"On the Same Basis as the Men": The Campaign to Reinstate Women as Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, 1885-1918

J. Michael Raley/Ph.D. Candidate, The University of Chicago

Part III of III

The Interim, 1885-1913


"The 'Woman question,' of course, had never been purely a Baptist issue, for Methodist and Presbyterian women suffered much the same fates."

In the years that followed, Southern Baptist women struggled to accept their exclusion from the Convention. The "Woman question," of course, had never been purely a Baptist issue, for Methodist and Presbyterian women suffered much the same fates. Neither was it entirely a matter of Northern vs. Southern culture, although Southern male chauvinism exacerbated Woman's struggle. Historian Rebecca Edwards has argued that Republican and Democratic party politics of the Gilded Age each resisted the Woman's Movement, albeit for different reasons. Whereas Republicans promoted a politics of evangelical domesticity, giving women a greater role in politics based upon their moral authority within their homes, they nevertheless drew the line at direct political participation, refusing to extend to women rights of "voting, choosing candidates, or disputing party platform planks." In contrast, Democrats endorsed a male-dominated society.(65) This helps explain why Southern Baptist men, more often than not Democratic in their politics and Calvinist in their theology, imposed patriarchal norms and biblical strictures upon their families and their churches, while Protestant women in Northern states, having first been given a taste of participation, found the doors to further advances in the Republican Party and in their Protestant churches barred.

Woman's Christian Temperance Union President Francis Willard, herself a Methodist, experienced firsthand the attitude of the (Northern) Methodist Episcopal Church's denominational leadership towards women when she and another WCTU leader asked to address the Methodist Episcopal General Conference on behalf of the WCTU in May 1880. Conference officials refused the women's credentials, but a majority of delegates voted to extend a special invitation to the WCTU president to address the General Conference despite the outspoken opposition of Brooklyn clergyman, James M. Buckley. Shocked at the ire her presence had generated, however, Willard subsequently declined to speak. She and two other colleagues received even harsher treatment at the Presbyterian General Assembly later that same month.(66)

In response to such incidents and the 1888 Methodist Episcopal General Conference, at which five women delegates (who would have included Willard herself had she not been called home at the last minute on account of her mother's serious illness) were denied their seats, Willard drafted her classic essay, Woman in the Pulpit [1889]. In it, she critically examined the arguments being used by men of her day to deny women access to the pulpits of their churches. In arguing for active roles and legitimate places for women in Protestant churches, Willard exegeted anew oft-cited biblical passages, supplemented with the opinions of leading contemporary authorities. She confronted the "white male dynasty reigning undisputed until our own day," boldly predicting, "men preach a creed; women will declare a life." To those who cited 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 ("Let the women keep silence in the churches . . . ."), she put forth Peter's interpretation of Joel 2:28-29 on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-18): "This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel, . . . 'I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, . . . and on my servants and on my handmaids I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.'" She also cited Acts 21:9: "Now this man [Philip the Evangelist] had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy." Alongside 1 Timothy 2:12 ("But I permit not a woman to teach, nor to have dominion over a man, . . . .") she juxtaposed Galatians 3:28 ("There can be no male and female, for ye are all one man in Christ Jesus."). Ultimately, however, Willard drew a higher distinction. She insisted that New Testament Christians should appeal not to the "Law," but directly to the "Law-Giver," recognizing that "Christ, not Paul, is the source of all churchly authority and power."(67)

In 1900, largely as a result of Willard's efforts, the Methodist Episcopal leadership finally approved lay women delegates; they were seated for the first time at the 1904 General Conference. In the years that followed, women in the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, too, lobbied hard for the right to serve as lay delegates to their General Conference. Not until 1922, however, would "lay rights for women" receive full constitutional sanction from Methodist bishops in the South.(68)

During these same years an intense debate raged in the Southern Baptist presses over the proper public roles for religious women. In one such exchange published in 1890, entitled "Should Women Preach in Public?," the editors of the Baptist and Reflector (Tennessee) made their case against women preachers in no uncertain terms, citing the traditional biblical proof texts to bolster their case: 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, 1 Timothy 2:11-12, and Titus 2:4-5 ("Train the young women to . . . be sober-minded, chaste, workers at home, kind, being in subjection to their own husbands."). They also referred the reader to Genesis 3:16, 1 Peter 3:1-6, and Ephesians 5:22-24 (passages on the submission of wives to their husbands). The editors' interpretations were literal, the proscriptions understood as universal and binding for all time. Nowhere did they give any consideration to the textual difficulties posed, in particular, by the Pauline passages.(69)

R. W. Easley, a reader from Lebanon, Tennessee, challenged the editors' position by citing the examples of the Samaritan woman who witnessed about Christ to the men of her city in John 4:28-29, the four daughters of Philip who prophesied in Acts 21:8-9, and 1 Corinthians 11:5, in which Paul proclaimed that "every woman that prayeth or prophesyeth with her head uncovered dishonoreth her head," as proof that women had indeed preached and prophesied in biblical times. Easley also noted the Apostle's admission at several points in 1 Corinthians 7 (e.g., v. 6, "But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment . . . ."; v. 25, "I have no commandment of the Lord, yet I give my judgment . . . ."; and v. 27 [26], "I suppose . . . .") to show that Paul was merely rendering his own judgment in response to local problems, not giving universal commandments from God. Unlike the delegates who argued for strict constitutional interpretations at the 1885 Convention, and also in stark contrast to conservative Baptists who treated the Pauline corpus as a new body of "law," he dismissed 1 Corinthians 14 ("Let your women keep silence in the churches . . . .") as Paul's practical advice, applicable only to the apostolic church at Corinth. Arguing from a broader base, Easley instead insisted that Scripture, taken as a whole, in no way proscribes women preachers.

What are the prerequisites to one who desires to preach, to teach, to prophesy, . . . ? Is it one of the requirements that you must be a man? We think not. It is only necessary that there should be a complete sinking of self, a giving of one's life to the service of the Master, arising out of supreme love to him and for fallen humanity. . . . All women should not preach, nor should all men. Women certainly have as much right to preach as men, according to the Scriptures.(70)

By his own admission, however, Easley was very much in the minority. In the closing decades of the nineteenth century most Southern Baptist men viewed church and denominational leadership through the eyeglasses of a legalistic Calvinist theology and a male-dominated democratic polity. In excluding women, they violated historic Baptist principles of free association and the rights of all members, regardless of gender, to participate in decision-making for the whole. Southern Baptist women's struggles were made all the more difficult because the male hegemony in the South was reinforced by a complex intersection of gender, race, politics, and religion. Reporting upon the recent North Carolina Baptist State Convention meeting, the political editor of the State Chronicle (Raleigh, NC) noted in 1887:

As a Democrat I love all Democrats. All Baptists are Democrats. . . . It is THE political faith of the great majority of the members of the church. . . . A Baptist is a Democrat because his church government is democratic and because it has about it none of the paraphernalia or trappings of monarchies or despotisms. Every church is a law unto itself. A Baptist believes in local rights. All power not DELEGATED remains in the individual churches. He believes in no strong centralized power.(71)

Southern leadership for the most part, within the Church or without, was comprised of an elitist, white brotherhood that was Democratic in politics, Calvinist in theology, and Baptist in church polity (though Methodism was also strong in the South). Not surprisingly, a growing number of Southern women resented not only their continued exclusion from politics and from the Southern Baptist Convention, but also the derision that they suffered at the hands of Baptist men. WMU historian Catherine Allen has noted, for example, that while some men were open to having the WMU schedule its sessions so that its members could be present whenever the Convention discussed missions, women who attended Convention sessions were still restricted to the balcony and "subject to jibes about distractive hats and whispering and crowding." At the 1899 Convention one Southern Baptist woman, frustrated with the limits imposed upon her sex by Baptist men, endeavored to force her way on to the Convention floor, only to find an usher blocking her entrance. The usher directed the woman's attention to a large placard that read, "Delegates Only," and quipped, "That shows that you cannot enter the Convention."(72)

The all-too-obvious parallel between the exclusion tactics employed against Baptist women at this Convention and the segregation of African Americans from the public sphere in the South was hardly coincidental. Years earlier, immediately following the Civil War, Southern Baptists had rejected any possibility of incorporating interracial or all-black churches within the SBC or Baptist state conventions whenever doing so required seating black Convention delegates and recognizing racial equality. At the May 1867 meeting of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, a white pastor posed the racial challenge to his fellow delegates:

There are certain questions which demand solution at our hands in regard to the colored people. Shall we press ourselves upon them when they seem to suspect us? Shall we encourage them to form separate churches? Are we willing to receive their delegates in this Convention and in our Associations? How can we decline to receive here the representatives of a regularly constituted church on account of color? Are we not too timid in this matter? Ought we not to grapple with this subject more than we have heretofore?(73)

Of course, as this quote also implies, white Southern Baptists commonly claimed that black Baptists themselves desired separation from Southern white culture, that blacks had deliberately rejected the counsel and aid of whites in withdrawing to form their own churches. No doubt there was much truth in these claims, given that blacks clearly perceived the very real social inequalities and threats of violence that persisted in Southern society after the war, and the air of racial superiority with which white Southern Baptists offered to help "educate" the blacks. There was also considerable debate among blacks themselves about how best to improve their lot whether it would be better to cooperate with whites, for instance, or to demand their own independence. In time, moreover, black churches would come to serve an important function as centers for political organizing and social interaction. A continuing theme at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meetings would be the praiseworthy efforts of white Southern Baptists to educate black ministers and help them to construct churches, but these claims notwithstanding, in the postbellum era few white Southern Baptists, it seems, were serious about helping their newly-freed black brothers and sisters whenever this meant enabling them to achieve independence and equality with whites in their local communities and churches. Indeed, the whites looked upon the blacks as ignorant and racially inferior. Writing from Tuscaloosa in 1869, black Baptist pastor Prince Murrell lamented to his sponsors (the American Baptist Free Mission Society), "Since I became free I have had no one to assist me in carrying on this great work among the freedmen but northern brethren. We would be glad to have the approbation and prayers of our southern Baptist brethren, but it seems that they will not look upon us as being a people capable of conducting religious matters." Of course, conflicts arose between the freedmen and the northern missionaries as well, but the point here is that white Southern Baptist men (and indoctrinated white Southern Baptist women) as a whole strove to exclude all those of a different race or gender who refused to submit to the denomination's elite white male leadership.(74)

Parallels with the delegate issue, especially as it related to both the "Woman question" and the "Negro problem," extended beyond church walls. Southern Democrats opposed Woman suffrage in part on the grounds that it might threaten white supremacy by enfranchising black women (and by re-enfranchising black men). Between 1890 and 1910, of course, Democrats in most Southern states disfranchised black male voters through various combinations of the poll tax, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, and white primaries. Ironically, Southern suffragists, along with more progressive Southern newspaper editors, ministers, and politicians, for a time argued in favor of enfranchising white women as a means by which to disfranchise black men, insisting that propertied and literate white women, if allowed to vote, would impose a renewed moral order upon a corrupt society by helping to offset the black vote, which was impeding reform. By 1910, however, Southern Democrats had effectively barred black men from voting in the South without having to grant white women the franchise. The suffragists' "window of opportunity" had closed. As Marjorie Spruill Wheeler observed, their opponents now argued that "state or federal woman suffrage amendments would endanger the newly reestablished white dominance in politics." White Southern suffragists would redouble their efforts after 1910, energized by developments elsewhere, but in the fierce battles that would follow, only four "progressive" Southern states Kentucky, Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee would ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.(75) During the 1910s Baptists from the state of Texas, situated on the border between the more progressive West and the conservative South, would spearhead the movement to restore to Southern Baptist women the right to serve as Convention messengers.

Robert H. Coleman and the Renewal of the Debate over Women Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, 1913-1918

Such was the complexity, and volatility, of the "Woman question" when Robert Coleman announced publicly in 1913 that he intended to submit a proposal at the next Convention to recognize women messengers to the SBC. As a youth, Coleman had seen his own mother, Quintella Belle (Jones) Coleman, serve as a messenger from the Little Union Baptist Church to the General Association of Baptists in Kentucky.(76) At the time of his announcement, Coleman was serving as the Sunday school superintendent at the First Baptist Church of Dallas, where he also directed the congregational singing. On weekdays he worked as the business manager of the Baptist Standard newspaper, where he had been employed since 1909. Before assuming his post at the Baptist Standard, Coleman had served as the assistant to the FBC's renowned pastor, Dr. George W. Truett, a position he would resume at Truett's request in 1915 and hold until his death in 1946. Coleman also owned and operated a highly successful music publishing firm that, between 1909 and 1939, would produce thirty-four gospel songbooks and hymnals with total sales exceeding twelve million copies. All the while he remained in close contact with the American Baptist Publication Society, which had published his first hymnal, The Evangel, in 1909, and with his musical editor, Edwin O. Excell (d. 1921), in Chicago. Through his close friendship with Dr. Truett and his employment at the Baptist Standard, Coleman was able to network personally with the highest ranks of the Southern and Northern Baptist denominational leadership, as well as the Baptist World Alliance, on a regular basis. Meanwhile, his hymnals, found in the pews of hundreds of churches across the South, awarded him great popularity and instant name recognition among Southern Baptists. Moreover, his ministerial experience and close contacts with both Northern and Southern Baptists seem to have contributed to his tolerant, inclusive attitude. "Brother Bob," in other words, was the ideal person to introduce the controversial woman messenger proposal on the floor of the SBC.(77)

In this labor of love, Coleman no doubt had the backing of his pastor, Dr. Truett, who took great care to avoid controversial issues in public, yet often allowed and even encouraged associates to take the lead in such matters with his behind-the-scenes support.(78) Coleman's editor at the Baptist Standard, J. B. Gambrell, also thought the change would be good. "There will be a distinct gain to efficiency in this, and I think the times call for it," he wrote.(79) The issue ultimately proved so contentious, however, particularly among Baptists east of the Mississippi River, that in April 1914 Coleman published an announcement in the Baptist Standard informing the paper's readers that he had decided to wait yet another year before presenting his motion.

This word is written to inform the brethren that in view of the fact that a number of other important questions will have to come up for consideration this year which may require much discussion, the amendment spoken of will not be offered by this writer this year but will be offered a year later. This notice is given after conference with a number of brethren who favor the amendment as stated.(80)

In 1915, Coleman again postponed bringing his proposed amendment before the Convention even though more and more Baptist women were now demanding a definitive answer to the question of Woman's proper role in church life. One prominent South Carolina Baptist woman, Edna V. Funderburk, challenged the senior editor of the Baptist Courier to clarify the "Woman question" from a biblical perspective. At stake once again was whether Pauline proscriptions should be regarded as descriptive of local circumstances applicable only to the Greek churches of the first century, or as prescriptive commands from the Apostle universally binding on women for all time. "Did Paul mean those injunctions to refer to local conditions in some of the churches at that time?" she asked. " . . . If we take his words literally, meaning for all women of all times, then that debars them from doing any church work at all." Clearly women had not been excused from following the Ten Commandments. Had they been excluded from adherence to Christ's command to take the Gospel message to the world? Mrs. Funderburk begged the editor to clarify which parts of the Bible applied to women, and which to men.(81)

Senior Editor Z. T. Cody pleaded for liberty in drawing distinctions between the feminine and masculine spheres. Clearly gender differences exist, he conceded, "yet the line of demarcation between them is not definite." Cody wanted to avoid alienating his women readers, yet retain a separate "womanly sphere" for Baptist women. The difficulty lay in determining the proper boundaries. "How far ought our women to go?" Cody asked his readers. Such decisions, he felt certain, could "safely be turned over" to the women, for they were "as good guardians [sic] of womanly modesty as . . . the men." Above all, he cautioned, "To lay down rigid rules in these matters or to pass harsh criticism is not in accord with gospel fraternity and liberty."(82)

Opponents, however, continued to reject the idea of allowing women to serve as messengers, and Coleman, rather than force a divisive issue and risk possible defeat, patiently waited for the right opportunity. Meanwhile, expectations for change among Southern women continued to build. A number of Texas women attending the 1915 SBC at Houston as visitors were apparently quite surprised to learn that women elsewhere did not share the same liberties that they enjoyed in their own home state. The Baptist Standard reported:

For the first time hundreds of Texas Baptists attended the [1915] Southern Baptist Convention. . . . However, these messengers got new viewpoints of denominational activities that could not be found anywhere else. Texas women who have been accustomed to meet with their brethren realized for the first time that all Baptist deliberative bodies are not open to the women. Out of deference to our visitors we would not raise the question at this meeting, but we put our brethren on notice that after next year, the sisters will be expected to share with the brethren in the proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention. We have tried it a long time in Texas and everybody is satisfied.(83)

As the 1916 Convention approached, however, J. B. Gambrell, now the executive secretary of the Baptist General Convention of Texas' Consolidated Board (overseeing missions and education), urged that "no new or divisive question" be introduced. Again Coleman, loyal to the Southern Baptist leadership and showing great restraint, postponed bringing his motion.(84) At the 1916 Convention, however, an unprecedented event took place that bore important consequences for the woman messenger issue. On the historic evening of Friday, May nineteenth, SBC President Lansing Burrows the very same Lansing Burrows who, as Convention secretary, had presented the two Arkansas women's names to the assembled Convention back in 1885 introduced the first two women ever to address the Southern Baptist Convention: Kathleen Mallory, corresponding secretary of the Woman's Missionary Union, who spoke only briefly; and Maude Reynolds McLure, superintendent of the WMU Training School in Louisville, who presented a lecture with slides documenting the school's work to date in support for a proposed new building for the school. H. Boyce Taylor, Sr., ultra-conservative pastor of the First Baptist Church of Murray, Kentucky, and editor of News and Truths, led the Convention in prayer that evening.(85) How ironic it must have seemed to Taylor and the others present on that occasion who opposed women messengers on grounds of the Pauline proscriptions against women speaking or teaching publicly before mixed audiences that Baptist women succeeded in addressing the Convention before they gained the right to serve as Convention messengers!

The Baptist Courier, belying dissent, reported that "the whole program was carried through without the tabernacle falling or any commotion that threatened our equilibrium," but the ongoing debates recorded in the Baptist press suggest otherwise. When, in the Baptist Standard, J. B. Gambrell later defended these women's rights to address the Convention against criticisms he labeled as "monstrous, impossible and wrong," Boyce Taylor responded in News and Truths with a detailed, Scripture-based attack upon "women speaking in public before mixed assemblies." In a previous editorial, Taylor had tied the "problem" of women addressing mixed assemblies in public to the question of whether or not women should be seated as Convention messengers. " . . . [T]o seat them as messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention," Taylor warned his readers, "means they will be speaking before that body just as they do now before the Texas Convention." "This is news to us," Baptist Standard Editor Eugene C. Routh responded. "We did not know that the women were in the habit of speaking before the Texas Baptist Conventions any more than, for certain reasons, they are now permitted to speak before the Southern Baptist Convention." Routh then laid out the "Texan" position in no uncertain terms: "We believe down here that they [i.e., Baptist women] have just as much scriptural right to belong to a convention as to belong to a church."(86)

In the years since 1885, the focus had shifted from legal debates over the SBC Constitution and Pauline proscriptions, and justifications of women delegates based upon their personal merit, utility in missions, or control of household finances, to a rights argument grounded in freedom of association. Messengers to the Convention were first and foremost members of local Baptist churches, which they joined of their own free will. As members of free, democratic associations, Baptist women had just as much right as any man to serve as messengers, sent on the church's behalf, to any association or convention of which the church was a constituent member. In response to those who cited the Pauline proscriptions against women speaking publicly before mixed audiences in the Church, supporters of this new line of reasoning carefully pointed out that women serving as messengers would not speak publicly in the church or in the Convention, "except when the occasion justifies."(87) The question of women serving as messengers and the possibility that they might address mixed audiences in public, in other words, were entirely separate issues. Women should be free to serve as messengers in silence, just as they were now allowed to address public audiences without messenger status whenever the occasion warranted it.

In 1917, at long last, the time finally seemed right for Coleman to bring his motion to the Convention floor. Change was in the air. Despite the continued opposition of some, support for women Convention messengers was growing, and there was a feeling shared by many that the time had come to put Coleman's proposal to the test. As an added incentive, Coleman's former boss, J. B. Gambrell, was elected SBC president on the first day of the Convention, and in this capacity would be chairing the remaining sessions.(88) Thus on the second day of the Convention held at New Orleans in 1917, to the applause of the women seated in the balcony, Coleman moved as follows:

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; and,

WHEREAS, The present wording of the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention is such as to prohibit the recognition of women as messengers. Therefore, be it

Resolved, That Article III of the Constitution be so altered as to read as follows:

Article III. The Convention shall consist (1) of messengers who contributed funds, or are elected as messengers by Baptist bodies contributing funds for the regular work of the Convention, on the basis of one messenger for every $250 actually paid into the treasuries of the Board during the fiscal year ending the 30th day of April next preceding the meeting of the Convention; (2) of one representative from each of the District Associations which coöperate with this Convention, provided that such representative be formally elected at the annual meeting of the District Association, and the election certified to the Secretaries of the Convention, either in writing or by copy of the printed Minutes.(89)

J. W. Porter, editor of the Western Recorder (Kentucky) and outspoken opponent of Woman suffrage (and of Woman's rights in general), immediately objected to "hurrying through this matter and setting aside in ten minutes what had been regarded as sacred by the Convention for seventy-one years." He then moved to table Coleman's resolution. Porter and his supporters claimed that the wording of Article Three in the SBC Constitution had always since its first drafting in 1845 mandated that messengers be brethren. The Alabama Baptist went even further, asserting that "the same resolutions [i.e., to allow women messengers] were offered for adoption at the Southern Baptist Convention of 1885, but were defeated." An article by Christian Index Editor B. J. W. Graham likewise argued, albeit carefully omitting any reference to the constitutional amendment enacted by the 1885 Convention [which had restricted membership to "brethren"], that the SBC Constitution had always proscribed women messengers.

We consider it extremely unfortunate that a divisive constitutional measure has been thrust upon the Convention. Such a measure cannot be unanimously passed in this generation. Since 1845 the Constitution has been fixed as it now stands relative to representation in the Convention. So far as we are concerned, we hope that it will remain unchanged until the consummation of all things, if for no other reason than for the preservation of unity throughout the entire constituency of the Convention.(90)

In his published account of the 1917 Convention proceedings, President Gambrell directly challenged Porter's myth: "It was supposed that the constitution had always forbidden women to be messengers, which was not so. A change in the constitution was made years ago to keep women from being messengers." So pervasive was the myth, however, that Baptist Standard Editor Routh found it necessary to refute it once again the following year: "The constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention, as drawn in 1845, did not exclude women from its body; but in later years it was made to read, 'The Convention shall consist of brethren,' . . . ."(91)

Porter's motion to table Coleman's proposal lost by a vote of 328 to 248. Immediately afterwards, Coleman's motion to amend the Constitution and thereby reinstate women Convention messengers passed overwhelmingly, a clear indication of just how far the pendulum had swung back the other direction in Woman's favor. Just when victory seemed secure, however, Christian Index Editor B. J. W. Graham challenged a point of order based upon Article Thirteen of the Constitution, which mandated a vote by "two-thirds of the members present at any annual meeting of the Convention" to amend the Constitution. The critical question was whether Article Thirteen required a majority of two-thirds of all messengers enrolled for the annual meeting, or simply two-thirds of those voting in any given session, to effect a constitutional amendment. In a difficult and highly-controversial decision, President Gambrell ruled that a change in the Constitution required "a vote of two-thirds of the total enrolled delegation present at any annual meeting of the Convention," and further, that the majority vote passing Coleman's motion lacked the two-thirds quorum required by the Constitution.(92)

Baptist historian H. Leon McBeth has been critical of President Gambrell's ruling, suggesting that it was probably made in error. This indirectly raises potential questions about Gambrell's own beliefs and motives. In an editorial published shortly after the conclusion of the 1917 Convention, however, Gambrell explained that he had been "compelled to stand by the constitution altogether against his wishes." Even the otherwise adversarial Christian Index reported that Gambrell had stated publicly that, although he personally favored Coleman's proposition, the point raised by Graham was "well taken," and thus, "the resolution to change the constitution was lost." Vice-President S. Palmer Brooks, a Texan supporter of the women, immediately challenged the correctness of Gambrell's ruling, plunging the Convention into bedlam. The editor of the Baptist Courier later recalled, "There followed a scene which is not reportable." One of the messengers, frustrated and angry, shouted from the floor, "Won't the next step be to call on the women to preach?" In reply, Gambrell snapped, "I don't know about that, but I do know that lots of you fellows on the floor can't [preach]!" Gambrell later stressed that Coleman's motion carried "simply the right [for women] to have the same relation to men in the Convention that they have in their local churches: just that and no more." Here Gambrell once again was drawing a critical distinction. The motion on the floor was grounded in Baptist democratic polity in the rights of women to participate equally with men in the affairs and decisions of their local churches and their Convention and not related to the question of women speaking in public or preaching to mixed audiences, which was an entirely different matter.(93)

The situation on the Convention floor became so unruly that Gambrell sought out Vice-President John D. Mell to conduct the parliamentary procedure henceforth until the conclusion of the matter. A vote of confidence by the messengers sustained Gambrell's controversial ruling, 473-386. Coleman's motion now appeared dead, but N. W. P. Bacon (Mississippi) moved that the question of women messengers be referred to a committee of five to report back to the Convention the following year. President Gambrell appointed Robert Coleman to chair this committee. Meanwhile, Joshua Levering, who in 1884 had made the controversial motion suggesting that a woman be appointed to oversee Woman's Work for Home Missions and who later himself had served three terms as SBC president (1908-1910), offered a motion requesting that the four vice-presidents study the "exact meaning" of Article Thirteen and report back to the Convention the following year, making any recommendations necessary for clarification of its wording. The Baptist Standard reported, "The woman question is not settled; and we confidently expect, after a few years, when certain brethren will have learned the way of the Lord more perfectly, to see the elect sisters admitted to the Convention on the same basis as the men, just as we do in Texas . . . ."(94)

The review of Article Thirteen by the Convention vice-presidents later sustained President Gambrell's ruling. Ironically, it was Vice-President Mell (son of former Convention President P. H. Mell and Elizabeth Cooper Mell), reporting back to the Convention on behalf of the committee assigned to the task of investigating this issue, who confirmed that "Article Thirteen requires a vote of two thirds of the enrolled messengers present at any annual meeting of the Convention in order to change to Constitution," and not merely those who happened to be present at a given morning or afternoon session.(95) The real problem had been neither the Convention officials' scheduling of Coleman's motion for a session when, it turned out, a quorum was not present, nor Gambrell's ruling, which further review found to be correct. Rather, the trouble lay with what can only be regarded as an illegal vote back in 1885, when President P. H. Mell allowed Article Three of the SBC Constitution to be amended so as to exclude women in a session on the fourth day of the Convention in which only 131 out of the 525 registered delegates just twenty-five percent of the total registered delegates voted for the amendment.

By the spring of 1918, as the Convention prepared to convene, the atmosphere surrounding the woman messenger issue had grown more tense than ever, though many were also hopeful and expectant. Since the Convention was to meet that year in Hot Springs, it was sure to be well attended by delegates from Arkansas and Texas, whose general assemblies had recently extended to women of those states the right to vote in primary elections.(96) Coleman and his allies came to Hot Springs well prepared. In the very first session, immediately following Vice-President Mell's report sustaining President Gambrell's ruling of the preceding year, Coleman proposed a practical solution to the constitutional crisis of the previous year, moving that Article Thirteen of the Convention Constitution be amended to read as follows:

Article XIII. Any alteration which experience shall dictate may be made in these Articles by a vote of two-thirds of the members present when the vote is being taken without regard to total enrollment at any annual meeting of the Convention; provided, no amendment may be considered after the second day of the Convention.(97)

The amendment passed without difficulty. No questions about the legitimacy of a vote to amend the Constitution based on the number of those voting need ever arise again. At the same time, as a safeguard no doubt in full keeping with the intent of the founding fathers, Coleman's motion insured that no constitutional amendments would be legislated after the second day of the Convention when many of the messengers might already have returned home.

That very afternoon, still on the first day of the 1918 Convention, Coleman's woman messenger proposal came up before the Convention as scheduled, but suddenly, it seemed destined once again to fail. Coleman's committee had been unable to reach a consensus. Worse yet, Coleman was unable even to present a majority report since two of the five committee members had never attended the committee's meetings, while a third disagreed with the report as prepared. Coleman therefore requested that the woman messenger issue be dropped, but F. M. McConnell, corresponding secretary for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, asked that Coleman read his minority report aloud before the assembled Convention. Afterwards, McConnell moved that it be adopted and then spoke strongly in its favor, concluding that, if Baptist men were going to be consistent in their treatment of Baptist women, they should have "shut the women out" of their churches years ago when they had first "refused to admit them" into the Convention. Baptist democratic polity was about to win the day. Indeed, Atlanta pastor F. C. McConnell found it incomprehensible that "democratic Baptists had been so undemocratic as to bar women from their Convention" back in 1885.(98)

In the end, even the more conservative reports estimated the margin of victory for Coleman's amendment at five to one. Christian Index Editor B. J. W. Graham struggled to explain the end result to his Georgian readers. After noting the division between state delegations east and west of the Mississippi, the editor reported: "There was a strong undertone of opposition to the recommendation of the committee, but the Convention got the bit in its teeth and ran away, scattering the opposition on every side." In a follow-up editorial, entitled "Division in Doctrine Must Not Divide in Effort," Graham insisted that the majority of those who had voted in favor of the amendment had no desire to see a woman elected president of the Convention, or serving as a committee chairperson. That being the case, Graham argued, the passage of the amendment had presented a "false sentiment," for admitting women as messengers without simultaneously according them the privilege to hold office promised to "render the Convention undemocratic," as if somehow continuing to bar Baptist women from serving as Convention messengers might have been far more "democratic" and more "Baptist" than admitting them without office!

Unfortunately, Graham's report proved to be prophetic. In 1921, Northern Baptists elected suffragist Helen Montgomery of Rochester, New York, as the first woman president of their Convention. Not until 1972 more than half a century later would a woman be nominated for president of the SBC, and she would lose the election. To date, no woman has ever served as SBC president. In stark contrast, Northern [American] Baptists have elected a total of eleven women presidents to lead the Northern Baptist Convention (1907-1950), American Baptist Convention (1950-1972), and American Baptist Churches USA (1972-present).(99)

* * * * * * * * * * * *

The reactionary 1885 Southern Baptist Convention clearly marked a watershed in Southern Baptist history. In 1845, the founding fathers had left the selection of Southern Baptist Convention delegates to the discretion of the autonomous constituent bodies. The language of the SBC Constitution simply referred to "delegates" and "members" without reference to gender, and on at least two occasions in the early history of the Convention, in 1877 and again in 1882, a woman had served as a Convention delegate without opposition. By the time of the infamous 1885 Convention, however, many Southern Baptist men had become alarmed at what they perceived as a threat posed by the growing number of incursions into the fields of politics and religion by more progressive women. Seeking to stem the tide, the male delegates of the 1885 Convention hurriedly amended their Constitution to exclude Baptist women permanently from Convention affairs. No longer could a Baptist woman, even if duly elected and certified by her church or Baptist state convention Myra Graves had been chosen and sent once by each serve as a Convention delegate.

Even in the midst of this reactionary Convention, however, the debate recorded by the Baptist press bears witness to the fact that many Southern Baptist men continued to support women Convention delegates. The rationales they employed ranged from literal interpretations of the SBC Constitution to arguments of the women's relative merits or utility in missions work, societal evangelization, and moral reform, or their importance as their families' chief financial contributors, to reminders that Baptist polity is fundamentally structured from the bottom up organized as cooperating, albeit autonomous local churches rather than dictated by the Convention from the top down. Thus within the context of the controversy over women delegates the Convention members were debating several larger issues: first, what legitimized the SBC; second, what constituted the basis for Convention membership; third, wherein lay the ultimate source of the Convention's political authority; and finally, how its organization ought to be structured.

In response to the first question, the recorded speeches of both sides of the debate over whether or not to seat the women delegates at the 1885 Augusta Convention clearly suggest that the delegates regarded the SBC Constitution, reinforced by forty years of custom, as the Convention's chief legitimizing force even if they differed widely in their interpretations of it. The second issue pointed towards more radical conclusions. Most delegates at the 1885 Convention would have agreed that the SBC was formed primarily to promote mission work both at home and abroad, and further, that financial contributions towards this end formed the basis for Convention membership and determined the number of delegates that any constituent body might send to the SBC. This posed a significant problem, however one that clearly reflected the changing times and held radical implications that most Baptist men in 1885 were unwilling to accept. If more money truly was being contributed to missions by Baptist women than by Baptist men, then Baptist women clearly merited Convention membership even more, and arguably in greater numbers, than Baptist men.

The third and fourth questions turned on the ever-present tensions between local autonomy and centralized hierarchy, on the one hand, and between grass-roots democracy and elitist, oligarchic rule, on the other in other words, whether the SBC should be structured from the bottom up as cooperating, albeit autonomous local churches and associations, or be governed from the top down through a hierarchical denominational leadership whose legislation would be binding upon the constituent members. Closely related was the issue of whether or not the democratic principles so important to the governance of individual Baptist churches should extend beyond church walls to the denomination itself. In short, Southern Baptists were asking whether the rights of democratically governed local churches (and, by extension, Baptist associations and state conventions) to choose their own pastors and other leaders extended as well to the election of their denominational representatives.

Nowhere in any of this early discourse was there any mention of the fundamental equality of the sexes, nor a recognition such as we have seen in the Quakers that Christ regularly calls women, as well as men, to Christian service. Missing in the supporters' arguments, too, were any parallels drawn between a Baptist woman's fundamental right as a member of a democratic polity to vote in local church sessions and, by extension, to serve as a Convention delegate empowered to vote on denominational matters concerning her church. That argument would come later. Instead, the women's Calvinistic Baptist opponents, almost exclusively Southern Democrats by political affiliation, employed the centralizing forces of the 1885 SBC to enforce the patriarchal norms of Southern culture. Indeed, in their emphasis upon law, tradition, and centralized authority, one might legitimately ask how these Baptists differed from the "Popists" they so despised.(100)

In the years that followed, as Southern Baptist women continued to endure exclusion at the denominational level, exchanges about the "Woman question" in the Baptist presses reverted to longstanding Scriptural debates. Opponents of women's expanded roles in Baptist life pointed to the Pauline proscriptions as a body of law universally barring women from addressing "mixed" audiences "in public," thus from serving as Convention messengers. The women's supporters, in contrast, pointed out inconsistencies between this conservative reading and the practices of the Apostle Paul recorded in Acts and the Pauline Epistles to argue for a local, descriptive interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12.These same arguments were heard in the North, but in the end Baptist and Methodist men in Southern states proved slower to grant equality to women than their Northern counterparts, largely because the white male patriarchy was more firmly entrenched in the Democratic culture of the South than in the North.

By the time that the woman messenger issue finally came up for reconsideration at the SBC in 1917-1918, however, not only had the male ranks of the women's supporters swelled, but their justifications for women messengers also had shifted away from the earlier arguments. Amidst the renewed fervor surrounding the Woman Suffrage Movement during the 1910s, a growing number of Southern Baptist men, especially in states west of the Mississippi River, now viewed the woman messenger question through the lenses of historic Baptist emphases upon freedom of association and democratic polity, the Pauline proclamation of gender equality in Galatians 3:28, and Woman suffrage. They argued as well that women speaking in public before mixed assemblies and women serving as Convention messengers must be treated as entirely separate issues. Moreover, several of the key figures in this story Lansing Burrows and his father, J. Lansing Burrows, O. C. Pope, Joshua Levering, Robert Coleman, and his pastor, George W. Truett had close ties with Northern Baptists whose own practices may have influenced their thinking. Ultimately many of these men (as well as women) came to a new understanding of Woman's place in religious and secular society that differed fundamentally from the traditional patriarchal views of Southern culture.

Of course, not all Southern Baptist men and women in 1917-1918 agreed that women should be equal participants in Convention affairs, or that, even if they were to serve as Convention messengers, they should be allowed to speak publicly on the Convention floor or serve as Convention officers or committee members. In the end, moreover, Robert Coleman's victory was only partial, for although Southern Baptist men conceded to women the right to serve as Convention messengers, sufficient numbers of them have steadfastly resisted sharing denominational leadership and pastoral authority over the years to block Southern Baptist women from gaining a foothold. Amazing as it may seem today, nearly a century later, Southern Baptist women still find themselves on the outside, victims of the same old arguments and narrow interpretations of the Pauline corpus, and excluded, for the most part, from Southern Baptist pastorates and from positions of authority within the SBC. Surely the time is right, Robert H. Coleman would say, for some individual, or group of individuals, to step to the fore and lead the SBC down the path towards true gender equality, even if doing so would require a fundamental restructuring of power within the Convention itself. The full inclusion of Baptist women in the affairs and leadership of the SBC would no doubt prove to be curative and only serve to increase the Convention's effectiveness in missions and evangelism.

Return to Part I

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NOTES Section III

ABBREVIATIONS

AHR The American Historical Review
ABSC Arkansas Baptist State Convention
ABSC Proceedings Proceedings of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention
BHH Baptist History and Heritage
ESB Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists
SBC Annual Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention
SBC Proceedings Proceedings of the Southern Baptist Convention
SBTS The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky
WCTU Woman's Christian Temperance Union
WMU Woman's Missionary Union

65. Edwards, Angels in the Machinery, esp. 5-8, 12-13, 27-38 (citation, 38).

66. Ruth Bordin, Frances Willard: A Biography (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 160-168.

67. Frances Willard, Woman in the Pulpit (Chicago: Woman's Temperance Publication Association, 1889), citations from 45, 47, 44, 27-28, and 40, emphases original. One chapter of Willard's book had been published in the Homiletic Review in December 1887.

68. Emory Stevens Bucke, gen. ed., The History of American Methodism, 3 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), 3:56-58.

69. Baptist and Reflector, 29 May 1890, 8, Editorial: "Should Women Preach in Public?," emphasis original, trans. by editors. The literature on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35[36] alone is immense. For summaries of the difficulties and leading interpretations of this passage, see Robbins, "St. Paul and the Ministry of Women"; Antoinette Clark Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul's Rhetoric (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), esp. 149-158 and 229-232; Arthur Rowe, "Silence and the Christian Women of Corinth: An Examination of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36,"Communio viatorum 33 (1990): 41-84; and Daniel C. Arichea, Jr., "The Silence of Women in the Church: Theology and Translation in 1 Corinthians 14.33b-36," Technical Papers for the Bible Translator 46, no. 1 (January 1995): 101-112.

70. R. W. Easley, "Should Women Preach?" Baptist and Reflector, 12 June 1890, 2.

71. Political Editor Daniels, State Chronicle (Raleigh, NC), 24 November 1887, cited in the Biblical Recorder (Raleigh, NC), 7 December 1887, 2.

72. Allen, A Century to Celebrate, 303. Beginning in 1903, WMU delegates were finally granted access to the Convention floor, but Baptist women were still denied the right to serve as Convention messengers. SBC Annual 1903, 23 (item 43); cf. ibid., 1907, 28 (item 59); and 1913, 14 (item 17).

73. "North Carolina Baptist State Convention," in Religious Herald, 30 May 1867, 2 (comments by Rev. W. M. Young, emphasis added). Cf. Harvey, Redeeming the South, 61-62.

74. American Baptist, 9 March 1869, 2. Cf. Wills, Democratic Religion, 69-75; Harvey, Redeeming the South, 45-74. The intersection of race, gender, religion, and social activism among Southern blacks during Reconstruction was incredibly complex. See especially James Melvin Washington, Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1986); Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993); William E. Montgomery, Under Their Own Vine and Fig Tree: The African-American Church in the South, 1865-1900 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1993); and Reginald F. Hildebrand, The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995).

75. Harvey, Redeeming the South, 211-212 and 218-220; J. Morgan Kousser, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974), esp. 39-44, 47-50, and 250-265; Marjorie Spruill Wheeler, New Women of the New South: The Leaders of the Woman Suffrage Movement in the Southern States (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), esp. 100-132 (citation, 102) and 181-182; Michael Perman, Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South, 1888-1908 (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), esp. 78-81, 105-106, 138-140, 182-183, and 342, n. 66; and Bill Sumners, "Southern Baptists and Women's Right to Vote, 1910-1920," BHH 12, no. 1 (January 1977): 45-51.

76. Proceedings, General Association of Baptists in Kentucky, 1881, 6.

77. See J. Michael Raley, "'Sing unto the Lord a New Song': Robert H. Coleman's Gospel Song Books and Hymnals and Their Impact upon Southern Baptist Hymnody," in Minds and Hearts in Praise of God: Hymns and Essays in Honor of Hugh T. McElrath, eds. Deborah Carlton Loftis and J. Michael Raley (Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, forthcoming). Truett and Coleman each had close ties with the Northern Baptist Convention and with the Baptist World Alliance, the former from time to time preaching and the latter leading the congregational singing at Northern Baptist conventions and BWA congresses, as well as before local Northern Baptist congregations. Later, Truett would serve as the Baptist World Alliance President (1934-39), but already in 1911, he had delivered two lengthy addresses before the BWA. See the Record of Proceedings, The Baptist World Alliance: Second Congress, Philadelphia, June 19-25, 1911 (Philadelphia: Harper, 1911), 95-99 and 421-429.

78. I want to thank Professor H. Leon McBeth for sharing this insight about Dr. Truett with me in a telephone conversation on 14 November 2002.

79. J. B. Gambrell, "The Convention as Seen by One Who Saw."

80. Baptist Standard, 23 April 1914, 8.

81. Edna V. Funderburk, "The Women Again," Baptist Courier, 19 August 1915, 2.

82. Baptist Courier, 26 August 1915, 4.

83. Baptist Standard, 20 May 1915, 2-3, emphasis added.

84. Baptist Standard, 18 May 1916, 11.

85. SBC Annual, 1916, 57-58 (item 75); Alabama Baptist, 24 May 1916; Baptist Standard, 25 May 1916, 1; the Baptist Courier, cited in the Baptist Standard, 1 June 1916, 31; and Blevins, "Reflections," 54. The Baptist Courier recorded that the two women speakers "were introduced by the president of the Convention," while the Alabama Baptist stated that Secretary Mallory was introduced by Home Mission Board Secretary B. D. Gray (who had conceded thirty minutes of time allotted to Home Missions to the two women), and that Mallory, in turn, introduced Mrs. McLure. In such a controversial situation, however, President Burrows, who was presiding over the controversial session, no doubt also spoke a word on behalf of the women.

86. Baptist Courier, cited in the Baptist Standard, 1 June 1916, 31. Also see H. Boyce Taylor, Sr.'s Why Be a Baptist? (Murray, KY: News and Truths, [n.d.]; rep. ed., Little Rock, AR: Challenge Press, 1995), a collection of editorials originally published separately in News and Truths, Chapter 11, pp. 83-92, "Women's Work in Baptist Churches" (citation of Gambrell from p. 84); and Editor Routh's rebuttal to Taylor's previous editorial against women messengers, published in the Baptist Standard, 18 May 1916, 3.

87. Baptist Standard, 18 May 1916, 3.

88. "President Gambrell," Baptist Standard, 24 May 1917, 3.

89. SBC Annual, 1917, 37 (item 49).

90. [B. J. W. Graham], "Shall Women be Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention?," Christian Index, 31 May 1917, 1, emphasis added; cf., Christian Index, 24 May 1917, 10 (Porter's comments); Alabama Baptist, 23 May 1917. For Porter's and Graham's stance on Woman suffrage, see Sumners, "Southern Baptists and Women's Right to Vote," 46-47.

91. Baptist Standard, 31 May 1917, 6-7, and 23 May 1918, 22.

92. Christian Index, 24 May 1917, 10; Baptist Standard, 31 May 1917, 5-7; SBC Annual, 1917, 37-38 (item 49, italics added) and 103 (item 136). Both Letsinger, "The Status of Women in the SBC," 41, and Studstill, "Life of Robert H. Coleman," 16, erroneously reported that Coleman's resolution, rather than Porter's motion to table it, was defeated.

93. McBeth, "The Role of Women," 14; idem, Women in Baptist Life, 111; Christian Index, 24 May 1917, 10; J. B. Gambrell, "The Last Southern Baptist Convention," Baptist Standard, 31 May 1917, 6-7; Editor Z. T. Cody, Baptist Courier, cited in the Baptist Standard, 31 May 1917, 5, emphasis added.

94. SBC Annual, 1917, 38 (item 49) and 62 (item 84); Christian Index, 24 May 1917, 10; Baptist Standard, 24 May 1917, 6, emphasis added; ESB, s.v. "Levering, Joshua," by Roy L. Swift, 2:784-785.

95. SBC Annual, 1918, 15 (item 14), emphasis added. On Vice-President Mell, see ESB, s.v. "Mell, John Dagg," by Howard P. Giddens, 2:845.

96. Wheeler, New Women of the New South, 181.

97. SBC Annual, 1918, 15 (item 15).

98. Christian Index, 23 May 1918, 3; SBC Annual, 1918, 18 (item 19).

99. Christian Index, 23 May 1918, 3; [J. W. Graham], "Division in Doctrine Must Not Divide in Effort," Christian Index, 30 May 1918, 1; J. B. Gambrell, "Concerning the Southern Baptist Convention," Baptist Standard, 30 May 1918, 10; Blevins, "Women in Baptist History," 59-60; email and list of SBC officers from Bill Sumners, Director and Archivist, Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, sent to the author, 29 April 2004; and email from Richard W. Schramm, Deputy General Secretary for Communication, American Baptist Churches USA, to the author, 2 March 2004.

100. Ironically, a delegate to the May 1867 meeting of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention, Rev. J. J. James, said, "We shall have a mighty struggle in this Southern country with the Catholics. No denomination can consistently oppose the Catholics but the Baptists. All others are founded, in part, on tradition." Religious Herald, 30 May 1867, 2.

 

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