Old style evangelical gender politics

Posted on January 20, 2012


This post, by Mark Sayers, is well worth a read (ht Mike Bird on FB). It reflects briefly on the transformation of masculinity that occurred as part of the broader evangelical attempts at social transformation in the first half of the nineteenth century. Writing about the same phenomenon, John Wolffe comments:

Evangelical concepts of manliness were a challenge to contemporary secular male values, whether among [sic] those of the British gentry, landowners in the American South, or convicts forcibly resettled in Australia. Emphasis on ‘honour’, machismo and lineage was confronted by a stress on ‘calling’, moral virtue and the family as a spiritual community of mutual affection rather than merely an expression of patriarchal sovereignty.’ (The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers, and Finney (IVP, 2006), p. 141)

As far as I am aware (and I’m not a historian), this strand of the widespread social transformation wrought by nineteenth-century evangelicalism is relatively under-studied. There is a fair bit of work out there on the evangelical reconstruction of femininity to embrace more public and political roles, but very little on changes in masculinity – Rotundo on American Manhood and Tosh, A Man’s Place both deal with the question in some measure, but I struggle to think of much else. Nonetheless, the evidence for both the conscious attempt to recast masculinity, and its (somewhat patchy) success is not hard to find. Evangelicalism taught men to be gentler, less aggressive, and more considerate; whilst not often refusing the prevailing cultural assumption of male dominance in the family, the Evangelicals repeatedly and explicitly re-cast it in less patriarchal ways.

As I noted, the reshaping of femininity has been more studied. This is not just about radicals like Josephine Butler, although there is no doubt that her explicitly feminist agenda was inspired by her evangelical commitment; rather, it was general, and based on two central evangelical tenets. On the one hand, evangelical women experienced a fundamental spiritual equality with men, which inevitably strained the boundaries of a patriarchal society; on the other, evangelical social concern led them to devote their leisure time to campaigning, and so to public action and political involvement; a woman who, after her conversion, ceased to attend the theatre and instead became active in campaigning for social improvement necessarily began to redefine her position in the culture.

Hannah More was quoted (in an anthology entitled The Young Bride at Home, which was as much of a radical feminist tract as its title suggests) as saying: ‘[Women are] equally with men redeemed by the blood of Christ. In this their true dignity consists; here their best pretensions rest, here their highest claims are allowed.’ This experience of a fundamental equality had significant and demonstrable effects on expectations and constructions of femininity in the evangelical world; the wives of evangelical clergy, for instance, were expected to take an active role in ‘the Lord’s work’ alongside their husband. In 1832, Hints to a Clergyman’s Wife was published, giving extensive advice on how to be a co-worker with one’s husband; the author encourages even nursing mothers to find ways to be publicly active in Christian work.

Methodist and holiness movements provided a particular intensification of this theme, as a woman who could lay claim to the experience of entire sanctification was in a demonstrable position of spiritual superiority to men who could not, a situation creating a significant pressure to reverse cultural-normative gender roles. Phoebe Palmer’s astonishing evangelistic ministry is the most obvious example of this, but there are many others (Hannah Whitall Smith’s entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals notes that, at the Brighton Convention for the Promotion of Christian Holiness in 1875, ‘[t]he most popular sessions … were those in which Hannah preached her practical secrets of the happy Christian life to audiences of 5000 or more, mostly clergymen who were theologically opposed to the preaching ministry of women’).

(In all of this there is a third basic evangelical conviction at work, what we might call missiological pragmatism. John Wesley relied on it in recognising Mary Fletcher’s preaching ministry. Fundamentally, for real evangelicals, if people are getting saved, we’ll make the theology fit somehow!)

Hannah More is also a fine example of my second theme. She sold millions of tracts in her lifetime (two million by 1796, and plenty more afterwards), writing powerfully and popularly about pressing political and social issues, not least slavery. She was not above satire and parody (‘Ye that boast “Ye rule the waves,” / Bid no slave ship soil the sea, / Ye that “never will be slaves” / Bid poor Afric’s land be free.’). In her only novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808; it comfortably outsold Jane Austen in the day), she presents a heroine who announces and models the view that the proper ‘profession’ of a lady was ‘the care of the poor’ and so More crafts an account of femininity in which her own public political engagement is made normal and proper for a woman. Towards the end of her life, she even published Biblical expositions; An Essay on the Character and Practical Writings of St Paul (1815), for instance. In the next generation, Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker minister, became deeply involved in prison reform; Josephine Butler’s direct attacks on legalised prostitution and the spread of STDs through promiscuity came another generation later; both clearly stood in the tradition Hannah More and others had defined, of a woman active in public life. (And both suffered, of course, from a society that was not willing for its women to be so active.)

This evangelical generation changed the world, or major parts of it at least: they broke the international economic system of the day because it was unjust; they reformed prisons, factories, poor laws, and anything else they could think of; they saw major revivals, and huge numbers of conversions; when it came to gender politics, they taught men to be gentle, and women to be active in ministry.

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