Review: Into the Pulpit
Elizabeth Flowers. Into the Pulpit: Southern Baptist Women and Power Since World War II. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. xii + 280 pp. ISBN 978-0-80783-534-0.
Elizabeth Flowers’s Into the Pulpit explores how the “woman question” framed the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) history since World War II and more dramatically during the post-1979 rise of conservative control within the denomination. Rather than concentrating on theological debates or the battle rhetoric exchanged amongst the SBC, Flowers places the voices and experiences of women at the center of the narrative by drawing on fieldwork, navigating and presenting different interpretations of the time period, and textual research. She notes that while conservatives were first galvanized by the inerrancy debate, it was questions surrounding the status of women’s roles in church and society that prolonged and intensified denominational divisions, particularly in relation to the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU).
Flowers divides the book into an introduction, five thematic and chronological chapters, and an epilogue. Chapter 1 traces the SBC’s rise to denominational efficiency and financial prosperity following the fifteen years after the end of World War II. However, this financial stability and the optimistic cohesion did not endure as civil rights, feminism, liberalism, and political unrest shook up southern culture. By the early 1960s, SBC seminaries reflected the larger cultural and biblical debates, such as liberalism and inerrancy, happening across denominations. During this period, Flowers weaves in early examples of women’s ordination, noting how the WMU’s nurturing of women to follow “God’s call” to ministry was a natural precursor to this development (even though the WMU remained rather neutral and accommodating to conservative cultural constructions within Baptist life). As more women moved into the pulpit in the 1970s, many Baptists viewed it is an example of radical feminism, while a small but growing group embraced the change.
Debates over liberalism were happening in the wider American cultural narrative; and, in Chapter 2, Flowers provides specific examples of how evangelical feminism and traditional womanhood collided in 1970s Baptist life. Southern Baptists eventually had to confront the rhetoric of submission and the woman question. Hard lines were drawn at seminaries, within and between denominational administrative divisions, and in local and regional congregations. Meanwhile, the WMU attempted to maintain neutral territory. By the close of the 1970s, the “woman question” was centralized in debates about power and equality related to the increasing (yet rare) reality of women’s ordination. While women’s ordination was still infrequent and relegated to isolated cases, Baptist moderates and supporters of women’s ordination were hopeful that progress would only intensify.
The optimism came to an abrupt halt in 1979, as Adrian Rogers ascended to the presidency of the SBC and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority influenced the larger cultural wars. In Chapter 3, Flowers argues that the southern conservative debate was acutely framed by questions of womanhood. Within Baptist circles, conservatives promoted women’s submission to set the tone of the inerrancy debates, while the once influential work of the WMU became more marginalized. Attempts were made to construct a theology of Baptist women in ministry through a formal network of support, but not without its own internal tensions between those that wanted to adopt a more radical feminist stance and others who wanted to avoid controversy.
Flowers asserts that by the early 1980s, women’s ordination was a denominational litmus test. Male conservative leaders rallied around women’s submission in the church and conservative women’s ministry stressed domestic matters. Churches that supported women’s ordination were disfellowshiped and conservative Baptist leaders took over denominational agencies. Seminaries and boards released several denominational statements, such as an amended Baptist Faith and Message, which muted compromises over women and gender roles. Despite conservative fears, the reality was that few women in the SBC were being ordained and even fewer were making it to senior pastor roles.
By the late nineties, Baptist moderates used women’s ordination as a significant distinguisher from conservatives. However, Flowers argues that moderates, positioning themselves as “mainstream,” nullified significant social action by reframing the “women question” as one of soul competency and an issue best resolved through local church autonomy. By the twenty-first century, Flowers asserts that Baptist moderates might have “come a long way, baby” in supporting women’s ordination (186). If one were to measure progress by females in senior pastorates or staff positions, however, the glass ceiling remains to be shattered.
Flowers does a fine job of weaving together disparate voices and cultural currents into the narrative. The paradox of conservative Baptist women arguing for women’s submission by leading campaigns against women’s ordination is not without irony. Conversely, Flowers unearths several contradictions amongst moderate voices and leaders unable to usher in significant acceptance of women’s ordination or compromise with conservatives. Flowers leaves the narrative a bit unfinished as women’s ordination remains a deeply polarizing issue within the variances of Baptist life and culture. Her portrayal of Baptist women’s history in the mid-to-late twentieth century is a welcome addition to work on women and religion, leaving the reader wondering if and when the “women question” will arise in a different form during the twenty-first century.