Cultural Influences in the 1890 General Conference Debates

E.P. Hart FM General Superintendent and Leader

Sometimes even Christians are wrong. Shocker! Christians can have wrong opinions? Yes, we’re only human, and in the case of the 1890 Free Methodist General Conference some of the denomination’s Godly leaders were wrong. I’ve struggle the past few months with how to critique the debate on women’s ordination in the denomination, particularly the 1890 General Conference when the debate was incredibly heated and intense. Yet, I don’t want to say that these men, who were clearly dedicated to their faith and had a heart for service, were evil men. They weren’t evil. What I’ve come to see is that sometimes we can get caught up in the trends of our culture and our time period. We lose sight of what is important and allow the opinions of others to influence our own opinions about faith and life. In the 1800s there was the long held belief that women were called to be the caretakers of the home.  What is sometimes referred to as the “cult of domesticity” was very prevalent in the 1890 General Conference debates.  Women were pushing social boundaries that had been in place for centuries. The law and medical profession were opening up to them, so why not the role of pastor, too?

Fighting against this “cult of domesticity” late nineteenth century Free Methodist women had to illustrated that not only were they called to share their faith, but that they were also capable of balancing both family and work. In an era where women’s roles were still largely confined to the domestic sphere this was no easy task (Epstein, 1981). As the nineteenth century progressed, and women became socially active in temperance and other religious reforms they began to push for recognition of their ability to balance both work within and outside the home (Cruea, 2005). This lead up to the debates at the 1890 conference.

Yet, within religious communities some men didn’t understand why women couldn’t be content to be a wife and mother or just assist her husband in ministry. These men weren’t malicious; they had just given into the dominant cultural interpretations of their day without much thought.

One prominent Free Methodist who illustrates this tension between faith and cultural expectations is E.P. Hart. Hart was a leader in the denomination. He founded Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan, and was an influential Free Methodist leader in Michigan. He also knew Clara Wetherald a prominent female evangelist in Michigan during this time period. So, Hart was familiar with the success women could have in ministry and had seen the impact of Wetherald’s ministry first hand. Yet, he was not convinced that women should be ordained. As he notes at the 1890 General Conference, B.T. Roberts had yet to convince him:

“Does the New Testament by its teaching authorize the ordination of women? I am ready to answer most unqualifiedly and decisively in the negative. I think the question should come up in a form different than it comes up in this resolution (ordaining women)…. It is not a question of women’s rights; this is not a women’s rights convention. I remember old Father Mead used to say, ‘The man may be the head, but the woman must be the neck, for she is next to the man –and you all know the neck always turns the head.’ I once heard a lady speaking on women’s rights who met the teachings of the apostle Paul as to women’s keeping silence, etc. in this way: ‘Had the apostle Paul lived in our day and possessed the light we do he never would have written that.’… Mr. President in matters of truth and righteousness I think we can still be guided by the apostle Paul. It is not a question of emerging from barbarism. We are not in England or in Germany, but in a republican America – in the land where the question of human rights and equality is being solved on a basis of right and equity as it is in no other land. The women of America may in their sphere weld influence for good that can be equaled under no other conditions. It is the soft hand of woman that rocks the cradle of the nation. This question stripped of all that is foreign to I should be discussed on the bases of New Testament teaching” (1890 General Conference Dailies, 122)

Notice Hart’s phrase “in their sphere weld good” – a direct reference to 19th century belief that women are gentle creatures that live in an elevated, but sheltered sphere of influence in the home. Throw in some comments about American exceptionalism and patriotism and you have wrapped up the core arguments of Hart. Women have a role – just not in the public space. They shape a nation by raising Godly sons who will vote and daughters who will marry and raise another generation of Godly men to help shape American politics towards one of mutual equality. However, Hart’s comments about “right and equity as in no other land” is forgetting that this time period is in the shadow of the American Civil War. Rights and equality were not given freely. The right for racial equality was still being fought over. True, slavery had ended, but racial discrimination was still prevalent just as gender discrimination was prevalent. The concepts that were influencing Free Methodists to oppose women’s ordination were the push of cultural norms. B.T. Roberts was anything but conservative. His ideas were radical and groundbreaking for his time period and many fellow Free Methodists leaders were not ready to push back against cultural norms as decisively as Roberts was willing to do.

Thus, as I continue highlighting passage from the 1890 debate, the tension between radical religious transformation and social norms will become more evident.  The debate serves as an important lesson for today, as Free Methodists and other evangelical denominations with a strong egalitarian past struggle to find continued acceptance for Biblical gender equality. Even now we must still fight against cultural norms, critiquing what we are told and evaluating it in light of what we believe about Biblical equality and Christian calling.

References:

Cruea, S. (2005, September). ‘Changing Ideals of Womanhood in he 19th Century Women’s

Movement.’ American Transcendental Quarterly, 19(3), pp. 187-204.

Epstein, B. (1981). The Politics of Domesticity. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

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