23 October 2013

Distant Voices

SEASONS, my women-reading-theology group will discuss the now twenty-year old book, Distant Voices. Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church by C. Leonard Allen. Abilene, TX: ACU Press, 1993,  which focuses on the "minority voices among the churches of Christ." p. 4 
I read this book when it was newly published but have certainly benefited by a second reading. As a church librarian I have had the opportunity to browse some of the 19th and early 20th century publications that make up the written history of the Stone/Campbell movement and have long known that I am more often in sympathy with the voices that were silenced than those who defined the traditional doctrine and practice of the Restoration Movement, particularly as expressed in the churches of the South. One might call me a "Stoneite" but never a "Campbellite."
Quoting Allen: "...in Stone's view, heresy involved not so much believing wrong doctrines but a lack of love and a rending of the body of Christ. He did not believe that a set of correct doctrines would ever unite believers." p 18 Nor do I.
He would not deny fellowship or Eucharist based on whether a person claiming the name of Christ had been baptized by immersion. Nor would I.
"He opposed the "mania for uniformity" that allowed people to exclude from fellowship those who differed in interpretation or opinion." p. 44 As do I. In my 40+ years in the churches of Christ, I have been more than once named a heretic (always by a male) which I usually take as a compliment. After all, they called Jesus a blasphemer.

In his book, Allen makes use of a couple of my favorite Barton Stone quotations:

"I hear much said about obedience, and too many confine or almost restrict the term to baptism and the weekly supper: prayer is sadly neglected, [along with] love to God and man."

"If our faith be ever so imperfect, and blended with error, yet if it leads us to do the will of God, and bear fruits of the Spirit; if it works by love; if it purifies the heart; if it overcomes the world--it is the faith of a Christian." p. 44

SEASONS decided to focus our discussion on the chapters dealing with women:
  • Chapter 4 Your Daughters Will Prophesy,
  • Chapter 17 The New Woman,  and
  • Chapter 18 Phoebe's Place.
Thomas Rolandson (1815)
from the digital collection of the New York Public Library.
Chapter 4:
I am struck with how very much the "Restoration Movement"
reflects the general societal views of women in the late 18th, through the 19th, and in the early 20th Centuries in America and in Victorian England with which I am more familiar.  I notice some interesting parallels between the criticisms of "female preachers" lacking "that delicacy of mind, which is the ornament of her sex" p. 25 to similar invectives directed at the Bluestockings.  I've recently been sampling some of the writings of Hannah More (1745 - 1833) and other proponents of education for women.
Allen notes that in the churches of Christ in America "the predominant cultural model of "true womanhood," which limited woman's role strictly to the domestic sphere, became the predominant model of the restoration movement. It remained so throughout the rest of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth." And I fear follows us still into the twenty-first.

Chapter 17:
Likewise the exchanges between David Lipscomb and Silena Moore Holman (1850 - 1915) give a theological setting to the "New Woman" questions that were being debated in the society at large. Allen quotes Holman:
"The days of the 'clinging vine woman' are gone forever... a husband will find walking by his side the, bright, wide-awake companion, ...a helpmeet in the best possible sense of the term." She is well educated, and her education has not "impaired her feminine grace or lovable qualities in the slightest degree."  p. 132
"Men may change with the changing conditions of modern life, but when women find themselves trying to keep step with their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the new order of things, the brethren stand in front of them with a drawn sword and demand a halt, because, they say, the Bible forbids, when it does nothing of the kind." p. 133

I find it telling that Lipscomb in his opposition to suffrage warned against women who "break the bond of subjection" divinely laid upon them. p. 131 The fact the he used the word "subjection" rather than the biblical word "submission" seems to me a clear demonstration that his opposition arose out of a entitled position of power and domination rather than the spirit of Galatians 3:28: "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."

Mitigating my heretofore negative view of Lipscomb is Allen's Chapter 13 God's Chosen Vessels about the 1873 cholera epidemic in Nashville and Lispcomb service to "the poor and destitute, especially among the black population." p.92 I may disagree with Lipscomb's doctrine or dogma but, in the face of a life sacrificially and courageously lived, I am awed and humbled by the man.

 Chapter 18
The Phoebe's of the Stone/Campbell movement are part and parcel with the deaconess movements that were rampant in all religious circles. They are very much the same as the "gray ladies" of the Anglican sisterhood.  {A really delightful novel touching on this topic is The Perpetual Curate by Margaret Oliphant, part of her Chronicles of Carlingford, a free Kindle book which I greatly enjoyed. It's a sweet romance that will delight the gentle reader.} This sisterhood and Margaret Oliphant are of particular interest to me because of their association with the Christ Church Albany Street St. Pancras which was the church attended by Evelyn Whitaker and her sisters. SEASONS read Evelyn Whitaker's novel Laddie as a study in the woman novelist as theologian.
The increasingly public role of women in the 19th and early 20th Centuries found religious expression in
many social movements: abolition, temperance, education, work place conditions, child labor, public health, orphans and children, health care, missions...
We in SEASONS are blessed to attend a church that has been at the forefront of the women's issue in churches of Christ for a couple of decades. In fact, our own Steve Sandifer wrote one of the best references on this subject.

In Allen's book I noted that women's service gave them credibility. Nancy Cram (1776 - 1815) had begun a teaching ministry among the Oneida Indians. Her prayer at a funeral touched the audience before she became a "female preacher." Abigail Roberts (1791 -1841) preached in "out of the way places." Nancy Towle was a school teacher who spent 4 years in Bible study and prayer before in 1821 beginning her fourteen years as a full time itinerate preacher "wherever a platform was open to her." p. 28 "I was astonished that professed Christians can be so much more willing souls shall perish, than that 'the rules of their society' shall be broken." I share Towle's astonishment. 

We Christians would do well to remember and not to repeat or continue the errors of the past. Allen quotes Henry May's 1949 book: "In 1876, Protestantism presented a massive, almost unbroken front in its defense of social status quo." p. 111 The path of truth, wisdom, unity not uniformity, and peace demands that we 21st Century members and leaders of the churches of Christ hear those Distant Voices.

The Jesus I know is a revolutionary who rejects the status quo and repeatedly engages the marginalized people he encounters. The Christ embodies the teaching of Torah, Psalms, and Prophets: a Holy God is less concerned with liturgical practices than with the compassionate care of those in need. When we do not do likewise we are failing in our witness to the world.

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