Uppity Women of The Restoration Movement
Have you ever heard the names Nancy Cram, Abagail Roberts, Mary Graft, Clara Hale Babcock, or Sarah Lue Bostick? Do any of those names sound familiar to any of you?
What about Miriam? or Deborah? or Anna? or Mary ? or Phoebe? or Priscilla? Have you heard those names?
What do you know about Huldah?
In 2 Kings 21 we read that King Josiah has taken the throne as king over Judah. He was one of the few good kings and began to remove all of the idols from the high places. During this process they discover the book of the Law during renovations at Solomon's Temple. But King Josiah wanted to know if this was really the book of the law so Josiah sends five men to “inquire of Yahweh.”
These five men go directly to Huldah, the prophetess, to see if this was actually the book of the law. They do not go to her because she is the only prophet in the land. There were actually 4 very active male prophets in the country at this time; Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, and Habakkuk. And yet Huldah was the one with the authority to not only authorize this as a book of the law but to interpret the law.
One of the reasons that we don’t talk about Hulda or we excuse her as well as Deborah and Mary and Priscilla is because we struggle with how to harmonize their role in the kingdom with our understanding of scripture.
Tonight I want us to look at the history of the role of women in the movement, or as Bobby Valentine likes to call them, we need to look at the Uppity women of the Restoration Movement.
From the time of James O'Kelly in the 1790s to the days of Elias Smith in the early 1800’s, a number of women were appointed to preach in Virginia, North Carolina, and the New England states. These women preachers, worked with congregations within our movement. The phenomenon of women preachers was fairly common in the early days of the Restoration Movement. While women ministers were accepted in our movement, they received much opposition from mainline Protestant churches. Other movements where more in line with the victorian culture of the day and believed that women, like children, were to be seen and not heard.
Gilbert McMaster, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister, wrote a book attacking the doctrine of our movement. He said we were non calvinist, (We are), we teach freedom in religion (also true), and that we have female preachers (We did). While he was unable to find scripture to adequately attack the doctrine of these women, he chose to take the low road and attack the intelligence of the women instead. He wrote that that “Nancy Cram (one of our female preachers) was remarkable, neither for that delicacy of mind which is the ornament of her sex, nor for that information and good sense by which so many of them are characterized. She is abundantly gifted with that spirit of her head which opposes literature, order, and whatever Christians have considered as of vital importance to the interest of religion. She never studies and complements her maker with being the author of her crude invectives.” I think it is interesting that Presbyterian ministers rose up in a coalition to stamp out the plague of women preachers among the Campbelites.
But in the restoration movement women were not only allowed, but called by God to be a deacon, to pray, to prophesy (Or preach), to teach as she is knowledgeable and gifted. The only thing she was prohibited from doing was to “usurp” or domineer. At that time in America, only the Quakers and the Shakers allowed women to address mixed assemblies. So, many religious groups said that these Christians were “stirring up revolution among the people, turning the world upside down, and teaching heresy.” Which to anyone who has ever read the book of Acts, might think that sounds a little familiar.
Many in our movement turned to Galatians 3:28, in Jesus Christ … there was neither male nor female, and various instances in the Old and New Testaments where men and women were moved by the Holy Spirit to prophesy, or in other words preach the Gospel, to support the practice of women serving in the local church.
Barton W. Stone held the view that according to I Corinthians 11:5-6, women could pray and prophesy along with men in the worship assemblies, as long as they covered their heads as a sign of subjection to their husbands.
Alexander Campbell, on the other hand, held to the idea of "True Womanhood” and believed that a woman was limited to a role in the home where she was the domestic example of purity and submissiveness. He agreed with the popular cultural view of separate spheres for men and women, and his view of nature largely shaped the Restoration Movement in the pre-Civil War period, particularly through the Millennial Harbinger. Although Campbell's words appear to have been generally heeded by most Disciples, were were a number of brethren who thought that such restrictions on women went too far.
William Pinkerton, for example, wrote in the Millennial Harbinger: “It will hardly be questioned by any well-informed brother, that if our sister in Christ may unite her voice with her brother in songs of praise and adoration and thanksgiving to God, she may not be denied the privilege of lifting up her voice in prayer and supplication to her Father.”
W.K. Pendleton was questioned by an "esteemed Bro. Faurot,” in the Mellinial Harbinger concerning the question, "Shall women pray or exhort in public?” Pendleton admitted that women could pray and exhort in private meetings "without any violation of the Scriptures, … even though some brethren should be present.” However, he strongly maintained that Paul's prohibitions pertained to the regular assembly where he "said they must keep silence; that they are not permitted to speak in public; that they may not even so much as publicly ask a question, but must wait and ask it privately at home ... What could the apostle say that is more explicit than this?”
Bro. Faurot was not convinced by Pendleton's arguments or his distinctions between public and private worship. He pointed out that what Paul prohibited in I Corinthians 14 and I Timothy 2 was not women praying, prophesying, or exhorting in a modest way in the assembly, but women who were interrupting, causing confusion, and usurping the place of men as public preachers or teachers in the church. He further maintained that, far from introducing radical innovations into the Restoration Movement, as Pendleton charged, he knew of only "two congregations outside of Bethany." that did not allow women to participate in all the acts of religious worship, for when I speak of exhortation, it is in the same sense of giving utterance to religious emotions, like Mary's (Luke 1:46),”
The issue of women's participation in public worship was not resolved in the Millennial Harbinger. David Lipscomb was asked to address the issue in the Gospel Advocate on several occasions. James Maxwell wrote to Lipscomb, “It seems that the leaders of his congregation had asked some of the sisters to participate along with the men in the public reading of the Scriptures on the Lord's Day, but some of the brethren objected, quoting from Timothy and other passages "that women should keep silent in the churches." He requested an explanation of these Scriptures in the light of their congregational controversy.”
Lipscomb, took what many today would ironically view as a liberal stance on this subject. He said that there was nothing in the passages that "forbids a woman reading or singing or joining in any other worship of the brethren." He pointed out that women "prophesied" in the early church and thus took "part in the worship under direct ministration of the Holy Spirit." He did caution that "women should not in the public assemblies be forward as preachers or assume authority in teaching."
While women have always done more than their share of the work of the church, their ministry has been confined mostly to the quiet corners behind the scenes. I understand that our culture is in constant change, but we must admit that there have been times when we allowed our culture, to determine what a woman was allowed to do and what was prohibitive, instead of allowing God to make those decisions.
It was not that long ago that our culture dictated that women could not get an education, conduct business, have legal control of their children, or manage their own money, even when they had inherited it. As we have already noticed, our culture has always influenced the way that we read and interpret the Bible.
So let’s look at a few of these Uppity Women, and discuss how God used them in His Kingdom.
Nancy Cram was one of the first women we have a record of, working for and with a local church. She was an evangelist in upstate New York, and did mission work among the Oneida Indians. She felt called to evangelize through preaching and fervent prayers. She converted several men who became preachers in the New England movement, as well as Abigail Roberts.
Abigail Roberts was preaching as early as 1816, converting hundreds and starting at least four churches. She suffered not only as a "female preacher" but for being part of what was considered an heretical movement, especially since it rejected creeds and sectism. She was once threatened with tar and feather. But she continued to preach.
There were the "Three Mary's" of Somerset, Pennsylvania. Mary Graft, Mary Morrison, and Mary Ogle were all baptized as adults, and early on they resolved to reject creeds and make only the Bible their rule of faith. They started a ministry by teaching Bible classes and hosting prayer meetings. When Thomas Campbell came to Somerset in 1828, they resolved to call themselves Disciples of Christ. The three Mary's evangelized their community and baptized converts. By the 1840's the Christian Church in Somerset had 500 members. All three preached and ministered to the area in and around Somerset for more than 40 years.
Nancy Towle was probably the most-traveled of New England's female preachers. History records that she traveled (by foot) more than 10,000 miles in a decade, suffering incredible hardship. When she went to preach at a Methodist church in Pennsylvania, the members were very excited to have her come and preach for them. But the clergy stepped in and tried to put a stop to it. One of the clergy announced to the church that “A woman shall not preach here.” only to have a member shout back, “a woman can preach better than the one who does preach here.”
Once she was told that she could not preach in a town because it went against their rules. Her response, “I am astonished that professed christians can be so much more willing that souls shall perish, than that the rules of their society shall be broken.” Sister Towle worked with numerous other women preachers, who were more abundant in New England than in any other part of the Movement.
The first woman we have record of as being ordained to the ministry in the Movement was Clara Hale Babcock. She was ordained at age 39 and became pastor of the Christian Church in Erie, Illinois. She eventually became an evangelist and over a period of three decades conducted revivals in Illinois and Iowa and gained helped in the conversation of over 1400 souls. She baptized over a thousand more as the pastor of several churches.
Clara Hazelrigg started her career as a minister at age 37 in 1897 after a career in education. She evangelized in eight states in the West and served as pastor to the West Side Christian Church in Topeka. She became an apologist for the woman's call to preaching, noting that it is preparation and consecration, not sex or previous condition of servitude, that determines the call.
Barbara Kellison was more aggressive in her defense of women's rights in ministry. In 1862 she wrote a long essay on the question, arguing that it should be settled by the Bible. She painstakingly answered the objections to women preaching and pointed to the inconsistencies of those who opposed it. She observed that freed male slaves had more rights in the church than women, and pointed to the way some would have women enter heaven only long enough to sing or be segregated in a corner to themselves!
There were numerous others. In 1896 Bertha Mason Fuller was ordained and took over the pulpit of her husband at his death. Jessie Coleman Monser, ordained in 1891, not only held several pastorates in Illinois but helped to produce a cross-reference Bible. Marinda Lemert became an apologist for other women who wanted to enter the ministry. In 1888 she wrote articles defending the call of women and labeled "the doctrine that seals woman's lips" a heresy. She insisted that those who make gender a test make Paul contradict himself. Sarah Lue Bostick, challenged both racial and sexual prejudice when she became a prominent preacher in both black and white Christian Churches in Arkansas in the last half of the 19th century.
And then there was Selina Holeman.
Selina Holman was born in 1850 and her father died during the Civil War when she was 14. She was the oldest of six girls and one boy and she supported her siblings by almost any means necessary. She became a school teacher, and eventually purchased the family home that had been lost after her fathers death. She would marry T. P. Holman, a physician and elder in the Washington Street Church of Christ in Fayetteville, Tennessee.
In March 1888, T. J. Hunsaker, wrote to the Gospel Advocate about an elder who had withdrawn from the church because women read the Scriptures out loud and had offered opinions on the Bible during a Bible study. Hunsaker said the Bible declares, “let your women be silent!” Lipscomb responded that he believed that a woman could share comment and even read a verse in such a setting as long as she was unpretentious in doing so. He agreed that Scripture banned the woman from standing in a “promiscuous assembly.” but he thought the elder was extreme and unfit for the job because he withdrew.
Selina waited until May 1888, perhaps hoping someone else would speak up. When no one did, she replied in the May 2, Gospel Advocate in an article titled “A Peculiar People.” She begs permission to have a “woman’s point of view” to be heard on the matter. She laments that many only know one passage in the Bible, “Let your women be silent!” And she stated that all Scripture must be understood in its wider context. It is dangerous to base our ideas on only one passage.
Holeman used several examples from the Bible, showing how we do not take passage alone but see that it is “harmonized” with other passages. If this was all we had from Paul himself then there would be no question she argued. She wondered why passages that seemingly endorse very public roles for women are swept aside as if they had no importance at all. Did not God make Deborah both Judge and leader of Israel? Was not Anna a prophet of the Lord in the most public of all places, the Temple? Did not Priscilla instruct a man “eloquent in the Scriptures?” Then she cited several passages that seem to indicate that women would have a bigger role in the Messianic kingdom. She concluded by saying “indeed we are a peculiar people” because “we have grown to wise and too good to permit what the disciples permitted as a matter of course.”
Though no one was bothered by either Hunsaker nor Lipscomb’s reply, there was a great outcrying exhibited toward Selina’s article. A. A. Brunner responded to Holman in June 1888 where he dismisses her whole essay on the basis that it expresses the question “from a woman’s standpoint.” saying by its very definition this cannot be “the Bible’s standpoint!” He doesn’t address a single one of her arguments, rather he just dismissed her all together. He does spend some considerable space attempting to shame Holman into leaving the exegesis to men.
If Brother Bunner had hoped to conclude the discussion with his brief and somewhat flippant reply, he probably was surprised by the detailed answer he received from Sister Selina in the Gospel Advocate in August of 1888. Holman took on Brunner’s condescending sexism and his exegesis head on in an article boldly titled, “Let Your Women Keep Silence.” She laments that fact that Brunner had shown himself to be basically a school yard bully when “some big brother jumps on my poor little article with all his weight and utterly crushes me” (Which reeks of sarcasm).
She writes “Brother Brunner rather criticizes my assertion that I looked at the matter from a woman’s standpoint, as if woman’s standpoint and a scriptural standpoint were quite two different things.” She refers to the myriad of texts she provided as evidence that she was taking the biblical point of view. Then she challenges and criticizes him for trying to embarrass her rather than looking at the actual argument. She didn’t stop, though Brother Brunner probably wished that she had.
She writes, “Now Brother Brunner, will you not answer a few questions for me?” Are women forbidden to sing? If not, why not? Can men sing songs written by women? Are not their thoughts being directed by a women, and yet a large portion of our hymns are from women. Can men read articles by women? (which was the basis of this whole discussion) You admit that women have the right in a quiet way to teach men the way of life and salvation. Suppose I teach one man in my parlor, is that in private? What about two men? Suppose a dozen men and women were in my parlor and I talked to them of the gospel and exhorted them to obey it? Exactly how many would have to be added to the number to make my talk and exhortation a public instead of a private one? And what did Paul mean in Galatians 3.28?
It might surprise you, but we have been waiting for over 130 years for Brother Brunner to reply.
David Lipscomb thought the article evidenced "a pretty good reason why the Lord did not suffer a woman to teach and lead in his church. When she wants a thing so, her strong emotional nature and intense love will see and have it that way any how....She cannot see that the Holy Spirit is telling, I suffered you to take the lead once; your strong emotional nature led you to violate God's word and to shipwreck a world, I cannot again trust you to lead. She cannot see that Paul is telling the woman must not become the teacher, ruler, leader over man, that she is to be in subjection because Adam was first formed, given the preeminence. A reason of universal application, showing the truth based on it is universal in its bearing. Her unfitness to lead and teach arises from her strong emotional nature causing her to be easily deceived and to be ready to run after anything or body that might strike her fancy against reason and facts." (Gospel Advocate, October 10, 1888, 6-7.)
Lipscomb wrote that it was because of her emotional nature that a woman was not fit to lead a church or lead in a church. But he also thought women should teach men, other women, and children privately at home or in classes at the congregational meetinghouse, though not in the public assembly.
What is particularly significant is the way Lipscomb defines the feminine nature (easily deceived due to her emotional nature) and how this provides a universal reason for universal application. Lipscomb did not believe women should function as leaders in any public institutions or take up careers that put them in public positions of authority over men. Their emotional nature rendered them incapable of public leadership, not only in the church but also in society.
The prohibition of 1 Timothy 2:12-14, according to Lipscomb, applied to any public role whether in the church or in society. It was universal because it was based on the preeminence given to Adam in creation and because women, by virtue of their emotional nature, are ill-suited for such leadership. If the reason women must not teach men is that Adam was created first and women are easily deceived, then this applies not only to the public assemblies of the church but to their roles in society as well. That is, at least, how Lipscomb understood it.
What is amazing is that in 1990’s I was taught that women were not able to lead in the church because God created them ti be emotional thinkers, whereas He created men to be intellectual thinkers. Which I now know is not an argument from scripture, but an argument from Lipscomb who allowed the culture of the dayton color the way that he read scripture.
But the role of women was not just confined to exhorters or ministers. In the early church there was a a consensus that each church should have deaconesses (which is not a real word, it’s simply deacon).
Alexander Campbell said he stood with Paul when it came to women speaking in church, but he saw women deacons as part of the ancient order. Campbell even established several women deacons in the church. But there was one caveat, “For reasons of appropriateness, that male deacons were to serve men and female deacons were to serve women.”
Even those on the far right side of our movement like Tolbert Fanning called for women to serve as deacons. But Fanning disagreed with Campbell saying he was too restrictive, since Phoebe in the book of Romans served the whole church and not just the women.
Robert Milligan insisted that "The Diaconate of the primitive Church was not confined to the male members… The order was continued, in the Greek church, until the beginning of the thirteenth century, and it is to be regretted that it was ever discontinued in any church. The poor and the needy will always be with us, and will require the attention of both Deacons and Deaconesses just as much did the Churches of Jerusalem, Cenchrea and Ephesus”
W.K. Pendleton wrote “It is generally regarded among our brethren as an essential element in the restoration of the primitive order to ordain in every church both deacons and deaconesses. Besides deacons, every church should have deaconesses, whose duty it is to perform such offices as cannot be so well performed by deacons, and especially such to females, as could not with delicacy and propriety be laid upon the deacons”
Moses E. Lard, who was from the far right side of our movement said that “Phoebe was a deaconess in the official sense of the word…whenever the necessities of the church as such to demand it, the order of the deaconess should be reestablished.”
In 1883, the Christian Church in Baltimore had "three Elders, three Deacons, and three Deaconesses." There were other instances of women deacons, but such a role for women never materialized, which is odd since it had leadership sanction. But the leaders never promoted it, perhaps because of the Victorian role women were expected to fill, especially in the South. But one Churches of Christ minister made a point when he said, "We have many women deacons. We just don't call them that!"
Now I cannot find a single reference where a woman served as an Elder in a disciples or Christian church. But, David Lipscomb taught that the Elder and Deacon was not an office, but rather an action. If you were doing the work of an Elder or Deacon, then you were an elder or Deacon. But once you stopped acting in that role, you ceased being in that role. So it is possible that there were no women to serve in the role of an elder, and there is also a possibility that there were.