(Adapted from a paper given at the 2007 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society)
My interest in women and missions of the 1800s is reinvigorated, of late, by a number of experiences I’ve had lecturing at Christian colleges and seminaries around the county. When invited to speak for chapel services, I make an effort to learn something about the school, particularly the achievements of the founders and their graduates. In doing so, I have discovered the vast number of women alumni, who were also leaders on the mission field in the United States and abroad. And, they had the full support of the school’s founders. As I include these findings when I lecture, I am often surprised at the responses I receive… some of these Christian colleges appear almost embarrassed to learn of the number of women who held positions of significant leadership and who were trained in this capacity by their institution.
Most of our evangelical colleges and seminaries initially began as Bible institutes - and nearly all Bible institutes had many more women enrolled than men. Why? Because Christians in the 1800s, influenced by premillenialism, believed that Christ’s return was imminent - and therefore, they were far more concerned about the Great Commission than they were with gender or ethnicity. As a result of placing less emphasis on gender, women outnumbered men on the mission field, two to one. This led to one of the largest expanses of Christian faith in history - during what has been called the ‘Golden Era of Missions’ - which began in the early 1800s, in which women were the driving force.
Bible institutes trained men and women for evangelism, in anticipation of Christ’s immediate return. Over time, these institutes became today’s Christians colleges and universities which broadened their curriculum to prepare Christian men and women for professional service in many disciplines. In doing so, some lost touch with their evangelical moorings as it relates to women’s gospel-leadership.
As I celebrate the legacy of their female graduates who preached to men and women all over the world, I am frequently asked two questions:
1. If women were the driving force behind the Golden Era of Missions, what took the church so long to use women in this capacity?
2. What has happened since then? Why has their leadership been lost, and where are women gospel leaders today?
First off, it was during the Golden Era of Missions, with the enormous success God granted the gifts he had given women and slaves that Christians began to question the presumed ontological inferiority of both women and slaves. They did so from a thorough examination of Scripture. Their biblical research was published in more than forty-six biblical treatises between 1808 and 1930, from many branches of the evangelical church, in support of the shared leadership of women. These documents signified the emergence of the first wave of feminists - a deeply biblical movement. The advancement of women’s ontological and functional equality grew out of a commitment to biblical authority, evangelism, and an activism that came to characterize or identify the evangelical movement as a whole, beginning in the 1800s. And, it was the early evangelicals - both men and women, who were among the first to provide both a biblical and social voice for gender and ethnic equality. By doing so, they represented a radical departure from previous generations of Christians whose patriarchal and racist assumptions went unchallenged by Scripture.
Biblicists (those who affirmed the supremacy of Scripture), were early evangelicals who supported the evangelism of women and in doing so they not only challenged higher critical methods that undermined the authority of the Bible, they also resisted the ‘proof text’ method or plain reading of Scripture that gave support not only to slavery, but also to women’s exclusion from public ministry. Rather, evangelical biblicists sought to harmonize those passages that appeared in conflict with the whole of Scripture regarding the equal value (ontology) and service (function) of women and slaves. Thus, the first-wave feminists developed a whole-Bible hermeneutic that addressed gender and ethnic justice and advanced an ontological equality for women and slaves.
This comes to the second question - why Christian colleges (formerly Bible institutes) appear unfamiliar with the legacy of their earliest women students (who outnumbered male students two to one)… The truncation of women students in Bible institutes and leadership was the result of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. Simply stated, modernists challenged both the inspiration of Scripture and the very miracles of Scripture and created uncertainty surrounding the fundamentals of the Christian faith, like the Virgin birth and the resurrection of Christ. They did so using higher critical methods. In response, some Bible institutes, wishing not to appear sympathetic with Modernists, reshaped their curriculum, omitting classes in Greek and Hebrew, and leaning towards the ‘plain reading of the texts.’ This opened the way to a plain reading of 1 Timothy in isolation to the other places in the New Testament where Paul clearly affirms the authority and leadership of women like Junia, Priscilla, Phoebe, Chloe, etc. Thus, the gains made both biblical and socially by the early evangelicals were stymied and linked to a liberal reading of Scripture. Christians for Biblical Equality has had to pick up the biblical scholarship left off by early evangelicals like A.J. Gordon, Katharine Bushnell, Frances Willard and Catherine Booth. Thankfully, the work begun by the early evangelicals has grown so quickly in the last twenty years that CBE is having a difficult time keeping track of the many Christian groups around the world exploring biblical equality both from a popular and scholarly viewpoint.