When Evangelicalism Was Egalitarian

When Evangelicalism Was Egalitarian February 5, 2013

Some time back I remarked that there was a time when evangelicalism was egalitarian to the extent that it was counter-cultural and was perceived as a threat to the patriarchal order. Several readers expressed interested in learning more about this. So, let’s do this, shall we?

Growing up as an evangelical, I was taught by both my family and my church that patriarchal/complementarian gender roles had always been a staple of American evangelicalism. I learned that in the twentieth century mainline Protestant denominations had betrayed the Bible and rejected God-given truth by embracing the folly of egalitarianism. I thought all of this was true until I began studying history in college. Then I learned that I’d been taught a falsehood.

In a book called Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England, historian Susan Juster reveals that early American evangelicals were actually radically egalitarian. Here is a summary of her thesis:

Susan Juster’s valuable book traces the emergence and collapse of gender equality among New England Baptists from the mid-eighteenth century Great Awakening into the Age of Revolution. It also recounts evangelical women’s brave but ill-fated attempts to preserve hard-won freedoms as the Brethren moved to portray them . . . as untrustworthy, irrational sinners to be feared and controlled by men.

What Juster reveals, quite simply, is that when American evangelicalism arose in New England in the 1740s, it was a radical movement based on gender equality. Evangelical women preached, voted in their congregations, and spoke on an equal level with men. In fact, the profoundly egalitarian nature of eighteenth century New England evangelicalism completely horrified those in mainstream culture. Early evangelicals, though, reveled in rejecting conventions, and that included rejecting the hierarchies of age, theological training, and gender.

In fact, Juster reveals that the language of converts gender was often reversed, with men using the feminine language of community and emotion and women invoking the individualism of masculine discourse. More than that, the evangelical experience itself was gendered feminine by mainstream society.

What changed? As Juster explains, the American Revolution sparked a desire for respectability among evangelical men, and they reacted by working to bring their customs and beliefs more in line with the mainstream. This meant rejecting feminine aspects of their religion, endorsing patriarchy, and silencing outspoken women. Thus this short period of dramatic female religious equality drew to a close, and by the end of the century evangelical women were silenced in their congregations and even sin had come to be gendered feminine.

In other words, Susan Juster reveals that the price of respectability for eighteenth century evangelicals in New England involved embracing the patriarchy of mainstream society and rejecting their radical egalitarian roots.

In her Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt, Christine Heyrman reveals that the same pattern took place in the American south in the years between the American Revolution of the 1770s and the Civil War of the 1860s. Here is her editors’ summary of her thesis:

Revealing a surprising paradox at the heart of America’s “Bible Belt,” Christine Leigh Heyrman examines how the conservative religious traditions so strongly associated with the South evolved out of an evangelical Protestantism that began with very different social and political attitudes.

Although the American Revolution swept away the institutional structures of the Anglican Church in the South, the itinerant evangelical preachers who subsequently flooded the region at first encountered resistance from southern whites, who were affronted by their opposition to slaveholding and traditional ideals of masculinity, their lack of respect for generational hierarchy, their encouragement of women’s public involvement in church affairs, and their allowance for spiritual intimacy with blacks. As Heyrman shows, these evangelicals achieved dominance in the region over the course of a century by deliberately changing their own “traditional values” and assimilating the conventional southern understandings of family relationships, masculine prerogatives, classic patriotism, and martial honor. In so doing, religious groups earlier associated with nonviolence and antislavery activity came to the defense of slavery and secession and the holy cause of upholding both by force of arms–and adopted the values we now associate with the “Bible Belt.”

As Heyrman explains, southern evangelicalism had culturally subversive roots. Evangelicals were opposed to both slavery and patriarchy, arguing against the hierarchies of mainstream society and in favor of a radical spiritual egalitarianism. Evangelicals shocked the white southern establishment by encouraging women and slaves to participate equally in revivals and religious life and allowing them to speak in front of mixed audiences. As evangelicalism began to spread in the South in the late eighteenth century, this cultural subversiveness made it difficult for evangelicals to make significant inroads in mainstream southern society.

What changed? Well, in the 1830s a new crop of more settled evangelical ministers rejected their earlier abolitionism and decreased the leadership role played by blacks, younger men, and women of all ages, seeking instead to uphold the ideals of southern manhood. The growing emphasis on the cult of domesticity and domestic devotion allowed evangelicals to restore male authority over the home and curtail female religious leadership outside of the home. These accommodations to southern culture with its norms and hierarchies allowed evangelicalism to take the South.

In other words, Christine Heyrman reveals that in order to become the dominant religious tradition in the south evangelicals had to embrace both slavery and southern patriarchy and reject their radical egalitarian roots.

What I learned, then, was that evangelicalism began as a radically egalitarian movement. Unfortunately, evangelicals in both New England and the South folded to the pressures of mainstream society and rejected their egalitarian roots. It’s more than that, though. Not only did they reject their egalitarian roots, they also forgot their egalitarian roots.

Honestly, studying its history was one of the principle things that led me to become so thoroughly disillusioned with modern evangelicalism. It’s sort of like I said in a previous post: “There is nothing that removes the veneer of infallibility like learning where a belief came from, how it developed, when, and why.”

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