03 November 2012

Gilded Age/Progressive Era American Christianity and Gender

Before I get into the main part of the post, I got information from the professor who was influential in editing my book that an older lady in California who grew up in Grand Forks visited this summer and was heartbroken to see that church had been torn down.  She contacted Dr. Caraher and he sent her a copy of my book.  I thought it was pretty cool to see that some work that I had done actually had a personal benefit to people. Here is the story as relayed on the New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World blog.

I've been reading quite a bit on Gilded Age and Progressive Era religion in America.  This is part of an independent study that I'm doing to prepare a historiographical essay on the period for my doctoral project/dissertation. I'm not really much into gender history, and any jobs that want an expert in that field are quickly ignored in my search for post-doctoral employment. However, I've read a couple of books this week that were pretty interesting on the subject, Clifford Putney's Muscular Christianity and Margaret Lamberts Bendroth's Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present. The first focused mainly upon mainline churches, while the latter emphasized the more conservative branch of Christianity.

I personally found them both quite interesting in spite of my general aversion to reading gender histories. I especially found Bendroth's account a bit more interesting, given my personal background. One thing that I found a bit interesting was the ease with which women tended to operate in fundamentalist churches, given the goal of muscular Christianity held out by the mainline.

In other words, a picture appears in which the fundamentalist churches were actually more liberal for a time when it came to allowing women to preach and be evangelists. The proclamation of the message was more important than the messenger to these people. Even such such stalwart fundamentalist institutions as Moody Bible Institute and William Bell Riley's Northwestern College allowed women to study for the ministry, and Riley even personally endorsed traveling women evangelists. This liberality was quite surprising given the current reversal of attitudes on gender in which mainline liberals have no problem with women preachers and conservatives hold more to the view of John R. Rice, who wrote a book titled Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers, that supported the Victorian ideal of a woman.  Liberals who were afraid of the feminization of churches in the late Victorian age called for more adherence to the strenuous life and downplayed women's activity in churches. These books were actually a welcome respite from reading nearly exclusively about the Social Gospel.

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