The Shifting Rhetorical Narrative of Gender: 1894-1911 Part One

I’ve written a lot on this blog about the 1890 and 1894 Free Methodist General Conference debates on women’s ordination. (I even have transcripts here if you would like to read the debates). However, the discussion did not end in 1894. Despite the 1894 General Conference choosing not to ordain women as elders or even deacons, more women, not less, became evangelists over the next decade.

In 1894 there were 48 licensed women evangelists in the Free Methodist Church, and by 1904 there were 307. However, the number of women evangelists appointed to a circuit did not significantly increase. In 1895, only 2 percent of licensed female evangelists were appointed, and by 1905 that number had risen to only 15 percent.

A statistic that did change dramatically during this period was the number of men compared to women serving as evangelists. By 1905, the evangelist role within the denomination was predominately a female-centric ministry.  In 1895, only 3 percent of evangelists were female, but that number jumped to 33 percent by 1905, and by 1910 81 percent were female. I believe the rapid increase of women evangelists was one of the main reasons debates about women’s role within the denomination did not die down after 1894.

Supporters of women’s ordination and complete enfranchisement in church governance continued to push for their rights, and women evangelists regularly sent ministry reports to The Free Methodist illustrating their competence and passion for ministry. Yet, between the 1894 General Conference and the 1903 General Conference the topic of women’s ministry appears very little in The Free Methoidist (beyond the ministry reports women evangelists submitted). It isn’t until the 1907 General Conference approached that the topic became a central issue, as the denomination considers establishing a deaconess order.

While articles directly discussing women’s role in the denomination are largely absent from The Free Methodist during this period, what is being published are articles attempting to cement acceptable roles for women. The Free Methodist was highly influential and widely read within the denomination and editors had immense power to use the platform to promote issues they cared about. Roberts had done this while editor in the 1880s and published articles in support of women’s ordination.

From 1894 to 1902, Wilson Hogue [1]became the lead editor of The Free Methodist. A vocal opponent of women’s ordination, Hogue was a general conference delegate for the Genesee Conference in 1890 and 1894 where he voted against women’s ordination and was an outspoken critic of women serving in ministry.[i] As editor of The Free Methodist Hogue published opinions by noted anti-suffragists and featured editorials by fellow Free Methodists opposed to women leaving the domestic sphere.[ii] The most powerful narrative tool in the denomination was now under the leadership of someone who did not share the progressive views of Roberts.

Wilson Hogue, editor of The Free Methodist from 1894-1902. Hogue was also a General Conference delegate for the Genesee Conference in 1890 and 1894 and was a vocal opponent of women’s ordination. He was elected a General Superintendent in 1902 and published a two-volume history of early Free Methodism. (Photo Courtesy of Marston Memorial Historical Society)

In regards to women’s ability to preach, during Hogue’s tenure as editor, the narrative gradually shifted from articles questioning women’s physical and intellectual capabilities to articles admitting they had a limited Biblical justification to serve but not at the level of elder, which would open up the most senior leadership positions within the denomination. Instead, according to this line of argument, women’s strengths naturally led them into ministries favoring teaching, nurturing, and caring responsibilities such as the established 1907 deaconess order.

An example of the commentary Hogue favored can be seen in a front page article from 1899. The first page of The Free Methodist usually was the editor’s summaries of important current events and opinions of interest to readers. Hogue chose to highlight an article by noted anti-suffragists Edward Bok.

Hogue titled the summary “Educate Women for Higher Womanhood.” Hogue lambasts women pursuing college education, citing Blok’s statement that “If the instinct of daughter, sister or wife dies out in the college-bred woman, even in the course of the most brilliant career, the world will forget to love her; it will scorn her justly.” He goes on to suggest the solution is for women to be cheery and tidy wherever they went, making their environment always “home-like” lest she forgets her role as the primary nurturer.[iii]  Bok’s writings regularly touted this “natural moral superiority” of women as justification for maintaining separate spheres for the sexes.

Another example of Hogue’s editorial agenda is seen in the May 6, 1902, issue in which he publishes an article by G. Leonard Coughron entitled “Woman in Her Place.” Coughron blames women working outside the home as the cause of all social evils that unless corrected would “subvert the whole social and business part of life” he goes on to note:

“It is a foregone conclusion that women are crowding men out of employment. All careful observers are aware of this. And why is it? Is it because she is competent to fill many positions in the business world? I think all, or nearly all, will agree that is not the case. It is because they, not feeling the care or responsibility of anyone depending upon them for support can work and do work for less than a man with a family or one who expects to be under these responsibilities. All intelligent people acknowledge the propriety of the man in supporting the family, his children, and the companion whom God has given him for a helpmeet. He is the one to go forth and battle against the world’s fierce blasts of disappointment, hunger, and woe. He it is whom God has made the stronger to buffet the world’s cold frowns, and shield and shelter her that is the weaker vessel.[i]

Articles such as Coughron’s and Hogue’s front-page commentary, helped frame women’s ministry very differently than it had been framed under Roberts’ editorial tenure.  Even when the perodical had more supportative editors such as Charles Ebey, who was editor of The. Free Methodist after Hogue, the conversation on women’s roles in the denomination remained focused on finding ways to include women while also maintaining the most powerful leadership roles (bishop and district elder) for ordained male elders.

As the denomination moved into the twentieth century, fear of internal change would prevent any significant advancement for women. Between national concerns regarding changing cultural values and shifting demographics and rising anti-Catholic sentiment within the denomination, leaders would attempt to dissuade Free Methodists from fundamentally changing church governance and ministry to include women at all levels. Change at such a radical level would be seen as a precursor to a host of social ills. Thus, making it even harder for advocates of women’s ordination to argue for their enfranchisement.

[i] G. Leonard Coughron, “Woman in Her Place,” The Free Methodist May 6, 1902, 2.

[i] See J. G. Terrill, ‘W. T. Hogue’, 1890 General Conference Daily (17 October 1890), 119-22, for Hogue’s speech against women’s ordination.

[ii] There are numerous examples of anti-suffrage rhetoric in The Free Methodist from 1894-1917. In my research, I found nineteen articles. These articles appeared in the “Editorial,” “Family Circle” and “Contributions” sections.

[iii]   Wilson T. Hogg, “Educate Women for Higher Womanhood,” The Free Methodist August 22, 1899, 1.

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