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9-08-2015, 18:01

Gender issues in western Christianity

Many of the spiritualist and pietist groups regarded personal religious devotion as more important than theological training or holding an offi cial clerical position in determining who was properly called by God, so that women often played more important roles than they did in the offi cial state churches. Johanna Eleonora Petersen (1644–1724) organized several pietist circles and wrote a huge number of tracts, including a commentary on the Book of Revelation. Erdmuthe von Zinzendorf (1700–56) was largely responsible for the fi nancial security and day-to-day operations of her husband’s colony of Moravian Brethren at Herrnhut in Germany, and handled missionary work in Denmark and Livonia. Susanna Wesley, John and Charles’s mother, held meetings with hundreds in attendance at which she read sermons and discussed religious issues, and other Methodist women preached and ran weekly meetings. The Shakers – offi cially the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing – a spiritualist group that began in the 1740s around Manchester in England, came under the leadership of the visionary and mystic Ann Lee (1736–84). Lee’s followers regarded her as the second coming of Christ; God, in their eyes, was both female and male, so Christ’s second coming would have to be in a female body. Her visions also told her that sexuality was depraved, and her followers swore celibacy and chastity. She and her followers were severely persecuted, and in 1774 she led eight of them to the American colonies; persecution continued and she died as the result of beatings. Despite – or perhaps because of – their advocacy of celibacy, the Shakers continued to win followers; at their peak, in about 1830, American Shakers may have numbered 6,000 people. The Shakers were not the only radical or pietist group to develop unusual ideas about sexuality or distinctive systems of marriage. Such groups did not regard marriage as a sacrament – most rejected the idea of sacraments completely – but they placed more emphasis on its spiritual nature than did Lutherans or Calvinists. Marriage was a covenant – a contract – between a man and a woman based on their membership in the body of believers, and thus was linked to their redemption. Because of this the group as a whole or at least its leaders should have a say in marital choice, broadening the circle of consent far beyond the parental consent required by Luther, Calvin, and other less radical reformers. Quakers who wished to marry had to produce a certifi cate stating that both parties were Quaker, or risk expulsion. Moravians in Pennsylvania were segregated by sex until marriage; when a man wished to marry, he came to the Elders’ Conference, which proposed a possible spouse. Three colored ballots standing for “yes,” “no,” and “wait” were placed in a box, and one was drawn, which was regarded as the “Savior’s decision.” To their adherents and supporters, the actions of female leaders were heroic signs of God operating through the least of his creatures, and unusual structures of marriage highlighted a distinction from the rest of the “fallen” world. To their opponents, the women’s actions and the strange marriage rules were proof of a group’s demonic or at least misguided nature. Among the “errors, heresies, blasphemies and pernicious practices of the sectaries,” described by Thomas Edwards in Gangraena (London, 1646), a long tract against those who opposed state churches, was the fact that they allowed women to preach. Johann Feustking, a German theologian, turned his attention entirely to women in Gynaeceum haeretico fanaticum (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1704), spending 700 pages describing, as his full title reads, the “false prophetesses, quacks, fanatics and other sectarian and frenzied female persons through whom God’s church is disturbed.” Methodists were ridiculed for allowing female preaching, and often criticized in gendered language – as “silly women” – because the testimony of all followers seemed overly emotional and sentimental. Individuals claiming to be divinely inspired, whether female or male, were “enthusiasts” whose practices, in the eyes of their more restrained critics, were both theologically suspect and medically dangerous. In the later eighteenth century, especially in France, Catholicism was also condemned for allowing women to be too infl uential. Philosophers criticizing the power of the Catholic Church over education, marriage, charities, and other aspects of culture decried an alliance between women and priests in which emotion and “blind” faith were prized and reason was excluded. After the French Revolution, they pointed to women’s actions during the confl ict – hiding priests who refused to sign oaths of loyalty to the government, attending illegal worship services, and organizing prayer-meetings and processions – as signs of this feminine weakness for “superstition.” Historians of Christianity in the late nineteenth century often attempted to be more “objective” and “scientifi c,” which meant that they highlighted offi cial institutional and intellectual developments and paid less attention to popular devotional practices or individuals outside the mainstream. Like their colleagues in the newly professionalizing fi eld of secular history, they often left women out of the story. Pietist and Methodist historians who did include women such as Johanna Petersen, Erdmuthe von Zinzendorf, or Susanna Wesley in their histories were careful to describe them as “helpmates.” Over the past thirty years, however, many scholars have returned to a position closer to Edwards and Feustking than to nineteenth-century church historians. They see the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a period in which Christianity in many parts of Europe – and not simply that of “sectaries,” “fanatics,” or “enthusiasts” – offered new avenues of religious creativity and activism for women. Even within the state churches, women bought many more devotional books than men, joined confraternities and prayer groups in record numbers, and wrote religious books that were read by both women and men. Whether in sectarian groups or state churches, women rarely broke with religious traditions that privileged men and instructed women to be obedient and subservient, but their independent actions provided a more ambiguous message. This “feminization of religion,” as it has been termed, continued into the nineteenth century, with religion increasingly viewed, along with the family, as part of the female sphere.

 

 

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