The Gould vs. Roberts Debate on Women Leadership in the Free Methodist Denomination

I have just spent the last two days at the Marston Memorial History Center, which is home to the Free Methodist archives. The amazing amount of material available for research is mind numbing. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning. For now, I have enough information to get through the spring, but I will be making trips back over the next few years I continue my research. I would like to begin sharing some of the “gems” I found in the archives. First, I want to return to the time prior to the 1890 General Conference and the debate on ordaining women. The 1886 Free Methodist magazine published numerous articles on the issue and over the next few months I’ll share some highlights I have found…

Gould vs. Roberts Debate in The Free Methodist

Leading up to the 1890 General Conference, which was to address the issue of women’s ordination, a flurry of pro and con articles appeared in the denominational magazine The Free Methodist. A series of articles was first published in 1886 by William Gould, who opposed women serving in senior leadership roles in the denomination. Roberts himself always wrote a counter article in the subsequent issue responding to the arguments Gould had raised. The debate between Gould and Roberts illustrates the escalating tension about women’s role in the home, society, and ministry prior to the 1890 conference. The strain between Roberts and Gould over women’s role in denominational leadership actually dated back to the 1882 General Conference, when Roberts was the General Superintendent (the equivalent of a Bishop) and Gould the Secretary of the General Conference (responsible in large part for Conference procedural matters).  At this time, the Conference actually refused to admit Emma Walters from Philadelphia as the elected delegate for her circuit and a proposition was forwarded (likely by Gould himself) which would have allowed only male delegates to be appointed in the future. The proposal was defeated after being passionately denounced by Roberts, but the tension between Gould and Roberts continued to escalate over the next few years (Richardson, 1984). Consequently, the Gould vs. Roberts series of articles in 1886 brought increased attention to the religious and social constraints of women that had gone largely unresolved since the denomination’s founding in 1860.

In the fourth article of Gould’s series “Ought Women to Govern in the Church: Women’s Subjection Became a Penalty through her Sin,” Gould interprets the creation account as proving that Eve was created as a helpmate for Adam. Thus, she was subjected to his will before the fall.  The story of Eve taking the forbidden fruit first illustrates not that woman is more fallible than man, but as Gould notes that “The woman had specifically sinned, not for the sake of earthly enjoyment merely (delitzsch), but in high flown aspiring, as though she would emancipate herself from man, get before him and take him under her guardianship” (p.2). Because of Eve’s willful desire to subject man to her will, Gould stresses that women have always been put under man’s authority for her own well being. Therefore, how can women fulfill leadership positions in the denomination if women were never created to be equal or rule over men?

The rebuttal to Gould’s fourth article is unsigned. However, the author draws heavily on the writings of English philosopher John Stuart Mills and his 1869 book Subjection of Women. It is implied that Roberts is the author of the piece, since he wrote the other counter argument pieces and uses Mills again in his 1890 book On Ordaining Women. As Roberts notes, anything but an egalitarian position allows the enslavement of one gender to the other. The rights of women were greatly diminished because of the law and religion’s reliance on men to lead them.

Roberts stresses:

Let men be persuaded that women were created to live in ‘subjection’ to them, and be their servants, and it naturally follows that they will enact laws to secure this service for themselves on terms as favorable as possible. It took men a long time to find out that the Bible did not favor the enslavement of the colored race. But when they discovered that Paul laid down principles that would lose the bonds from every slave, then they saw that  in his treatment of Onesimus he merely respected for the time the prejudices of the age. So in speaking of the ‘subjection’ of women in those passages on which Brother Gould delights to dwell, the apostle simply paid a temporary deference to the prejudices of those but recently converted from heathenism; while at the same time he laid down principles which, if carried out, will emancipate from bondage every woman in Christendom, and allow her to take her place where she belongs side by side with man. (p.5).

Referring back to his abolitionist roots, Roberts’ article urges other Free Methodist to consider how gender equality fits in with the denomination’s strong stance of racial equality. The Free Methodist denomination’s social justice focus could not be selective. According to Roberts, social justice and equality required fighting for the rights of all oppressed groups regardless of gender or race. Looking at the Bible through a historical and cultural context becomes one of the central tenants of Roberts’ position on gender equality.

2 thoughts on “The Gould vs. Roberts Debate on Women Leadership in the Free Methodist Denomination

  1. 1890. This was hashed out in 1890, and yet women are still fighting the exact. same. battles. today in mainstream evangelicalism (AKA The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). When I read things like this, it both encourages me–yay! People who “get it.”–and discourages me–why can’t everyone “get it”?

    Thank you for your wisdom and your blog.

    1. That this fight is almost exactly the same a 100 years later is something that I’ve noticed in my research, too. I agree, Robyn, that I wish people could just “get it,” hopefully if people begin to realize the importance of the issue things will change. I keep thinking that we have so many more mediums to push the egalitarian message through that maybe in this century we will see a lot more progress on gender equality in the church.

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