Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

Silencing Women’s Voices in the History of Theology: Baptist Examples

Let’s face it:  Theology, like most academic disciplines, has been thoroughly dominated by male voices.  But the voices in Christian theology have not been exclusively male and recent decades have seen the recovery of female contributions to Christian theology in many eras (from the “Church Mothers” onward) and many branches of the Church catholic, East and West.  Yet, women’s voices continue to be omitted or downplayed in major surveys of historical theology.  Since criticism, like charity, best begins at home, I will illustrate this fault in my own tradition by focusing on two recent (and otherwise excellent) studies of the history of Baptist theology.

Now, the resurgent fundamentalism and scholastic (“high”) Calvinism in the Southern Baptist Convention has led the current shapers of that large denomination to be rather deliberate in their silence of women’s voices.  The post-fundamentalist takeover SBC  took away ordination as a local church matter in order to quash the ordination of women as deacons, pastors, and other ministers of the gospel.  The Convention’s statement of faith (turned into a rigid creed, unlike its historic function), The Baptist Faith and Message, was revised in 2000 to make explicit and permanent the subordination of women in family, church, and society ( in practice, many SBC fundamentalist leaders will vote for female politicians as long as they are rightwing Republicans like Sarah Palin, though their theologies should demand that they insist such women remain at home).  There was even a move a few years ago (which failed) to rename the iconic Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for Foreign Missions because of the prominence given to pioneering woman missionary to China, Charlotte Diggs “Lottie” Moon.  But I want to focus on historical treatments by those who are in favor of the equality of the sexes and whose silencing of female voices is not conscious or deliberate–because this seems to me to be the larger problem.

William H. Brackney, A Genetic History of Baptist Thought (Mercer University Press, 2004).

Brackney is a brilliant church historian and historical theologian who has taught at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary( now re-named Palmer Theological Seminary) (an American Baptist school), McMaster Divinity College (Canadian Baptist), Baylor University (Baptist General Convention of Texas & Cooperative Baptist Fellowship), and is now Cherry Distinguished Professor of Theology and Ethics at Acadia Divinity College (Canadian Baptist).  His A Genetic History of Baptist Thought traces the theological influences on various Baptist groups since our 17th C. beginnings through confessions of faith, hymns, the influence of pastor-theologians, and through the study of major writing theologians in their institutional settings, i.e., Baptist-founded universities and seminaries and in diaspora at ecumenical institutions or other institutions outside Baptist circles.

Although concentrating on Britain, Canada, and the U.S., Brackney does an excellent job at recovering voices of African-American Baptist theology–all too often neglected in such surveys. His work would have been even more impressive had he not so narrowly defined “theology” in terms of “doctrine,” ruling out influential Baptist voices in biblical theology, historical theology, missiology, and Christian theological ethics.  That definitional restriction naturally eliminated some major female voices.  So, in a dense volume of 592 pages, Brackney only includes brief treatments of two women: the 18th C. British hymnwriters Anne Steele (1717-1778) (a Particular, or Calvinistic, Baptist) and Alice Flowerdew (1759-1830) (a General, or Arminian, Baptist). 

James Leo Garrett, Jr., Baptist Theology: A Four Century Study (Mercer University Press, 2009).

Garrett, a Southern theologian who was one of the last students of W. T. Conner (1877-1952) and who wrote his dissertation on Conner’s theology, taught theology and church history at Southwestern, Southern, and Baylor university.  He is a major theologian in his own right.  He and Brackney were writing at the same time and without knowledge of each other’s surveys.  Garrett also considers confessions, hymns, pastor theologians, and academic writers, but he defines theology in a broader fashion, so that he includes biblical theologians and missiologists.  Garrett also tries to study Baptist thought on all five (5) continents–a welcome inclusiveness.  He includes the roots of Baptist views in the early Church, the Reformers (including the Anabaptists), and is even more inclusive of submerged voices than Brackney, including numerous Latino as well as African-American voices, Asian, African, and Latin American theologians.  Yet, in 792 pages,  Garrett includes not a single female voice, not even in his “New Voices in Baptist Theology.”

What could be the excuse for such neglect?  Why do both these excellent surveys neglect such contributions to British Baptist thought as Anne Dutton (1692-1765), Marianne Farningham (1834-1909), or Muriel Lester (1885-1968)?  If one is going to include the thought of the Southern Baptist missiologist William Owen Carver (1868-1954), as Garrett does, why would one leave out the work of Annie W. Armstrong (1850-1938), or Mary Webb (1779-1861)?  Pioneering missionary Adonirom Judson was married 3 times because two of his wives died on the Burmese mission field.  All 3 women, Ann Hasseltine Judson (1789-1826), Sarah Hall Boardman Judson (1803-1845), and Emily Chubbuck Judson (1817-1854), were writers who influenced American Baptist views on many subjects, especially missiology.  Ann was an excellent student of Hebrew and Greek and helped Adonirom translate the Bible into Burmese and related languages. Her many letters to Baptist papers in America created the image of the missionary as a heroic figure in Baptist life.  Sarah translated Pilgrim’s Progess into Burmese and preached sermons to the Karen and Kachin peoples.  Emily wrote the biography of Sarah’s life, and numerous other works–many of which are now being reprinted by Mercer University Press.  A Canadian Baptist woman (originally from Sweden) who could have been included is Henriette Odin Feller (1800-1845) who founded a college for women.

Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861-1934), a friend of Susan B. Anthony, is the only woman to have published her own translation of the Greek New Testament, and she was the first woman to head a major denomination when she served as President of the Northern (now American) Baptist Convention.  She was also a major proponent and interpreter of Christian missions and a social reformer who helped promote the Social Gospel in Baptist circles.  But neither Brackney nor Garrett mentions a word about Montgomery and her influence.

What is especially puzzling is Garrett’s omission of women’s voices in his chapter on “New Voices in Baptist Life.”  Why no treatment of Molly T. Marshall, now President of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Shawnee, KS) and author of three monographs? Why nothing on Emilie Townes (now of Yale Divinity School), author or editor of four (4) books of theology and ethics (who could’ve also been included in Brackney’s chapters on African-American Baptists or Baptists in Diaspora)? Sheri Adams, now at Gardner-Webb University’s Divinity School, was actually a colleague of Garrett’s at Southwestern but he says nothing of her work which included interaction with Latin-American Liberation Theology.  He covers the work of New Testament theologian Frank Stagg (1911-2001) without mentioning the fact that his wife, Evelyn (1914-), though unable at that time to be a regular student at SBTS, got better grades in Greek than he did and was the uncredited co-author of all his books (finally being listed as such in the 1978 Woman in the World of Jesus). Nor is there any attention to Elizabeth Barnes (of Southeastern Baptist Seminary and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond) who wrote a major study rethinking Baptist ecclesiology with aid from the early Karl Barth and another pioneering work in narrative theology.  Missing is any discussion of Eastern Baptist (now Palmer) Theological Seminary’s Eloise Renich Fraser or Colgate Rochester Crozer’s Melanie A. May.  

Dozens of others could be listed in “new voices.”   As with almost all other Christian traditions, Baptist theology has been dominated by men and the increasing number of women in leadership in (at least some strands of) Baptist circles are hard pressed for role models and female influences.  But when surveys such as Brackney’s and Garrett’s neglect the female voices that have been present, it is needlessly disempowering.  It is also hurtful to men:  Conservative men who are biased against women’s leadership have their already unreasonable pride and arrogance reinforced.  Men who would be open to women’s voices and perspectives are deprived of a chance to be introduced to them.  Further, both men and women miss the important theological perspectives that only women can give. In short, this kind of silencing hurts the Body of Christ.  It’s past time for these kind of silences to end.

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September 17, 2010 - Posted by | Baptists, book reviews, church history, history of theology

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