Old style evangelical gender politics

This post, by Mark Sayers, is well worth a read (ht Mike Bird on FB). It reflects briefly on the transformation of masculinity that occurred as part of the broader evangelical attempts at social transformation in the first half of the nineteenth century. Writing about the same phenomenon, John Wolffe comments:

Evangelical concepts of manliness were a challenge to contemporary secular male values, whether among [sic] those of the British gentry, landowners in the American South, or convicts forcibly resettled in Australia. Emphasis on ‘honour’, machismo and lineage was confronted by a stress on ‘calling’, moral virtue and the family as a spiritual community of mutual affection rather than merely an expression of patriarchal sovereignty.’ (The Expansion of Evangelicalism: The Age of Wilberforce, More, Chalmers, and Finney (IVP, 2006), p. 141)

As far as I am aware (and I’m not a historian), this strand of the widespread social transformation wrought by nineteenth-century evangelicalism is relatively under-studied. There is a fair bit of work out there on the evangelical reconstruction of femininity to embrace more public and political roles, but very little on changes in masculinity – Rotundo on American Manhood and Tosh, A Man’s Place both deal with the question in some measure, but I struggle to think of much else. Nonetheless, the evidence for both the conscious attempt to recast masculinity, and its (somewhat patchy) success is not hard to find. Evangelicalism taught men to be gentler, less aggressive, and more considerate; whilst not often refusing the prevailing cultural assumption of male dominance in the family, the Evangelicals repeatedly and explicitly re-cast it in less patriarchal ways.

As I noted, the reshaping of femininity has been more studied. This is not just about radicals like Josephine Butler, although there is no doubt that her explicitly feminist agenda was inspired by her evangelical commitment; rather, it was general, and based on two central evangelical tenets. On the one hand, evangelical women experienced a fundamental spiritual equality with men, which inevitably strained the boundaries of a patriarchal society; on the other, evangelical social concern led them to devote their leisure time to campaigning, and so to public action and political involvement; a woman who, after her conversion, ceased to attend the theatre and instead became active in campaigning for social improvement necessarily began to redefine her position in the culture.

Hannah More was quoted (in an anthology entitled The Young Bride at Home, which was as much of a radical feminist tract as its title suggests) as saying: ‘[Women are] equally with men redeemed by the blood of Christ. In this their true dignity consists; here their best pretensions rest, here their highest claims are allowed.’ This experience of a fundamental equality had significant and demonstrable effects on expectations and constructions of femininity in the evangelical world; the wives of evangelical clergy, for instance, were expected to take an active role in ‘the Lord’s work’ alongside their husband. In 1832, Hints to a Clergyman’s Wife was published, giving extensive advice on how to be a co-worker with one’s husband; the author encourages even nursing mothers to find ways to be publicly active in Christian work.

Methodist and holiness movements provided a particular intensification of this theme, as a woman who could lay claim to the experience of entire sanctification was in a demonstrable position of spiritual superiority to men who could not, a situation creating a significant pressure to reverse cultural-normative gender roles. Phoebe Palmer’s astonishing evangelistic ministry is the most obvious example of this, but there are many others (Hannah Whitall Smith’s entry in the Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals notes that, at the Brighton Convention for the Promotion of Christian Holiness in 1875, ‘[t]he most popular sessions … were those in which Hannah preached her practical secrets of the happy Christian life to audiences of 5000 or more, mostly clergymen who were theologically opposed to the preaching ministry of women’).

(In all of this there is a third basic evangelical conviction at work, what we might call missiological pragmatism. John Wesley relied on it in recognising Mary Fletcher’s preaching ministry. Fundamentally, for real evangelicals, if people are getting saved, we’ll make the theology fit somehow!)

Hannah More is also a fine example of my second theme. She sold millions of tracts in her lifetime (two million by 1796, and plenty more afterwards), writing powerfully and popularly about pressing political and social issues, not least slavery. She was not above satire and parody (‘Ye that boast “Ye rule the waves,” / Bid no slave ship soil the sea, / Ye that “never will be slaves” / Bid poor Afric’s land be free.’). In her only novel, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1808; it comfortably outsold Jane Austen in the day), she presents a heroine who announces and models the view that the proper ‘profession’ of a lady was ‘the care of the poor’ and so More crafts an account of femininity in which her own public political engagement is made normal and proper for a woman. Towards the end of her life, she even published Biblical expositions; An Essay on the Character and Practical Writings of St Paul (1815), for instance. In the next generation, Elizabeth Fry, a Quaker minister, became deeply involved in prison reform; Josephine Butler’s direct attacks on legalised prostitution and the spread of STDs through promiscuity came another generation later; both clearly stood in the tradition Hannah More and others had defined, of a woman active in public life. (And both suffered, of course, from a society that was not willing for its women to be so active.)

This evangelical generation changed the world, or major parts of it at least: they broke the international economic system of the day because it was unjust; they reformed prisons, factories, poor laws, and anything else they could think of; they saw major revivals, and huge numbers of conversions; when it came to gender politics, they taught men to be gentle, and women to be active in ministry.


  1. alastairjroberts
    Jan 20, 2012

    It seems to me that the picture is rather one-sided. More probably needs to be said about the manner in which disempowered women and disempowered clergy joined forces to bring about the reformation of men’s morals, epitomized by such things as the temperance movements of the 19th century. This alliance between women and the clergy was coupled with a sentimentalization and feminization of religion, as in many quarters religion became conformed to dominant forms of cultural sentimental femininity, operating on the assumption that women had a greater affinity with religion and according to the narrative of the woman who reforms wayward men by making them see things more like them.

    This wasn’t the only thing that was going on at the time, of course. There was also the ‘muscular Christianity’ of such as Kingsley, with its commitment to an imperial model of masculinity, and the refined and aesthetic masculinity of the Oxford movement. However, this ‘feminization’ and ‘sentimentalization’ trend has had a significant effect upon the worship, piety, theology, image, and demographics of the Church in many quarters.

    It led to a stigmatization of many stereotypically male traits, along with a celebration of many stereotypically female traits. Within such a context, Christian spirituality was increasingly colonized by the sort of sentiments that are usually reserved for cheap romantic paperbacks. The agonistic and martial language of much biblical piety was increasingly abandoned in favour of a rather sickly emotionalism.

    The problem is that, in the process evangelical spirituality drifted further away from the sort of biblical patterns of spirituality that one finds in the psalms, which do not exalt sentiment and sentimentality to the position of dominance that it often possesses. Churches also lost contact with men, as churches increasingly ordered themselves around disempowered women and children and their forms of piety (in a related movement, Christian piety started to disconnect from the wider world of society, life, and work to focus ever more narrowly on the individual soul and its private spirituality). The expectation that men conform themselves to a culturally feminine sentimental model of spirituality (rather than the expectation that both men and women conform themselves to a biblical model of spirituality) encouraged men to view the Church as emasculating and irrelevant to their lives, or as an unwelcome imposition upon them to be borne grudgingly and passively.

    If the full story of the evangelical transformation of masculinity is to be told, we need to take this part of the picture into account. The evangelical church has often tended to neuter its men in order to empower its women. Its celebration and empowerment of women within its walls has gone hand in hand with its cultural marginalization and disempowerment. It has also fallen prey to a gross distortion of biblical piety in the form of sentimental piety, which still prevails in many quarters. This sentimentalized evangelical church has proved more effective at producing milquetoasts, who are culturally ineffective, than it has at producing men and women of firm character who make a powerful impact in the wider society.

    The ‘masculinization’ of the church championed by Driscoll and others is obviously not the answer, but the Church is generally ‘feminized’ in a profoundly unhealthy manner, and something needs to be done to address this. What we have at the moment is a culturally marginal or irrelevant institution where there are almost twice as many women as men, where men are more inclined to be passive, and where piety is overly fixated on sentiment and emotion. I hardly think that this this qualifies as a success in terms of the transformation of gender norms and the shape of society.

    • Steve H
      Jan 25, 2012

      Thanks for stopping by again, Alastair.

      I struggle, I confess, with rhetoric of ‘feminisation’ (or indeed ‘masculinsation’). As this post suggests, I tend to regard gender identities as largely socially constructed; it would be possible to imagine a society which said to its men ‘we are going to construct a vision of ideal masculinity, and also a process of socialisation which steers you away from that,’ but such a society would be astonishingly disfunctional.

      The narrative I sketched above suggests to me that the process was not feminisation, so much as a re-narration of ideal masculinity. Now, on the one hand the church might find itself recommending an account of masculinity that is at odds with its host culture, and so appears ‘feminising’ from without – but, if the construction is appropriate, that is simply another aspect of the offence of the gospel. On the other hand, the church’s construction of masculinity may be inappropriate, when judged by gospel values, but the problem then is not ‘feminisation,’ but unfaithfulness to the gospel.

      • alastairjroberts
        Jan 25, 2012

        Thanks, Steve. I explain in more detail what I mean by the ‘feminization’ of the Church here. Gender identities are indeed largely socially constructed (which perhaps should not surprise us if our most fundamental identity as human persons is a symbolic one, rather than one of biological essence, as we are created images of God). The problem comes when a particular social construction of one gender, which has little to do with Scripture and is at odds with it at various points, becomes a norm that is increasingly imposed upon all within the Church. For instance, I think that it is fair to say that Mark Driscoll is attempting a ‘masculinization’ of the Church, without suggesting that the gender norms that he is working in terms of are anything but ones contingent upon the surrounding culture.

        I believe that the last couple of centuries witnessed just such a conforming of the evangelical church to norms of a particular cultural gender identity, in the form of sentimental femininity. I don’t see this particular development in piety as having much to do with an attempt to conform to biblical patterns of piety. Rather, it seems to me to arise primarily out of particular set of historical circumstances in which the interests of clergy and women aligned against a dysfunctional masculinity, and men were increasingly expected to conform and submit themselves to a cultural form of femininity, rather than to Scripture.

  2. Matt C.
    Jan 20, 2012

    Another related, and older, element in this that none of the popular books address is what Charles Taylor describes in his book A Secular Age, which is the rise of ‘civility’ as a virtue during the 16th–18th centuries in Europe. It would help if someone did that in relation to manhood and womanhood in the church, not just in broad strokes relative to society in general, as Taylor does.

    • Steve H
      Jan 25, 2012

      Welcome, Matt, and thanks.

      Yes; my best understanding is that various church campaigns play off this broader rhetoric, borrowing it as a way of pushing forward their aims when there happened to be some possibility of co-belligerence. But this is largely an extrapolation on my part, not the result of detailed study.


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