Women and Religion

views updated Jun 11 2018

Women and Religion


Women in Church. Eighty years before the American Revolution began, the Puritan minister Cotton Mather observed that there are far more godly women in the world than there are godly men. Mathers statement is one of the basic facts of the social history of American religion. In every religion, in almost every time and place, women outnumber men as church members. The support of women for organized religion in the revolutionary period was crucial even though they rarely had public roles to play. During this period women made up an increasingly large proportion of church members. Membership patterns in the Congregational churches of New England demonstrate this. During the entire revolutionary era women consistently made up more than half of most congregations. From 1730 to 1770 an average of 59 percent of all new church members were women. From 1770 to 1800 that number rose to 64 percent, and after 1800 it would grow again, to 69 percent. People at the time were well aware of this trend, given womens presence at the revivals of the era. In 1767 minister John Cleaveland of Ipswich, Massachusetts, reported on a revival that began during a meeting of a considerable Number of the Youth, chiefly Females, and led to the conversion of ninety new church members, two-thirds of them women. These statistics reveal important developments

in the shaping of American religious culture. The stories of individual women, however, bring such statistics to life.

Faith Robinson Trumbull. Faith Trumbull was a pious Congregationalist and the daughter and great-granddaughter of ministers. She was also the wife of Connecticuts governor Jonathan Trumbull, the only colonial governor who supported the independence movement. Her son, John Trumbull, would aid the new nation by becoming one of its most prominent painters, taking the battles and heroes of the Revolution as his frequent topics. Faith Trumbull combined some of the attributes of her husband and son, expressing her political feelings in artistic form. Significantly it was religion that made it possible for her, a woman with no public role as a politician or artist, to do this. Sometime between the Stamp Act crisis of 1765 and the onset of the Revolutionary War in 1775, she produced a piece of needlework depicting a scene from the Bible that was an allegory for the political events of her time. The scene was the death of Absalom, a son of King David who had rejected his fathers authority and led a revolution against Israels leader. Absalom suffered for his sin as he became caught in the branches of a tree and died from hanging. Many ministers, as well as Faith Trumbull, used this story to comment on Americas rebellion against its king and figurative father, George III. David, like George, was noted for his interest in centralizing power over his subjects and the immorality of his court. He was also genuinely esteemed by his people, something that captures the difficulty many Americans had reconciling desire for freedom with sincere reverence for their legitimate king. The notion of the rebellious son resonated with many Americans in this period. Absaloms tragic death was at once a warning to Americans to proceed carefully, as well as a hopeful sign of possible reconciliation since in the biblical story Absaloms death causes the grieving king to forgive his wayward son. In this small piece of cloth Trumbull used an art form practiced almost exclusively by women to express this complex political stance that was simultaneously an endorsement of revolutionary feeling and a caution against going too far with it. The work is filled with symbols combining political and religious feelings. A dove stands for peaceful relations and the Holy Spirit; Absalom is figured as a martyred rebel and the crucified Christ. Unlike her husband, Trumbull had few opportunities to express her political feelings and here found a homely means to do so in a way appropriate for the womens roles of the period. That she used religion to do so shows that women, like men, found a close correspondence between their faith and their revolution, even if they expressed themselves differently.

Patriotic Spinning. Trumbulls political statement was itself a religious activity, something true for other women as well. During the 1760s and 1770s resistance to British rule took the form of economic measures such as the nonimportation movement of 1769. Women had an important role in this movement because they were the ones able to produce what was no longer being imported. In many cases women came to this patriotic duty with a sense of religious obligation. Ezra Stiles, one of the ministers of Newport, Rhode Island, encouraged the linking of politics and religious feeling in his female congregants. He hosted a spinning bee at his home in 1769, during which women used thirty-seven spinning wheels to produce ninety-four skeins of valuable linen yarn. The women made a gift of their labor and the yarn to the church, and Stiles saw that it was used patriotically. Spinning bees continued yearly until war broke out, with up to seventy wheels spinning in Stiless home. Similar bees were held throughout New England, at least thirty in 1769 alone. On one Sunday in November 1775 the minister of Litchfield, Connecticut, told his congregation about the suffering of American troops in Canada. The women of the church responded by spinning and knitting for the men all afternoon even though no work was to be done on Sunday, except for truly religious purposes. Clearly ministers successfully cast such work as a virtuous service to God and country. These meetings foreshadowed the vast religious humanitarian movement that emerged in the early national period, an effort largely undertaken and funded by women. In the revolutionary era, spinning meetings were a chance for women to be patriotic, public, and pious all at once.

Mary Gould Almy. Religion was a resource available to women on both sides of the political issues of the revolutionary period. Mary Gould married Benjamin Almy in 1762 in Newport, Rhode Island. Both hailed from families that had once been Quaker but now worshiped at a variety of Newports many churches. Benjamin was a member of the Second Congregational Church, led by liberal Stiles, while his wife was a lifelong member of Trinity Church, Newports Anglican community. Liberal Congregationalism shared many features with Anglicanism in the years leading up to the American Revolution, but the politics of the two churches could not be more different. Because they belonged to Britains state church, headed by the king, the Anglicans generally resisted the independence movement and were the core of the Loyalist groups in most of the colonies. Mary Almy was no exception and remained a Loyalist throughout the war. Her husband was a Patriot and fought for the American side when the conflict broke open in 1775. This was not an easy situation for the Almys since it meant that Mary was rejecting her husbands authority in favor of her own interpretation of Gods will, something that was not lightly done by an eighteenth-century woman. Some of her anxiety over this choice emerged in a letter she wrote her husband in 1778. While Benjamin was off fighting, Mary was left in Newport during the British occupation and was there to face the French-American invasion of the city in late July. When it was over she wrote to her husband, criticizing the French allies and asserting her continuing support for British rule. Yet she was also concerned for Benjamins fate even though he fought for the other side, and she turned to God to ensure her husbands safety. At last I shut myself from the family, she wrote, to implore Heaven to protect you, and keep you from imprisonment and death. Prayer was the only way to reconcile the political and religious conflict that divided her family. She was not alone in this. Perhaps a third of Newports families were divided religiously, and as churches divided on the political issues of the day, so too did families. The burden of this division necessarily fell on the mothers and wives of the day.

Mary Silliman. One woman who recorded her struggle to understand Gods will for her life during the revolutionary conflict was Mary Silliman of Fairfield, Connecticut. Sillimans husband, Gold Selleck Silliman, was a prominent member of the Connecticut militia and the states attorney in his town at the outbreak of war. He was instrumental in convicting local Tories of disloyalty. In retaliation Silliman was kidnapped and held by the British authorities for almost a year, leaving his wife, pregnant at the time, to manage the farm, raise the children, and endure the sacking of the village by the British. Religion helped Mary endure this and other wartime problems, and she mingled pious and military images in her writing. In 1776 she described to her husband a day of prayer and fasting she kept as wrestling for you and our bleeding land, and she hoped that she had in some measure acted the heroine as well as my dear Husband the Hero. Mary persevered, aided by a strong sense of the duty owed by women to submit to the judgment of men and by all humans to acknowledge the power of God. It was this religious doctrine, learned from her father, who was a minister, and from the pious woman who taught the school she attended, that sustained her during these times. Her letters and journal indicate that it was a powerful doctrine for her but also one with which she struggled. She resented the tests she had to endure but found meaning and comfort in what she called the way of duty. In the end she agreed with her father, who wrote to ask Where should our Friends be, and where are they safest, but there, where the Lord calls them, where their Duty lies? There only may we hope for & expect protection, even where we are serving God.

Women in Ministry. Very few women in the revolutionary era were able to become religious authorities in their own right, transcending at least in the sphere of religion the strictures on womens public lives that most early Americans took for granted. One example was Sarah Osborn, another woman from Newport, Rhode Island. Osborn was touched by the revivals of the Great Awakening and for the rest of her life sought to bring that experience to others in her congregation. In the course of this work she became the true center of that church, and even her minister credited her efforts as at least as important as his own. An even more dramatic example is Quaker Elizabeth Ashbridge. Women had greater freedom among the Quakers, at least as far as being religious leaders went, since that group had no ordained ministers and their participatory style of worship left room for women as well as men to speak publicly. Ashbridge endured an unusually harsh life, even by the standards of eighteenth-century women. She was widowed at an early age after marrying against her fathers wishes and emigrated to America only to be unjustly placed into indentured servitude for four years. She was briefly an actor and dancer in New York. A second marriage brought no more happiness, as her husband abused her frequently, in part because she had become a convert to Quakerism. She also became a minister and traveled from place to place across Pennsylvania and New Jersey, speaking at Quaker meetings about Gods presence. She drew directly from her experiences as a woman to do this, although that experience was hardly limited to the domestic sphere. Ashbridge provided a model for godliness in a way that expanded womens roles, even as it spoke to how those roles were limited by the American conditions she knew too well. She had an expansive vision of her ministry as well and in 1753 asked to be allowed to go to Ireland and pursue her preaching vocation there. She left behind an account of her life, first published in 1774, which enabled her work to continue after her death. Even though eighteenth-century women could not be ministers in the formal sense, examples such as Osborn and Ashbridge show they pursued a ministry of just as much value to the church and the nation.

Female Virtue. Religious women contributed in one other way to Americas revolutionary history despite their limited public lives in this era. They provided a way of talking about what made America different from the rest of the world, and in doing this, religion helped women to contribute significantly to independence. The republican language that lay behind the speeches, pamphlets, songs, and sermons of the revolutionary era centered on the discussion of virtue. The civic virtue of caring about the country enough to serve it in politics or war would make the new nation prosper. While the military and political worlds were male worlds, virtue in this period was also a concept closely associated with women, especially religious women. The revivalistic preaching of the revolutionary era strongly emphasized the connection between virtue and Gods grace. Only the reception of grace could produce true virtue, the disinterested benevolence that evangelical Protestants such as Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins talked about. That distinterested benevolence was the religious corollary to the ideal of civic service, for the sake of the country, not from self-interest. In making this connection religious thinkers of the period argued that religion was an essential support for the nation. Women were the key link in the chain, something increasingly made clear in the sermons and other writings of the 1770s and 1780s. For example, the sermon preached in New Haven, Connecticut, for Mary Claps funeral in 1769 stressed her piety as a feminine virtue, one that led to a seemingly blameless and selfless life of service to others. Women were seen by many people of the time as especially open to the work of the spirit, and their growing dominance of the churches and revival meetings confirmed this idea. Women raising sons were also the people most responsible for training the next generation of leaders. Pious women could receive the gift of virtue from God and teach children how to do the same and so insure the safety of the republic. For many religious Americans the Revolution was a matter of reformed behavior as well as a new political order. While it was not a public effort, women had the leading roles in that campaign.


Joy and Richard Buel, The Way of Duty (New York: Norton, 1984);

Elaine Forman Crane, Religion and Rebellion: Women of Faith in the American War for Independence, in Religion in a Revolutionary Age, edited by Ronald Hoffman and Peter J. Albert (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994);

Cristine Levenduski, Peculiar Power: A Quaker Woman Preacher in Eighteenth-Century America (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996);

Richard D. Shiels, The Feminization of American Congregationalism, 17301835, American Quarterly, 33 (1981): 4662;

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, Daughters of Liberty: Religious Women in Revolutionary New England, in Women in the Age of the American Revolution, edited by Hoffman and Albert (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1989).

Women in Churches

views updated May 08 2018


WOMEN IN CHURCHES. Religion was integral to the history of European settlement of North America, and in large measure the experiences and work of women shaped the history of church life in the United States. Within the first generation of the Puritan experiment in New England, three important forms of women's religious experience were apparent. First, women would play critical roles as pious participants in the religious institutions that were being built in the new society. Second, women's roles would link family with faith. And third, women were not always content to live according to existing expectations.

Supporting the Churches

The critical role of women in American churches persisted even as they were often restricted to public listening and private prayer. Female Puritans, no less than their husbands, were responsible for living a virtuous life, testifying to their personal faith before being granted admission to church membership. By the end of the seventeenth century, women were already outnumbering men in the churches, a reality that has never abated. During the Awakenings of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women enthusiastically embraced the new democratic "religion of the heart" that was preached on the frontiers and in the cities. After the revival preachers moved on to the next location, community women often preceded their husbands and children into church membership.

In the early nineteenth century, Protestant women were instrumental in forming and supporting mission and moral reform societies. They collected money, established the networks of correspondence, and, by late in the century, had helped to make overseas missions one of America's largest corporate enterprises. Meanwhile, Catholic sisters were the vanguard of the educational and medical institutions that were formed to support Catholic life in the United States. Jewish sisterhoods quickly took their place as the organizational backbone of synagogue life. Even in late-twentieth-century society, many women's religious organizations remained among the most vital centers of church life, and women's voluntary labor sustained both local congregations and religious service agencies. With few other opportunities for leadership within the church, women consistently transformed their religious groups into powerful arenas of religious, social, and political action.

Church and Family

The spheres in which women were expected to expend their energy included religion and family, and the two were often linked. Early Puritan women maintained fierce loyalty to their churches, in part to make sure their children could be baptized and obtain salvation. Victorian homes may have been "ruled" by fathers, but it was mothers whose work created the everyday world in which children were nurtured in the faith. In turn, it was argued, it was motherly nurturing that would produce the morally responsible citizens on which a democracy depends. And when children and husbands were threatened by economic woes and moral ills, it was women who mobilized to defend the sanctity of their homes, even if it meant marching in protest or singing hymns at the door of the

local saloon. Women's "natural piety" and church connections could be formidable. Frances Willard was among the most visible nineteenth century leaders who linked the temperance crusade against alcohol to the interests of women and families, extending her vision to issues ranging from prison reform to prostitution and poverty, and arguing that women should be granted the right to vote so they could use their moral virtue for the betterment of society.

Change and Innovation

As these examples illustrate, religious women did not always stay quietly within prescribed limits. In the very first decade of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Anne Hutchinson dared to assert her own right to interpret scripture and teach, as guided by the Holy Spirit and not by her pastor. She was tried and banished for her heresy in 1637. Mary Dyer was a Quaker and was therefore deemed troublesome to the Puritan colony. She, too, was banished. But, refusing to stay away from Boston, she twice returned and was ultimately arrested. In 1660, Dyer was hanged for sedition. A generation later, in 1692, a wave of witchcraft accusations swept Salem, Massachusetts, over-whelmingly catching women in its wake. In these early days, women who failed to conform embodied the fears and marked the boundaries of a fledgling society.

By the nineteenth century, some women had grown critical of religious traditions that condemned or limited them. Some suffragists, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, developed strong critiques of the churches. Other women simply left existing groups to join or found new faiths. Mother Ann Lee established the Shakers; Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science; and Ellen White's vision resulted in Seventh-Day Adventism. Other women used magical means to offer healing and divination to their communities (a role by no means new or uniquely American). A variety of utopian groups, from the Oneida community to the Latter Day Saints, experimented with new forms of marriage and imagined new forms of salvation, at least some of which offered women new opportunities. As the frontier moved west, religious experimentation continued to be a prominent feature of American society.

Within existing churches, women's roles gradually expanded as well. A few women emerged as preachers and evangelists, and, by the middle of the nineteenth century, pioneering Protestant women were petitioning their denominations to ordain them. In 1853, Congregationalist Antoinette Brown became the first woman to be ordained to the pastoral office. In 1819, eight years after she first asked, Jarena Lee received permission to preach from African Methodist Episcopal Church founder Richard Allen, but neither she nor other traveling women evangelists, such as Amanda Berry Smith, yet had official ordination. Lack of official standing did not stop the remarkable Phoebe Palmer, who taught with such power that a "holiness movement" was born out of the Tuesday meetings she held in her home. And, in the early twentieth

century, an emerging Pentecostal movement recognized the spiritual gifts of women. Over the course of the twentieth century, doors to full participation and leadership gradually opened in many but not all Protestant denominations.

In the last third of the twentieth century, the diversity of American women's religious experience became strikingly visible. Some women spent great creative energy in adapting religious language, images, and rituals to acknowledge the experiences of women. Other religious women took up issues such as abortion and pornography, extending the historic link between family and faith to encompass new concerns. Women of color developed womanist theologies; Native American women gave new voice and visibility to traditions European settlers had nearly eliminated. Immigrant women from all over the world played significant roles in helping their religious communities establish themselves, while still other women added goddess and wiccan spiritualities to more traditional church teachings. No single story can account for women's religious experience in American history, and in this most recent chapter, that fact is especially clear.


Braude, Ann. "Women's History Is American Religious History." In Retelling U.S. Religious History. Edited by Thomas A. Tweed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Chaves, Mark. Ordaining Women: Culture and Conflict in Religious Organizations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Gilkes, Cheryl Townsend. If It Wasn't for the Women … : Black Women's Experience and Womanist Culture in Church and Community. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001.

Keller, Rosemary Skinner, and Rosemary Radford Ruether, eds. In Our Own Voices: Four Centuries of American Women's Religious Writing. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1995.

Lindley, Susan Hill. "You Have Stept out of Your Place": A History of Women and Religion in America. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996.

Nancy T.Ammerman

See alsoAdventist Churches ; Church of Christ, Scientist ; Oneida Colony ; Quakers .

Women and Religion

views updated May 14 2018

Women and Religion


Female Piety. The role of women in religious life expanded tremendously during the nineteenth century and helped elevate the position of women in public life in general. In colonial times women made up the majority of most churches, often constituting as much as two-thirds of a given congregation. But church leaders were traditionally men, who were believed to hold the only authority to speak on religious matters. After the American Revolution, however, this situation began to change. The state churches were disestablished, and ministers and their churches lost their official public roles. As religion became more personal and voluntary, it also became more clearly connected with home life, and by extension, with women. Women were thought to be pious and moral by nature, while men, who dealt with the secular world, were inclined toward brutish behavior and vice. It was the proper role of women, therefore, to instruct their husbands and children in spiritual matters. This duty became all the more important as the nation expanded. Families migrated to unpopulated areas where there were often no churches for dozens or even hundreds of miles. Mothers, it was believed, had the innate and vitally important ability to ensure that a moral and virtuous society was maintained.

New Roles. While the changes wrought by disestablishment elevated female spiritual authority in the public eye, they did little to alter the traditional notion that a womans place was in the home. Rather, that notion was reinforced by the pervasive idea that a virtuous republic could be maintained only if there were good, selfsacrificing wives and mothers at home to give moral strength to their families. But the revivals of the 1820s and 1830s began to expand womens roles into the world beyond the home. The novel experience of offering public testimony of their faith at a revival offered many women a form of emancipation from their cloistered domestic lives. Revival preachers encouraged all of their converts, male and female, to share their experiences with the larger community, and many heeded their call, going door-to-door or holding prayer meetings in their homes. In doing so, women ceased to be simply objects of the revivals and became active evangelists themselves.

Public Life. Formal ordination for women was rare in the nineteenth century, but there were other ways to become active in the evangelical drive to convert the world. Many women became missionaries, both at home and abroad, often remaining unmarried in order to devote themselves fully to their godly professions. Others traveled on revival circuits, preaching and exhorting on an informal basis before large audiences. Nancy Towle, a Free Will Baptist, began preaching and holding revivals as early as 1815 and was once invited to preach before the United States Congress. At first many people of both sexes were startled or even offended by the idea of women speaking in public. Some attended religious gatherings simply to gape at the spectacle where women were lecturing or preaching. Once there, however, many were moved by the power of the speakers and began to abandon some of their prejudices. By midcentury female religious authority had become sufficiently accepted to allow several women to lead new religious movements and denominations. Most notably, Ellen Harmon White became the prophetess and leader of Seventh Day Adventism and Mary Baker Eddy founded Christian Science.

Reform. Participation in religious life also helped women move into broader spheres of activity outside the home that offered many a much-needed sense of intellectual fulfillment. Encouraged by revivalists such as Finney, many women became leading activists in the social reform movements of their day. Separate female benevolent societies were formed by some women, while others came to stand on equal footing with men in established societies. Again they met resistance, this time from people who felt it indecent for women and men to mingle behind the closed doors of committee meetings, but they held their ground. With stature gained from participation in the religious realm, women began to give public lectures against intemperance, gambling, prostitution, and other sins. Sarah and Angelina Weld Grimke, Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, and others emerged as prominent voices in the antislavery crusade. Empowered by these roles, many of the same women in turn became leading figures in the struggle for womans rights.


In March 1848 two young sisters named Kate and Margaret Fox began hearing mysterious rapping noises in their house near Rochester, New York, Interpreting the sounds as communications from the dead, the girls set up a code system by which the spirits could respond to their questions. Friends and neighbors flocked to the Fox house to ask their own questions and speak to deceased loved ones. The following year an older sister became the girls publicity manager; P. T. Barnum made them part of his show; and they were soon national celebrities. As their fame spread, so did the national enthusiasm for Spiritualism, the belief in communication between living humans and disembodied spirits, generally through a medium. At seances across the country objects moved by themselves; instruments played in locked cabinets; and men and women revealed apparently unknowable information while in trance states, convincing thousands of the reality of the spirit world. Some enthusiasts, mindful of accusations of fraud against many mediums, were content to view spiritualist séances as simple entertainment. For others, however, séances were deeply religious experiences, offering scientific proof of the existence of the human soul after death. Spiritualist mediums and writers tended to reject the claims of the clergy to any special religious authority and to stress the ability of every individual to follow his or her conscience. Many rejected the idea of hell as unjust and argued that all people would eventually be saved. The movement had widespread appeal to people of all social and educational levels, and served as both an extension of and an alternative to mainstream religious beliefs.

Source: R. Laurence Moore, In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).


Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood: Womans Sphere in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977);

Janet W. James, ed., Women in American Religion (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980);

Rosemary E. Ruether and Rosemary S. Keller, Women and Religion in America: A Documentary History, volume 1 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1981).

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