Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Discovery of Women Preachers: 1641

Antonia Fraser wrote The Weaker Vessel: Woman's Lot in seventeenth century England, 1984. This is a favourite period of history for me. I once went to the National Portrait Gallery in London, and collected postcards of all my most loved characters from the English Civil War. As a teen I was indiscriminate and admired Puritan and Royalist alike. Here is Fraser on women preaching during the era of the English Civil War.

    Women probably first began to preach in Holland in the 1630s in the Baptist churches, whose congregations had always included a large number of their sex. ... In the New World - Massachusetts - women were known to have preached by 1636. In England in the 1640s women preached weekly at the General Baptist Church in Bell Alley, off Coleman Street, in the city of London. Anne Hempstall was described as preaching to 'bibbing gossips' in her house in Hoborn, and Mary Bilbrowe, wife of a bricklayer of St Giles-in-the-fields, preached in her parlour, although the pulpit, which was made of brick, was so high that only her tippet could be seen. A early as 1641, a tract, The Discovery of Women Preachers, referred to their existance in Kent, Cambridge and Salisbury.
Now consider this piece of writing from the TNIV and the GNBC,

    Egalitarianism historically originated from non-Biblical sources, especially the French Revolution. The French Revolution enthroned Reason as a goddess. But when people do not acknowledge God but only Reason, the differences that God ordains among people seem not to be “rational.” Hence, they must be denied or abolished. Since human sexual differences today do not seem to many people to be “rational,” they too must be overcome.
The French Revolution was some 150 years after the English Civil War. The emergence of women preaching dates back to the Puritan movement in Europe at the time of the English Revolution not the French Revolution.

I have to continue the dialogue with the contents of this book for a little longer. I cannot bear to allow such ahistoric writing to go unchallenged.

First, I was under the distinct impression that the American Revolution itself owed much to the Age of Reason, and that in America too there were ideas about equality. It went something like this.

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." - Declaration of Independence
If in France it was liberté, égalité, fraternité, in America there were also these vague notions of equality that were slow in their realization but significant nonetheless. I can only assume that by associating egalitarianism with an event remembered for its brutality and disregard for human life, as well as its foreign quality, this book is hoping to portray egalitarianism in a negative light.

Next, the authors say that the differences that God ordains between humans seem not to be rational. I would simply like to comment that it is the authors of this book who feel the need to rationalize the differences between men and women.

In the older non-rational ethic, like the Brethren, women were to be silent in church. However, this was just the way it was. No one taught that women were not gifted as men were. No one said that women were different in their nature from men. A community whose beliefs are based on the Bible does not need to label women to keep them silent. They can simply say, sorry, we know you are equal, but the Bible says ... , and carry on.

However, an organization like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood tries to rationalize the silence of women. They talk about the different natures of men and women and the different roles, the different giftedness and so on. One man said it was a matter of fulfillment. Women can only be fulfilled by remaining within the women's sphere. So the CBMW owes much of its teaching to the need to rationalize doctrines about women.

An American might respond, but the religious ethic in America owes more to the era of the Mayflower than to the Age of Reason. And that would be my point. It was during the Puritan movement in England that women began preaching. Modern egalitarianism dates back to the early 17th century in England and came to the United States at that time. It was in the polity of a Puritan Christian ethic that women challenged the old scholastic repressions.


Ben Witherington said...

Go get 'em Suzanne.


Ben W.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

It seems to me there was an ebb and flow of attitudes towards women and that no era was characterized by one single view, but always conflicting opinions as we see today also.

Yes, that peculiar word complementarianism seems to have an interesting history. It sounds so lovely but is a guise for saying men lead and women follow.