19 October 1897) 1.

Daniel Sommer, “Woman’s Religious Duties and Privileges in Public,” Octographic Review 34 (20 August 1901) 1.

L. W. Spayd, “Why Muzzle the Women in Church,” Christian Leader & the Way 18 (17 May 1904) 2.

E. G. Williams, “Woman’s Work,” The Way 5 (3 December 1903) 1045.

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

  1.   Randall Says:

    How very interesting! This issue has never been addresed at any length in any of the histories I have read about the Stone – Campbell movement. Thanks for doing this blog. I look forward to it all the time.

  2.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Many have no problem with equal participation of men and women in small groups in homes but in the church building…well that’s another story. So what “new” issues arose in the third and fourth centuries when worship went more public with the erection of church buildings or the dedication of buildings as churches?

  3.   John King Says:

    What’s the old adage about histories being written by the victors? You do not see this issue included because the “dominant voices” rejected it and silenced it. Most people have no sense of the theological diversity of the Stone-Campbell movement because of the uniformity of the 1950’s ’60’s and ’70’s.

    Dominate the discussion for a couple of generations and see how few know anything else ever existed. New technologies are reducing the capacity to dominate. Thanks for putting this information out there for a wider audience, John Mark.

  4.   rich constant Says:


    dosn’t say much for my head though…

    these four posts mess with my mind…

    so you gonna help out here my brother…

    or just leave that hook laying around for any one to step on….




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