Perspectives on Women in Baptist Life

by Leon McBeth

I would like to make three disclaimers at the beginning of this article. First, my perspective obviously is that of a man. I feel totally inadequate to write on the roles of women. When I say “we” in this paper, I mean generally men. When I say “you,” I mean women. If any readers detect areas of ignorance, prejudice, misunderstanding, and lingering chauvinism, I can only ask that you bear with me with whatever degree of patience the Lord will give you.

Second, my perspective is that of a historian. My academic preparation has been in history, and most of my waking hours are devoted to a study of our Baptist heritage. If I draw my insights and examples primarily from Baptist history, you will not be unduly surprised.

Third, my perspective is that of a participant. I cannot discuss the role of women in Baptist life in the same way that I can, say, the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention or the rise of the Separate Baptists in the eighteenth century. The changing roles of Baptist women, while a question with deep historical roots, is going on today. It affects my church today; it affects my students; it affects my denomination here and now; and it affects me. Almost daily I counsel with seminary students who feel called to ministry, many of whom are women. In my church I receive the Lord’s Supper from the hands of a woman deacon. Sometimes when our pastor is absent, we hear a sermon from our associate pastor, a capable, well-prepared, and articulate ordained minister who wears a dress. This is no theoretical ivory tower topic, but one in which all of us are daily involved. Yet, one who writes as a participant must guard against loss of objectivity.

With that introduction, let us examine some perspectives on women in Baptist life.

From the Angle of Service, We Depend on You

I tell you nothing new in saying that from day one in Baptist history, women have served faithfully in Baptist life. You have nurtured, sustained, encouraged, and preserved our churches. Without your loyal and effective service through the generations, our churches and our denomination would be far different, if they would be at all.

The historical records confirm that women have attended our churches, prayed for our ministries, given sacrificially to our causes, taught our Sunday Schools, influenced the content and tone of our worship services, sung in our choirs, cared for our nurseries, led our Vacation Bible Schools, provided and cared for our baptismal robes, divided out the elements for the Lord’s Supper, opened their homes for our visiting preachers, and in many cases swept and vacuumed our church buildings. You have fed our preachers; God knows how much fried chicken and coconut pie you have dished up for our pastors and visiting evangelists! And through it all, you have kept a sweet spirit and continued to model in word and deed the very best of the Christian life.

You have invested your money, your time, your energy, your talents, your very lives in Baptist service, and in these latter days, we reward you by explaining that God made you second-class Christians and telling you what areas in the church are off limits to you.

From the angle of service, we depend on you. We always have, and no doubt always will.

From the Angle of Ministry, We Fear You

At the 1885 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, a total of seven messengers came from Arkansas, two of whom were women. After two days of wrangling over whether the women could be seated, the brethren voted to exclude women messengers. They voted to change the constitution, amending Article III on membership. Where the constitution had read that the convention was composed of “members who contribute funds,” they amended it to read, “brethren who contribute funds.” In the midst of that wrangling, one brother exclaimed, “I love the ladies, but I dread them worse.”1

In that burst of candor, the brother from Virginia summed up the attitude of Baptist men toward Baptist women through the years. We love you, but we also fear you. We dread you.

We are afraid for you to speak out in church. We are afraid for you to assume too much leadership. We are afraid for you to teach in a mixed assembly. And we are especially afraid for you to stand in the pulpit, unless you are singing a solo, in which case it is all right.

After the Woman’s Missionary Union was formed in 1888, the WMU prepared an annual report to the convention. Though women wrote the report, they could not present it; for the first forty years the annual report was read to the convention by a man. When the president of WMU first gave her own report, it proved so controversial that several men walked out rather than witness such desecration.2 For several years, it was customary for the convention to move from the church sanctuary to the Sunday School assembly rooms when it was time for the WMU report, so that a woman would not stand behind a pulpit.

We have had an almost irrational fear of women even standing in the pulpit, whether they were preaching or not. A part of this has been, of course, a Baptist respect for the calling and work of the minister; the typical name for the pulpit for years was “the sacred desk.” But the fear goes beyond that. It is almost as if we fear that if you approach too closely, you will somehow contaminate or desecrate the holy places and holy things of our faith.

This fear of women contaminating holy places is illustrated in an incident at the 1888 meeting of the Nacogdoches Association in Texas. They had requested a missionary speaker, and the mission agency sent one of their veteran missionaries to Brazil, Mina Everett. The men were disappointed that their speaker was a woman, and at first they were minded to send her back unheard. But J. M. Carroll, who was present, found two loopholes that allowed her to speak. First, the crowd had outgrown the small church building and met outside under oak trees, so the woman would not have to stand behind a pulpit. Second, it was arranged for her to speak at ten o’clock, the Sunday School hour, and not eleven o’clock, the preaching hour. Even then, Carroll recorded, it took “careful persuasion” to get a hearing for this outstanding missionary.

As a very young man, I served as pastor of a strong, rural church in west Texas. We had a one-room building, and divided the Sunday School classes by drawing burlap curtains strung on clothesline wire. We had no pastor’s study, so I sat in the men’s Sunday School class. Our teacher was a wonderful man, a farmer named J. E., a man unspoiled by the schools. I had no car, so I rode the Greyhound bus to the nearest town; and many a Saturday afternoon, J. E. and Joyce picked me up and I spent the weekend with them. On Sunday morning on the way to church, Joyce would drive while J. E. prepared his lesson. His preparation went as follows: “Joyce, where is the lesson for today?” She would tell him the Scripture passage, he would open his Bible, find the passage, insert his quarterly at that place, and close his Bible. That was his total preparation. In class we would each read a verse and tell what it meant to us.

The women’s class met just across the curtain from us. Not five feet away, their teacher, Duchess, taught an excellent lesson. She had a strong voice; I should have such a voice. We could not help but hear her teaching; and most Sundays after a few moments, our class would lapse into silence, and we would just sit there listening to Duchess across the curtain.

That was my first pastorate, and I did not know anything. One day I said, “Why don’t we just draw back this curtain, and all of us make one class, and let Duchess be our teacher.” There was a stunned silence. I wish you could have seen the look on the faces of those men: consternation, shock, dismay, and disbelief that the pastor would suggest such a thing. “Oh no,” they said, “we can’t do that. That would make it a mixed class.”

From the Angle of Missions, We Follow You

No fact of Baptist history is clearer than the fact that women have set the pace for Baptist involvement in missions. While it is true that William Carey had little support from his wife Dorothy, on this side of the water two women helped set the stage for our present Baptist work among the nations. They were Ann Judson in the North and Lottie Moon in the South.

The first woman foreign missionary among Baptists in America was Ann Judson. She and her husband Adoniram sailed in 1812 as newly appointed missionaries of the Congregational Church. On the long ocean voyage, Adoniram took opportunity to study the Greek New Testament, and came to the conclusion that the Baptist position was correct. Ann was horrified. She said, “I tried to have him give it up, and rest satisfied in his old sentiments, and frequently told him, if he became a Baptist, I would not.”4 However, Ann did embrace Baptist views along with her husband, and with him received immersion at the hands of William Ward in India. When Baptists in America heard of the Judsons’ conversion to Baptist views, they immediately formed a local missionary society to sponsor them; and in 1814, the newly formed Baptist General Missionary Convention adopted the Judsons. However, in the early years the technical status of missionary wives remained uncertain. Were they full-fledged missionaries, as were their husbands, or were they simply a part of the missionary’s household? The minutes and early policies of the General Convention may have been vague at this point, but there was no uncertainty in the heart of Ann Judson. She regarded herself as a missionary, and she acted on that premise.

Ann Judson was a prodigious letter writer; scores of her letters are extant today, letters to her parents, to girlhood friends, to fellow missionaries, to churches and associations in America, and to the General Convention. These letters were newsy, employed graphic descriptions, told interesting and homey details of their way of life in Burma, and sketched in vivid detail the spiritual devastation around the Judsons. These letters were read and reread, passed from hand to hand, and often read aloud at Baptist gatherings and in Baptist homes. I believe these letters did more to stir the Baptist vision and interest in missions than the heavier, more theological treatises of Adoniram Judson.

Ann Judson was a beautiful and charming young woman, articulate both in person and pen; and during her furlough visits back in the states, she captivated the Baptist public. In some of her public appearances, she wore to advantage the national costumes of Burmese women, which fascinated Baptists in this country. (You will admit, I think, that women missionaries have the advantage in modeling national costumes; an American man dressed up in the garb of some foreign tribe elicits minimal missionary zeal.)

The stories of Ann Judson’s sufferings, of her courage and grace in the face of incredible obstacles, were told in this country; and, of course, they lost nothing in the telling. Stories of the illness that caused her hair to fall out, leaving her as bald as Yul Brynner, made the rounds in this country. At that time Americans had no television stars and no soap operas, but they had the same hunger for heroes and heroines as now. For Baptist women (and men) the beautiful and heroic Ann of Ava became a vital part of the turning of their world.

More familiar to Southern Baptists will be the story of Charlotte Moon, who served for forty years as a missionary in north China. I wish the recent outstanding biography of Lottie Moon by Catherine Allen could be required reading among Southern Baptists.5 Other Baptist women from the South preceded Lottie Moon as foreign missionaries–one thinks, for example, of Henrietta Hall Shuck in 1835–but no one so captured the imagination of Southern Baptists as did the diminutive girl from Virginia.

Most of my students are surprised to learn that three of the Moon girls became foreign missionaries. Edmonia, the baby sister, was first. As a young girl, “Eddie” Moon became enamored with missions, and within a few weeks the Foreign Mission Board appointed her and set her sailing to China. She was immature, utterly unprepared, had little concept of what mission work involved, and was by temperament unsuited to the tasks at hand. The only thing she knew for sure was that she wanted her sister Lottie to join her in China, and to that end she mounted an effective epistolary campaign. She wrote not only to Lottie but also to the head of the Foreign Mission Board, Henry Allen Tupper, to enlist him in the campaign to recruit

Lottie Moon for China. Soon after Lottie arrived, Eddie suffered a complete emotional breakdown, and Lottie brought her back to the States. She joined the Catholic Church, but found no peace there; she became an alcoholic, but the bottle brought only momentary release. She later ended her own life.

An older sister, Orianna, joined the Church of Christ, serving for a time as a medical missionary in Jerusalem. Orianna was one of the earliest women physicians of the South, serving as a surgeon in the tents and makeshift barracks that served as hospitals behind Confederate lines.

However, it was Charlotte or “Lottie” who became the most famous of the Moon missionaries. Like Ann Judson among Northern Baptists, Lottie Moon wrote countless letters, published incisive articles in the Baptist papers, and by her courageous and heroic personal example called the attention of Southern Baptists to the missionary mandate.

In recent years Southern Baptists have conducted, through our Foreign Mission Board [now the International Mission Board], perhaps the most extensive foreign mission work in the history of Christianity. The number of persons in service among the nations, the amount of money generated for their support, and the commitment of Southern Baptists to worldwide witness have been the marvel of American religion. Our SBC foreign mission work has not always been so impressive. For example, after more than a half-century, the Foreign Mission Board had fewer than one hundred missionaries in only six nations of the world.6 As a Baptist historian, I would suggest three factors that turned the tide.

First, the new era of financial prosperity in the twentieth century, especially in the South, allowed the denomination to expand its work in all areas. Second, the discovery or invention of a unifying method in the Cooperative Program enabled Southern Baptists for the first time in history to live up to the original dream written into the SBC constitution to “elicit, combine, and direct the energies of the entire denomination” in one sacred cause of world missions and evangelism. Third, and equally important, the missionary vision of Baptist women was adopted by the entire church. What had been the “women’s work” now, became the task of the entire church.

In foreign missions, you have set the pace. You saw the biblical message of missions before we did. You saw the potential of missions to energize churches before we did. From the angle of missions we have followed you.

From the Angle of Scripture, We Puzzle Over You

“What does the Bible say?” That question is and has always been vitally important for Southern Baptists. For us the teachings of the Bible have been determinative, and still are. For the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists, a clear word of Scripture settles any question of faith or practice among us.

However, not all words from the Bible are equally clear. We read that women are to keep silent in the church, but we are not sure whether it means in that social setting or for all time to come. We have competent and dedicated Southern Baptist Bible scholars who genuinely believe that the New Testament forbids women to exercise a teaching or ministerial role in the church. We have other equally competent and dedicated Bible scholars who believe that the New Testament, properly interpreted, does not disqualify women from being called of God and of fulfilling that call in positions of ministry in the church. So it is not a question of whether one believes the Bible, but of how we understand the Bible.

The affirmation that parts of the Bible address local situations while others give authoritative teachings for all times and places leaves many Southern Baptists uncomfortable, myself among them. How do we determine what is timely and what is timeless? My perspective, need I remind you, is that of a historian, not a biblical scholar. At times in our history, most Southern Baptists interpreted the Bible to justify slavery.7 We no longer understand the Bible that way. Has the Bible changed? No. What has changed then? Our understanding of the Bible has changed over the years.

Southern Baptist women, generally speaking, do cut their hair, wear jewelry and expensive clothing, and go to church and sometimes pray aloud without a hat or head covering, all of which seem to be forbidden by some passages in the New Testament
(see especially 1 Pet. 3:3 and 1 Cor. 11:3-7). Most Southern Baptists, whether or not they would express it this way, assume that these instructions applied to some local situation the apostle was addressing, but they do not feel obligated to observe them today. Has the Bible changed? No. Our interpretation of the Bible has changed.

The person today who assumes that Bible teachings on the role of women in the church are clear and unequivocal is either incredibly naive or else is not taking the text of the Bible seriously.

From the Angle of History, We Ignore You

If any of you men ever want to get away from women, here is one way you can do it: just get into the pages of Baptist history. Women will not bother you there. You will find there mostly an all-male world; you will not find a half-dozen women even mentioned in several large tomes of Baptist history.

This lesson came to me most vividly in a Baptist history class almost twenty years ago. I had, with the usual male chauvinism, set out the life and works of several of the great heroes of Baptist faith. A young woman in the class said, “You tell about the accomplishments of Baptist men. Where were the Baptist women? Did they not do anything?”

I was shocked by the question. It seemed somehow irrelevant, almost impertinent. Besides, it put me on the spot because I did not know the answer. But the question challenged me, and I determined to find out what I could. I went back through the major, reputable, published histories of Baptists, back to Crosby, Ivimey, and Evans with their multi-volume histories of English Baptists. For Baptists in this country, I reviewed Backus, Benedict, Armitage, Newman, Paschal, Barnes, and some of the outstanding historians still living today. It took time and effort, but at least I had my answer, right? Wrong. On the role of women in Baptist history, I knew very little more than before. Most of these historians simply ignored women. They did not say anything bad about them; they did not say anything at all about them.

My first impression was to assume that since these outstanding historians had reported nothing, there was probably nothing significant to report. But the more I got into the primary sources relating to Baptist history–the letters, diaries, confessions of faith, church minutes, convention and associational records, court records and documents, records of heresy trials, and the writings of Baptist opponents–the more I found to my astonishment that women had a prominent role in Baptist history. Women did participate in church life. They did speak and teach, and sometimes preach, among Baptists. Women as well as men did serve as deacons, in the South as well as the North.8 More recent Baptist historians, such as William L. Lumpkin and Charles Deweese, to name only two, give more equitable attention to both men and women. Even so, some students still find it hard to believe that women ever exercised any kind of leadership role in Baptist churches.

From the angle of history, we have ignored you. We have hidden you or hidden from you, in recounting the stories of our heritage.

From the Angle of the Future, We Must Loose You

I think the time is past when a man can speak about the role of women. For generations, men have defined you and defined your role. Men have interpreted the Scripture passages about you; men have passed the laws that determine your rights in society; men have interpreted your place in history; men have decided what you could do, say, wear, or own. Men have pronounced the verdict on whether God can call you and if so, to what; men have decided if you could serve as deacons, teachers, or ministers. We have jello-molded you to what we think you ought to be.

I feel very deeply that the time has come for a moratorium of men making authoritative pronouncements about women. You must do your own speaking. You must define your own roles. You must become biblical scholars and interpret for yourselves, and for us, what it means to be a woman; you must research Baptist history and recover your part of the heritage; you must discern how God is dealing with you; you must determine if God is calling you and if so, to what; and you and only you can determine your proper response to God’s call.

Conclusion

I have tried to fulfill the assignment of sharing some perspectives on women in Baptist life. From the angle of service, we depend on you. From the angle of ministry, we fear you. From the angle of missions, we follow you. From the angle of Scripture, we puzzle over you. From the angle of history, we ignore you.

But from the angle of the future, we must loose you, or you must loose yourselves, and determine your own role in Baptist life.

Endnotes

H. Leon McBeth, retired professor of church history, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, presented this address at the annual meeting of the Historical Commission, SBC, and Southern Baptist Historical Society in Birmingham, Alabama, in April, 1987.

1. “Southern Baptist Convention Proceedings,” The Tennessee Baptist, May 30, 1885, 6.

2. Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1929, 102. This carries the text of the resolution introduced against women speaking before the Convention.

3. J. M. Carroll, A History of Texas Baptists (Dallas: Baptist Standard Publishing Company, 1923), 861.

4. From letter of Ann Judson, February 14, 1813, cited in Robert A. Baker (ed.), A Baptist Source Book (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1966), 53.

5. Catherine B. Allen, The New Lottie Moon Story (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980).

6. See Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1900, unnumbered statistical page in Foreign Mission Board Report, opposite Appendix B.

7. From numerous examples that could be cited, see especially Richard Furman, “Exposition of the Views of the Baptists Relative to the Coloured Population of the United States in a Communication to the Governor of South Carolina,” in James A. Rogers, Richard Furman: Life and Legacy (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1985), Appendix B, 274-86.

8. See R. B. C. Howell, The Deaconship (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1846), which justifies the role of deaconesses in Southern Baptist life; and Frank E. Burkhalter, A World-Visioned Church: Story of the First Baptist Church, Waco, Texas (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1946), which recounts the story of Pastor B. H. Carroll setting aside deaconesses, in the First Baptist Church of Waco (p. 100).

This article is reprinted from Baptist History and Heritage 22, no. 3 (July 1987), 4-11.

Copyright © 1987, Southern Baptist Historical Society.®