The Religious History of American Women: Reimagining the Past / Edition 1

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More than a generation after the rise of women's history alongside the feminist movement, it is still difficult, observes Catherine Brekus, to locate women in histories of American religion. Mary Dyer, a Quaker who was hanged for heresy; Lizzie Robinson, a former slave and laundress who sold Bibles door to door; Sally Priesand, a Reform rabbi; Estela Ruiz, who saw a vision of the Virgin Mary—how do these women's stories change our understanding of American religious history and American women's history?

In this provocative collection of twelve essays, contributors explore how considering the religious history of American women can transform our dominant historical narratives. Covering a variety of topics—including Mormonism, the women's rights movement, Judaism, witchcraft trials, the civil rights movement, Catholicism, everyday religious life, Puritanism, African American women's activism, and the Enlightenment—the volume enhances our understanding of both religious history and women's history. Taken together, these essays sound the call for a new, more inclusive history.

Ann Braude, Harvard Divinity School
Catherine A. Brekus, University of Chicago Divinity School
Anthea D. Butler, University of Rochester
Emily Clark, Tulane University
Kathleen Sprows Cummings, University of Notre Dame
Amy Koehlinger, Florida State University
Janet Moore Lindman, Rowan University
Susanna Morrill, Lewis and Clark College
Kristy Nabhan-Warren, Augustana College
Pamela S. Nadell, American University
Elizabeth Reis, University of Oregon
Marilyn J. Westerkamp, University of California, Santa Cruz

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"The editor's programmatic introduction combines with well-researched and creatively conceived individual chapters to produce a landmark volume."
Christian Century

"These twelve essays make fascinating reading. Together they make clear how much we miss of American religious history if we ignore the role of women of many ethnic and religious backgrounds."
The Catholic Historical Review

"Reminds readers that a history that includes women will both enrich and alter one's understanding of American religious history. . . . Recommended."

"These essays challenge historians to question the traditional narratives of the religious history of America . . . [and] provide models that can be used for further exploration and incorporation of women into American religious history."
The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

Publishers Weekly

University of Chicago historian Brekus (Strangers and Pilgrims) brings together 12 innovative and engaging essays about women and religion in U.S. history. Several authors treat Catholic women and race: Emily Clark introduces nuns who evangelized slaves in 18th-century New Orleans, and Amy Koehlinger contextualizes white nuns' civil rights activism in the story of the postconciliar reform of religious orders. Many essays make methodological or theoretical points that have broad applications to historical scholarship. Janet Moore Lindman looks beyond churches to find women's spirituality, arguing that women's letter writing, good works and attendance at funerals are meaningful acts of piety that historians may miss if they keep their eyes trained on "the meetinghouse." Susanna Morrill, in a fascinating piece on Mormon women in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, reads popular literature as a key to women's theological discourses. A few of the essays are less original—Pamela Nadell's article on women in American Judaism, for example, makes the uncontroversial claim that it is important to "emphasize women's agency" and to see women as "historical actors" in their own right. The academics and students who will likely make up this volume's main audience are in for a treat. (Apr. 23)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
From the Publisher
"Reminds readers that a history that includes women will both enrich and alter one's understanding of American religious history. . . . Recommended."

"These twelve essays make fascinating reading. Together they make clear how much we miss of American religious history if we ignore the role of women of many ethnic and religious backgrounds."
The Catholic Historical Review

"The editor's programmatic introduction combines with well-researched and creatively conceived individual chapters to produce a landmark volume."
Christian Century

"These essays challenge historians to question the traditional narratives of the religious history of America . . . [and] provide models that can be used for further exploration and incorporation of women into American religious history."
The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807858004
  • Publisher: The University of North Carolina Press
  • Publication date: 4/23/2007
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 493,410
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Catherine A. Brekus is associate professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and author of Strangers and Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845 (from the University of North Carolina Press).

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Read an Excerpt

The Religious History of American Women


The University of North Carolina Press

Copyright © 2007 The University of North Carolina Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8078-3102-1

Chapter One

Puritan Women, Spiritual Power, and the Question of Sexuality

Marilyn J. Westerkamp

In this chapter, Marilyn Westerkamp draws on the insights of both women's history and gender history to enrich our understanding of Puritanism, one of the most researched topics in American religious history. Since hundreds of books have been published about Puritan theology, politics, and piety, it may be hard to imagine that women's history can offer any new perspectives. But as Westerkamp shows, women's history adds new individuals and episodes to the history of Puritanism; it raises new questions about how Puritan theology shaped everyday life, including childrearing, family responsibilities, and death; it reveals that male clergy tried to establish orthodoxy by labeling witchcraft, heresy, and dissent as "feminine" deviance; and it leads scholars to central questions about religion, gender, and power.

When Perry Miller published Orthodoxy in Massachusetts (1936), followed by the breathtaking two-volume New England Mind (1939, 1956), he charted the course for Puritan studies and, in the process, transformed historical understanding of Puritan New England. Before Miller, New England had beenseen as an exceptional, unpleasant place characterized by intolerance, theocracy, and hypocrisy-the New England of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Miller redeemed the Puritans and their colonies, reconstructing their worldview and their theology while recognizing their complexity, dedication, and focus upon the divine. Encountering anxious men seemingly plagued with ideological contradictions, Miller untangled the contradictions and argued that the Puritans' intellectual system was a logically constructed network of scientific, theological, and philosophical views. Miller's Puritans were men of high principle and commitment who strove to create a godly community in the New World.

Yes, Miller's Puritans were men. Very few women appeared in his narrative, his analysis, or his notes. In fact, when reading Miller's New England Mind, one gets the impression that women were singularly unimportant, even in crises that lesser scholars might argue revolved around women. In Miller's productive years, when high school students read the literary canon, the best-known Puritan woman may indeed have been Hester Prynne. Of course, Anne Hutchinson ran a close second and Mary Dyer a distant third, followed by Anne Bradstreet, first published poet in British America, but judged sadly derivative and unimaginative. And, of course, there were Abigail Williams, Elizabeth Proctor, and Rebecca Nurse, all of whom, though actual persons, probably owed their fame to Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Let me note, for the record, that in dealing with the Antinomian crisis of 1636-37, Miller preferred to focus upon four Johns and two Thomases, rendering Hutchinson peripheral to an orthodoxy debate about salvation, free grace, and human endeavor. In his consideration of the 1650s and 1660s, when the Quakers, women and men, were undermining the strength of the magistracy, Miller devoted far greater attention to the Half-Way Covenant, a debate among the clergy about the terms of membership in the church. (To this day, many professors plague students with the esoterica surrounding the Half-Way Covenant while failing to notice that the Puritans actually tortured and executed Quakers during these same years.) Finally, Miller more or less ignored the shake-up of the 1690s, when several young women, with the assistance of their elders, managed to ignite a witch scare across Massachusetts during which 185 people were accused of witchcraft-26 were convicted, 19 were executed (most of them women), and 1 was pressed to death.

In this fashion Perry Miller set the agenda for understanding what was and was not significant to Puritan studies. With two possible exceptions, historians did not incorporate women into the story until the mid-1980s, when women's history finally reached back into the early centuries. Thus at its most basic level, women's history has provided inclusivity. Anne Hutchinson, whose trials before the colonial assembly and the Church of Boston ended a major social, political, and theological conflict during the first decade of settlement, has returned to a central role in the story of the Antinomian crisis. And Anne Bradstreet has been rediscovered and found to be more than a derivative and second-class poet. However, inclusion should take historians beyond some "great women" counterpoint. Consider, for example, the case of Marmaduke Mathews.

In May 1649, Marmaduke Mathews, minister at Hull, was called before the General Court of Massachusetts to answer for "severall erroneous expressions, others weake, inconvenient, and unsafe." Although admonished and officially separated from his congregation, Mathews continued preaching, using "other unsafe, offensive expressions." The government warned the congregation at Malden "not to proceed to the ordination of Mr. Mathewes ... yett, contrary to all advice, and the rule of Gods word, as also the peace of the churches, the church of Malden hath proceeded to the ordination of Mr Mathewes." Two years later, the General Court, finding all parties recalcitrant, fined Mathews u10 and the town of Malden u50. In the end, Mathews did deliver some form of confession, not as complete as had been hoped, but accepted nonetheless. Neither fine, however, was remitted, for the court considered it had experienced a great amount of trouble clearing up this incident. Compared with the magnitude of previous conflicts, this seems a minor incident. It is interesting that the town appears to have been in collusion with its heterodox minister-Malden, as well Mathews, was chastised. Also significant, however, is a petition from the women of Malden, who explained that "god in great mercie to our souls as we Trust hath after many prayers Indeavors & long wayting brought Mr. Mathews Among us & putt him into the worke of the Ministrie." Through his "pious life & labour the Lord hath Afforded [the town] Many Saving convictions ... and Consolations." The town had been spiritually bereft, the women shared the longing, and they claimed benefit from this minister, implicitly asserting their participation in the life of the congregation and the colony.

In all of its unimportance-just another tale of Massachusetts government trouncing upon a town of upstarts and asserting the right of the state to determine orthodoxy-this little story reveals a central feature of Puritanism, namely, the explicit involvement of women. While historians have found that from at least the seventeenth century onward women provided the core membership in most Christian organizations, the institutions themselves expected women to sit quietly in pews, to be guided by male ministers or priests and leading laymen. Women's beliefs and activities have been teased out of official minutes, texts, and reactions recorded by men. Among Puritans, however, women as individuals pursued their own spiritual journeys and participated in the life of their congregations. Although Puritan leaders certainly preferred that women sit quietly in the pews, and although Puritan women may have frequently spoken through husbands, fathers, or male church elders, they did sometimes speak for themselves, and their voices were heard and heeded.

This extension of spiritual power to women was a key aspect of Puritan culture. Mary Oliver, for example, was imprisoned, fined, put in stocks, and threatened with the whip before she was permitted to leave the colony forever. Initially cited for her complaints about church membership, later accusations included "contemning the ordinance of God" and proclaiming that the governor was unjust, corrupt, and a wretch. Rather than brush her o as an insignificant, middling-class woman, the magistrates issued increasingly harsh sentences as they failed to silence her criticisms or extricate themselves from her argument. Anne Hutchinson caused a problem not because she spoke out and criticized the ministers, but because her spiritual gifts were recognized and admired, leading people, women and men, to grant her speech authority. Historians of women are becoming wary of what might be called the system's trap. Before reconstructing and analyzing the systematic efforts and strategies used by Puritan leaders to silence women like Hutchinson, historians must recognize that Hutchinson was making a lot of noise and attracting a significant following of men and women. Leaders did not simply excommunicate and ignore her; they acknowledged her power and demonstrated their own fear when they threw her out of the colony.

From this perspective, the inclusion of individual women in the historical reconstruction of Puritanism is essential if historians hope to comprehend the complexities of this spiritual movement. And historians might go further and investigate the nature of women's experiences as Puritans in more general terms. Turning to women in this way pushes scholars to envision Puritanism asmultivalentatthepopularlevel.Ofcourse,forthepasttwentyyears,historians have granted that Puritanism per se, even New England Puritanism, was not a monovocal system, but one comprising multiple theologies and practices that were debated and processed. Women's religious history travels farther along this pathway. While scholars have found a gender dichotomization of spirituality to be increasingly simplistic, explorations of the experiences of women as women may provide alternative pieces of Puritan spirituality.

To explore such possibilities, what would happen if Anne Dudley Bradstreet displaced John Winthrop or Thomas Shepard as the quintessential Puritan? She, too, arrived on board the Arbella with Winthrop; she was the daughter of one governor and wife of another. She lived to be sixty and bore eight children; seven survived her. In Ipswich and, later, Andover, Massachusetts, she had responsibility for a large household of children and servants, often as the primary authority figure, since her husband was frequently absent from home serving in the colony assembly. Amid her ordinary duties, Bradstreet also composed an interesting sort of personal journal through poetry. One set of verses engaged conventional themes with conventional rhythms and language and was judged worthy of publication by contemporary standards. However, a second group, not intended for publication, contemplated the crises and blessings of her own life. Of a radically different quality and nature, these verses reflected a depth of emotion and personal engagement that made for intimate, touching, and, undoubtedly, better poetry. While it is unclear who the intended audience was-perhaps no one aside from herself-the verses read like spiritual self-reflection, not unlike the diaries of Michael Wigglesworth or Thomas Shepard. The texts enable historians to explore the particular anxieties and experiences of a Puritan woman through the prism of her religious world.

Bradstreet experienced complex, contradictory feelings over childbearing. While she undoubtedly participated in the gracious female community of birthing, she, like other women, grimly accepted the possibility of death. A woman might die giving birth to her first child, or a woman who had lived through eight pregnancies might not survive the ninth. Any woman facing childbirth was likely to have known more than one woman who had died giving birth. Moreover, in the seventeenth century, most women had suffered the death of at least one infant, and some lost half their children at birth. Healthy Puritans frequently spoke in general terms about death looming over everyone, but no healthy Puritan was more aware of mortality than an expectant woman. As she neared the end of one pregnancy, Bradstreet wrote a farewell poem to her husband. In later poems she memorialized a daughter-in-law who died in childbirth as well as three grandchildren who died before reaching the age of four.

Within Bradstreet's mourning for her three-year-old grandchild, Anne, her grief is joined to guilt and self-recrimination at her own selfish sorrow.

I knew she was but a withering flower, That's here today, perhaps gone in an hour; ... More fool then I to look on that was lent As if mine own, when thus impermanent.

And again, she counters her own pain at the loss of her grandchild Elizabeth, aged eighteen months, with her ultimate Puritan faith.

Blest babe, why should I once bewail thy fate, Or sigh thy days so soon were terminate, Sith thou art settled in an everlasting state.

Among the most revealing of these poems on death is her memorial to her daughter-in-law, who died in childbirth. According to the poem, Mercy Bradstreet was twenty-eight; she had previously had four children, three of whom died. This fifth child died within a week of the mother's death. Bradstreet expressed grief for herself and her son, who "hath lost both tree and fruit." Yet the verses also reveal a cosmology that enabled her to process these losses. Mercy was at peace, "All freed from grief (I trust) among the blest;" and one child remained to bring joy and comfort. Bradstreet finished the poem with a faithful encouragement to her son to trust in God.

Cheer up, dear son, thy fainting bleeding heart, In Him alone that caused all this smart; What though thy strokes full sad and grievous be, He knows it is the best for thee and me.

Bradstreet's strong connection to her family was revealed in these private poems, more than half of which explicitly focused upon children, grandchildren, and her husband. Like Margaret Winthrop, whose letters always expressed acceptance of divine providence, Bradstreet tempered her love for spouse Simon with resignation to his magisterial duties and to God's will. But also like Winthrop, anxiety and longing came through: "If two be one, as surely thou and I, / How stayest thou there, whilst I at Ipswich lie?" For as concerned as she was with her family, Bradstreet's writings did not neglect herself. Ten poems responded to her own illnesses, providing opportunities to explore not fears as much as the expectation of death and salvation. She lamented the pain and tedium of illness and regretted her husband's absence, "but my God, who never failed me, was not absent but helped me and graciously manifested his love to me." Such trust in God is prevalent throughout these writings where complaints about sickness and hardship were balanced with an understanding of God's purpose in this providence: "[God] hath never suffered me long to sit loose from Him.... I have no sooner felt my heart out of order, but I have expected correction for it, which most commonly hath been upon my own person in sickness ... sometimes on my soul, in doubts and fears of God's displeasure.... Sometimes He hath smote a child with a sickness, sometimes by losses in estate.... I have found them the times when the Lord hath manifested the most love to me."

Bradstreet's theology explained hardships as trials, punishments, and gifts of grace that God sent even as he provided the strength and comfort to endure them. Here her relationship with God was that of a wayward and troubled child corrected and consoled by a nurturing parent. This paternal framework appeared more frequently than others did, perhaps because it was the one that best responded to afflictions. Still, there was an alternative image of God standing side by side with the other. Within the second construction, God moved as husband and lover, and the relationship was described as one of communion. "Thou art my Creator, I Thy creature, Thou my master, I Thy servant. But hence arises not my comfort, Thou art my Father, I Thy child ... but lest this should not be enough, thy maker is thy husband. Nay more, I am a member of His body, He my head." Bradstreet spoke not only of grace, faith, and assurance, but also of a personal relationship with God. She noted her confusion that she had not experienced the waves of assurance that conversion brought to many believers. She had "not found that constant joy in my pilgrimage and refreshing which I supposed most of the servants of God [had]," although she had, nonetheless, "some-times tasted of that hidden manna that the world knows not." Her love for God was such that she would endure hell itself in order to find it: "Were I in hell itself and could there find the love of God toward me, it would be a heaven." She found comfort in her trust in God, looking toward the end of her life and her final union with God.

Then soul and body shall unite And of their Maker have the sight. Such lasting joys shall there behold As ear ne'er heard nor tongue e'er told. Lord make me ready for that day, Then come, dear Bridegroom, come away.


Excerpted from The Religious History of American Women Copyright © 2007 by The University of North Carolina Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Searching for Women in Narratives of American Religious History   Catherine A. Brekus     1
Puritan Women, Spiritual Power, and the Question of Sexuality   Marilyn J. Westerkamp     51
Revelation, Witchcraft, and the Danger of Knowing God's Secrets   Elizabeth Reis     73
Hail Mary Down by the Riverside: Black and White Catholic Women in Early America   Emily Clark     91
Sarah Osborn's Enlightenment: Reimagining Eighteenth-Century Intellectual History   Catherine A. Brekus     108
Beyond the Meetinghouse: Women and Protestant Spirituality in Early America   Janet Moore Lindman     142
Unrespectable Saints: Women of the Church of God in Christ   Anthea D. Butler     161
Women's Popular Literature as Theological Discourse: A Mormon Case Study, 1880-1920   Susanna Morrill     184
The "New Woman" at the "University": Gender and American Catholic Identity in the Progressive Era   Kathleen Sprows Cummings     206
Faith, Feminism, and History   Ann Braude     232
"Are You the White Sisters or the Black Sisters?": Women Confounding Categories of Race and Gender   Amy Koehlinger     253
Engendering Dissent: Women and American Judaism   Pamela S. Nadell     279
Little Slicesof Heaven and Mary's Candy Kisses: Mexican American Women Redefining Feminism and Catholicism   Kristy Nabhan-Warren     294
Acknowledgments     319
Selected Readings     321
Contributors     325
Index     327
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