Parental Authorities in the Family of God

One of the strongest merits of Strangers and Pilgrims is that Brekus is able to bring forward out of obscurity women preachers and evangelists who were “too conservative to be remembered by women’s rights activists, but too radical to be remembered by evangelicals” (6). These women, in their belief that they had the God-given and God-called right to preach, were extraordinary for their time, even though they were not quite so politically-minded as more famous women reformers such as Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Because they also dared to speak in public, Brekus argues that these women, too, essentially challenged the cultural norm of “separate spheres” in eighteenth and nineteenth century America.For my post, I will be covering Part Two: Sisters in Christ, Mothers in Israel. This part largely focuses on the rise of women’s preaching in the early years of the nineteenth century, revealing the lives and motivations of a largely lower class group of Christian women.

In her third chapter, “Female Laborers in the Harvest,” Brekus describes the anti-market consumerism, anti-skepticism, and economic crisis influences behind the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, specifically pertaining to the Freewill Baptist, Christian Connection, Methodist, and African Methodist evangelical Christian sects. Brekus explains that the separation of church and state post-Revolution aided women in their quest to publicly expressing their faith because churches, now volunteer organizations, did not view women’s increased church participation as threat to societal and political disorder. Brekus describes that the actions of praying, exhorting, and witnessing opened doors for women to step into the male space of the pulpit. This process, according to Brekus, was aided by a less gloomy outlook on traditional Calvinism as churches increasingly advocated a larger space for free will and individual interpretation of the Bible.

Chapter Four, “The Last Shall be First,” predominantly examines religious spiritual memoirs of women preachers, such as Elleanor Knight, analyzing their divine calls to serve God. Brekus notes that “women seem to have wanted to sound as much like male ministers as possible” in these memoirs, though women emphasized more often that their calls to preach came from literal, Divine visions or messages of inspiration (171). Importantly, these women claimed themselves as “instruments of God,” expressing, in many cases, a reluctance but necessity of following their call (191).

Chapter Five is titled “Lift up Thy Voice Like a Trumpet” and focuses specifically on the act of preaching itself, as well as what was being preached. Importantly, Brekus claims that these women were “among the first women to speak publicly in America” (197). Brekus describes the almost “crude,” though powerful nature of these early women preachers and the novelty of their taking a man’s place at the front of churches (199). While preaching similar theological subjects as their male counterparts, Brekus notes that many female preachers defending women’s preaching in their sermons, as well as some advocating of racial equality and women’s rights as well.

The last chapter in Part Two, “God and Mammon,” describes the lifestyle of women preachers, particularly as being a response to the market revolution. Though anti-materialistic and condemning consumerism, Brekus explains that these women engaged in similar marketing techniques to spread God’s word throughout the United States. Arguing that these women were actually very much like roaming peddlers of the time; their goods however, were not physical, but eternal salvation. Often living their lives through the financial aid of friends and family, these female, traveling preachers “helped stimulate a national debate over female evangelicalism, a debate which centered on the very meaning of womanhood and domesticity” (264).

Also essential to Brekus’s discussion  in Part Two as a whole (also one of the strong merits of this book as a whole) is that of her tactful synthesis of the experiences of both white and black women preachers, revealing the even stronger difficulties faced by women preachers in the South due to the patriarchal oppression of white men in that region of the U.S. Brekus discusses that both white slave mistresses and black slave women participated in this revolution of women’s preaching and evangelizing in public.

In all, Brekus’s monograph delves deeply into a lost space of not only early American women’s history, but the wider space of religious history as well. Essentially raising these women’s words out of long-forgotten spaces, Brekus sheds light on women who, though not radical compared to later early feminists, yet managed to challenge a woman’s right to speak in public spaces and be seen as an authority figure.

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One thought on “Parental Authorities in the Family of God

  1. Great post! I think you did a good job explaining how and why female preachers were able to create space for themselves in the early nineteenth century. Why did you title it “Parental Authorities”? I assume this is a reference to the “mothers” in Brekus’s section title. What is the significance of female preachers invoking the influence of mothers, especially in the early nineteenth century? Were they literal mothers as well?

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