Anglican Women and the Bible in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Article excerpt

A surprisingly large number of Anglican women in Britain published a wide range of books on the Bible in the nineteenth century, but these women have been lost from view.1 Their books lie forgotten, hidden in boxes in attics or cellars or stored in libraries or private collections. This paper will explore the scope of women's engagement with the scriptures with a view to recovering a map of the variety of books published by nineteenth-century British Anglican women.

Standard histories of the interpretation of the Bible in the nineteenth century focus exclusively on the rise of criticism and on the lives and publications of key men associated with the academy and church. Missing from these academic histories are the voices from the world of popular belief and unbelief, including those of women.2 Popular voices, however, continued to carry weight in the churches and among the general public.3 Donald McKim's Histoncal Handbook of Major Biblical Interpreters, for example, mentions no female nineteenth-century interpreters and women from this period are similarly absent from John Rogerson's book on Old Testament criticism in the nineteenth century and Gerald Bray's history of biblical interpretation.4 In her book, Women as Interpreters of the Bible, Patricia Demers begins the important work of recovering women's interpretive voices.5 Her chapter on the nineteenth century, however, focuses exclusively on children's literature on the Bible. Maria Selvidge's work on "notorious" biblical interpreters from 1500-1920 also advances our knowledge of women interpreters of the nineteenth century, but she includes only feminist or proto-feminist voices.6 On the other hand, my research project on the writings of nineteenth-century female authors on the Bible has to date unearthed the titles of more than one thousand books, suggesting that it is no longer in doubt that nineteenth-century women published a substantial amount of interpretive work on the Bible. The majority of British women who published on the Bible were Anglican.7

Anglican women in the nineteenth century understood it to be their responsibility as the "angel," "priest" or "goddess" of the home to be accountable for the spiritual wellbeing of those around them.8 As Elizabeth Rundle Charles' poem "Ministry" suggests, the mission of women was a life of service to others epitomized by Jesus (Mk 10:45).

...Since service is the highest lot,

And angels know no higher bliss,

Then with what good her cup is fraught

Who was created but for this!9

A woman's circle of responsibility that began in the home, with children, husband and extended family, grew to embrace all who needed instruction, including the poor, the sick, the prisoner, the unchurched and the churched of all ages who lacked the education, time, and academic resources to study the Bible. Women's work as "ministering spirits" gave them considerable power and honor; but their power was generally restricted to the private sphere. Writing enabled women to broaden the scope of their ministries, by allowing them to preach and teach with their pens at a time when they were barred from the pulpit and deprived of formal theological education. Even at the close of the century, privileged and educated women like Charlotte Laurie, the assistant mistress at the Ladies' College, Cheltenham, were convinced that women played an essential role in religious education. In the preface to her book, On the Study of the Bible, Laurie called on the women of England to solve the problem of the "great ignorance of the Bible" in British society by teaching children in school, in church and in the home "as elder sisters; above all, as mothers."10 The need for educational resources prompted women to publish books on the Bible.

Many published women came from privileged families. They received the best education available to women at the time and that often included learning both modern and ancient languages. …