by Desiree Fedrick and M. Omar Siddiqi
The American Historian has compiled a list of digital resources on the history of religion in the United States. We hope the list will be useful for educators as well as for researchers.
19th-Century Mormon Article Newspaper Index and 19th-Century Publications about the Book of Mormon
Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library Digital Collections
The Harold B. Lee library at Brigham Young University includes a number of digital archives geared especially toward members of the LDS church. These two archives provide primary sources of more interest to a general audience. These sources indicate the kind of reactions non-Mormons had toward the emergence of the new religion in the United States. Students and teachers can use these documents to answer questions about the place of faith and difference within American culture in the mid-nineteenth century.
African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project (AARDOC)
AARDOC includes useful essays that consider African American religious history from the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade through the end of the twentieth century. The essays divide African American hisotry into three distinct eras and provide an overview of religious meaning within each era.
American Jewish Historical Society Essential Readings
The reading list provided by the American Jewish Historical Society is both wide-ranging and accessible. The list is tailored toward the curious non-specialist. The list provides a good starting point for advanced high school students or college students interested in Jewish contributions to American society.
Center for Jewish History Digital Collections
The Center for Jewish History brings together primary sources from a number of digital databases from partner institutions into one navigable omnibus website. The amount of information here is impressive, but mining that information requires some working knowledge of American Jewish history. To deploy this resource in the classroom, teachers will have to determine beforehand the specific content they wish to show to students. The database may be too expansive to allow students, particularly those at the secondary level, to explore on their own. The databases do not focus on specific questions of theology but appreciate the panorama of American Jewish life from the Revolutionary Era to the present day.
Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture
Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)
The Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture conducts summer seminars in religious studies for secondary school teachers funded through the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Center website, directed toward an audience of educators, includes syllabi for both college-level and K–12 instruction. The former are written by professors who provided scholarly grounding for the NEH summer seminars, while the latter represent final projects conducted by conference participants. The collection of syllabi is not nearly as extensive as that found through the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion website (see below), yet the syllabi do represent a variety of teaching methods for students of varied age groups.
Divining America: Religion in American History
National Humanities Center
This website, part of the TeacherServe "curriculum enrichment service" of the National Humanities Center, includes links to numerous articles dealing with various aspects of American religious history. Arranged chronologically and written by academic experts, the articles are directed toward teachers as an aid in developing specific lesson plans. Articles include "Deism and the Founding of the United States" and "The Social Gospel of the Progressive Era." Divining America also includes a separate section, entitled "Getting Back to You," where readers can submit questions to subject-matter experts.
EDSITEment! Lesson Plans
EDSITEment! is a project of the National Endowment for the Humanities and represents one of the more comprehensive lesson-plan resources for teachers of history and culture. Two sections in particular, Picturing America and We The People, focus specifically on questions of American history. Searching for the term "religion" on the main EDSITEment! lesson plan page reveals numerous lesson plans that focus on the intersection of religion and American history. Options at the top of the page allow teachers to filter results by student age level or topical subject area.
The Islam Project
The Islam Project is a community and education outreach program partially funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The project's main website includes an education section that features a concise essay outlining Islamic history, various class exercises and lesson plans, related maps, and external links.
The Material History of American Religion Project
Vanderbilt Divinity School
This website, the digital home of a project by the same name sponsored by the Lilly Endowment, provides a small yet compelling collection of digital objects and documents related to the material culture associated with American religious practice. Objects included on the website include a portable reed organ that would have been used by travelling evangelists and a description of communion tokens used by Roman Catholics in the early American period. Teachers may consider allowing students to explore the website freely, and then work with them to draw conclusions from the presented material.
PBS offers a series of well-researched and engaging documentaries covering the various aspects of the history of American religion. All documentaries are available online as streaming video.
American Experience: God in America
God in America presents the entire historical panorama of American religious history in a series of six-hour-long episodes. The only significant shortcoming of the documentary is that it begins with missionary and colonization efforts and, besides a short consideration of Pueblo Indian ritual, does not focus enough attention on Native American religious practices. The documentary continues from the moment of colonial encounter to consider religion in New England and the place of religion and religious freedom in the early republic. Religious expression during the Civil War, nineteenth-century New Light movements, and the rise of Evangelical Christianity all receive consideration.
This hour-and-a-half documentary dramatizes the efforts of early American writers, thinkers, and politicians to secure the right of freedom of religious expression. As a result, the film does not assess religious practice, but could provide a good grounding for classroom discussions of religious plurality in the United States.
The following documentaries each provide a polished, historically nuanced consideration of individual religious groups. Like First Freedom and God in America, the documentaries are available online.
The Muslim Americans
The Jewish Americans
Religion and Ethics NewsWeekly Lesson Plans
This website, a component of a PBS program, provides a variety of lesson plans dealing with topics includuding Religion and Immigration and Religion and the Civil Rights Movement. The lessons themselves have instructions for teachers and questions for students to help them organize concepts. Finally, each content area within the lesson is connected to associated McREL content standards.
Slavery and the Making of America
The Slave Experience: Religion
Slavery and the Making of America is an important documentary history project undertaken by WNET New York and PBS. The section on African American religion forms only one part of a larger project, and features a compelling collection of information including a historical overview, information about Nat Turner's Rebellion, objects of religious practice used by slaves, primary sources, and Works Progress Administration interviews of former slaves. This website features an engaging interface and a great variety of material.
Teaching with Historical Places: Religion
National Park Service
On this page, the National Park Service connects specific historical sites to important historical concepts. The religion section is only one small part of a much larger list. Following each link leads to a short overview of an specific historical site and includes a suggested lesson, as well as links to related topics.
Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion
The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion is a project of the Lilly Endowment to encourage American theological education. It directs much of its efforts to improving theological training in particular, so many of the resources are directed toward theological and not necessarily secular education. Even still, the resources section of the website provides information helpful to teachers at the secondary and collegiate levels. Resources are grouped into three broad categories. The first category, "Scholarship for Teaching," provides general pedagogical information. The "Syllabus Collection" and "Religion on the Web" resources provide identical information, arranged differently. The former allows keyword searches for specific content, while the latter arranges material by subject headings, enabling easier browsing. This website is best used as an educator's tool in building lessons, rather than as a site to direct students for their own individual learning.
University of Florida Department of Religion Syllabi
This website provides a straightforward list of syllabi from religious studies courses taught at the university. The collection includes various syllabi directed toward American religious history, as well as ones directed more to global religious histories and practices. Although these syllabi are directed toward an audience of college students, secondary-level teachers should consider browsing the selections for ideas for their own classroom.
Desiree Fedrick is a copyediting assistant for The American Historian and the Journal of American History. M. Omar Siddiqi is an editorial assistant for The American Historian and a Ph.D. candidate in the history department at Indiana University.
date: 11 March 2018
Women and Religion in Colonial North America and the United States
Summary and Keywords
Historically, women in colonial North America and the United States have been deeply influenced by their religious traditions. Even though world religions like Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are based on scriptural traditions that portray women as subordinate to men, women have made up the majority of most religious groups in America. While some Americans have used religious arguments to limit women’s legal, political, and economic rights, others have drawn on scripture to defend women’s dignity and equality. Women’s religious beliefs have shaped every aspect of their lives, including their choices about how to structure their time, their attitudes toward sexuality and the body, and their understanding of suffering. Unlike early American Catholic women, who saw their highest religious calling as the sisterhood, most white colonial women identified their primary religious vocation as ministering to their families. In the 19th century, however, white Protestant women become increasingly involved in reform movements like temperance, abolitionism, and women’s suffrage, and African-American, Native American, Asian-American, and Latina women used religious arguments to challenge assumptions about white racial supremacy. In the 20th century, growing numbers of women from many different religious traditions have served as religious leaders, and in some cases they have also demanded ordination. Despite these dramatic changes in religious life, however, many religiously conservative women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment during the 1970s and early 1980s, and in the first decades of the 21st century they have continued to identify feminism and religion as antithetical.
Keywords: women, religion, America, United States, Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, reform, scripture, ministry
Scriptural Views of Women in Diverse Religious Traditions
Historically, women in America have belonged to a wide variety of religious traditions. Before the conquest of America in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were hundreds of Native American tribes with their own distinctive rituals and beliefs. Many, including the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) and the Cherokee, were organized along matrilineal lines, with women at the center of kinship networks. Though Native American women had different duties and responsibilities from men, they had significant political and religious authority. Rather than imagining God in masculine terms, many Native American tribes traced their ancestry to female deities. According to the Haudenosaunee, for example, all humans are descended from Sky Woman, who created the earth.
All of the world’s major religions have been represented in America. In the 17th and 18th centuries, when large numbers of white, British Protestants emigrated to the original thirteen colonies, the majority of women belonged to Protestant denominations, especially the Congregationalists and the Anglicans. Enslaved African women may have tried to preserve their tribal religions, and others brought their Muslim faith to America with them, but even though Vodun and conjure persisted into the 20th century, most women of African descent eventually converted to Christianity. During the 19th century, the religious diversity of the nation grew as large numbers of Catholics and Jews emigrated to America, and as spiritual seekers founded new religious movements like the Shakers and New Thought. During the 1840s a few Buddhist women settled in the far West, but after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act abolished restrictive immigration quotas, significant numbers of Buddhist as well as Muslim and Hindu women settled in the United States, creating a more pluralistic nation.
From the 17th century until the present, women in these religious traditions have differed in terms of their beliefs and practices. With the exception of Native Americans, however, who seem to have enjoyed relatively egalitarian gender roles before the European conquest, women have shared similar experiences of subordination because of their gender. All of the major world religions are based on scriptural texts that reflect the male-centered worldview of the times in which they were written. In the Torah, for example, Genesis 2 depicts Eve being formed out of Adam’s rib, which suggests that men were the norm and women secondary in creation. Most of the main characters in the Hebrew Bible are men, and the biblical story revolves around patriarchs like Abraham, Jacob, and David. According to the halacha (Jewish law), men and women have different religious obligations. Women must obey certain rules of modesty—for example, covering their hair and sitting separately from men—and they do not count toward the minyan, the quorum of ten adult men required for communal worship. Nor can they serve as witnesses in a rabbinical court. Before the late 19th and 20th centuries, Jews were virtually unanimous in the belief that scripture forbade women to become rabbis.
The New Testament also includes texts that emphasize women’s subordination to men. Based on the account in Genesis 2, many Christians have argued that Eve’s decision to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden brought sin and suffering into the world. According to this interpretation, God ordained women to submit to the authority of their fathers and husbands because of Eve’s disobedience. Christians have also been influenced by several texts from the Apostle Paul, including First Corinthians 14:34–35, “Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak,” and First Timothy 2:12, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” Throughout American history, many Christians (both Catholic and Protestant) have used these texts to argue that women cannot be ordained as priests or ministers. Until the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, which extended suffrage to women, Christians also used the Bible to argue that women should not be allowed to vote or to hold positions of political authority.
The Qur’an’s representation of women is similar to what is found in the Bible. Women are presented as subordinate to men in terms of their legal and economic status, and several hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) suggest that women must be sexually modest and should not pray side by side with men. According to one hadith, “A woman may not lead a man in prayer.”
Unlike Christianity and Islam, neither Buddhism nor Hinduism have a single, authoritative religious text, but they, too, are based on traditions of gender hierarchy. According to some of the Hindu Upanishads, woman’s greatest religious duty is to serve her husband. In Buddhism, several sutras in the Theravada and Mahayana canons suggest that women cannot attain Buddhahood, the highest degree of spiritual enlightenment.
From the 17th century until the present, these scriptural traditions have been used to limit women’s authority. Among other things, scripture has been used to argue that women should not be educated, that they should not be allowed to own their own property, that they should not be permitted to show their faces in public, and that they should not be allowed to speak publicly. In colonial America, Christians argued that women’s weakness made them particularly susceptible to witchcraft. Tainted by Eve’s sin, they were supposedly easy prey for the devil. Although a small number of accused witches were men, the vast majority were women. Apart from the two major witchcraft scares that took place in Hartford in 1662–1663 and Salem in 1691, women numbered 83 percent of those accused and 94 percent of those convicted. During the outbreaks at Hartford and Salem, seventeen of the twenty-three people executed for witchcraft were women.1
Yet all religious texts can be read in multiple ways, and women have often used scripture to defend their dignity and humanity. When reading the Bible, for example, Jewish and Christian women have been inspired by the stories of women like Esther, who saved the Israelites from destruction, and Deborah, a prophetess. In The Promise of the Father (1859), a comprehensive and influential defense of female preaching, Phoebe Palmer (1807–1874), a founder of the Holiness movement, reminded the American public that Miriam, Huldah, Anna, and Mary of Magdala had all been public evangelists.
Similarly, 20th- and 21st-century Muslim feminists have taken a historical-critical approach to the Qur’an, and they have argued that it does not require women to be subordinate to men. Not only did the Prophet Muhammad appoint a woman, Umm Waraqah, as imam over her household, but his wife A’isha was responsible for the transmission of more than 2,000 hadiths.2
Many historians have argued over whether religion should be understood as either liberating or oppressive for women, but these terms are too dichotomous. Though women have been constrained by scripture, they have also been empowered by it. When women have invoked scriptural texts to defend their rights or to criticize discrimination and abuse, they have grounded their arguments in the highest authority possible: the authority of God.
Figure 1. Cotton Mather, Wonders of the Invisible World: Being an Account of the Trials of Several Witches, Lately Executed in New England, 1693.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-75554.
The Female Majority
The multivalent quality of scripture may help to explain why women have been such strong supporters of their various religious traditions. Though records are fragmentary, women seem to have made up the majority of most religious groups in America since the 17th century. Writing in 1692, the Reverend Cotton Mather claimed that there were “far more godly women in the world than men.”3 In New Haven, Connecticut, for example, women made up the majority of new members admitted to the First Church between the 1680s and the 1980s.4
A central reason for early American women’s dominance in the pews may have been their experiences in childbirth. At a time when maternal mortality was much higher than it is in the modern world, women confronted the possibility of death every time they gave birth.
Colonial women may have also prized church membership because it was the only avenue of authority open to them. Although 17th-century Anglicans allowed anyone to join the church, Congregationalists restricted full church membership to “visible saints” who claimed to have experienced conversion. Church membership was not only a sign of religious sincerity, but also a mark of public distinction.
Women continued to outnumber men as the members of most religious groups in the 19th century, when religion was increasingly imagined in feminine terms. Although older ideas about female sinfulness never entirely disappeared, women were increasingly praised for their qualities of piety, goodness, and compassion. The common wisdom was that women were inherently more religious than men.
How did this happen? First, the creation of the new republic had a profound effect on women’s religious and political authority. In the wake of the American Revolution, women were elevated as “republican mothers” with an important political role. According to both ministers and politicians, the new nation would not survive unless patriotic, intelligent women devoted themselves to raising virtuous citizens. Female reformers like Emma Willard (1787–1870) and Catharine Beecher (1800–1878) founded female academies and seminaries to educate women, and ministers argued that women were crucial guardians of religious and political virtue.
Second, economic changes heightened the association of women with morality. During the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution and the rise of capitalism increasingly took men away from family farms and crafts into a separate world of work. As men were encouraged to pursue their own individual interests in the marketplace and to cultivate an ethic of competition and self-reliance, women devoted themselves to preserving the traditional religious virtues of humility, charity, self-sacrifice, and nurture. In an industrializing economy, women were expected to soothe the ills of the modern world by standing apart from it.
Women helped create this “cult of domesticity,” as historians have called it, because it enhanced their authority within their families. Before the Industrial Revolution and the growth of a consumer economy, women played a central economic role in the household: for example, spinning wool, churning butter, and sewing clothing. But as the factory rather than the home became the center of production in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, women placed a new emphasis on their role as nurturers. Instead of earning wages like men, women would provide a haven from the cold and impersonal world of the factory or the office.
Only white, middle-class women were imagined as “naturally” virtuous, while black, Native American, and lower-class white women were viewed as morally suspect. Black women in particular were denigrated as naturally licentious, a stereotype that helped to legitimate their sexual exploitation as slaves. Yet African-American women fought back against these stereotypes. In Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality (1831), Maria Stewart (1803–1880), a free black abolitionist and woman’s rights activist, exhorted African-American women to nurture virtue within their families. “O woman, woman,” she wrote, “would thou only strive to excel in merit and virtue, would thou only store thy mind with useful knowledge, great would be thine influence.”5 In the decades after the Civil War, black women in the Baptist Church echoed this language by urging one another to strive for respectability.6 Committed to racial uplift, they created schools and settlement houses to help African-American women fit into white, middle-class culture.
Women’s association with religion only grew stronger in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In 1911–1912, the Men and Religion Forward Movement responded to what they perceived as the “feminization” of Christianity by encouraging men to become more actively involved in churches. In his book The Man Nobody Knows (1925), Bruce Barton, an advertising executive, portrayed Jesus as a “manly man” who had built one of the most successful businesses in history. In 1990, Billy McCartney, the head football coach at the University of Colorado, founded Promise Keepers, an evangelical men’s group, in order to give men a place to cultivate a distinctively masculine form of Christianity. Yet despite these efforts, American women have remained more committed to religion than men. According to a 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center, 59 percent of women say that religion is “very important” to them, compared to 47 percent of men.
Not all religious groups in the United States are dominated by women. Men make up 65 percent of Muslims and 62 percent of Hindus in America. Yet sociologists have found that when world religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Islam are transplanted to the United States, immigrant women often become more active in their religious communities. In the United States, women are expected to be religious.
Religious Practice and Everyday Life
Religion has structured virtually every aspect of women’s lives in America, from their understanding of suffering to their views of marriage, motherhood, the body, and sexuality. For many women, religion has been an orienting force, a map or compass that has helped them to understand their place in the world.
As women have tried to worship in accordance with their understanding of God (or the gods), they have organized their lives around devotional practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, and religious reading. Despite denominational differences, all religious women have been linked together by their willingness to discipline their time around the demands of their traditions. In the 18th century, for example, Sarah Osborn (1714–1796), a schoolteacher in Newport, Rhode Island, rose early every day to pray, to read the bible, and to write about her spiritual life, composing both a memoir and over fifty volumes of diaries.7
Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton (1774–1821), the first American to be declared a Catholic saint, was born sixty years later and belonged to a different religious tradition, but she, too, ordered her life around her faith, attending Mass regularly and taking Communion. When significant numbers of Muslim women emigrated to the United States in the wake of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, they added to the diversity of American religious practices by praying five times a day.
Women’s religious beliefs have shaped the most intimate parts of their lives, including their attitudes toward the body and sexuality. Influenced by scripture, early American Christians and Jews portrayed women’s bodies as inferior and impure, and they placed strict controls on women’s sexuality. Although both men and women in colonial America were expected to remain celibate before marriage, in practice women bore the brunt of punishment for sexual sins.8
Concerns about women’s religious purity in early America were closely tied to menstruation and childbirth. Among the Cherokees, women withdrew into a special building during their menstrual periods and were not allowed to touch men or prepare food for them. Similarly, Jewish women were expected to abstain from sex during menstruation (niddah), and to take a ritual bath after its end (mikvah). (This custom continues today among Orthodox as well as many Conservative Jews.) In Catholic and Anglican churches until the first half of the 20th century, women were required to give thanks in a ceremony after childbirth (known as “the churching of women”) before returning to the congregation. For women, the ritual was experienced not only as a moment of thanksgiving, but also as purification.
Until recently, virtually all religious denominations in America emphasized the importance of marriage and motherhood, and they demanded that women be heterosexual. In the 19th century, for example, Catholics and Protestants argued over whether the Virgin Mary had been born without sin (a doctrine known as the Immaculate Conception), but they agreed that she was a model of the ideal woman: selfless, maternal, and utterly devoted to her husband and her son.9 Although there were certainly women before the mid-20th century who were attracted to other women or who felt as if they had been born as the wrong gender, they rarely expressed their feelings publicly. For lesbian and transgender Mormons, whose tradition teaches that the highest degree of heaven is reserved for husbands and wives who have been sealed for time and eternity in celestial marriages, the emphasis on heterosexual norms has been particularly painful. In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” (1995), the Mormon hierarchy explained, “THE FAMILY is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan. Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity.”
Religion has been so deeply integrated into women’s lives that it has shaped even their decisions about how to dress. Until the late 19th century, Christian, Muslim and Jewish women wore long skirts as an expression of their sexual modesty, and even after fashions changed, some denominations continued to enforce strict codes of women’s hair and clothing. In 1942, John Rice, a Fundamentalist minister, published Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers, which insisted that Christian women should wear their hair long as a sign of their submission to their fathers, husbands, and God.
Traditionally, Catholic sisters have covered their heads with veils, and until Vatican II (1962–1965), which changed the rules for worship at Mass, lay Catholic women were also required to cover their heads in church as a sign of their humility and submission to God. Today Orthodox Jewish women continue to cover their hair by wearing a scarf, hat, or wig, and many Muslim women choose to wear hijab, a veil that covers the head and chest, or a burqa, which covers the entire body except for the eyes.
Religion has not only shaped women’s actions, but also their sense of selfhood. Phillis Wheatley, a slave in 18th-century Boston, lived at a time when most Americans assumed that slave women were ignorant, but drawing on the resources of the Christian tradition, she strongly defended her humanity. Kidnapped from Africa when she was seven or eight years old, Phillis became the property of the Wheatley family, who quickly recognized her sharp intelligence. In 1773 she published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, becoming the first African-American woman to become a published poet.10 Since no American publisher would distribute her works, the book was printed in London, and it included a testimonial from eighteen of Boston’s leading male citizens swearing that she had actually written the poems herself. Aware of the controversies swirling around her, Wheatley took pains to emphasize her piety, respectability, and education. In a portrait that appeared on the title page of her volume, she is presented in modest dress with her head covered, a pen in her hand and a book at her elbow, perhaps a New Testament. She gazes slightly upward as if waiting for inspiration from God.
Like Wheatley, whose Christian beliefs helped her to make sense of her suffering, many other women in different historical periods have turned to their faith in times of trouble. In the 19th century, for example, Methodist women explained the existence of suffering by emphasizing the reality of free will, while Calvinist women insisted that everything, even affliction, had been ordered by God. Abigail Abbott Bailey (1746–1815), a Congregationalist in New Hampshire, feared that God wanted her to submit to the abuse of her violent, manipulative husband, but inspired by Scripture, she eventually found the courage to leave him.11 In the 20th century, Catholic women poured out their troubles to Saint Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, when facing challenges like childbirth, mental illness, or the death of loved ones. Hoping that Saint Jude would intercede with God on their behalf, they sought solace in God’s mercy.12
Figure 2. A page from Sarah Osborn’s memoir describing her second marriage and her hope that her children—her three stepchildren and her own son—would be born again.
Courtesy of Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.
Figure 3. Portrait of Phyllis Wheatley and title page of Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, 1773.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-56850.
Women have not only found structure and personal meaning in their religious traditions, but also the inspiration to create social change. Ever since the early 19th century, large numbers of American women have brought their faith into the public sphere in the hopes of building America into a more religious and moral nation.
The turning point for women’s religious activism came in the wake of the American Revolution. At the same time as women were praised as republican mothers, the separation of church and state changed the place of religion in public life. After 1791, when the Bill of Rights declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” states gradually stopped collecting taxes to support Protestant churches. In 1833, when Massachusetts became the last state to repeal religious taxes, churches became simply one more kind of voluntary association competing for members. One of the unintended consequences of disestablishment was that it removed some of the barriers to women’s activism and leadership. As churches lost their formal connection to the state, they no longer seemed as much like public institutions that should be governed by men alone.
Convinced of their importance as the guardians of religious and political virtue, 19th-century women became involved in public movements for reform. Countless numbers of women in the 19th century—white and black, northern and southern, Protestant, Catholic, Latter-day Saint, and Jewish—organized home mission societies, distributed religious tracts, and founded charities. Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869) founded the first Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819, and Margaret Prior (1773–1842), a devout Methodist and a member of the Female Moral Reform Society in New York City, visited brothels to encourage women to convert.
Other Protestant women founded Sunday schools, handed out Bibles and temperance tracts, and raised money for widows and orphans. Determined to help the thousands of poor Catholic immigrants who flooded American cities in the 19th century, Catholic sisters built schools, hospitals, and orphanages. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons, created the Female Relief Society in 1842 for “the relief of the poor, the destitute, the widow and the orphan, and for the exercise of all benevolent purposes.” All adult Mormon women were members. (The Relief Society continues to exist today.)
Many Protestant women in the North, both white and black, were actively involved in the antislavery movement. According to Frederick Douglass, “When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages, for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.” Sarah Grimké (1792–1873) and her sister Angelina (1805–1879), the daughters of a South Carolina planter, gained notoriety when they moved to Philadelphia and began speaking and writing against slavery. Angelina’s Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1836) and Sarah’s Epistle to the Clergy of the Southern States (1836) condemned slavery as sinful and anti-Christian. Pleading with Southern women to speak out against slavery, Angelina discussed the biblical heroines who had fought against oppression, including Miriam, Deborah, and Esther.
No book was more popular before the Civil War than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which portrayed a suffering slave, Tom, as a Christ figure. Stowe (1811–1896) insisted that the spirit of Christianity was opposed to slavery, even if particular biblical texts seemed to sanction it.
At the beginning of the war, Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897), an escaped slave from Virginia, published Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), a harrowing account of her treatment at the hands of a cruel and immoral master. Her book skewered her master’s hypocrisy in claiming to be a Christian while subjecting his slaves to sexual and physical abuse.
After the Civil War, women continued to channel their religious energies into reform work. Hoping to gain acceptance in white society, black Baptist women developed a “politics of respectability” that emphasized morality, sexual modesty, and hard work. Committed to racial uplift, they created schools and settlement houses to help freedpeople gain access to education and decent-paying jobs. In 1909, Nannie Helen Burroughs founded the National Training School for Women and Girls in Washington, DC, to provide black women with vocational training.
At the same time, Catholic sisters continued to help Catholic immigrants adjust to their new lives in the United States. In 1869 in New York City, the Sisters of Charity established the Foundling Hospital, an institution that cared for thousands of poor Catholic children. Some of these children were permanent wards of the state, but others lived at the asylum only temporarily while their parents struggled to find stable employment.13 In 1914, Jewish women founded Hadassah, a Zionist organization that engaged in charitable work in both Palestine and the United States.
Although much of women’s religious activism was admirable, some of it was motivated by condescension and racism. The same white Protestant women who crusaded for women’s rights also criticized African-Americans and immigrants, especially Catholics, as unfit to vote. Some women joined the Ku Klux Klan, determined to protect the privileges of white womanhood against movements for racial equality.
Even women who tried to protect Native American rights treated Native American women as inferior, trying to “civilize” them in boarding schools. The Woman’s National Indian Association, founded in 1879, encouraged Native American women to imitate white, middle-class norms of women’s domesticity.
The most influential women’s religious organization in late 19th-century America was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Devoted to “home protection,” the WCTU argued that alcohol was responsible for many social ills, including domestic violence. Frances Willard (1839–1898), the second president of the WCTU, was a Methodist who strongly defended women’s rights, and she adopted a “do everything” policy to improve women’s lives. In addition to advocating prohibition, women’s ordination, dress reform, and married women’s property laws, she argued that women should be able to vote.
While a few leaders of the suffrage movement were indifferent or hostile to religion, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, whose Woman’s Bible sharply criticized the Bible as patriarchal and oppressive, Willard helped to make suffrage a religious issue by linking it to the protection of women in the home. The WCTU, with chapters in every state, was crucial to the passage of both the Eighteenth Amendment (outlawing the sale of alcohol) in 1919 and the Nineteenth Amendment (granting women suffrage) in 1920.
Women’s religious activism continued in the long civil rights movement stretching from the 1930s until the 1960s. Many African-American women were members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including its first executive secretary, Ella Baker (1903–1986). Following in the footsteps of her mother, who had been active in the women’s missionary movement of the black Baptist church, Baker insisted that the Christian faith did not support segregation, and she quoted Scripture to defend black equality.14Fannie Lou Hamer (1917–1977), a Baptist and a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also believed that her faith called her to work for social justice. She spent much of her life sharecropping in Mississippi, but when she learned about the civil rights movement, she embraced it as a religious cause. Despite being badly beaten by white police officers after trying to register to vote in 1963, she refused to stop protesting. A gifted singer, she often led demonstrators in spirituals like “I’m on My Way” and “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” “When I was a seeker,” she sang, “I sought both night and day/ I asked the Lord to help me/ And he showed me the way.”15
Many religious women also became leaders of the women’s rights movement during the 1960s and 1970s. The National Organization of Women (NOW), which was founded in 1966, brought together women from many different religious traditions, including Protestantism, Catholicism, Mormonism, and Judaism. Its founding board included Pauli Murray
Figure 4. “Representative Women of Deseret,” circa 1883. Augusta Joyce Crocheron created this poster to counter negative stereotypes of Mormon women. A year later, she published a book with the same name that celebrated Mormon women’s accomplishments.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-89018.
Figure 5. Sarah Moore Grimké.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-1608.
Figure 6. Angelina Emily Grimké.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ61-1609.
Figure 7. Harriet Beecher Stowe, c. 1880.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-11212.
Figure 8. Nannie Helen Burroughs, between 1900 and 1920.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-79903.
Figure 9. Triangle Studio. First public appearance of women of the K.K.K. on Long Island, c. 1924.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-36658.
Figure 10. Harris & Ewing. Native American women, 1924. Native American women were pressured to give up their traditional dress and traditional religions in order to assimilate into American culture.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-hec-32247.
Figure 11. Bain News Service. Frances Willard, portrait bust.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ggbain-02864.
Figure 12. Warren K. Leffler. Fannie Lou Hamer, Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegate, at the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, New Jersey, August 1964.
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsc-01267.