From Preachers to Suffragists: Enlisting the Pulpit in the Early Movement for Woman's Rights

Article excerpt

It is the pulpit, then, which has the entire ear of the community, one-seventh part of the time.

Abby Kelley Foster (Stanton et al. 1: 135)

An eloquent Quaker woman from Massachusetts rose to address the Fourth National Woman's Rights Convention held in Cleveland in October of 1853. Abby Kelley Foster was no stranger to those who gathered in Ohio to seek political rights for women, having earned a reputation over the previous decade and a half for her articulate defense of the abolition of slavery. Her oration at the Cleveland convention in 1853 was prompted by criticisms of the Declaration of Sentiments concerning woman's rights adopted at the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.(1) The Declaration followed the structure and logic of its literary progenitor, the Declaration of Independence, substituting "man" (meaning the male gender) for the British monarchy and enumerating grievances committed against women through the misappropriation of male authority. A debate ensued at the Cleveland convention over the origin of the so-called "public sentiment" against American women perceived by those who advocated expanded rights for women. Abby Kelley Foster took the podium to declare her adamant conviction that the ultimate source of both law and public sentiment against women was those most responsible for the education of the common mind: the clergy. "Having the public ear one-seventh part of the time," Foster asked, "if the men of the pulpit do not educate the public mind, who does educate it? "Duty," Foster asserted, "is the professed object of the pulpit, and if it does not teach that, what in Heaven's name does it teach? This anointed man of God speaks of moral duty to God and man" (Stanton et al. 1: 135).

By identifying the critical role of the pulpit in shaping public sentiment, Foster reflected the Protestant ethos that continued to pervade American life and culture in the mid-nineteenth century. A plethora of interests captured the American imagination during the first half of the nineteenth century, but the church through its preachers managed to maintain a hegemony that shaped the culture. Nineteenth-century clergymen were, as historian Timothy L. Smith has stated, "the principal arbiters of manners and morals and the most venerated citizens of every community" (36). Smith quotes a mid-nineteenth-century reviewer of a volume of sermons by Henry Ward Beecher as declaring, "No class has such opportunities for influence, such means of power as the American preachers" (37). Despite the rise of the popular press, the clergy managed to keep the influence of the press secondary to that of the pulpit. They were less aggressive in style and intention than their Puritan forebears, but nineteenth-century preachers nonetheless helped to mold the beliefs and behaviors of the nation. Through their words, they inspired the reforms that dominated the century, set moral standards, and planted ideas that often blossomed into social and political assumptions.

The pulpit and its larger ecclesiastical context figured prominently in the earliest calls for woman's rights. The woman's rights movement mimicked the organizational and rhetorical style of the anti-slavery movement that began earlier in the nineteenth century, and, like the earlier movement, it had deep roots in theological values and ecclesiastical structures. The Seneca Falls convention was spearheaded by a group of Quakers, most notably Lucretia and James Mott, who regarded human equality as a divinely granted right and who had gained prominence in the anti-slavery movement. They were joined by others of various denominational backgrounds who acted out of a common theological belief in the equality of human beings in the sight of God. When Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the others who issued the call for the Seneca Falls convention sought a place for the gathering, they logically turned to the church, particularly those churches that had already demonstrated their support for human freedoms through their abolitionist activity. …