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Sallie Rochester Ford: fiction, faith, and femininity: nineteenth-century Baptists offered two general, and different, cultural messages to women within the church regarding social expectations.

The first, and most predictable, message addressed gender roles and signaled the preeminence of piety over power, submission over supremacy, and maternalism over masculinity. The "true" Baptist woman, in this way, resembled the cultural ideal for most American women. (1) The second Baptist message, however, afforded women status as soldiers of the faith: not just as pious paragons of virtue, but as aggressive warriors in the coliseum of pluralistic American religious life. Through this second role, Baptist women could assert the strength and resilience of the independent baptistic spirit.

Historical studies of Baptist women tend to focus on their institutional work as they labored to create important mission societies, reform agencies, and educational organizations. Sallie Rochester Ford (1828-1910) figured in this regard as a courageous, and even controversial, leader in the late-nineteenth-century drive to create a woman's missions organization. Ford's efforts to establish the Baptist woman's voice in what would become the Woman's Missionary Union would secure her place as, in Catherine B. Allen's words, "the best-known women's leader between 1882 and 1888." (2)

Ford actually built her fame in the 1850s as co-editor of the Christian Repository, a leading Baptist periodical of the West. In her section of the Repository, she edited and personally contributed didactic articles and serialized religious stories. One of these stories, Grace Truman, eventually proved so popular with readers that Ford published it in book form in 1857, and it made her famous in Baptist circles. However, her novels and other writings command attention not just as examples of romantic, Victorian literature, but more significantly as manifestations of the two-sided Baptist message to women. Ford articulated in her fiction a personal vision of the Baptist woman as a heroic defender of the faith who also wrestled with the cultural ideal of female submission: an ideal that she herself helped to create.

Gaining a Voice

Raised in a Presbyterian family in Kentucky, Sallie Rochester married Baptist preacher Samuel H. Ford in March 1855. She joined her husband almost immediately as co-editor of his Baptist journal. Samuel's portion of the monthly journal consisted largely of historical essays, doctrinal treatises, and sermons. Her half of the journal, labeled the "Family Visitant" or the "Home Circle," included advice columns, contributions from readers, religious fiction serials, as well as doctrinal essays. One scholar noted that Sallie Ford's contribution as co-editor increased the popularity of the journal by including a woman's perspective and by catering to a new constituency of educated Baptist women. (4) Subscriber lists for the journal tend to support this conclusion. Each monthly issue included a list of receipts from subscribers. An analysis of the subscriber list for 1858 reveals that women paid 20 to 25 percent of all subscriptions. Many women assuredly received the magazine in their husband's or father's name, but the fact that so many women sought out their own subscription indicated the journal's popularity among Baptist women. (5)

As editor, Ford offered her own viewpoints and included articles with opinions of which she approved. These opinions often corresponded with the standard cultural message offered to women. In 1857, for example, Ford published an article entitled "Woman" written by a Mrs. A. O. Smith, who articulated this vision clearly. A woman, Smith argued, should discover "the sublime simplicity of her sex" and enjoy that arena where her influence is "omnipotent": her home where she nurtured the "statesman in embryo, the future king and minister ... in her plastic hand." After all, Smith concluded, the gentle woman is never more lovely than when "dignifying and adorning her abode--thus obeying the command of St. Paul." (6) In her own commentary, Ford delineated the duties of a mother charged with "training and educating a soul for eternity." She characterized a nurturing mother as "firm--gentle--kind--always ready to attend to her child." "Never speak of a child's faults," she continued. "Never reprove a child when excited.... Strive to inspire love, not dread." By these means, the virtuous mother could mold an unspoiled, respectful, neat, and clean child. According to Ford's "Family Visitant," training children was largely the calling of a Baptist woman in her domestic life. (7)

In her novels, however, Ford presented a more complicated message: one that more fully developed both sides of the culturally tinctured Baptist message for women. That Ford used fiction as her pulpit served as an example of how women found outlets for their preaching even when restricted from official pastoral ministries, but the content of her sermons--in the form of fiction--provide a meaningful illustration of how she viewed the two-sided expectations for women. Most of Ford's work reflected her own experience. She wrote what she knew as a wife, mother, and Christian. Ford also created fictional role models and heroines of the faith for her female readers. Certainly, she idealized or caricatured real life as she fabricated her stories. Yet, as two-dimensional as many of her characters seemed, the ones she intended readers to sympathize with struggled with the complexities of living a Christian life (more specifically, a Baptist life) in a pluralistic religious landscape. Through the windows of these novels, modern readers can glimpse the contortions of these fictional representatives of Baptist women caught in a world of pious submission and brave apostleship.

Grace Truman (1857)

In her most famous novel, Grace Truman, or Love and Principle, the full title denotes the dual nature of a Baptist woman's life. Begun in 1856 as a one of many serial novels in the monthly Christian Repository, Grace Truman proved immediately popular. In 1857, requests began to pour into the Fords' editorial office asking that Grace Truman be published in book form. By the end of that year, different publishers in Nashville, New York, and Chicago had printed copies for distribution. The book's success encouraged subsequent printings in 1858 and 1859. In 1886, on the thirtieth anniversary of its appearance as a serial, the American Baptist Publication Society published another edition and later a reprint in 1903. Grace Truman even inspired another novel by a competitor that replied to the propositions in Ford's book. (8)

The semi-autobiographical plot of the 1857 novel involved the title character, a young Kentucky Baptist woman, marrying a Presbyterian from a respectable family. Her marriage took her to live at the home of her in-laws, the Holmes. The conflict driving the narrative rests upon Grace's reluctance to participate in the communion ceremony of her new family's Presbyterian church. Grace struggled to remain faithful to her Baptist principles, which include only communing with the baptized--meaning the immersed. Yet, her denial of Presbyterian communion began to tear her new family apart and even appeared to lead her own husband down the path of degeneracy.

In many respects, Ford presents Grace Truman as the height of "true womanhood." Grace's manner was "gentle, yet unreserved." She was "attractive to those who could appreciate the 'poetry of form and motion:" She blushed when spoken about and demurred smilingly when her father-in-law, Old Mr. Holmes, first began to claim "we must make her a Presbyterian." When she and her husband took up their own residence, Grace took seriously the domestic duties in her "mystic round of housekeeping." She created a "cottage-home, plain and unpretending." Ford, as narrator, noted that homes like Grace's represented "our city of refuge from the cares of the world, our holiest of sanctuaries. Domestic happiness! There is no earthly joy beyond it." (9)

In contrast, however, to Ford's depiction of the title character as a decoration of the domestic sphere, the author also presented Grace as an uncompromisingly fierce Baptist warrior. The novel contained several theological debates set in the Holmes's parlor. In the first intellectual contest, Grace confronted both her father-in-law and the local Presbyterian minister. (10) In a second, more thrilling debate, Grace faced Old Mr. Holmes and two Presbyterian ministers. In these disputes, she matched her opponents blow for blow intellectually and logically, often revealing their arguments as biblically indefensible. All of the family in attendance agreed that Grace won the debate, and they began to examine the veracity of her Baptist claims. Grace's young Presbyterian sister-in-law, Fannie, gained a sense of intellectual liberation from watching Grace in the debates. In a confrontation with her brother, Fannie queried, "haven't I a right to my own views about things; and isn't it as necessary for me to be right on all subjects as it is for older heads?" In the debates that follow, Grace avoided the bitter confrontations, believing them to be unproductive. In the end, Grace's humble piety in the home as well as her shrewd and forceful logic in debate convinced almost every major character, and a few minor ones, that Baptist practices were correct. They all became Baptists--even the Presbyterian minister--and organized a new church. Old Mr. Holmes, though, soon went to his grave bitter, unrepentant, and Presbyterian. (11)

In an afterword to the 1886 edition of the novel, Ford noted that the work was semi-autobiographical and referenced her own personal and public struggle as she converted from Presbyterianism to the Baptist movement. Ford also took opportunity to castigate the "modern" Baptist affection for "open communion," a doctrinal concession, she said, borne out of a desire for respectability. A true Baptist woman like Grace Truman, she argued, would endure the ignominy of scandal and would even sacrifice family ties in favor of orthodoxy in fundamental beliefs and practices. (12)

War and the Interim

Ford would sell more copies of Grace Truman than any other of her works, but she kept writing. She followed up on her successes with the 1860 publication of Mary Bunyan: The Blind Dreamer's Daughter, a fictionalized account of the persecution of John Bunyan, author of The Pilgrim's Progress. The bulk of the novel dealt with three women surrounding Bunyan and focused on their strength of resolve. Especially moving in this respect was Ford's depiction of the execution of Elizabeth Gaunt, whose death in 1685 allowed Ford to capture the utmost sacrifice a woman could make in service of her faith. The historical nature of the novel, however, and the distance of two hundred years since the events depicted, left the author fewer allowances to create a world of her choosing; thus, the novel paled in comparison to Grace Truman. (13)

When the Civil War began, the Fords sided with the Confederacy, and Samuel Ford even served one term as a representative from Kentucky to the first Confederate Congress. During the war, the family moved from Kentucky to the Deep South, remaining there for two years. During their southern sojourn, Sallie Ford published in 1863 another historical novel based on the exploits of the colorful Confederate cavalry general John Hunt Morgan. In this novel, entitled Raids and Romance of Morgan and His Men, Ford presented fictionalized accounts of Morgan's incursions into Union territory; and at the time of publication, Morgan sat in a Union prison (from which he would later escape). Though Ford stayed true to her writing style, she chose in this novel to move away from the risks women take to fight for their religious beliefs as Baptists and instead lauded a Confederate hero who risked his life to fight for his political beliefs as a secessionist. (14)

Evangel Wiseman (1874)

After the war, the Fords moved to Memphis and then to St. Louis, where Sallie Ford returned to writing novels in the vein of Grace Truman. In 1874, she published Evangel Wiseman, or, The Mother's Question, arguably her most personal novel. The subtitle suggested the driving question of the novel: whether infants should be baptized. The character of Evangel Wiseman mirrored that of Grace Truman. Whereas Grace, the Baptist, had married into a Presbyterian family, Evangel grew up Episcopalian and married a lawyer who was Baptist "in sentiment" only. The novel opened with the sudden death of Evangel's infant son, followed by her fretting that she and her husband had not cared enough to christen him. Based on her Episcopalian upbringing, Evangel worried how her child could have gone to heaven without the saving benefits of infant baptism. These fears only grew worse in the coming years as she has another baby. Ford ably and vividly portrayed Evangel's sufferings and fears over the loss, and possible loss, of a child, no doubt largely due to the fact that Ford herself had lost two young children in the 1860s and her oldest son had always been a sickly boy. (15)

The character of Evangel Wiseman also resembled Grace Truman in her femininity. According to Ford's description, Evangel possessed a "womanly nature," and a "lovely face and charming figure." She held "pure and lofty thoughts," and was "pure, gentle ... and sensitive." But whereas Grace Truman could confidently win souls to Christ and proselytize, Evangel had to search for her own salvation. Due to Evangel's worries and her husband's attempts to discover the biblical testimony on baptism, they both were converted and gained membership in a Baptist church. Just as Grace Truman had been bedeviled by her father-in-law, Evangel's spinster aunt, Delia, served as the villain in this novel. Throughout the novel, Delia continuously pressured and plotted to get the new baby christened by any means necessary. Also, in the pattern of Grace Truman, Ford proffered several debates to present the Baptist argument against infant baptism and the Episcopalian defense. She also included characters to lecture on the Presbyterian and Methodist arguments for the practice as well as a "Campbellite" to testify to baptism for the remission of sins. In the end, though, as in Grace Truman, the major characters became convinced by the Baptist argument and joined a Baptist church. Unrepentant Aunt Delia, however, remained humorously obstinate and concluded about infant baptism that "the church has practiced it in all ages, and this is enough for me." (17)

Despite their similarities, the two novels differed in one great respect related to the strength of the title characters. Whereas Grace Truman, as the heroine of that novel, commanded the floor of debate and argued biblical truths against male authority figures, Evangel Wiseman vacillated until the conclusion of the book, doubting, worrying, wondering, and looking to her husband and minister for guidance and to God for assurance. In fact, throughout the novel, only one female character consistently demonstrated both strength and heroism: Annie Boswell. Though a relatively minor character, Annie, a Baptist, stood out as she defied her Presbyterian husband on the issue of infant baptism. When he took their many children to receive the Presbyterian rite, she refused to accompany him and vowed to, nevertheless, "raise the last one of them Baptists." This she did. (18)

Conclusion

After the publication of Evangel Wiseman, Ford attempted only one other major novel entitled Ernest Quest, or, The Search for Truth, published in 1878. (19) In significant ways, this last work seemed Ford's most ambitious, extending beyond doctrine and into the burgeoning culture war between liberal Protestants and fundamentalists. Ford tackled the Masonic Lodge and spiritualism in Ernest Quest, but she focused her salvos on the over-civilized churchmen who held that "the days of psalm-singing and hell-fire preaching are gone and gone forever." (20) These men saw more value and virtue in science, "progress," and affluence than in the unadorned and egalitarian preaching of the gospel. Since the title character of Ernest Quest spent most of the novel searching for truth, wavering between faith in God or reason or spirits, most of the earnest Baptist characters hold supporting roles. Nonetheless, as in other Ford novels, the majority of the figures populating the story ultimately saw the light and became Baptist.

One thing had clearly changed, however, as was made apparent in Ernest Quest. Ford had transformed as an author since the 1850s. Rather than allowing her characters to speak for her, as had been the case in her early works, in the 1870s and especially in Ernest Quest, she increasingly offered her own voice through the narration. In Ernest Quest, the title character was a man in search of truth, but was largely a device to allow Ford to attack the intellectual and religious trends of the 1870s. The women she created in the 1878 novel certainly remained didactic and devout "true women," but they appeared less vibrant and lacked the strength of Grace Truman. Ford herself, though, was only gaining fame as a spokesperson for Baptist women. In short, by the 1870s, she evolved to become a more public apostle of Baptist truth and a warrior in the battle for women's organizational rights. But as Ford herself emerged as a public leader, her strong female fictional creations receded to supporting roles first in her literary works and then in her mission. By the 1880s, she no longer needed her characters to preach for her; rather she had gained a voice in her own right.

(1.) The ideal of the nineteenth-century "true woman" references the still-influential argument made by Barbara Welter in "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860," American Quarterly 18 (1966): 151-74.

(2.) Catherine B. Allen, Laborers Together with God: 22 Great Women in Baptist Life (Birmingham, AL: Woman's Missionary Union, 1987), 231-34; Catherine B. Allen, A Century to Celebrate: History of Woman's Missionary Union (Birmingham, AL: Woman's Missionary Union), 33-42, 344. Allen notes Sallie Ford's fiction and alludes to its significance, but focuses more on her institutional contributions than on the complexity of her work as a writer.

(3.) For an extended discussion of this two-sided Baptist message to women in the early nineteenth century, see chapter six of Richard C. Traylor II, "Born of Water and Spirit: Popular Religion and Early American Baptists in Kentucky, 1776-1860" (Ph.D. diss., University of Missouri, 2003).

(4.) Catherine B. Allen, "Sallie Rochester Ford," Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, 4 (1982): 2205; George Raleigh Jewell, "The Ford's Christian Repository," Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, 1 (1958): 457; J. H. Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, from 1769 to 1885 (Cincinnati: J. R. Baumes, 1885), 1:702-03; 2:191-92.

(5.) "Receipts," Christian Repository 7 (February-November 1858). The receipt lists were printed on the inside of the journal's back cover.

(6.) Mrs. A. O. Smith, "Woman," Christian Repository 6 (January 1857): 59-60.

(7.) "Duties of a Christian Mother," Christian Repository 5 (June 1856): 384.

(8.) Christian Repository 6 (March 1857): 194. According to the Online Computer Library Catalog, Grace Truman received at least eight different printings between 1857 and 1903. The novel written in response to Ford's book was Constance Wright, or The Heroine of Truth by W. S. May. Fortunately, most of Sallie Rochester Ford's novels are now available at no charge online at http://www.letrs.indiana.edu/web/w/wright2/.

(9.) Sallie Rochester Ford, Grace Truman, or Love and Principle (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886; reprint, 1903), 34-35, 48, 245-46, 259. Ford's portrayal of Grace's home reflects the Victorian architectural sentiments of Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) who believed that refined homes would cultivate "social and moral development." Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Vintage, 1992), 256, 273-74, 381.

(10.) Ford, Grace Truman, 70-112.

(11.) Ibid., 138-58, 166, 170, 364.

(12.) Sallie Ford, "How I Came to Write Grace Truman," Appendix to Ford, Grace Truman, i-ix.

(13.) Sallie Rochester Ford, Mary Bunyan: The Blind Dreamer's Daughter (New York : Sheldon, 1860), 467-75; Martha Chew, "Sallie Rochester Ford," American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, 2 (1980): 67-69.

(14.) Spencer, A History of Kentucky Baptists, 2:191; S. H. Ford and Sallie Rochester Ford, Rochester Ford: The Story of a Successful Christian Lawyer (St. Louis: American Baptist Publication Society, 1904), 6; Sallie Rochester Ford, Raids and Romance of Morgan and His Men (Mobile: S. H. Goetzel and Co., 1863).

(15.) Sallie Rochester Ford, Evangel Wiseman, or, The Mother's Question (St Louis: Barns & Beynon, 1874), 9-41, 64-75. By 1870, when Ford's oldest son turned thirteen, two of her younger children, Fanny and Noble, had already died. Ford and Ford, Rochester Ford, 5-12.

(16.) Ford, Evangel Wiseman, 13-14, 43-170, 207-24, 249-74, 349-402, 465-79.

(17.) Ibid., 491.

(18.) Ibid., 425-26, 453-54, 492-93.

(19.) Sallie Rochester Ford, Ernest Quest, or, The Search for Truth (New York: Sheldon, 1878). Ford's last novel, The Inebriates: A Story of Love, Suffering, and Triumph was self-published in 1884.

(20.) Related to her attack on spiritualism, Ford condemned the notion of communication with the dead. She also seemed to advocate the surprisingly popular idea of odylic (or odic) force, believed to be a natural magnetic force that individuals emitted which could be intercepted by those with the skill or ability to do so. The interceptor would then "read the mind" of the emitter. Ford, Ernest Quest, 40, 235-44

Richard Traylor is assistant professor of history at Hardin-Simmons University, Abilene, Texas.
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Author:Traylor, Richard
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Date:Jun 22, 2005
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