Work It: Women Preachers

Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845 Catherine Brekus (1998).418poabb7zl-_sx329_bo1204203200_

For Strangers and Pilgrims, Michelle, Amber, and I continued to break up the responses by each taking the responsibility for responding to one of the three sections in Catharine Brekus’ book on female preachers in early America. I am not particularly familiar with, or comfortable with, the expanding branches of Christian theology during this period, which made me hesitant to take on this book. Lucky for me, my partners allowed me to take the first section of Brekus’ book entitled “There is Neither Male Nor Female” which examines the connections between evolving concepts of gender and its correlation to changing religious and social rhetoric.

I found the first chapter, “Caught Up in God: Female Evangelism in the Eighteenth Century Revivals” incredibly informative and helpful in understanding (to a certain degree) the transformations of religious thought in colonial and revolutionary America. I particularly appreciate the chronological breakdown highlighting the shift in both secular and non-secular beliefs regarding gender and religious roles in society. This structure is absolutely necessary to be able to understand the complexities of gender and religion which Brekus lays-out.

Through narratives of female preachers, Brekus demonstrated the changes in attitudes towards women and their roles in religious experiences. For example, the use of Mary Dyer (pg 30) to demonstrate the tensions between Puritan and Quaker theology was effective; Dyer highlights the threat to the patriarchal familial hierarchy of Puritan society and church authority which Quaker radicalism and egalitarianism posed. The emphasis on Puritanical beliefs in women’s inherent inferiority to men and later discussion of the feminine nature of the soul was reminiscent of Elizabeth Reis’ Damned Women.  This tension makes the shift in the 1740s from rational and institutionalized preaching to a more emotional and “heart-centered” approach easier to understand; if the soul is feminine then it would need to be courted in a similar fashion to a woman- through the emotions (35-37).

The new language of religion, as something to be felt with the heart as well as understood with the mind, served to democratize religion. Putting an emphasis on feelings allowed more people to claim authority over their religious experiences and understanding. This is particularly crucial for women at the time, as the language of religion allows them to become empowered. My understanding boils down to this, a feminine soul, as we are led to believe Puritans viewed the soul, is twice as likely to be taken by the devil (according to both Reis and Berkus)  if the soul belongs to a woman, because she is weaker than a man. So when a woman is able to give herself over wholly to God and feel His presence, then that exhortation becomes even more powerful than if it had happened to a man; because of both women’s inherent proclivity to sin and her hyper-emotional fluids. This makes Brekus’ argument that women were able to preach more openly during the Awakening, quite compelling.

In her second chapter, “Women in the Wilderness: Female Leadership in the Age of Revolution”, Brekus argues that the Revolution was the most restrictive point for female preachers as the focus of the time was on supporting the patriarchal hierarchy which shaped American society to support the revolution and then new nation. I struggled to place this argument and evidence in with the readings from Branson, Kerber, and Zagari who all argued that women’s roles expanded during the revolution, even in the home as the “Republican Mothers”. While I appreciated Brekus’ detailed examination of the accounts of Jemima Wilkinson’s and Ann Lee’s struggle to preach and balance their gender identity, I felt a bit lost myself. Perhaps I missed it, but did Brekus provide a definition of preaching? (That is not meant to be snarky). If women in the revolutionary era, as Brekus points out, were laying the foundations for future female preachers through the “new” language of Republican Motherhood, how is Brekus able to discount moral and religious instruction provided by women in the home as forms of preaching? I may be completely wrong in questioning this, but I had expected her to address this as she had made such a point in the preceding chapter to highlight that in colonial society the home was considered to a certain extent a “public” sphere rather than a wholly “private” sphere. I actually would like to spend some more time exploring shifting ideas of public vs private spheres.

Ultimately, Brekus’ examination of female preachers in early America is compelling, informative, and quite important to understanding the complexities of gender and religion in the revolutionary era. I think that for me the most important part of Brekus’ book is her repeated point that we must understand that the idea of continuous forward “progress” through history is a total fallacy. While as historians, this may be evident to us, the larger audience which Brekus is addressing with her book needs to be reminded (and sometimes we as historians do too) that more often than not, the historical narrative is “broken and disjointed” (p 340).


One thought on “Work It: Women Preachers

  1. Great response! So does Brekus fail to define preaching (or the ministry more broadly)? I think it would be useful to discuss why and how these three chapters fit into her larger argument.

    As they have been conceptualized by historians, the public and private spheres emerge alongside the market economy and the middle class in the early 19th c. There is no private vs. public sphere until the means of production (and making money) move outside the home. As I have said before, historians now view separate spheres as an ideal rather than a reality in women’s lives. Brekus’s argument about the presence of female preachers shows why.

    Liked by 1 person

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