Catherine Kroeger, the founding president of Christians for Biblical Equality, stated, “although women had made forays into the field of biblical interpretation, it was to be Katharine Bushnell who would bring out the heavy artillery.”1 Mimi Haddad, current president of CBE, has bolstered Kroeger’s words with the claim that “Bushnell is to egalitarians what Luther was to the Reformation.”2 Why is Bushnell thought of so highly? Why would egalitarian leaders compare the revolution she began to the one Martin Luther started? And how can we continue to advance this movement that Dr. Bushnell inaugurated? This article will address these questions in light of five spheres that Bushnell affected in stunning ways—social justice, Bible translation, interpretive method, a theology of humanity, and biblical ethics. It will also look at how we can apply her accomplishments today.
As a medical doctor and then medical missionary, Bushnell worked tirelessly for women’s welfare. This extended into the areas of suffrage, temperance, and what was then called “social purity.”3 Yet in her work, Bushnell discovered that sexist translations of specific Bible verses concerning women had accumulated throughout the years, which warped the Bible’s egalitarian message into a patriarchal one. Bushnell then pioneered a new approach to biblical interpretation and devoted herself to developing a theology of humanity embracing a more accurate biblical understanding. One hundred years later, her book God’s Word to Women is starting to get the attention it deserves; beyond her excellent interpretive work, it is filled with everything from theological ethics to political concerns. Unfortunately, this important book was out of print from 1923 until 1975, and Bushnell’s life story was likewise nearly lost. Today, however, egalitarians are recognizing Katharine Bushnell as the genius and saint that she was.
Biography of Bushnell
In the definitive book on Bushnell’s life and thought, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, historical theologian Kristin Kobes du Mez details the profound worldwide influence Bushnell had upon her era. Born in Illinois in 1855, as a teenager she lived in Evanston, Illinois, with the great suffragist Frances Willard as a neighbor. Du Mez notes three interlocking alliances between Christianity and feminism at the end of the nineteenth century, all causes Bushnell was a part of: the women’s missionary movement, the temperance movement, and the social purity campaign.
Willard chose Bushnell to head up a new department of social purity within her Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Involved in exposing forced prostitution in the lumber camps of Wisconsin and Michigan, Bushnell’s work led to “the Kate Bushnell Bill” in Wisconsin, which imposed stiffer penalties upon those in the “white slave trade.”4 Bushnell also directly influenced the turning of public consensus, which then considered prostitution a necessary evil because it “provided an outlet for men’s natural iniquity.”5 “Then in the 1890s Bushnell infiltrated ten British military stations in India and documented illegal brothels sponsored by the British military that included prostitutes as young as 11,” says Dana Robert.6
Bushnell also engaged in investigative reporting of the opium trade in China and the sex slave trade of Chinese girls in Singapore and Hong Kong. She discovered that, in that corrupt system, where families often fell victim to extortion, “Westerners bore the chief responsibility,” since no “man, woman or child in India, Burmah or China . . . supported the opium trade” and prostitution there was entirely “the product of Western civilization.”7 The opium trade was introduced by Europeans and “utterly unknown in China except in the treaty ports,” according to Du Mez.8 Likewise, regarding prostitution rings in California that exploited Chinese girls, Bushnell and her coworker pointed the finger at white men—ship owners, immigration officials, property owners, lawyers and judges, pimps and johns—and the corrupt system that supported them.9 Since Bushnell witnessed the involvement of Christian men in these abhorrent wrongs, Du Mez concludes, “Rather than confirming her sense of Western superiority, then, Bushnell’s cross-cultural experiences revealed to her the enculturation of the gospel in her own society, and ultimately enabled her to develop a prophetic critique of her inherited Christian tradition.”10 Bushnell and English reformer Josephine Butler realized the cause of purity could not succeed, as they note, “until men—Christian men—came to understand that a woman is of as much value as a man; and they will not believe this until they see it plainly taught in the Bible.”11 So, in 1901, Bushnell began her focus on biblical studies.
Looking more closely at her theological method, we notice that Bushnell heard questions being asked from below, from women who were suffering oppression. She did not modify what the Bible said, but she did use those questions to determine what issues her theology engaged. Hence, she recognized the importance of God’s justice. She stated, “There is absolutely nothing which destroys morality out of the human heart so effectually and quickly as injustice, and there is nothing which so quickly lights the Divine flame of penitence and aspiration for holiness, in the heart of the fallen, as the hope of justice. Justice is the kindest thing in the world; injustice is the cruelest and the most depressing.”12 Social justice for women is fully consonant with a holistic view of the church and its mission. Justice is integral to the heart of God’s plans for the world. Bushnell analyzes justice as follows: “Here is where the great mistake is being made on the ‘woman question.’ Is it ‘prudent’ to allow women to do thus and so?—men ask themselves at every step of woman’s progress. The only question that should be asked is, Does justice demand this? If so, ‘let justice be done though the heavens fall’; anything short of justice is mere mischief-making.”13
Bushnell’s worldwide activism for women’s rights undoubtedly influenced countries deeply. Dana Robert states, “in the past 150 years, the missionary witness to injustice was a central factor in the development of western human rights discourse. Countless missionaries, whose contributions are forgotten today, influenced public opinion to change the treatment of peoples victimized by powerful forces.” She calls Bushnell’s work against sex trafficking a “noteworthy example.”14 Yet, it was Bushnell’s feminist biblical interpretations that gave her mission work a distinct edge. She beautifully saw the divine combination of evangelism and justice. Showing women in China how Jesus treated the woman accused of adultery in John 8, for example, Bushnell notes:
We have seen, repeatedly, the softening effect of this story upon the . . . hearts of women of shame in the Orient,—“Our gods have taught nothing so wonderful as this,” they have said, “yours must be the true God.” . . . [Jesus’s] kindness was such a tremendous contrast to the Pharisees who had dragged her into publicity while they let her male partner go free,—for the details of the story convict them of having had the man in their power, had they cared to make an example of him. Thus [the Pharisees] had come, redhanded in compromise with male adultery, to make a chance to strike at the Holy One.15
Bushnell shows that such pictures of Christ’s equal treatment of women give a powerful method of future evangelism to women worldwide, as well as the basis for their equal rights.
In her early work as a medical missionary translating biblical texts into Chinese, Bushnell discovered the intentional mistranslation of women’s names as men’s. She stated, “I was shocked. It had never before entered my mind that such a thing could be.”16 Kroeger says Bushnell asked herself, “‘Could it be possible that men allowed prejudice to color Scripture translation?’ So began her lifelong quest for a biblical affirmation of the integrity and equality of women.”17 Likewise, after exposing sexist biblical interpretations in her book God’s Word to Women, Bushnell herself declares, “Again we emphasize, as a lesson to be drawn from these considerations, the need of women translators and Biblical expositors to collaborate with men.”18 She gives the following analogy:
It is well known that when a man gets lost on the prairie, he begins to go around in a circle; it is suggested that one side (the right, generally), being stronger than the other, he pulls unconsciously with greater strength upon the corresponding guiding rein of his horse. Just so does the translator; he pulls unconsciously on the strong side of preconception or self-interest. This may not be intended, but it is none the less inevitable to the uninspired hands. For this reason, no class nor sex should have an exclusive right to set forth the meaning of the original text.19
Towards this end, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union offered classes in Greek, Christianity, and a four-year comprehensive training correspondence course in which over two hundred women were involved.20
Katherine Doob Sakenfeld asserts that “several first-wave feminists used their knowledge of Greek to challenge the KJV wording of New Testament texts used to oppose women in church leadership,” but the most wide-ranging was Bushnell’s work, which “adduces numerous instances where the KJV and/or RV persistently translate specific Hebrew or Greek words in a different way when they relate to female subjects.”21 This is still a problem today, and Bushnell’s way of pointing out discriminatory translations regarding women is still effective.
Bushnell’s translation theory required “careful examination of the text and its literary form, an analysis of the language and grammar, and a critical inquiry into the cultural and historical background.”22 This is the practice of most biblical translators today. However, Bushnell’s translation theory that requires both female and male translators for accuracy is still not promoted in many circles today.
Bushnell’s Approach to Interpretation
Bushnell went beyond pushing for women’s involvement in Bible translation and developing sound teaching material about women. She pioneered a new interpretive approach in support of women’s ministry. As David Kling notes, there have been three approaches to biblical support for women’s ministry.23 In the 1850s, evangelical Christians first used Gal 3:28 in support of women’s equality, which had been previously used in the antislavery movement. This method emphasized “a cultural distance between the first century and the present, that a correct interpretation of Scripture required sensitivity to historical development, and that the interpreter can separate what is human, relative, and culture bound from what is divine, universal, and transcultural.”24 The second interpretive approach, often used by those in the holiness movement, such as Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874), and which retained certain traditional views of gender, emphasized the right of women to preach—but not to be ordained—based upon the account of Pentecost in Acts 2.25 The developer of the third approach, according to Kling, was Bushnell, who “applied her impressive historical, philological, and exegetical skills to defend the right of women to preach” from the Scriptures themselves.26 However, most who hold to complementarian theology today reject this third method.
The consequences of this approach to biblical interpretation she developed are profound. The woman-positive movements developed from Gal 3:28 or from the gift of the Spirit being poured out at Pentecost still disregarded the egalitarian message of the rest of the Bible, including Jesus’s teachings and actions. Those methods simply recognized that we have progressed beyond Jesus’s time. Now, using Bushnell’s approach, rather than having to spend time apologizing for the Bible’s supposed patriarchal views, egalitarians have critiqued shallow biblical views to argue from the full Bible with an egalitarian lens. We need not live in fear of the Bible—we can preach and evangelize from it with a positive message, not an apologizing one. This is Bushnell’s gift to us. As Carolyn Custis James has said, “Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop that sets off in the strongest relief the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message.”27 So rather than working from a posture of defense, sermons can boldly proclaim a fully egalitarian gospel message.
Bushnell’s Theology of Humanity
In terms of Bushnell’s theology of humanity, Haddad posits, “Perhaps Bushnell’s highest theological achievement is to identify women not through Eve’s failures, but as united to Christ’s victories,” since “redemption, for Bushnell, provides women with a new being . . . for a new purpose . . . that challenges gender prejudice and interpretative bias that, throughout history, condemned women as . . . inferior in their association with Eve rather than through their union with Christ.”28 This sees Christian women through the lens of their redemption rather than their sins.
Discussing the virtues usually assigned to women of meekness and submission, Bushnell recognizes the need also for the balancing virtues. She taught:
But what are these balancing duties? We must turn to our Pattern, Jesus Christ, to find out. . . . God did not send a female Christ into this world to guide woman in a female manner, by setting her a pattern of “womanliness;” He only sent a man “made of a woman,” alone, and therefore sufficiently womanly and sufficiently manly for each sex to find in Jesus Christ a perfect Pattern, for both sexes, in all the duties of life. Let a woman fail to completely follow this Pattern, and she is as much a failure, as a Christian, as is the man who fails to completely follow His example in all things.29
Thus, woman’s very being is biblically the same as man’s and is witnessed in imitation of Christ.
God’s ultimate purpose for women is yet to be realized, however. Bushnell asserts:
We believe that the very reason why we see so large a proportion of the women of Christendom, in our day, given over to fashion and folly, is precisely because they have never been given a proper and dignified work in the advancement of God’s kingdom,—since the first century of the Christian Church. And the true value of woman’s powers will never be known so long as her self-respect is destroyed by teaching her that she rests under God’s curse, and is bound to remain in perpetual subordination to her husband [italics added].30
Bushnell foresees a promising future womanhood for those in Christ when they are finally fully engaged in the advancement of God’s kingdom. Standing on Bushnell’s theological shoulders, we can see that there is a whole world of egalitarian theology waiting to be discovered in the Bible, the depths of which we have only begun to plumb.
Bushnell’s conclusion regarding woman’s power is a plea for, “the kind of power which is protective of the self, and thus, it occurs when an individual feels helpless and inferior. . . . as women develop their potential, it is not necessary for them to experience the helplessness which leads to indirect expressions of hostility.”31 As women recognize their self-respect in Christ, they will not experience the feelings of helplessness that lead to aggression.
Yet Bushnell had a unique approach to the maturing of her sex. Rather than primarily suggesting women demand equal treatment from men, she believed women’s full freedom was within their own grasp because, like men, they too should have free will as moral agents. But patriarchy has denied women such free will. “There is no social redemption for woman until the chain that binds her to the lusts of her own, and of man’s flesh is broken, and she maintains the inviolability of free-will, as her sustained attitude towards every human being, including her husband. There is no method of moral improvement remaining, after the loss of a free will.”32 She recognized that free will is critical in moral agency for women and men alike. Likewise, Bushnell asserts, “that which God promises will never be fulfilled excepting to those who seize the promise.”33 Using the example of the woman healed by Jesus of her issue of blood (Mark 5:24–34, Luke 8:42–48), Bushnell continues:
We have a lesson to learn from Christ’s bringing the woman to the front to declare her own redemption from an infirmity, instead of His merely declaring it for her. It is not enough that Christ’s teaching is plain on this subject, we women must proclaim this. It is not enough for women to modestly and quietly seek their own redemption, they must proclaim it, even when that proclamation lays them open to the false charge of immodesty [italics added].34
Therefore, according to Bushnell, women must be free of the lusts of the flesh, seize their promises from God, and vocally proclaim their redemption.
In terms of biblical ethics, Bushnell remains revolutionary. Though not using the term, she recognizes the concept of agency as a good in and of itself. Rather than needing to be rescued by men, women need to exert their own power to proclaim their equality. Former US President Jimmy Carter has reiterated this concept. He identifies the mistreatment of women as the number one human rights abuse in the world. Carter gives the core reason for such mistreatment: “the misinterpretation of religious scriptures, holy scriptures, in the Bible, Old Testament, New Testament, Quran and so forth, and these have been misinterpreted by men who are now in the ascendant positions in the synagogues and the churches and in the mosques. And they interpret these rules to make sure that women are ordinarily relegated to a secondary position compared to men in the eyes of God.”35 Concerning our response to this, Carter states, “the best thing we could do today is for the women in the powerful nations . . . who have influence and have the freedom to speak and to act, need to take the responsibility on yourselves to be more forceful in demanding an end to racial discrimination against girls and women all over the world.”36 Indeed, like Carter, Bushnell calls women as free moral agents. She gave the gift of high expectations for women.
In terms of a doctrine of the church, Bushnell again raises a prophetic voice:
No church can long survive the silencing of its women. The church which silences women will be found to silence the Holy Spirit. A sect, or sex, or race which attempts a monopoly of the Spirit’s voice and power, will find that the Holy Spirit will flee far from it. Woman is destined to have a very large share in the preaching of God’s messages, and in bringing souls to Christ, for did not God promise, long ages ago, as regards woman, that her seed should bruise the Serpent’s head?37
Bushnell also declares, “At no point is faith in the entire Bible being so viciously and successfully attacked today as at the point of the ‘woman question,’ and the Church so far attempts no defence here of her children. It assumes that the interests of merely a few ambitious women are involved, whereas the very fundamentals of our faith are at stake.”38 Unfortunately, progress notwithstanding, for many churches worldwide, Bushnell’s words are as true today as they were one hundred years ago when she wrote them. Thankfully, God raised up Katharine Bushnell to proclaim the Bible’s extraordinary message of Christ as the great emancipator of women, and because of her, many more know God’s word for women. Her influence is profound, providing theological support for the egalitarian theology of today.
Bushnell’s Continuing Impact
“Genius” is the word that comes to mind to encapsulate Katharine Bushnell. Yet her egalitarian theology was developed “on the ground,” in the course of her evangelism and activism on behalf of women. It was in that environment that she truly realized, “The world, the Church and women are suffering sadly from woman’s lack of ability to read the Word of God in its original languages. There are truths therein that speak to the deepest needs of a woman’s heart, and that give light upon problems that women alone are called upon to solve.”39 Bushnell perceives that female theologians are vital to the world.
So in what ways did Bushnell prove a great social and biblical reformer? This article has recognized five monumental achievements of hers: 1) Justice work needs to be at the heart of God’s community. Kindness looks like justice to those who are oppressed. 2) Accuracy in Bible translations: women need to be involved in translation work since men struggle with bias. 3) Egalitarian biblical interpretation must work with the grain of the Bible rather than against it. We can proclaim a positive, egalitarian gospel message from egalitarian Scriptures. 4) A correct theology of humanity leads both women and men to the same pattern we see in Christ. Also, with God’s Spirit, we are able to labor in concert with God’s plans for women that include their crucial role in the world’s salvation. And 5) Biblical ethics are guided by encouraging the agency of women themselves. Men similarly can use their power to affirm women and to remove roadblocks to women’s flourishing in this manner.
These are all still radical actions today. Yet we too can be a part of Katharine Bushnell’s revolution if we only pick up the baton she has handed to us.
1. Catherine Clark Kroeger, “The Legacy of Katharine Bushnell: A Hermeneutic for Women of Faith,” Priscilla Papers 9/4 (Fall 1995) 2.
2. Mimi Haddad, Review of A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez (Oxford University Press, 2015), Priscilla Papers 30/4 (Autumn 2016) 28.
3. Regarding the social purity movement, see Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 46: “at various times [the social purity movement] entailed efforts to rescue and reform prostitutes, combat the government regulation of prostitution, raise age of consent laws, address family violence, rape, and incest, eliminate red light districts, promote sex education, oppose contraception and abortion, and censor ‘obscene literature.’ But at the crux of social purity was a critique of the sexual double standard, the Victorian convention that held women to far higher standards of sexual purity than men.”
4. Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 46.
5. Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 59.
6. Dana L. Robert, Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009) 105.
7. Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 79.
8. Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 79.
9. Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 81.
10. Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 40.
11. Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 93.
12. Katharine C. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women: One Hundred Bible Studies on Woman’s Place in the Church and Home (1921; reprint, Christians for Biblical Equality, 2003) 302.
13. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 302.
14. Robert, Christian Mission, 105.
15. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 302.
16. Kroeger, “Legacy of Katharine Bushnell,” 2.
17. Kroeger, “Legacy of Katharine Bushnell,” 2.
18. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 204.
19. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 273–74.
20. Du Mez, A New Gospel for Women, 106.
21.Katherine Doob Sakenfeld, “The KJV and Women: Soundings and Suggestions,” in The King James Version At 400: Assessing Its Genius as Bible Translation and Its Literary Influence, ed. David G. Burke, John F. Kutsko, and Philip H. Towner (SBL, 2014) 93.
22. Kroeger, “Legacy of Katharine Bushnell,” 4.
23. David W. Kling, The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times (Oxford, 2004) 279.
24. Kling, The Bible in History, 279.
25. Kling, The Bible in History, 280.
26. Kling, The Bible in History, 280.
27. Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Zondervan, 2015) 31.
28. Haddad, Review of A New Gospel for Women, 28.
29. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 188.
30. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 174.
31. Colleen Zabriskie, “Psychological Analysis of Biblical Interpretations Pertaining to Women,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 4/4 (Sept 1976) 310.
32. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 161.
33. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 190.
34. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 318.
37. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 131.
38. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, viii.
39. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 6.