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Published Date: October 31, 1995

Published Date: October 31, 1995

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The Legacy of Katherine Bushnell: A Hermeneutic for Women of Faith

Gentle reader, supposing you get out your Bible, and we will have a lesson together, this morning. Turn, please, to I Corinthians 14:31-40. Now the male commentator (notes) two verses in that passage that are of infinitely more importance to him than all the rest in the passage put together. They are the thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth. To maintain the dignity of his translation of these two verses, he is quite in the habit of plunging right into the middle of that section, making chaos of everything else, that he may, by sheer masculine force, keep the verses plumb to his ideas of womanly uprightness. Do you agree with me in that assertion? If not, let me illustrate my point.

So Katherine Bushnell begins her exegetical article on I Corinthians 14, published in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union Union Signal, September 12, 1889. Later she was to write more irenically:

Supposing women only had translated the Bible, from age to age, is there a likelihood that men would have rested content with the outcome? Therefore, our brothers have no good reason to complain if, while conceding that men have done the best they could alone, we assert that they did not do the best that could have been done. The work would have been of a much higher order had they first helped women to learn the sacred languages (instead of putting obstacles in their way), and then, have given them a place by their side on translation committees.1

Throughout the nineteenth century, women struggled with oppressive interpretations of the Bible that deprived them of their power and dignity. But while Elizabeth Cady Stanton repudiated those portions of Sacred Writ which she found repressive, other women took another tack The most prominent voice declaring the Bible as liberating of women was raised by Katherine Bushnell, a crusader against the forced prostitution of women, and also world evangelist for the WCTU’s Department of Social Purity. Insisting that the Bible fully upheld the rights and integrity of women, Bushnell stated that she and her followers would not yield “one jot or tittle” of the inspired text. Convinced that the Bible’s message about women was one of empowerment and freedom, she developed a hermeneutic designed to challenge the complacency with which supposedly Bible-believing folk countenanced abuses against women. She further composed over one hundred and one studies for women—studies which became the precursor of much feminist thought that was unique in springing from a conservative theology.

If Bushnell clung to an authoritative text, she clung equally to the Bible’s message of liberation for women. Citing more than a hundred biblical passages upholding women’s leadership and ministry, she maintained that the few difficult and apparently oppressive texts were capable of positive interpretation. For her, although the Bible was the product of many different authors and viewpoints, the Bible was nevertheless divinely given and therefore seemingly contradictory statements deserved careful analysis and never outright rejection. She wrote:

We hold the Bible as supreme in authority, and its text as inviolable. But we must not forget that man’s prattle about it may be very foolish.2… The truth is, had some of these expositors been one-tenth as broad as St. Paul on the ‘woman question,’ and honest besides, we should never have been taught these pitiful, puerile and ego-centric perversions of Paul’s meaning.3

The problems would be resolved when sufficient woman power was invested in translations, research, and hermeneutical endeavors; but until such time, sadly, many women would be “given over to fashion and to folly,” deflected from their proper calling into ministry.

Bushnell was not the first to raise her voice against the repressive use of the Scriptures while at the same time arguing for the validity of the Bible and its mandates. Back in 1666, Quaker Margaret Fell, a holiness preacher who encountered massive male opposition, published a tract with this impressive title: Womens’ Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All Such as Speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus and how Women were the First that Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and were sent by Christ’s own Command, before He Ascended to the Father, John 20:17. Citing numerous biblical examples, she argued that the Scriptures placed an incumbency upon women to proclaim Christ. She challenged those who believed women were “ministers of darkness” to consider the prophetic utterance of Elizabeth and the Magnificat of Mary.

Now here you may see how these two Women prophesied of Christ, and preached better than all the blind Priests did in that Age, and better than this Age also. See if any of you blind priests that speak against women Speaking, can Preach after this manner, who cannot make such a sermon as [Mary] did

Fell’s hermeneutic consisted not only in presenting the words and actions of women, but also of analyzing me context of those passages which appeared to limit me activities and ministry of women. An examination of the wider parameters of the restrictive texts revealed that tie restrictions were directed toward “tattlers and busybodies, women who were wanton and rebelled against Christ”

Though denied any sort of theological education, early exegetes such as Fell identified many hermeneutical issues with remarkable clarity. The chorus grew louder in the nineteenth century, and even one of novelist George Eliot’s heroines maintained that if only she had a command of Greek, she supposed that I Timothy 2:12 might be rendered very differently!

In 1859 co-founder of the Salvation Army Catherine Booth issued a pamphlet which was to pass through several editions.4 She emphasized the need for a study of the lexical values of words in those texts used to restrain the religious activities of women, and she also called for consistency in dealing with the context.

If anyone still insists on a literal application of (I Timothy 2:11,12), we beg to ask how he disposes of the preceding part of the chapter where it occurs. Surely if one verse be so authoritative and binding the whole chapter is equally so; and therefore, those who insist on a literal application of the words of Paul, under all circumstances and through all time, will be careful to observe the Apostles order of worship in their own congregations.5

So although women had made forays into the field of biblical interpretation, it was to be Katherine Bushnell who would bring out the heavy artillery. Her consciousness was raised when, as a young Methodist medical missionary in China, she was struck by a discrepancy between the Greek text and a mistranslation in the Chinese Bible at Philippians 4:2-3. Instead of acknowledging that two women, Euodias and Syntyche, were fellow-laborers with Paul, the phrasing indicated that he was asking for help for his male associates. Consulting several other Chinese versions, Bushnell discovered that each covered over the ministry of these two faithful women. During her medical training, she had also studied classical languages at Northwestern University and was well able to identify other points at which the Chinese renderings concealed the importance of women in the biblical accounts. She records that when she questioned a male missionary,

he said that undoubtedly it was so rendered because of pagan prejudice against the ministry of women. I was shocked. It had never before entered my mind that such a thing could be. This led to my tracing other signs, both in the Chinese and the English Bible that pointed in the same direction, when I consulted my Greek Testament.6

She asked herself: “Could it be possible that men allowed prejudice to color Scripture translation?”7 So began her lifelong quest for a biblical affirmation of the integrity and equality of women.

Returning from China for health reasons, Bushnell threw herself into the work of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Her work was to take her on numerous crusades to many parts of the world, and her particular thrust would be the exposure of forced prostitution, and diligent efforts to inaugurate legislation both in the British Empire and in America to exterminate the practice. Her work in Wisconsin, resulting in the passage of the so-called “Kate Bushnell Bill”, caused her lifelong friend Frances Willard to write “the heroic doctor is going everywhere and has made such a reconnaissance of the North Woods lumber camps as ought to place her name among the Grace Darlings of moral rescue work.”8

Her exposes of British Army brothels in India brought her world-wide recognition but great discomfiture to some in high places in Queen Victoria’s government. As Bushnell investigated both opium trade and the sale of young girls into brothels in Hong Kong and Singapore, she was horrified to encounter the complacent acquiescence of supposedly Christian men and even women, who even initiated and promoted laws punishing Chinese prostitutes who tried to escape and returning them to their owners in the brothels. She declared that one such offender was Sir John Bowring, British Consul and later Governor of Hong Kong, as well as author of the hymns “Watchmen Tell us of the Night” and “In the Cross of Christ I Glory.” In a biography (O Thou Woman That Bringest Good Tidings, recently released by CBE), Dana Hardwick. writes:

She saw women’s need universally because she traveled the world over and was witness to the abuse of women everywhere she went. Each major crusade she undertook added to her conviction of the need to have the power of the Bible behind woman’s search for freedom; each mile journeyed on each crusade increased the motivation for her journey into the Bible. The longer she worked in the mission field, the more convinced she became that the biased translations done by men were the source of the prejudice against women. Her conclusion was that the Bible needed to be reinterpreted, and her task was to develop an interpretation that would free women to seek their “proper place in the divine economy.”9

On her journeys and whenever time allowed, she devoted herself to biblical studies and even taught herself Hebrew. She availed herself of every opportunity for research in the libraries of major English universities. During these years, she established a rapport with one Professor Mingana, Professor of Arabic at Manchester University and curator of Oriental Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library. Bushnell would later send her work to be critiqued by him and would faithfully report his criticisms, both positive and negative.

In most cases, women have been driven to exegetical studies by their own passionate desire and sense of call to preach the Gospel. Bushnell would address this need but went on to consider wider issues of the treatment of women in the Bible: inheritance rights of women, the right of the widow, marriage laws, sexual abuse, and social hygiene.

After a bitter altercation within the WCTU over the issue of legalized prostitution, Bushnell felt that she had no other course but resignation. However, two of her major supporters convinced her that “the social evil would never be got rid of as long as the subordination of woman to man was taught within the body of Christians.”10 They requested that Bushnell turn from social purity issues to those of biblical interpretation. She declared,

I then opened my heart freely….telling….how I had longed to give Bible instruction on the lines of purity and to show the importance of the freedom of women for the purification of society, and how I had been, all along preparing for such activity.11

Soon she was embarked upon correspondence courses for women, ultimately to result in God’s Word to Women, a series of 101 lessons for women, identified by paragraph number rather than page and always published privately. This book was accompanied by a series of monographs and even a series of explanatory interleaves which women might insert into their Bibles at critical points in the text.

God’s Word to Women was favorably reviewed by Helen Barrett Montgomery,12 whose own Centenary Translation of the New Testament bears evidence of Bushnell’s influence. The review of Griffith Thomas published in the Sunday School Times of March 22, 1924 was less kind, but favorable notices appeared in the Australian Biblical Recorder (April 1924) and The Christian (London, May 15, 1924).

No less than five works have drawn heavily from God’s Word to Women, the best known being Jessie Penn Warren’s The Magna Carta of Christian Womanhood, and L.E. Maxwell’s Women in Ministry. Other works heavily dependent on Bushnell are Russell Prohl’s The Ministry of Women (1956) and Leanna Starr’s Bible Status of Women, (1926). Starr’s work, better organized and expressed than that of Bushnell, influenced a new generation of women, including feminist preacher Alma White.

Starr was well aware of the work of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but like most nineteenth century feminists, considered the Woman’s Bible too radical. In her book, Starr placed a copy of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Women’s Rights in an appendix and mentioned the social concerns of Stanton but only indirectly addressed the divergence of their views with regard to the Bible. Starr declared:

The Bible is not antiquated; it has never yet fallen in the rear of the world’s progress. Every reform that makes for the true uplift of the race has inception here…. The fallibility of human understanding in nowise alters the truth as revealed in God’s Word Not Scripture, but our exegesis is at fault.

The proponents of true reform need never fear to look within the covers of the Bible for sanction. They will find it here, enwrapped in some mandate or promise which the nearsightedness of the race has overlooked or misread. At times, some holding to the equality of the sexes have felt constrained to apologize for the teachings of Scripture on this subject; others, smarting under a sense of injustice, have flouted Sacred Writ.13

By contrast, Starr was very ready to acknowledge her indebtedness to Katherine Bushnell.

References to Bushnell appeared less frequently in the mid-twentieth century, but a little coterie of women still cherished her work. I possess two different copies of God’s Word to Women, the first given to me in 1944 by Theodora Gordon Hall, daughter of Adoniram Judson Gordon, founder of Gordon College and Seminary. The second is a photocopy of a volume cherished by the mother of David Hubbard, long-time president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Present-day followers of the path blazed by Bushnell still acknowledge the full inspiration and authority of Scripture. For them, the Bible is the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice, and therefore Scripture is worthy of the most careful scrutiny. Those principles which Bushnell laid out are still guiding precepts: a 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.

These modern interpreters do not view the texts with suspicion but with faith — faith in the essential justice and goodness of the God who inspired the Scriptures. Their purpose is not to subvert of the author, but to understand it with feminist insights. As Mary Evans of London Bible College says, “We must ask questions of the text.” A basic question, best formulated by David Scholer, is “With what texts shall we begin, what shall be the foundation of our study?” The perspective of biblical egalitarians is based upon Genesis 1:27 and Galatians 3:28 rather than upon I Corinthians 14:34-35 or I Timothy 2:12. The latter texts are to be dissected rather than discarded. Textual criticism, utilizing considerations such as Philip Barton Payne’s discovery of the non-inclusion of I Corinthians 14:34-35 in a highly reliable early manuscript,14 becomes a significant tool.

Further questions are: “Is another translation or interpretation possible? What does the context tell me? Is this text written to a limited and restricted situation or is it a universal truth applicable to all believers at all times?” Ann Brown recommends accepting “biblical teaching as authoritative but translating it into appropriate contemporary cultural expressions.”15 Faithfulness to an ancient text sometimes requires a transposition in order to apply it to current societal conditions.

Thus Bushnell’s followers maintain the conviction that the Bible is a book of freedom and empowerment rather than of repression. They find in its pages justice for all persons. Textual difficulties are recognized and addressed, always with the belief that there are resolutions to be found as we wrestle with the ancient texts. But while the authority lies in the text, women claim the privilege, right and authority to engage in the work of interpretation. Women of faith bring their own experience to the task, including their personal faith and their knowledge of the Scriptures as having conveyed to them a message of divine love, forgiveness, affirmation, and empowerment. When the Bible speaks of birthing and labor, of home-making and child-rearing, of depression and oppression, toil and hardship, women of faith will bring particular insights. But the increasing refusal to accept the biblical texts as essentially bearing an oppressive message for women has in itself become a foundational and liberating principle of biblical interpretation.


  1. Katherine C. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, published privately in various editions during the early part of this century. Now available from Christians for Biblical Equality. Box 7155, St Paul, MN, 55107. Paragraph 372.
  2. Katherine Bushnell, The Badge of Guilt and Shame. Oakland. n.d. p. 7.
  3. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, para. 218.
  4. Catherine Booth, Female Ministry. A Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel. First published in 1859, reprinted 1951.
  5. Ibid. p. 12
  6. Katharine C Bushnell, Dr Katherine C. Bushnell, a Brief sketch of Her Life Work, Hertford, England, Rose and Sons. n.d. 20.
  7. Ibid. Frances Willard, ed. Woman in the Pulpit, Boston: D. Lothrup Company, 1881, p.32.
  8. Frances Willard, Glimpses of Fifty Years: The Autobiography of an American Woman. Chicago: H. J. Smith & Co., 1889, p.419.
  9. Dana Hardwick, Oh Thou Woman that Bringest Good Tidings: The Life and Work of Katherine C. Bushnell, St Paul, MN CBE, 1995, p.79.
  10. Bushnell, Brief Sketch 22 ff.
  11. Ibid, 23.
  12. Helen Barrett Montgomery, “Review of God’s Word to Women by Katherine C. Bushnell, in “Good Books for Busy Pastors,” The Baptist (1924-25).
  13. Leanna Starr, The Bible Status of Women, New York Fleming H. Revcll, 1926, pp 1-2.
  14. Philip Barton Payne, “Fuldensis Sigla, Four Variants in Vaticanus and I Cor. 14:34-35. New Testament Studies. July 1995. Issue 41.2.
  15. Ann Brown, Apology to Women: Christian Images of the Female Sex.. Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1991, p. 23.