HX-8351, Women in 19th-20th Century American Christianity

I taught this class at the Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, in the spring semester of 2002. Because of ongoing interest in the topic from students and outside readers, as well as my hope to expand this area in the future, most of the material is presented here for reference.

The modern definition of disability centers on the social construction and response to the effects of a physical or similar difference from that considered "normal." This class dealt with one of the oldest and most stubborn disabilities in the world: that of being female in a patriarchal society. The material included the role of women, theological and cultural justifications of that role, and studies of a number of women who broke out of the mold -- although, for some of them, this happened in a very low-key subversive manner.

Of particular interest in this subversive process was the way women became writers of hymns. Women took up an accepted (and mostly domestic) role, in this case, teaching, and then modified it into a major public role. In doing this, they followed a classic sequence of claiming inspiration and thus divine authority. These women coupled this claim with an extension of their then-typical role of mothers: their true calling as those who monitored the home was to save the world, and thus they had to speak openly to men who were in need of salvation. In the end, they were able to reach beyond hymnody, culminating (for the time frame) in Aimee Semple McPherson, who became a nationally-known preacher. Other notable women included Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, and the theologian Georgia Harkness.

Along the way, we explored the formation of social conventions, how such conventions become accepted as being religious truth, and the effect of this process on contemporary debates.

Reading and Text List
Reference and Research list


Illustration: frontispiece, American Tract Society, The Young Lady's Guide, New York: 1870. Courtesy of Michigan State University Libraries.