2. The “Woman’s Question” and the Southern Baptist Convention
3. Southern Baptist Women in Ministry: Pastorate
4. The Women’s Missionary Union and the Bible
The history of female leadership in the American South is worthy of considerable attention due to its notorious repression of women’s empowerment. Of particular significance is the Southern Baptist denomination, one of the largest Protestant confessions in the United States, and also one of the least open to women’s leadership. The impact of Southern Baptist women on economic, political, and especially religious life has been historically overlooked or even ignored because of their minor entrance into leadership positions. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries these women gained a vast variety of experience related to their underrepresentation in public life. They faced gender discrimination, confronted frustration, and were even forced to contend with exclusion from religious congregations. The most significant controversies regarding these women included the struggle over female messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention, debate over women as pastors, and the questioning of the nature and proper role of women by fundamentalists.
However, despite their lack of access to authority, Southern Baptist women remained very optimistic in their views on female rights, gendered hierarchy, and the interpretation of the Bible toward the sexes. They used the spiritual power of the scripture to strengthen the nature of their self-identity. They gave a powerful impulse to the rise of feminism, made meaning of their lives, and learned to define their own faith and roles in a conservative denomination. Challenging traditional barriers in the public sphere, these women recognized their limits within the confines of patriarchal authority and acknowledged their ability to make choices in spite of these restrictions. Examples of their struggle over women’s liberation will show that the relationship between gender and leadership is a complicated one and demonstrate the diversity of failures Baptist women confronted at the Southern Baptist Convention and in ministry throughout the course of two centuries. Thus, the aim of this paper is to examine the role and development of Southern Baptist women’s leadership in the religious sphere as well as their influence upon it within the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
2. The “Women’s Question” and the Southern Baptist Convention
During the Civil War and the years following, women appeared to be moving beyond their traditional roles as wives and homemakers and participating in domestic and foreign missions. For example, theologian Michael Raley enumerates the vast variety of religious activities women took part in:
Devout Southern Baptist women organized and chaired church committees, taught Sunday School classes, voted in church sessions, served as deaconesses of their churches, played a critical role in postbellum urban benevolence ministries, and assumed an ever more active part in missions both at home and abroad (4).
Throughout this period women got a taste of independence and tried to assert themselves. Their powerful interest in missions and involvement in church leadership was seen as a driving force for their progress. As Raley points out: “…the likelihood only increased that Southern women would desire to serve as delegates to Baptist associations and state conventions” (4). At this time there was not much tension in the South over registering women as messengers for religious associations; only a few states were not willing to give women more authority. According to Raley “…by 1900 only the Baptist state conventions of Virginia, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama still refused to seat women messengers” (4).
The main controversy over women’s authority began at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1885, when the two female delegates were denied full membership and participation. The ambiguous language of the Constitution, which “… simply called for ‘delegates’ and ‘representatives’ without reference to gender,” (Raley 9) enabled male delegates to interpret it unfairly and unlawfully deny the seating of the two women. The male leaders also appealed for constitutional change: “…to replace the word members in the Article Three with brethren and thereby exclude women delegates from the SBC permanently” (Raley 11). In addition, women were publicly insulted by preacher Hawthrone to whom “…women were uncontrollable and domineering, poor choices for Convention leadership” (Raley 10). He emphasized women’s feeble nature stating that it differed from the robust disposition of men. Raley calls the amendment of the Constitution, which denied women a voice in congregation and made women delegates unacceptable, the “gravest constitutional crisis” (9). This is a typical example of the unfair relations between gender roles that women were forced to face. Thus, men’s efforts to limit the advances of Southern Baptist women in their participation at the Southern Baptist Convention can be seen as a threat to the growing number of progressive women in the field of religion. On the one hand, this example reveals the hierarchical denominational leadership that Southern Baptist men wished to exercise. On the other, it emphasizes the strict reference to law, tradition, and authority that composed the elements of the patriarchal norms of Southern culture.