Let Your Women Keep Silent: Backlash Against Female Ministry in Early America

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church” (1 Corinthians 14: 34-35, Holy Bible, King James Version). The title of the third section of Catherine A. Brekus’s Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America 1740-1845, is “Let Your Women Keep Silence.” This section of the book details the battle men waged against women who believed they had been called by God to preach His word. Mostly this section focuses on the time period from 1820 to 1845. Brekus begins with a short story about Sally Thompson, and follows her struggle throughout the next 20 years, comprising the last three chapters of the book.

Sally Thompson was preaching as to a Methodist camp congregation in Rhode Island in 1822. There were women present who had her speak previously and were excited to hear her once again. From their prior experience they judged her to have a “mild and pleasing manner [with] plain good sense” (267). On this occasion, however, she did not behave in her normal manner. One of the witnesses described her as “disturbingly masculine” (268). Thompson was under pressure as a female preacher and was attempting to compensate and prove her place among the other preachers. In the early days of her preaching she was lauded by other Methodist ministers who told her, “God has called you to exercise your talent publicly…and if you intend to reach heaven, you must continue to exercise it” (269). By 1830, they had changed their mind, through no fault of Thompson. The other ministers began seeing her as a challenge to their authority. In April of 1830, she was excommunicated on the grounds of insubordination, not having been allowed to speak for herself at her trial. This scene was one that was common among the female preachers of the time, especially those serving the Methodist, African Methodists, Freewill Baptists, and a few other Christian churches. They were labeled “bold and shameless jezebels” and were constantly under fire for being immodest and imprudent – virtues expected in all reputable women at the time. All these women wanted was to answer the call they felt God had given them to redeem sinners and bring the world to Christ (271).

Brekus, explains the reasons for the condemnation of these female preachers as a basic power struggle between the genders. Men made the claim that women preaching went against God, as his apostle clearly stated that women should be silent in all things related to the churches. Women were convinced that the men were jealous of the amount of people that would gather to listen to the female sermons – quite a few more than were willing to listen to the men – on any given day. The men claimed that women already had a role – motherhood. “God made mothers before he made ministers,” claimed one Presbyterian minister, further stating that the role of a mother was more important than any other role in the world (270). This is a direct correlation to the idea of Republican Motherhood that Kerber discusses in Women of the Republic. However, whereas, Kerber discuss the role as a way for women to exert their place in society, these ministers seem to have been using it as a way to remove them from society instead.

The remainder of the book focuses on the various examples and fights that women preachers had over the next ten years to find their place in the ministerial world. Many of these examples are fairly repetitive in their scope and outcome. Unfortunately, where Brekus produces logical and reasonable excuses for the behavior of the men, most of her evidence is speculation from the women themselves. This makes it seem somewhat biased. By the mid 1840’s women were beginning to, once again, express themselves as ministers and evangelical leaders. However, despite, Brekus’s argument and evidence, we may never fully understand why men suddenly seemed to turn against women’s spiritual leadership role for fifteen years. For a more complete discussion on this very idea, I highly suggest listening to our podcast, which can be found in the menu.

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One thought on “Let Your Women Keep Silent: Backlash Against Female Ministry in Early America

  1. That is such a tantalizing end–you know I won’t listen to the podcast 🙂

    It seems like what Brekus–and Zagarri and Branson–see in the immediate post-revolutionary period is an expansion of opportunities for women in the public as well as private sphere. Brekus, like Zagarri, argues that this openness turns to rejecton/restriction by 1820 or so. What explanation does Brekus give? Is it professionalization by male ministers? My recollection is that the institutionalization of evangelical churches tends to remove the flexibility in discipline and ministry (the Quakers are an exception, of course). But is it also a shift in American society’s views of women?

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