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Reflections: Baptists and women's issues in the twentieth century.

Breathing helium produces a higher voice. Sore throats usually make one hoarse. Laryngitis leaves a person silent much to the delight of so-called friends. Anger usually results in a loud and perhaps frighteningly powerful voice. A shaky voice may indicate fear. Voices are revealing. Voices are powerful. Controlling others' voices has been and is the goal of governments around the world. Controlling the voices of others is often the mission of the power figures in families--even denominational families.

Reflecting on Baptists and women's issues in the twentieth century, it seems to me that there was one issue that dominated woman's relationship with Baptists: who controls the voice of women? One statement sums up woman's story in twentieth century Baptist life: Baptist women, black and white, in the north and in the south, spent the century trying to get a voice in the denominations they served. Recall some of the issues Baptist women faced in the last century: Can women speak in mixed audiences? Can women vote in the nation, in the convention, in the church? Will women be elected to denominational boards? And if they are, will they be elected at the same rate as men? Can women be admitted to all educational opportunities? Will women be hired into any vocation to which they are called? Can women be ordained? Will churches call women as senior pastors? Other issues confronted women as well, but you get the picture. All of these issues center around one basic question. Do women really have a voice in Baptist life?

Various voices assist us in examining this topic and understanding the struggle. First, noiseless voices reveal the problems of having speech controlled. Second, confusing voices shed light on the complexities of the issue. Third, noisy voices demonstrate a refusal to be silenced by the powerful forces around them.

Noiseless Voices

First, the effort throughout the twentieth century to control the voices of Baptist women resulted in noiseless voices, frustrated yet powerful in some cases. Although they likely had not heard of him, many Baptists in the last century seemed to agree with the philosopher Pliny the Elder. In his book Natural History Pliny insisted that women were to be quiet and inconspicuous so that when they died no one would even know they had lived. (1) Centuries later William P. Harvey, an early twentieth century Baptist minister, asked, "What kind of woman does the Bible command?" Harvey immediately ruled out the "public speaking, woman's rights, shrieking, Amazonian, man-defying woman." (2) Harvey did not want what some called a "platform woman." Many stories bare witness to that attitude among Baptists." From the early 1900s to the late 1990s, too many Baptists preferred women with silent voices--women who would unquestionably follow the authority of men.

Myrtle Morris may have been an unknowing prophet in 1904. Myrtle was truly the first noiseless voice for women in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Since Myrtle could not hear she could not speak. Myrtle was heading to Cuba to start a school for the deaf. The convention voted unanimously to "hear" Morris as she interpreted a song being sung by a man. So the first woman to address the convention was in reality a silent voice, apparently the kind of female voice Baptist conventioneers still like best.

As the century opened, American Baptists, National Baptists, and Freewill Baptists included women speakers at their meetings. But in the SBC muted women were the rule of the day at conventions, in churches, in classrooms, wherever men were present. Occasionally a woman reported to her state convention in the first quarter of the century with little stir. But a woman speaking before the convention was cause of considerable tension and debate. The first time a woman reported to the Southern Baptist Convention was through a male voice. Fannie E. S. Heck wrote a twenty-fifth anniversary report of the Woman's Missionary Union (WMU), in 1913 but the report was read by a man, W. O. Carver. (4) The rare times that women did speak even briefly before the Southern Baptist Convention are curiously missing from the minutes of the convention although newspapers and diaries reported the events. Such omissions give evidence to the growing realization that often the contributions of women have been intentionally omitted from historical records. That's one way of silencing women. B. D. Gray, the secretary of the Home Mission Board in 1916, gave thirty minutes of his time at the convention to Kathleen Mallory and Maud Reynolds McLure to raise money for the WMU Training School. And did he turn the heat up on a boiling pot! While the editor of the Western Recorder was appalled at Gray's action, the editor of The Baptist Standard, J. B. Gambrell declared that the most thrilling part of the convention was the two ladies speaking. (5) Perhaps so, but those who found it thrilling had to wait fourteen years to hear a lady again.

Because WMU was celebrating its fortieth anniversary, Ethlene Cox was invited to address the convention in 1929. Again, the issue of a woman speaking at the convention was contentious. J. W. Porter offered a resolution protesting any woman speaking at the SBC since it was not scriptural, and he added, "Eve tempted Adam. Now the SBC is tempting women. The women would do all right if the petticoated preachers would leave them alone." (6) But M. E. Dodd countered that all were one in Christ. The audience broke into applause. When Porter's resolution was defeated with a thunder of negative votes, he grabbed his hat and left. (7)

Something about women's voices bothered men. Even in the classroom at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary women could listen, but could not ask questions, contribute to a discussion, or even record their words on a test. The strict control of women's voices in any arena where men were present causes me to wonder: what was it that men feared?

No Petticoated, Platform Preachers

The United States Supreme Court continues to rule that speech is not limited to words but is expressed in other ways such as financial contributions. The Court is correct. Voices are much more than words and speeches. Voting is one way of being a voice. Although women could work in slums or in the back country of foreign lands, national suffrage would surely permanently soil them. Women could lead in missions education and giving, but they could not have a say in how those programs were designed or those monies were spent. Women should not vote in the nation, in the convention, or in the church. In other words, women were free to have the responsibilities of being Baptists but not free to have the privileges.

Robert H. Coleman started plowing the ground for women suffrage in the SBC in 1913 by notifying the convention that the next year he would propose amending the constitution to recognize women as messengers. His resolution was based on Baptist principles of all things. It began with these words, "Whereas, In so pure a democracy as a Baptist church, all members have equal privileges; and Whereas, Women constitute so vital a part of the membership of our churches, both in numbers and in workers; ..." (8) But it took this pure democracy four more years to grant equal privileges. Not until 1918 did Coleman's amendment get approval. Even so, Southern Baptists gave women the privilege of voting two years before the nation did. The suffrage dominoes did not fall as rapidly as one might expect. Kentucky women were not allowed to be messengers in their state convention until 1956.

Now that women were recognized as voting members of the convention, Mrs. W. C. James, president of the WMU, recommended that the convention include nine WMU members on the executive committee, and twelve on the other five boards or 33 percent of each board. In light of the significant contribution WMU made to the financial health of more than one board, James's request was most appropriate. And still is. The editor of the Religious Herald at the time said there was no good reason why the boards should not include the women and at least a dozen reasons why they should? And he is still correct. Clearly the Baptist men then and now want women to provide major financial support of the programs but not to have a significant voice in their execution. At least half of the mission boards' annual budgets are currently met due to the educational and promotional effort of women, yet in 1999 women made up only 26 percent of the International Mission Board trustees and 23 percent of the North American Mission Board. (10) At present the Executive Committee, the most powerful committee of the SBC, is composed of a mere 5.6 percent women. As we enter a new century, seventy-nine years after Mrs. James's requests, her percentages have yet to be met. Women's voices remain overpowered if not stilled.

While Southern Baptist men were debating whether women could speak or vote, women were speaking, not on platforms but in print--soundless voices. Since its early days, WMU produced growing amounts of literature for missions organizations. Women wrote, edited, and published the materials. Social work gave women a quiet but effective voice. Baptist men and women believed it was proper for women to be involved in changing society. Many Baptist women worked to solve urban problems brought on by industrialization and immigration. While women were not platform women or petticoated preachers, they were nevertheless one-on-one evangelists and very effective at that! Unlike platform male evangelists who knew little about the needs of the souls they won, the women often were working to improve the living conditions of those to whom they proclaimed the gospel.

As the U.S. Supreme Court says, money is a voice. When the Foreign Mission Board refused to appoint single women as missionaries, the WMU ladies suggested that they would merely keep some of the money raised and support the single women themselves. The mission board had a rapid change of heart. Money talks. In later years as the executive secretaries of the two boards and the WMU began to work more closely, the women did finally exert some influence in the expenditure of the offering money. More recently the leadership of the convention attempted to usurp or steal the control of the missions program from the WMU. The auxiliary status the men demanded in 1888 prevented them from the immediate control they wanted to demand a century later. However, convention forces are still at work eroding the independence and voice of the mission organization that has been the backbone of SBC missions for over a century.

The SBC is still working on several fronts to control the noise of women's voices. Let's recall a few: The 1984 resolution on women and ordination, the 1998 resolution on family, the "ordination of women" litmus test being used today in its institutions and agencies, and the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message statement limiting the "office of the pastor" to men. With muted voices many Baptist women faithfully served their churches and conventions anyway. Fortunately many women have seen beyond the opposing men to the teachings of Christ. As W. O. Carver said in 1941, although the Christian church emerged in a man's world and reflected masculine responsibility, the Christian idea "saves man from the spirit of domination and the arrogance of superiority." (11) Some very influential Baptist men have yet to experience this salvation.

Confusing Voices

Second, confusing voices reveal the complexities of controlling women's voices. Noiseless voices are a problem for any group because being heard is essential to being taken seriously. However, some of the voices women heard were a problem as well. Mixed messages are also a part of the Baptist landscape and are very confusing to women and their supporters. Baptists believe in every one being his or her own priests, interpreting Scriptures for oneself, and forming one's own beliefs rather than adopting a creed written by another. Therefore, on the "woman question" some Baptists insisted on controlling women; others insisted on liberating them to use their gifts. When a person is unquestionably on one side or the other, the messages and positions are clear. Quite puzzling to all Baptist women, north and south, are the mixed messages they continue to get.

From the beginning of the century, women have dealt with messages that give a pious woman whiplash. John A. Broadus in 1900 said the primary reason for the elevation of women was the Bible, but it placed restrictions on women's activities and instructed them to submit to their husbands. (12) Restrictions and subordination are elevation? (Broadus's daughter Ella later gave women instruction on effective public speaking! She apparently favored elevation over restriction.) Not long after Broadus's androcentric conclusion, A. T. Robertson insisted that Galatians 3:28 referred to salvation, not to preaching. For, said he, just because women might be better speakers at associational meetings, they did not have the right to speak there. (13) God does not want the better speakers? William Harvey admitted that woman had been mistreated by society and "pagan barbarism." Woman's hope, he insisted, was in Christianity where she should be "gentle, retiring and unassuming" avoiding public forums. (14) So Christianity was not mistreating woman? I wonder if Broadus, Robertson, or Harvey mangled their tongues speaking out of both sides of their mouths at once?

Progression of time did not weaken the puzzling messages. In more recent years, when a WMU leader visited a church as its first female speaker, she was introduced as "Brother Dorothy." (15) In 1977, the South District Association of Baptists in Kentucky voted to withdraw fellowship from the Beech Fork Baptist Church because it ordained Suzanne Coyle. Then in a totally mystifying action they voted to send her a letter of encouragement! Noting that ordination was "surely one of the most significant choices" of her life, the letter said they did not intend any negative statement regarding her call or usefulness and felt God had something special for her. The letter closed by saying they did not want to wound her and prayed that God would guide her and let her do great things according to His will." (16) They kicked her out although God had something special for her? And they were praying God would let her do great things? Apparently they did not believe God could do special and great things in the South District Association.

Then, there was the 1984 SBC resolution "On Ordination and the Role of Women in Ministry" which acknowledged the "equal dignity of men and women, ... [that] the Holy Spirit was at Pentecost divinely outpoured on men and women alike," that women prophesied in the early church, that women should be held in high honor and esteemed, and that women should be encouraged to serve in all capacities of church life except pastoral duties or anything requiring ordination." (17) Exclusion from leadership is high honor, esteem, and equal dignity? Again, in 1998, the convention passed a resolution on family that exalted women while subordinating them. Exalted subordination sounds like an oxymoron to me. Southern Baptists voted in 2000 on a revision of the Baptist Faith and Message which stated that "each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord" and "both men and women are gifted for service" but the "office of Pastor is limited to men." (18) If each person is accountable to God, how can Southern Baptists state a limitation?

Baptists need a Pulitzer Prize for their continuing ability to talk out of both sides of their mouths using the Holy Writ to support their duplicity. Many Baptist women shake their heads in amazement that seemingly intelligent people formulate such incongruent statements to secure their own positions. Very often that kind of doublespeak speeds too many thoughtful women away from our churches, institutions, and convention. Some choose to ignore the puzzling rhetoric and go about their business of doing Christianity within the Baptist context. Others continually struggle with their anger toward the community of faith that birthed them and yet sends these perplexing messages, refuses to hire them, and in fact shuns or expels them.

One of the noteworthy events for Southern Baptist women in the last century was the Consultation for Women in Church-Related Vocations held in 1978. Eleven denominational agencies sponsored the three-day event. Women from agencies, schools, and churches expressed their sense of call, their fulfillment in their careers, their anger over lack of support by virtually all the entities of the convention, and their frustration over the confusion of SBC voices. Quite moving were the voices of women who served in various offices or ministries, knowing they were where God wanted them to be. Quite disturbing were the angry voices of women who could not find an open door of service.

As I drove home from the meeting, lingering questions haunted me: Why did pastors and churches encourage all young people to answer God's call but fail to call young ordained women to serve in their churches? Why did seminaries encourage young women to study theology and yet do little to assist them in vocational placement? What were the eleven sponsoring agencies doing to employ more women or to place more women on their boards of trustees? Was a consultation a way of airing a problem without making significant change?

As I drove on, I reflected on the voices I heard the last three days. The frustrated voices were those who were recently graduated from seminary or recently ordained and could not find employment. The angry voices were those who had been in that pursuit for about five years. The hostile voices came from those who had spent the better part of a decade trying to find a place to minister. With our double messages, we were actually creating a core of hostile women. Some of those women finally settled on another way to serve Southern Baptists and have made their peace with the realities. The sad truth is that many of those very frustrated, angry, hostile, dedicated, and bright women have either found places to serve in other denominations or have become agnostics.

Mixed messages unrecognized and uncorrected are ultimately damaging. The year after that consultation, the fundamentalists proudly took over the SBC and any hope for affirming women's leadership went down the androcentric drain. Unfortunately the gender issue is not limited to the Southern part of the Baptist family. American Baptist, National Baptist, and to some extent Freewill Baptist women suffered similar whiplash from mixed messages. Women in those three branches of the Baptist family tree have experienced more support and opportunities than women in the SBC. Yet, even they have struggled and continue to struggle with denominations that affirm them verbally more than they do in employment.

All three groups were ordaining women at the dawn of the twentieth century and have a significantly higher percentage of women serving as senior pastors today. At the same time, those women struggle to get the positions easily obtained by the men of their faith. We Baptists tout our doctrines of freedom while we muzzle our female voices. It is a very confusing message.

Like Archie Bunker, we have tried our best to stifle the voices of our partners to make them noiseless. The effort to control women's voices produced millions of noiseless voices and thousands of confusing voices. In spite of long and sustained tactics to keep the women silent or least confuse them, the movement failed.

Noisy Voices

The third chorus of voices are the noisy voices. Sure, there are still muted voices and confused voices in our Baptist family, but the attempts to make those voices universal among women has failed because important noisy voices emerged in the twentieth century also. Women's voices simply could not and would not be muted. Nannie Burroughs, addressing the National Baptist Convention in 1900, declared there was a "righteous discontent" among black women. (19) Burroughs spoke for countless Baptist women of all races. To the chagrin of many pious men, some Baptist women considered the Bible as their ultimate authority and their call by God as their ultimate commitment. Whenever Baptist men have difficulty controlling Baptist women, Baptist theology is often the culprit. Baptist doctrine places great confidence in the believer. So Baptist principles fortified the women and gave them the freedom to claim their own priesthood, their right to interpret Scriptures for themselves, and their churches the freedom to make their own decisions. All female voices did not remain silent; some became increasingly noisy. The noise was blasphemy to the controllers; it was exhilarating to numerous women and men. In 1921, when Southern Baptist women were begging for a few positions on convention boards, Helen Barrett Montgomery was elected president of the Northern Baptist Convention. (20) Ordained women in the North served churches throughout the century. Lansing Burrows, who served as president of the SBC in 1914, observed that many Christians were excited about the possibility of ordaining women. (21) Most Southern Baptists were exercised about the possibility but not excited. In fact, it was a half century later in 1964 that Southern Baptists finally jumped on board kicking and screaming when the Watts Avenue Baptist Church boldly ordained Addie Davis.

American Baptists and Freewill Baptists encourage women in ministry more than National Baptists and Southern Baptists do. But in none of these Baptist groups do women occupy posts of leadership in proportion to their membership or work in the denomination. For example, the average African-American church has three times as many female members as male members. Yet, leadership is overwhelmingly male. Mary Beth Sarhatt reports in the American Baptist Churches USA that there are not many churches willing to consider a woman as pastor. (22) Nannie Burroughs, a National Baptist, ushered in the century by noting "how the sisters are hindered from helping." As the century ended, the sisters were still hindered from proclaiming the good news to all people. Today, there are almost 1,600 ordained women among Southern Baptists. Only 100 serve as pastor and 600 are trying to find a place to minister. (23) In 1983, Southern Baptist Women in Ministry was formed to provide a network for women called to all forms of ministry. In 1995, they dropped the "Southern" from their name to open the doors to all Baptist women in ministry. Although American Baptists and National Baptists have a higher percentage of women serving as senior pastors, ordination, placement, and promotion remain problems for all Baptist women called to ministry.

Lay women are also called to serve. The very first Baptist church in the seventeenth century had women deacons as have some Baptist churches ever since. In the last thirty or forty years of the twentieth century, increasing numbers of churches were seeing the value in having both genders serve as deacons.

Two Progressive Steps Backward

Students of Baptist history recognize immediately that women in the twentieth century made two progressive steps backward. In early English and American Baptist history, women were accepted leaders as deacons and preachers. Baptist women of the twentieth century who responded to the call to serve as preacher or deacon were merely progressing back to our earlier Baptist heritage. Placing Baptist women in leadership positions was not initiating a twentieth-century innovation but was reclaiming our deepest roots. But like many of their sisters, Baptist women in the last century hit a glass ceiling--except Baptist women hit it very quickly, and it was a stained glass ceiling. The stained glass was not a colorful glass depiction of one of the many biblical models of womanhood to which Baptist women could aspire. The glass was stained with the bruised heads of women who attempted to rise to their calling and hit the ceiling installed by men not God.

Baptist women of the twentieth century claimed a theology of liberation (Gal. 3:28; Acts 21:9). Baptist men insisted on a theology of limitation (1 Tim. 2:11; 1 Cor. 14:34). The message given to all disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 to "go, tell" has no gender criteria, but is curiously constrained by gender for some. The Bible's message is one of liberation, not limitation.


All three of these voices-- the noiseless, the confused, and the noisy--are heard throughout the century. An astute observer will recognize notable periods when some voices crescendo. In the first two decades of the century, the focus was on keeping women silent in every way. In the next five decades, from 1920 to 1970, gradual and quiet progress was made for woman in several areas. The last three decades of the century heard increasing numbers of women declaring their call and prodding Baptists to open doors to ministry. At the same time a growing choir of voices searched for ways to subdue the noisy ones. The century began and ended with strong fundamentalist efforts to control the voices of women. A deeply perplexing question for many thoughtful Baptists is: If our urgency is to tell the world about Christ, why not empower every voice? Restriction makes no theological sense--unless the theology is about power rather than mission.

One issue dominated women's relationship within Baptists in the twentieth century: who controls the voice of women? When other persons attempted to control that voice, they silenced some women, confused many women, and made ministry difficult for those who refused to be silenced. Baptist women spent the century trying to get a voice in their denominations. By the end of the twentieth century, had woman gained a voice in Baptist life? My conclusion is that she was a strong soloist surrounded by a chorus of opposition.


(1.) Joan Morris, The Lady Was a Bishop (New York: Macmillan, 1973), xi.

(2.) William P. Harvey, Shall Woman Preach? (Louisville: Baptist Book Concern, 1905), 30.

(3.) Certainly many women and men among Baptists did not share this attitude. In this article, "Baptists" will refer to those of majority and influential views.

(4.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1914, 64-67.

(5.) Catherine B. Allen, A Century to Celebrate: History of Woman's Missionary Union (Birmingham: Woman's Missionary Union, 1987), 306.

(6.) Ibid., 312.

(7.) Ibid.

(8.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1917, 37.

(9.) Harry Leon McBeth, "The Role of Women in Southern Baptist History," Baptist History and Heritage 12 (January 1977), 15

(10.) See Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1999. Also note that the Foreign Mission Board is now called the International Mission Board and the Home Mission Board is now called the North American Mission Board.

(11.) W. O. Carver, "Christ's Gift to Women and His Gift of Women to the Human Race" (Address at Baptist W.M.U. Training School Commencement, Louisville, Kentucky, May 8, 1941).

(12.) John A. Broadus, "Should Women Speak in Mixed Assemblies?" Feminism: Woman and Her Work, ed. J. W. Porter (Bloomfield, N.M.: The Historic Baptist, 1995 reprint), 66.

(13.) A. T. Robertson, "Introduction," Shall Women Preach?" William E Harvey (Louisville: Baptist Book Concern, 1906), 5.

(14.) Harvey, 30.

(15.) Ellen M. Rosenberg, The Southern Baptists: A Subculture in Transition (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1989), 127.

(16.) Leon McBeth, Women in Baptist Life (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1979), 162.

(17.) Annual, Southern Baptist Convention, 1984, 65.

(18.) Baptist Press, May 18, 2000.

(19.) Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Woman's Movement in the Black Baptist Church 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 150.

(20.) The Northern Baptist Convention is now called American Baptist Churches, USA.

(21.) Sermon by Lansing Burrows, "Woman's Position in the Church," June 1872 (Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives).

(22.) Mary Beth Sarhatt, "We've Come This Far By Faith," American Baptist Quarterly 13 (December 1994): 375.

(23.) Statistics provided by Sarah Frances Anders, phone interview, April 19, 2000.

Carolyn DeArmond Blevins is associate professor of religion, Carson-Newman College.
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Author:Blevins, Carolyn DeArmond
Publication:Baptist History and Heritage
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2000
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