Academic journal article The Historian

From Sainthood to Submission: Gender Images in Conservative Protestantism, 1900-1940

Academic journal article The Historian

From Sainthood to Submission: Gender Images in Conservative Protestantism, 1900-1940

Article excerpt

"Women are of keener perception when it comes to things spiritually and morally than are men."(1) So evangelist Billy Sunday told his Omaha audience in September 1915. The same message might have come from a Protestant minister almost a century earlier, when ministers and women formed an alliance that Victorian society learned to accept as natural. As one historian has pointed out, "[M]inisters and women made every effort to conflate domestic values with religious values."(2) Religion gave purpose to nineteenth-century women; no competing sphere offered them so much scope, and no competing set of values supported women's worth so fully as religion.(3)

Two or three generations after this conflation of domestic and religious values, Billy Sunday clearly believed that women were still his natural allies in the war for souls. Yet by 1915, women's place in society had already undergone marked change and was on the brink of even more striking alteration. The suffrage movement was on the verge of victory. The number of women attending high school and college was rising rapidly. Women were entering the work force in greater numbers and in new occupations. Birth control was more widely discussed and more readily available, though still illegal in many states. Did Sunday's assumption of an "old alliance" still apply? How did women's increased visibility in the public sphere affect the claim to moral superiority that had been both a social constraint and a source of authority for women in the nineteenth century?

While women's social roles were changing, organized religion itself was undergoing a transformation. The mainstream evangelism of the 1800s gradually lost its dominance, but its adherents remained an active, conservative minority within many denominations. The social gospel movement, meanwhile, won broadening support among more liberal clergy and their congregations. The liberal and conservative wings of Protestantism diverged more and more widely over such doctrines as individual salvation, the literal existence of hell, the nature of the Bible, and the relationship between religion and science. Conflict over religion burst into full public view with the fundamentalist controversy of the 1920s, but the underlying issues had been simmering for several decades.

Gender ideology within the fundamentalist movement was neither uniform among ministers nor static over time. In the first quarter of the twentieth century, the rhetoric of the divinized home gave women considerable moral authority over the family. Likewise, some conservative ministers encouraged women's influence in the public sphere, based on ideas of "municipal housekeeping" and public morality. Between 1920 and 1940, however, fundamentalist gender ideology narrowed and hardened, downgrading women's moral authority within the home. In this article, I examine the nature of the authority that early fundamentalists granted women, and contrast that authority with the demands for feminine submissiveness that predominated by the 1940s. An analysis of the works of three men--Billy Sunday and John Roach Straton in the 1910s and 1920s, and John R. Rice in the 1940s--shows how male ministerial conceptions of gender ideology changed during those years.

While scholars agree on a general constellation of traits that define fundamentalism, there is no unanimously accepted dividing line between fundamentalists and other conservative Protestants. Definitions range from the broad and intuitive to the narrow and technical. Some writers focus on theological distinctions, while others include psychological predispositions and even styles of debate in their definitions. The contentiousness of the fundamentalists themselves is one major obstacle to a widely acceptable definition. As one historian has written, "No matter how one defines fundamentalism, one risks joining together in Christian fellowship a lot of people who would prefer to remain apart. …

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