Suffrage, Tennessee, and Churches of Christ.

Today is its 102nd anniversary.

In 1919, Congress passed the nineteenth amendment. Tennessee ratified the amendment on August 18, 1920 by two votes. That vote made it constitutional law. Harry Burn was a 24-year old representative up for re-election that Fall. He wore a red rose into the chamber which symbolized his “No” vote. His vote would’ve ensured defeat for the amendment. But he had a letter from his mother in his pocket next to his heart. That note changed his vote. “Hurrah, vote for suffrage!” Phoebe Burn wrote, “be a good boy and help Mrs. [Carrie Chapman] Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” The amendment became constitutional law.

In contrast to Phoebe and Harry Burn, several ministers of the churches of Christ signed a petition, published in the Nashville Banner on August 20, 1920. It opposed suffrage because it would “revolutionize our entire mode of life and will in our opinion have an evil effect not only in our homes, our churches and our families, but will affect the whole social fabric of our present generation and of generations yet unborn.” Some teachers at David Lipscomb College (J. W. Grant, S. P. Pittman, and H. S. Lipscomb) and several ministers (F. B. Srygley, J. C. McQuiddy, and James E. Scobey) signed it.

J. C. McQuiddy, the editor of the Gospel Advocate, opposed suffrage and wrote several articles in opposition to the vote to ratify the amendment. Only July 22, 1920, after quoting Genesis 3:16-19, he wrote: “Thus, just after the fall, we find that God placed woman in the home and made it her duty to bring forth children, with the understanding that ‘thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.’ If any are disposed to find fault with this position, they are disposed to complain of the will of God Almighty, and not of the will of man. . . As the modern woman is demanding not only suffrage, but also political equality, it is clear that she cannot hold office and perform the duties of politics and remain at home at the same time.” “Woman Suffrage,” Gospel Advocate, July 22, 1920, pp. 715-716.

The opposition to suffrage ran deep, and it is was based on (1) Genesis 3:16 places a woman (wife) under the rule of men (husband); (2) 1 Timothy 2:12 means no woman can have authority over a man, whether in church, home, or society, (3) women must exercise their influence through a man, and (4) if women subvert the divinely created order in society, then it should not apply to the home or church either since creation is the basis for both.

1) “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.” (E. G. Sewell, Gospel Advocate [1897] 432.)

2) “[I]t is wrong for her so to usurp authority anywhere…the same principles that prevent her from teaching in the church, prevail in the schoolroom or anywhere else; it is a question of women usurping authority over men and becoming leaders of them.” (James A. Harding from The Way [March 5, 1903]).

3) The negative impact of suffrage, James A. Allen wrote in the Gospel Advocate, December 19, 1907 (p. 812), would subvert “the law of nature, and the law of God, that the influence of woman must be exercised through man.”

4) D. G. Porter concluded that women do not have the right to vote “unless, indeed, it is proposed to proceed upon what seems the absurdest of all principles; namely, subordination at home and in the Church, but independence and equality abroad. We call this proposition absurd, because it would seem that if woman can be equal to man in authority anywhere, it must be at home and in the Church; and that her equality here, if indeed that ought to be her position, must be the foundation of her equality in external affairs.” (Christian Quarterly [October 1874] 489-90)

Interestingly, few, if any, apply these texts in this way today. Perhaps we have learned something over the past 100 years, and we have more to learn yet.

May God have mercy.

2 Responses to “Suffrage, Tennessee, and Churches of Christ.”

  1.   Terrell Lee Says:

    Your final lines continually bounce around in my head about how I interpret and apply sacred texts. May our Heavenly Father temper our confidence with humility, love and patience with one another. We certainly need God’s love and patience, grace and mercy. Thanks for these historial references.

  2.   Lowry Hershey Says:

    Herman Bavinck wrote The Christian Family (in Dutch in 1908; translated into English in 2012). He too was against the suffrage movement. It seems his position was the head of the household should cast the number of votes per the residents of the household. It seems other comments he made have more validity today.

Leave a Reply