Unfair Nostalgia Part 2

written on 15 January 2021 by Alicia Hovanas

Art by Nat Iwata

I hope you buckled up last week since we dove right into the backdrop of the American Victorian era, situated amongst the boom and culmination of the Industrial Revolution. If you didn’t before, be sure to buckle up now.

Last week we began the process of peeling back the shift in family dynamics, where the nuclear family unit, especially in cities that grew more populous, no longer primarily functioned in an agrarian society. We learned about the lack of business ethics in this radically different economy, which allowed men to earn enough money on their own. The vacuum of morality felt from the shift in everyday life for men who went off to work formulated this new need of a haven, which became the concept of “home,” rather than merely a house, which would become an idyllic retreat from the corrupt world of ruthless business strategies—and there was nobody to better create this place than the person left at home with the kids.

This new middle-class masculinity, based on economic warfare and competitiveness left very little room for Christian morality. As Barbara Welter asserts, “the church was, along with women, relegated to the private domestic sphere and virtually conceded to women.” Women became to be viewed as morally superior, due to their removal from immoral business dealings. Men, as well as women, declared religion as the special realm for women to occupy. Because ministers first and foremost depended on women to fill their pews and do volunteer work, theology, and worship morphed to become more soft and sentimental. Welter called this phenomenon the “feminization of American religion.” DeBerg succinctly writes, “As religion fell into women’s hands, it became less relevant to the male definition of masculinity.” Since Christianity and business were at odds, it was women who became the near-sole agent of religion, and religion was also assigned to the domestic sphere. Men could not entirely brush aside the domestic realm, as they still valued patriarchy and needed legitimate heirs (since women generally could not own property, nor inherit it), therefore they exalted the necessity of domesticity and strived to make it look sweet in order to keep women within the confines and stressed the sentimental essence of the home, being a woman, and especially motherhood. DeBerg asserts, “Never before had women been praised so highly, nor had their day-to-day lives been described as so worthy and vital. Women were given an important social role that only they could fill.” This idealized notion of the home raised on an enormous pedestal was an understanding that permeated the 19th century, and still dramatically affects one’s view of Christianity and women’s roles even today. In fact, the “features of family life, which developed in middle-class Victorian society, were revivified in the suburban domesticity of the 1950s,” showing that these notions of keeping women at home were byproducts of culture, not necessarily a biblical standard.

But then, something changed. The notion of women as necessarily morally and spiritually superior was turned on its head in the late 19th and beginning of the 20th century with the rise of male-dominant, militant fundamentalism then swung back to Victorian ideals again in the 1950s. As stated before, women were the primary church-goers and volunteers, which led to a feminized church and softened theology. Indeed, DeBerg affirms, “Protestant leaders of the 1880s inherited a feminized church. The church’s relegation to the domestic sphere, the province of women, lead to the dominance of women in the church’s activities.” The absence of men and a softening of theology were finally noticed, and men began trying to reclaim the church. Although Fundamentalism was in full swing after challenges such as liberal theology, textual criticism, and the line that was drawn in the sand between religion and science from the Scopes Trial, the militant, male-dominant language began with men “reclaiming” the church after being absent for so long. DeBerg continues, “In contrast to womanish liberalism, fundamentalists described the ideal Christian life and ideal Christian in terms of Christian manhood.”

Fundamentalism, as a general rule, stands in stark contrast to secular progress, such as the equality of women to men, a concept that was rearing its head, that fundamentalism sought to squash as swiftly as Whack-a-Mole. Many people believe that the concept of evangelical feminism, or biblical equality is merely a recent response to the feminist movement in the 1960s, spurred on by legally obtained, reliable birth control as well as the legalization of abortion. However, “evangelical feminism in America first surfaced in the mid-nineteenth century and accelerated into the early twentieth century.”

Early Bible institutes gave women the equality they deserved and had been deprived of for so long. The first Bible institute in North America, Missionary Training College for Home and Foreign Missions, was founded by Albert B. Simpson in 1883, and he gave women a prominent place in church ministry, encouraging women’s participation and leadership in virtually every phase of early Christian and Missionary Alliance life, including the executive board committee, employing them as Bible professors, and supported female evangelists and branch officers, which was the early Christian and Missionary Alliance’s equivalent to a local minister.

Even A.J. Gordon and Dwight L. Moody also encouraged the leadership of women in ministry. Graduates of Moody Bible Institute “openly served as pastors, evangelists, pulpit supply preachers, Bible teachers and even in the ordained ministry.” The common question emerges: after being formally and biblically educated with successful experience in ministry, what caused the sudden decline of women in public ministry? Janette Hassey underscores a number of reasons, the first one beginning with separatist fundamentalist subcultures. She contends that between the world wars, “fundamentalists lost the battle for control of mainline denominations and schools; in regrouping, they created a host of separate institutions... part of the movement veered in a militant, separatist, extremist direction… [and] in that process of narrowing, opportunities for women also tightened.” Because opportunities for women grew fewer, young girls could go their entire lives with very few to no female role models. Naturally, women in leadership within the church became obsolete and did not even seem like an option. Dallas Seminary (now Dallas Theological Seminary), a fundamentalist seminary in the South, also furthered the Southern conservative social values which traditionally included the subordinate place of women in society (and truly, anyone other than the white male) and the Church typified an increasingly large segment of the fundamentalist constituency. Churches began to primarily hire and support those with high credentials, especially those who had a seminary education, rather than those who were observed to be spiritually gifted and then trained accordingly. When seminaries such as Dallas Seminary only accepted men, of course, the number of women in the pulpit decreased. Other seminaries followed suit if they weren’t already banning women from their classrooms.

Post-World War I, the aforementioned then-traditional understanding of femininity changed again. Women’s attire changed to shorter skirts and dresses, bobbed hair, and more makeup; and smoking and imbibing marked the “liberated” woman. Fundamentalists feared that cultural trends toward women’s freedom in dress, habits, morals, and occupations might destroy the family. And by destroying the family, what they really feared was women would see this newfound freedom and voice and rise up from her forced insubordination and overthrow “order,”—the order of patriarchy. Many churches began associating women as preachers as part of the secular women’s movement, and opposition rose. “Hoping to save the American home, many fundamentalists narrowed their view of appropriate women’s roles.” Attacks such as the separatist fundamentalist John R. Rice’s book Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives and Women Preachers exemplify the inverse relationship between the societal freedom felt by women and women in ministry in this time period.

Perhaps the most influential paradigm shift that still permeates Protestant and evangelical circles today is the remains of fundamentalist exegesis and hermeneutical approach. Hassey highlights one of the most eye-opening paradigm shifts: “In reaction to perceived threats to the family and society, many fundamentalist institutions revised their earlier perspectives on biblical teaching on women,” (emphasis mine). In other words, fundamentalists were no longer reacting only to cultural events and societal shifts to inform their theology of women, they turned to the Bible. And they started changing things.

Stay tuned for next week to see how they wreaked havoc and how their carnage still affects every Protestant Christian in a complementarian church.