"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 II of III

The Debate over Seating the Arkansas Delegation at the 1885 Southern Baptist Convention

At the opening session of the 1885 Southern Baptist Convention, held at Augusta's Greene Street (First) Baptist Church, Recording Secretary Lansing Burrows read aloud the names of the delegates who were to be enrolled. A few months earlier, in November 1884, members of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention meeting at Pine Bluff had chosen 17 distinguished Arkansas Baptist men as well as four prominent Arkansas Baptist women to represent their state convention at the upcoming Augusta SBC. However, only five of these Arkansas men and two of the women, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle and Margaretta Adelaide Dudgeon ("Dottie") Early, actually attended the Augusta Convention the following May.(25) Burrows probably found nothing particularly remarkable about the presence of the two women delegates, for although he had been pastor of the host church since 1883, he had previously (1870-1876) served the First Baptist Church of Bordentown, New Jersey a church in which women had long voted in church sessions and subsequently (1876-1879) at Trenton, New Jersey, both churches situated in a state where women routinely served as associational delegates. Moreover, Burrows had been the Convention's recording secretary since 1881, and as we shall see, at the 1882 SBC a woman delegate from Texas had indeed been allowed to take her seat.(26)

"The enrolling of SBC delegates was usually a mere formality, but in 1885, when Secretary Burrows read aloud the names of the two women from Arkansas, delegate J. William Jones (Virginia) and his allies vehemently opposed seating them."

The enrolling of SBC delegates was usually a mere formality, but in 1885, when Secretary Burrows read aloud the names of the two women from Arkansas, delegate J. William Jones (Virginia) and his allies vehemently opposed seating them. Jones's actions no doubt surprised few at the 1885 Convention, for Jones was a dedicated, ultra-conservative Southern preacher whose opposition to women's increasing involvement in Baptist churches was well known.

Jones had numbered among the very first students to matriculate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary after its founding in 1859 and, during the Civil War, had served as a chaplain in the Army of Northern Virginia. Later, in addition to his pastoral duties, he held positions as secretary of the Southern Historical Society, chaplain-general of the United Confederate Veterans, and superintendent of the Confederate Memorial Association. He also authored definitive volumes on Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, as well as a classic account of army revival meetings during the Civil War, entitled Christ in the Camp.(27)

In 1884, Jones became embroiled in a controversy over the place of women in church life. Women attending the Baltimore Convention as visitors (whose ranks included Dottie Early) also met separately that year to discuss the eventual formation of a Woman's missionary society. Meanwhile, Joshua Levering, Maryland vice-president of the Foreign Mission Board and cousin of home missionary Annie Armstrong, introduced a highly-controversial proposal on the floor of the Convention calling for the Home Mission Board to employ "a competent woman," rather than a man, "as superintendent of Woman's Work for Home Missions." J. William Jones spoke at length against Levering's proposal, warning the delegates against what he perceived as "the entering wedge to Woman's Rights." In rebuttal, a young Baptist newspaper editor named J. B. Gambrell acknowledged the "note of caution" that the idea of a woman "superintendent" sparked in the minds of most Baptist men, yet he challenged his brethren nevertheless to "cease to be fogies." The Convention, Gambrell advised, should allow the women to organize their missions work themselves; at the same time, he reassured those concerned with women speaking in public before mixed audiences that this could be done in such a way as to avoid "platform speaking." Already in 1884, WMU historian Catherine Allen has observed, "the opposing sides on the question of women's work had polarized." To avoid further controversy, the 1884 Convention referred Levering's proposal to the Home Mission Board for further study. Tensions over the "Woman question" thus were already running high when the Arkansas delegation arrived at Augusta in May 1885.(28)

The two women from Arkansas and their husbands were not only mission-minded Southern Baptists, but also dedicated advocates for Woman's rights. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle had been president of the Arkansas Woman's Central Committee on Missions since its inception in 1883. She was, by all accounts, a strikingly beautiful woman, skilled in all the social graces and a fashionable dresser, but more importantly, she was a born leader, able to organize and inspire, highly competent in debate, and an expert in parliamentary procedure. She and her husband, the Hon. James P. Eagle, were also pro-Woman suffrage. "Elder Eagle" was a Confederate lieutenant colonel who had been converted during the war and ordained shortly thereafter. Beginning in 1880, he served several terms as president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and, at the time of 1885 Southern Baptist Convention, was also Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives. Twice Judge Eagle would be elected to two-year terms as governor of Arkansas (1889-1893), and thrice he would serve as president of the SBC (1902-1904). Not to be outdone, Mary Eagle would serve on the Executive and Historical Committees of the Board of Lady Managers for the World's Columbian Exposition (1893), chair the Exposition's illustrious Committee on Woman's Congresses, and edit the official volume of papers presented at the Woman's Pavilion during the Exposition. From 1888 until 1902, she would also serve as the Arkansas vice-president of the Woman's Missionary Union.(29)

Dottie Early was a highly-capable, university-educated woman who was also devoted to Arkansas Baptist missions. Irish by birth, she had lost her first husband, Dr. Miles Goldsby, during the Civil War, after which she had supported her children as a single mother by teaching school. In June 1881, Dottie had married a prominent Arkansas pastor, M. D. Early, but nevertheless had continued her teaching career. Rev. Early, meanwhile, was elected as the Arkansas vice-president of the SBC Home Mission Board. In this capacity in 1883 he had issued a call for Arkansas Baptist women to form a State Central Committee to promote missions work. It was at this historic meeting that Mary Eagle had been elected president and Dottie Early corresponding secretary. A few months later Dottie assessed the women's work to date:

An advance movement has been made, . . . though but few soldiers have enlisted we trust they are enrolled for war. We are yet in our infancy. The importance of 'Woman's Work to Women' is not felt because it is not known. Our sisters in other States have long since been in the field, have already gathered many heavy sheaves for the Master, and we must emulate their noble example. In order to do this the darkness must be dissipated, the ignorance dispelled.(30)

J. William Jones's challenge to seating these two outstanding women solely on account of their gender confronted the Southern Baptist Convention with one of its gravest constitutional crises. As originally worded, the SBC Constitution omitted any reference to the gender of its members. Thus it neither explicitly admitted nor barred "women" delegates. SBC President P. H. Mell refused to issue a definitive ruling on the matter in his capacity as the 1885 Convention moderator, so Jones moved that the question be referred to a committee for further investigation, with instructions to report back to the Convention as soon as possible. In addition to Jones, President Mell appointed Basil Manly, Jr. (Kentucky), J. H. Kilpatrick (Georgia), J. L. Carroll (North Carolina), and M. B. Wharton (Alabama).(31) After a brief deliberation, during which the committee could come to no consensus, its members brought two reports back to the Convention, only exacerbating the crisis. The committee's division stemmed from two fundamentally different interpretations of Article Three of the SBC Constitution.

Art. III. The Convention shall consist of members who contribute funds, or are delegated by religious bodies contributing funds, on the basis of one delegate for every hundred dollars contributed to our funds at any time within the twelve months preceding the meeting of the body; and of representatives, on the terms hereinafter specified, from any of the following bodies, viz.: . . . the Arkansas Baptist State Convention [as well as the other Baptist state conventions and general associations] . . . , which bodies shall be allowed one representative in this Convention for every five hundred dollars which, during the twelve months ending December 31, previous to the session of this Convention, may have been expended by them for objects similar to those in the prosecution of which this Convention may be actively engaged, . . . provided, . . . that the representatives of these bodies shall be formally appointed by the organs thereof . . . , and that their appointment shall be duly certified to this Convention.(32)

The majority report, a strict constructionist view presented by Manly and signed in addition by Messrs. Carroll and Wharton, acknowledged first of all that the SBC Constitution did not explicitly grant Baptist "women" the right to serve as Convention delegates. The framers of the Constitution surely had never anticipated that Baptist women might make such a demand. Indeed, the report continued, in the forty years of its existence the Convention had never once seated a woman delegate. The majority view thus neither favored seating the Arkansas women, nor believed it would be in the best interests of the SBC to do so. Nonetheless, its signers could find nothing in the Constitution that barred the two women from being seated. They had come as properly accredited delegates, having been duly elected and certified by the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (an autonomous constituent member of the SBC) as required by the SBC Constitution. The Convention, therefore, was obliged to seat them, if for no other reason than because its members were legally bound to adhere to the letter of their own written law, however defective. Once the two Arkansas women had been seated, the report concluded, the delegates would be free to amend the Constitution, should they so desire, to resolve more clearly the issue of a woman's future eligibility to Convention membership.(33)

The minority report, signed by Messrs. Jones and Kilpatrick, resolutely opposed seating the women. The report conceded that the Constitution was silent on the matter and also agreed that the founding fathers had never envisioned such a situation as now confronted the Convention. Nonetheless, the report claimed, in the entire forty-year history of the Southern Baptist Convention, no woman had ever participated in its deliberations. The reason was simple: Southern Baptist women did not want to be members of the Convention. In sum, the spirit of the Constitution (reflecting its framers' intent), the lack of any specific reference to "women" in Article Three, and forty years of practice collectively had forged the SBC's unwritten, common law "the unbroken custom of the Convention" in opposition to receiving women as members. Therefore, the Convention must deny these two Arkansas women their seats.(34)

Following the presentation of these two reports, a spirited and heated debate broke out on the Convention floor. Nowhere in the recorded discourse, interestingly, does one find an authoritative Baptist appeal to Scripture. Neither does one find even the least suggestion that Baptist women might have possessed an inherent right, equal to Baptist men, to attend Convention meetings as full members and participants. Furthermore, none of those who had spoken thus far apparently suspected that it had ever been otherwise during the forty-year history of the SBC. In the heat of the debate, however, O. C. Pope, editor of the Texas Baptist Herald and, since 1881, superintendent of Texas missions for the American Baptist Home Mission Society, rose to set the record straight. Contrary to what had been stated thus far, he carefully pointed out, it was not true that a woman had never before been seated as a Convention delegate. At the 1882 Convention held at Greenville, South Carolina, Myra E. Graves, widow of Baylor University President Henry Lea Graves and in her own right a devout, evangelistic-minded woman, had been "enrolled" as a woman delegate from the Baptist State Convention of Texas "without objection or debate." Myra Graves, it turns out, had also been seated as a Convention delegate from Texas in 1877, this time as a representative of her local Baptist church.(35)

Writing half a century ago, Southern Baptist historian William Wright Barnes inferred Myra Graves's enrollment may have been overlooked at the 1877 and 1882 Conventions since only her first initials, and not her full name, were registered. This line of reasoning really makes very little sense. At a time when all women visitors were still required to sit in the balcony, it is difficult to imagine how a lone woman messenger, seated on the main floor of the Convention for several days of meetings amidst an otherwise all-male delegation the prominent widow of a university president no less could possibly have gone unnoticed unless, of course, all the men in attendance were blind. Certainly the Texas delegation knew of Myra Graves's presence: O. C. Pope had served alongside Myra Graves in 1882.(36) The recording of the delegates' first initials does, however, present a significant problem for modern historians, for it makes it virtually impossible today to determine whether (and if so, how many) other women, too, may have registered as Convention delegates prior to 1885.

Above all, Barnes's argument implicitly assumes that a woman delegate would have been unacceptable in 1877 and 1882, but this leaves unanswered the question of why unsympathetic delegates failed to sound the alarm at those Convention meetings. More importantly, Barnes's historical rationalization obscures the larger issue, namely, that J. William Jones and his supporters were striving to reverse recent trends, to stem the growing tide of women's gains. Having sounded the alarm at the Convention meeting the previous year when Baptist women had met separately to discuss forming a Woman's missionary society, Jones and his forces had come to Augusta determined to halt the forward movement of Baptist women. Their opposition to the two women delegates in 1885, therefore, must be seen as part of a larger effort to curb any further advances by Southern Baptist women in denominational participation and leadership.

With the argument from longstanding custom clearly in disrepute, Georgian Judge J. D. Stewart posed the rhetorical question, "Is it true that we are shut up to the letter of the Constitution, and cannot go behind the returns, as it were?"(37) He argued to the contrary that the Convention members had the right as well as the obligation to construe the intent of the Constitution's authors. Surely the SBC's founding fathers had never meant to seat women as Convention delegates, he insisted, no matter how ambiguous the language of the Constitution might now appear!

J. H. Kilpatrick (Georgia), a co-signer of the minority report, agreed, but favored a more literal reading of the Constitution. Since the Constitution did not specifically admit "women," he argued, they had to be excluded. "What our fathers intended when they wrote the Constitution is the Constitution. What did they mean to do? To provide for the representation of men and not for women." Of course he neglected to mention that the Constitution likewise failed to admit "men," that it simply called for "delegates" and "representatives" without reference to gender.(38)

After having listened patiently to the ongoing debate for quite some time, the Hon. James P. Eagle requested the floor. One can only imagine the tension in the air as Judge Eagle, Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives and the sitting president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, rose to speak on behalf of his wife, Mary Eagle, and the other Arkansas woman, Dottie Early. First, he politely conceded that Judge Stewart was correct. The delegates did indeed possess the moral obligation and legal authority to construe the Convention's Constitution, but he doubted that the delegates lawfully could deny the two women their seats if the Constitution were interpreted fairly. Under no circumstances, however, should these two women be seated on the basis of any loopholes in the Constitution, for they were faithful Southern Baptists who had worked hard to promote missions in their home state. He based his argument, then, in part upon merit upon the good works and moral character of the women involved, rather than upon their inherent right to equal participation. Ultimately, however, Judge Eagle called for strict adherence to the written law. The Convention members were bound to seat the women if this was what the Constitution demanded, and then amend the Constitution afterwards if they wished.(39)

At this point the debate took a sharp turn for the worse. In standing the majority report on its head, the flamboyant Georgian preacher, J. B. Hawthorne, derided the distinguished judge along with his prominent wife who, rather than being seated as a legitimate Convention delegate as she had expected, now found herself the object of public ridicule. "Is it true that what is not expressly forbidden in the Constitution is lawful?" Hawthorne asked rhetorically. "Are we going to bind ourselves by any such principle? Because the Constitution does not expressly prohibit women are we bound to receive them? I love the ladies," he said with a sarcastic smile, "but I dread them worse." [Laughter among the male delegates.] Once admitted as delegates, Hawthorne continued, women would be eligible to hold any office, including the presidency of the Convention. "We are not prepared for such a revolution. Our Southern women do not want it," he insisted. "I do not wonder at the course of Bro. Eagle of Arkansas. If my wife was here knocking at the door of this Convention, I'd never vote against her coming in." [More laughter.] Hawthorne's comments here exceeded all bounds of ethical decency, for they implied that Judge Eagle was supporting his crusading spouse either because she was manipulating him, or because he wanted to keep peace at home. To Hawthorne, women were uncontrollable and domineering, poor choices for Convention leadership. That his remarks elicited such widespread laughter among the male delegates, as recorded by the Tennessee Baptist, while the women watched from the balcony without being allowed to respond, demonstrates all too clearly the unfair power relations between the sexes that Southern Baptist women of that day were forced to endure.(40)

The debacle reached a critical threshold as Judge Eagle calmly rose and stated, "Mr. President, I rise to the question of privilege." In response, President Mell informed the judge that Dr. Hawthorne still had the floor, to which Judge Eagle replied, "But, sir, I rise to a question of privilege, which is always in order, no matter who has the floor." When the president again ruled that Judge Eagle had no right to the floor, the judge inquired, "Under what parliamentary rules is the Chair acting?" Still President Mell refused to grant him the floor. Frustrated and outraged, Judge Eagle took his seat, the Tennessee Baptist reported, "with the air of a man who felt that he was submitting to an erroneous decision," even as Hawthorne continued to speak in opposition to seating the two Arkansas women.(41)

Judge Eagle's question of privilege was hardly unreasonable. The Eagles were under personal attack, and his challenge accorded well with standard parliamentary procedure. The Eagles, each of whom was expert in parliamentary law, knew this. President Mell, who was now Chancellor of the University of Georgia, was also a specialist in parliamentary procedure, known to his contemporaries as the "prince of parliamentarians." This makes his response all the more difficult to explain unless, of course, he sympathized with Hawthorne's views. In 1867, Mell had written A Manual of Parliamentary Practice, which for many years served as the SBC's official parliamentary manual. In Mell's own words, "anything which interferes with the rights and privileges of an assembly or of its individual members furnishes the occasion for a motion pertaining to privilege." Precisely because its raison d'être is so extreme, it "supersedes all motions excepting that to adjourn." Indeed, Mell himself added, "it can even compel one occupying the floor to suspend his remarks, and to give way as though he had been taken down by a point of order."(42) Judge Eagle's question of privilege, raised in the face of the verbal abuse and mockery of his wife as well as himself by another member of the Convention, was therefore entirely licit and justified, yet in response, President Mell sustained the very individual whom he should have reprimanded and deprived of the floor.

Following this episode, F. H. Howard (Tennessee) returned to the issue of local autonomy. The SBC Constitution, he noted, granted to local churches, associations, and Baptist state conventions the privilege of choosing their own Convention delegates. Therefore, the two women from Arkansas had every right to be there, having been duly "sent by constituent bodies of the Convention."(43) T. T. Eaton, pastor of Louisville's Walnut Street Baptist Church, concurred with Howard that local Baptist constituencies are indeed free and autonomous. Nonetheless, he insisted, this did not give them the right to dictate Convention policy (e.g., by demanding that their delegates be seated even if the SBC Constitution proscribed them). Eaton likewise discounted Judge Eagle's merit argument, for merit formed no part of the constitutional rationale for delegates. In his view, the central question confronting the Convention was whether its members possessed the legal authority to construe their Constitution as it stood, or whether instead they were limited to an interpretation that was even more restrictive than the wording of the Constitution itself. Contrary to the minority report, Eaton clearly believed that the delegates possessed full constitutional authority to seat the two Arkansas women, but he rejected doing so on the accidental basis suggested by the majority report.

The majority's report says, "We cannot help ourselves now. We do not want you, but you have come and we cannot help ourselves, but [we] will be ready for you next time." The minority's report says, "We will shut the door and keep you out anyhow." The question now is not on the merits of the ladies, or their fitness to sit as members of this body, but simply, have we the right to construe our constitution. I am in favor of [seating] the ladies, but opposed to the majority's report.(44)

At this point, Rev. M. D. Early, husband of Dottie Early and the Arkansas vice-president of the Home Mission Board,(45) gained the floor. He explained to the Convention delegates that he had been present at the Arkansas Baptist State Convention when the women had been chosen as delegates to the upcoming SBC in Augusta. He confessed that he, too, at first had objected to their appointment, but having subsequently scrutinized the SBC Constitution, he had found no legal grounds upon which to exclude them. After all, they had been appointed and certified by a constituent body of the Convention. Moreover, the two women in question had rendered "signal service for the cause in their State," and it was largely on the basis of this service that they had been selected as delegates. Their appointment in any case had opened Rev. Early's eyes to what he now regarded as the central issue confronting the Convention, namely, "Shall the Baptist ladies of this country, who have sent more money into the vaults of this Convention than the men, be excluded from a part in its deliberations?" Finally, in answer to those who advocated greater Convention authority and who insisted that local churches and associations "have no right to govern us, and to say whom we shall admit as members," Rev. Early carefully pointed to the grass-roots organization of the SBC and reminded the delegates, "If it was not for the [Southern] Baptist churches, there would be no [Southern] Baptist Convention."(46)

Rev. Early's Arguments Seen in Context

"Most Southern Baptists of the late nineteenth century found the Woman Suffrage Movement and even the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, by virtue of their ties to more radical feminist calls for political and social reform, too extreme."

Most Southern Baptists of the late nineteenth century found the Woman Suffrage Movement and even the Woman's Christian Temperance Union (hereafter WCTU), by virtue of their ties to more radical feminist calls for political and social reform, too extreme. Even more progressive Southern Baptists generally believed that temperance reform should be promoted locally and on an individual basis through faithful preaching and moral suasion rather than through participation in national organizations like the WCTU or by legal coercion through prohibition legislation.(47) Nonetheless, a growing number of Southern Baptists felt that women should have a greater voice in their denomination's affairs and decisions, not only because they served as the moral leaders of their families, but also because, during the postbellum years, Baptist women had assumed so much of the oversight of missions work in their churches. Rev. Early, moreover, put forward the suggestion that, on the basis of their contributions, Southern Baptist women who oversaw their own or, more commonly, a portion of their husbands' wages and who gave freely to missions deserved a voice in Convention matters at least as much as, if not more than, their less-generous fathers, brothers, and husbands. Implicit in his argument was a conservative understanding of the role of the wife as the family's moral leader, whose domestic sphere of influence now extended beyond the home to Baptist missions in much the same way that the WCTU had been able to employ a "politics of domesticity" a decade earlier to expand into the public arena of temperance reform. Within just a few years, Southern Baptist women would form their own missions agency the Woman's Missionary Union which would be tolerated because Baptist women were content, or coerced, to structure the WMU as an auxiliary to the SBC, rather than as an independent women's organization. Certain avenues of influence were now open to Southern Baptist women, but each had its own built-in limits set primarily by the Convention's male leadership. Moderately progressive Southern Baptists like Rev. Early were pushing to expand those boundaries.

Rev. Early's argument also implicitly linked gender and money with political representation and participation within the SBC, faintly echoing strains of nineteenth-century American suffragettes who had broadened the definition of female citizenship to include not only the franchise, but also an end to "coverture" the legal and physical subordination of married women to their husbands as they passed from the status of femme sole to femme covert.(48) In their opposition to coverture, Woman's rights activists were fundamentally influenced by anti-Calvinist theology, so it is not difficult to understand why they were so vehemently opposed by Calvinist Southern Baptist leaders who regarded not only marriage law, but also the biblical proclamation that husband and wife "shall be one flesh," as binding.(49) As historian Hendrik Hartog recently noted, in the view of nineteenth-century Woman's rights activists, "the law, and the men who profited by it, had usurped God's authority. Only God could transform the self, in salvation. Only God had the right to be the 'keeper' of a woman's conscience. No one, certainly no man, could assume responsibility for another's moral being."(50)

Property ownership, suffragists argued, carried with it a degree of independence that rendered a woman worthy of political participation and the right to vote, since a woman with financial independence could no longer be required to merge both her identity and economic status hence her voice into her husband's through matrimony. Rev. Early was arguing along similar lines that women who controlled their families' mission offerings and hence exercised, at least to some limited degree, a voice independent of their less-generous husbands (directed, moreover, towards the lofty causes of missions and spiritual and moral reform) ought to be allowed to participate in the Convention's affairs and to vote in its decisions. Here Early's argument bore interesting parallels to the increased attention paid by Democrats during the late 1880s and 1890s to the woman as the "family treasurer and disbursing officer."(51) Underlying his argument, too, was the practical reality that the constitutional basis for representation within the SBC was linked directly to monetary contributions to missions. If financial support to the Convention provided the primary justification and apportionment of Convention delegates, then Baptist women's superior, and presumably independent, giving meant that the male delegates legally could not deny women a voice in the Convention's proceedings. It was for this very reason, in fact, that another delegate went so far as to suggest that, should the Convention exclude the two Arkansas women, it would be obligated to refund the contributions of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC), which had chosen them as their representatives.(52)

In the final part of his argument, Rev. Early reminded the Convention delegates that the fundamental principle at work in Baptist polity was local autonomy. Delegates from Arkansas understood this well. Article Four of the 1848 ABSC Constitution affirmed that the state convention exercised no jurisdiction and was prohibited from interfering "with the constitution of any Church or association."(53) By reminding the Convention delegates of this historic Baptist principle, Rev. Early, like delegate Howard, was inferring that the references in Article Three to members and delegates without mention of gender had been neither an oversight by the founding fathers, nor a failure on their part to imagine that women might someday seek membership. In keeping with fundamental Baptist principles, the authors of the SBC Constitution had simply left the choice of delegates to the Convention's autonomous constituent bodies. Thus if an authorized association such as the Arkansas Baptist State Convention opted to send two duly-elected women delegates to the SBC, the Convention members were duty-bound to seat them, for they came with full constitutional legitimacy. T. T. Eaton, in contrast, had taken a somewhat different view: if the members had the right and obligation to construe their own written Constitution, as he clearly believed they did, then they should take great care neither to read more, nor less, into their Constitution than its wording actually contained. In his view, the delegates possessed full constitutional authority to seat two lawfully chosen women delegates because the language of the Constitution made no reference to gender.

The Conclusion of the 1885 Debate

Thus far, despite what clearly had been a prolonged and heated discussion, no vote had been taken on Basil Manly, Jr.'s motion to adopt the majority report. Just when it seemed that the question might finally be called and a vote taken, J. William Jones took the bold step of moving instead that the Convention amend Manly's motion by substituting the minority report for the majority report. In the ensuing vote (on whether or not to amend Manly's motion by replacing it with the minority report), the yeas outnumbered the nays, 202-112, so now the amended motion the motion to adopt the minority report came before the Convention. Much more debate ensued, along with several additional motions and counter motions. Then came one final digression prior to calling the question. E. R. Carswell (Georgia) reminded the delegates that several were in attendance who had also been present at the Convention's founding in 1845. All of them, he insisted, had just voted in favor of substituting the minority report for the majority report, proof enough of the original intent of the founding fathers. He had no more than finished his statement, however, when the distinguished J. Lansing Burrows (Virginia), father of the Convention secretary and a former first vice-president of the Convention, rose to set the record straight. "I was present at the first meeting [in 1845], and I [just] voted against the substitution of the minority's report."(54) Clearly no consensus of opinion on the question of women delegates could be found even among the Convention's founding fathers!

In such a climate, the approaching vote on whether or not to adopt the minority report seemed destined to go against the two Arkansas women. Just prior to the vote, Judge Eagle requested the Convention's permission to withdraw the women's names from consideration (since the women were not allowed to speak for themselves). No doubt the women had been greatly embarrassed by the controversy they had sparked and, at the same time, frustrated by the jibes that had been made at their expense. The editor of the Christian Index (Georgia) predicted that the question would continue to plague Southern Baptists until the Convention issued a clear ruling. "This question . . . demands settlement. Shall we admit female representation?"(55)

The published 1885 Convention Proceedings reflects none of this discussion. After this fierce debate had spun itself out on the Convention floor that morning, the Chair ruled that the Convention secretaries could exclude from their report of the proceedings all mention of the debate, since no vote had been taken upon either the original or the amended motion, and thus nothing had been enacted.(56) J. William Jones was not quite finished, however. The very next day he offered another resolution on the woman delegate issue. Although the Arkansas women had, at the last, withdrawn their names, Jones was determined to make sure that no woman would ever again endeavor to be seated as a Convention delegate. He moved that the matter be referred to a committee to determine precisely what future action should be taken.(57) The Convention adopted his motion, and a committee of fourteen was appointed one from each state but when the committee made its "unanimous" report back to the Convention two days later, just six had signed the report. The other eight members either had refused to serve on the committee, or else had declined to subscribe their names to its findings. These "silent eight" included Judge Eagle, who had been appointed to represent Arkansas. The committee report called for a constitutional amendment subsequently enacted by the all-male Convention to replace the word members in Article Three with brethren and thereby exclude women delegates from the SBC permanently. Afterwards the Christian Index reported, "sisters are by the letter now as by the spirit of the Constitution from the beginning, excluded from the 'seats' of this body."(58) Nonetheless, forty-two Baptist men had voted against the measure.

The vote on this infamous constitutional amendment warrants further investigation. Article Thirteen of the Constitution specified, "Any alterations which experience shall dictate may be made in these Articles by a vote of two-thirds of the members present at any annual meeting of the Convention." When the question was called, the 1885 Proceedings records, the vote for the proposed amendment was 131 in favor, 42 against the measure. This was more than sufficient for the two-thirds majority of those present at that particular session, although (as we shall see below) when Robert H. Coleman would attempt to overturn this amendment in 1917, the Constitution would be found to require a two-thirds majority of all registered delegates at an annual Convention meeting, not simply two-thirds of those in attendance at a daily session. With 525 registered delegates present at Augusta, the vote total for the Constitutional amendment (coming on the fourth day of the Convention meeting when many delegates had already returned home) was woefully shy of the 350 votes that would have constituted two-thirds of all registered delegates. The minutes simply record, however, that the vote, "being a majority of two thirds, effected a constitutional amendment."(59) After all of the other insults which they had been forced to endure at this Convention, the women in the balcony witnessed in coerced silence as the majority of the male delegates on the main floor barred them permanently by what could only have been perceived, by informed women like Mary Eagle and Dottie Early, as an illegal vote.

Contemporary Reactions to the 1885 Convention Debacle

What did the women sitting in the balcony of the Greene Street Baptist Church that day think of this heated debate? A passing remark made by Louisville pastor T. T. Eaton escaped mention in the official minutes, but was recorded in the Tennessee Baptist. It shows, perhaps better than anything else recorded at the time, the resentment and resignation with which the two Arkansas women and their female supporters regarded the proceedings of the 1885 Southern Baptist Convention. These women were neither subversive nor overbearing. Rather, they were devout, mission-minded women whose deep faith had convinced them of their obligation and divine calling to participate in Convention affairs as equals alongside Baptist men.(60) As such, they could scarcely conceal their disappointment at the outcome. During the morning session of the second day, as the Convention honored the eighteen members who also had been present at the organizational meeting of the SBC forty years earlier, T. T. Eaton rose to inform the Convention delegates, and especially the speakers on the platform, that he had been "requested by the ladies [seated in the balcony] to say that while they did not care to speak, they did desire to hear. They [in the balcony who] had been denied admission to seats among the delegates hoped they [on the platform] would speak loud[ly] enough for them to hear."(61)

Despite the zeal of Mary Eagle, Dottie Early, and other women of their stripe, however, most Southern Baptist women no doubt praised the action taken by the 1885 Convention. The issue of passive obedience by Southern Baptist women during the late nineteenth century, to which no space can be devoted here, is one which clearly merits further study. In commenting upon the controversial 1885 constitutional amendment one Georgia woman noted, "I think I know whereof I speak when I say that most Christian women, those who are Bible readers and indoctrinated in the belief that women should be 'keepers at home,' and not suffered to speak in the church, fully endorse this change. . . . There is a noble mission for women to fulfil [sic] in the church of Christ, not at all inferior to that assigned to man, but very different."(62) She was arguing, of course, that a woman's nature differs fundamentally from that of a man that a woman's place was in the home, perhaps extending into the sphere of temperance reform or Baptist missions, but certainly not to preaching or serving as a delegate to the SBC. In 1886, Dottie Early, in her capacity as secretary for the Arkansas Central Committee on Woman's Work, lamented the apathy of most Arkansas Baptist women and likewise attributed it to lifelong conditioning by their male relations. "They have been educated to have the husband, the father, the brother make all the contributions of the family not fully realizing that religion, with all of its duties, is a personal matter, and [that] it is the imperative duty of each woman who is adopted into God's family to make contributions of her time and money for the advancement of His kingdom."(63)

Alabama delegate J. J. D. Renfroe (who by his own admission had voted against the constitutional amendment) lamented that the Convention, having declared that "the work of woman is the right arm of our agencies," had allowed "the coming of two excellent women from a Baptist State Convention" to throw the Convention "into a spasm," requiring "long hours in arranging bulwarks and abatis against them." The male delegates had "seemed to be terribly affrighted lest the women should break in" on them. The fact that the Convention members had amended the SBC Constitution in order to exclude women delegates in the future actually proved that they had possessed "no right to reject them" in the first place. Renfroe cautioned his readers that the "Woman question" could never be silenced by (amended) written constitutions. The challenge for Southern Baptists lay in finding a way to balance women's growing activity and influence in organized mission work with "the Southern idea," neither subduing nor impeding this powerful new venue of Christian witness.(64)

Continue to Part III of III

Return to Part I

NOTES for Section II


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

25. ABSC Proceedings, 1884, 38-39; SBC Proceedings, 1885, 7. The four women were: "sisters M. K. Eagle, D. A. Early, J. B. Searcy, and W. A. Clark." The husbands of all four women were also Arkansas delegates. The ABSC was in fact only allotted 12 delegates; seven of those elected by the ABSC five men and two women journeyed to Augusta the following May, but of these only the five men were seated.

26. For more on Burrows, see the ESB, s.v. "Burrows, Lansing," by Edwin S. Davis, 1:211. On the First Baptist Church of Bordentown, NJ, see Maring, Baptists in New Jersey, 95.

27. ESB, s.v. "Jones, John William," by J. L. Rosser, 1:710-711; J. William Jones, Personal Reminiscences, Anecdotes, and Letters of Gen. Robert E. Lee (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1874); idem, The Davis Memorial Volume, or, Our Dead President, Jefferson Davis, and the World's Tribute to His Memory (Richmond, VA: B. F. Johnson and Co., 1890); idem, Christ in the Camp, or, Religion in Lee's Army (Richmond, VA: B. F. Johnson and Co., 1887).

28. Alabama Baptist, 22 May 1884, 2; SBC Proceedings, 1884, 17 (item 55); ESB, s.v. "Levering, Joshua," by Roy L. Swift, 2:784-785, and "Gambrell, James Bruton," by E. C. Routh, 1:523-524; Catherine Allen, A Century to Celebrate: History of the Woman's Missionary Union (Birmingham, AL: Woman's Missionary Union, 1987), 36-37.

29. Allen, A Century to Celebrate, 38; James P. Eagle, A Brief Memoir of Mary K. Eagle . . . (Little Rock: Arkansas Democrat Co., 1903), 4-16; Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle, ed., The Congress of Women Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893 (Chicago and Philadelphia: International Publishing Company, 1894); Annie Guinn Massey, History of the Woman's Missionary Union: Auxiliary to the Arkansas Baptist State Convention for the First Twenty-Five Years of Its Organization (n.c.: Executive Board of the WMU, 1913), 33-41, 47-55; J. S. Rogers, History of Arkansas Baptists (Little Rock: Arkansas Baptist State Convention, 1948), 222-224; E. Glenn Hinson, A History of Baptists in Arkansas 1818-1978 (Little Rock: Arkansas Baptist State Convention, 1979), 156-161; and C. Fred Williams, S. Ray Granade, and Kenneth M. Startup, A System & Plan: Arkansas Baptist State Convention, 1848-1998 (Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, 1998), 133-178.

30. Annie Guinn Massey, History of the Woman's Missionary Union, . . . the First Forty Years of Its Organization (Little Rock: H. G. Pugh and Co., 1929), 25-33 and 175-176, citation from 27 (italics added). Also see Mrs. W. D. [Lila Westbrook] Pye, "A Boquet [sic] of December Roses: A Group of Historical Sketches," typewritten manuscript [based upon an unidentified newspaper article written by Mollie Canon Jones in ca. 1941 and Pye's 1937 interview of Dottie Early's son, Theo Boykin Goldsby], n.d., 115-121; Hinson, A History of Arkansas Baptists, 156-159; and Arkansas Evangel, 3 September 1885, 1.

31. Alabama Baptist, 14 May 1885, 2.

32. SBC Proceedings, 1884, 3-4 (Convention Constitution, Art. III.). The published version of Article III found in the 1885 Proceedings reflects the changes made at the Augusta Convention.

33. Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 6-7; Western Recorder, 14 May 1885, 1.

34. Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 6-7; Western Recorder, 14 May 1885, 1.

35. ESB, s.v. "Pope, Owen Clinton," by Rupert N. Richardson, 2:1097-1098; Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 7; Western Recorder, 14 May 1885, 1; SBC Proceedings, 1877, 9, and 1882, 11; and Allen, A Century to Celebrate, 38-39. Letsinger, "The Status of Women in the SBC," 38-39, and Watson, Labourers Together, 22, each claimed erroneously that women had never served as Convention delegates prior to 1885. Cf. Paul Harvey, Redeeming the South: Religious Cultures and Racial Identities among Southern Baptists, 1865-1925 (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 212: "Until 1918, southern Baptist women could neither attend SBC meetings nor vote in convention deliberations."

36. Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, 148, n. 23; McBeth, "The Role of Women," 12-13; idem, Women in Baptist Life, 108-109; SBC Proceedings, 1882, 11.

37. Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 7.

38. Western Recorder, 14 May 1885, 1, emphasis added.

39. Cited in the Alabama Baptist, 14 May 1885, 2.

40. Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 7, italics original; Western Recorder, 14 May 1885, 1.

41. Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 7.

42. P. H. Mell, A Manual of Parliamentary Practice: Rules for Conducting Business in Deliberative Assemblies (New York: Sheldon and Co., 1867), with several reprint eds., iii and 64-65 (paragraphs 169-170); ESB, s.v. "Mell, Patrick Hues," by Howard P. Giddens, 2:845-846.

43. Western Recorder, 14 May 1885, 1, where Howard's name appears misspelled as "Harward." Cf. Christian Index, 14 May 1885, 1; SBC Proceedings, 1885, 10.

44. Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 7, emphasis added; also see the Western Recorder, 14 May 1885, 1; and Barnes, The Southern Baptist Convention, 150.

45. SBC Proceedings, 1885, 6.

46. Alabama Baptist, 14 May 1885, 2; Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 7 (italics original).

47. See, for example, the report of the Committee on Temperance in the Baptist and Reflector, 30 October 1890, 4.

48. For more on female power and agency as they related to citizenship, marriage, divorce, coverture, and Woman suffrage, see Sandra Stanley Holton, "'To Educate Women into Rebellion': Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Creation of a Transatlantic Network of Radical Suffragists," AHR 99 (1994): 1112-1136, esp. 1114 and 1121; and Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), esp. 93-135. Also see Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Eighty Years and More (1815-1897): Reminiscences of Elizabeth Cady Stanton (New York: European Publishing Company, 1898), 215-233; and Helen Kendrick Johnson's fascinating essay in support of Woman's progress, but in opposition to Woman suffrage, entitled Woman and the Republic: A Survey of the Woman-Suffrage Movement in the United States and a Discussion of the Claims and Arguments of its Foremost Advocates (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1897), esp. 156-185.

49. Genesis 2:24 (KJV).

50. Hartog, Man and Wife in America, 102.

51. Rebecca Edwards, Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics from the Civil War to the Progressive Era (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 73-74.

52. Delegate A. W. Lamar of Tennessee, cited in the Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 7.

53. Hinson, A History of Baptists in Arkansas, Appendix A-1, 395.

54. Christian Index (Georgia), 14 May 1885, 1; Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 7 (citation, emphasis added; this paper gives the vote narrative out of sequence, after the conclusion of the first day's events). J. Lansing Burrows had been born and reared in New York State, and had pastored churches in New York City and Philadelphia before serving the First Baptist Church of Richmond. See ESB, "Burrows, John Lansing," by J. L. Rosser, 1:210-211.

55. Christian Index, 14 May 1885, 1. Watson, Labourers Together, 22, erroneously claimed that the two women were seated "for twenty-four hours" before being "unseated" when the wording of the Constitution was changed from "members" to "brethren" (more below).

56. Tennessee Baptist, 16 May 1885, 10.

57. SBC Proceedings, 1885, 14 (item 23):

WHEREAS, There has arisen some question as to the eligibility of women to seats as delegates in this Convention; therefore, be it

Resolved, That this whole question be referred to a committee of one from each State to report to this meeting of the Convention such action as may be deemed expedient.

58. SBC Proceedings, 1885, 14 (item 23), and 30 (item 74); Christian Index, 14 May 1885, 9.

59. SBC Proceedings, 1885, 4 (Article XIII), 7-11 (list of registered delegates), and 30 (item 74). The Christian Index, 14 May 1885, 9, gave the vote as 116 to 42. Watson, Labourers Together, 22, erroneously records the vote as unanimous.

60. Deichmann, "Domesticity with a Difference," 155, has noted that Northern Baptist women "perceived their new-found freedom to be a result, not of feminism, but of liberation in Christ."

61. Tennessee Baptist, 23 May 1885, 6.

62. Mrs. James Hine, "Woman Her Sphere and Work," Christian Index, 2 July 1885, 3, emphases added.

63. ABSC Proceedings, 1886, 28.

64. J. J. D. Renfroe, "A Glance at the Convention," Religious Herald, 4 June 1885, 1.

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