As you can imagine, I zeroed in on the chapter entitled “Evangelicals and Gender”, authored by Sarah C. Williams, in this week’s book, Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History & Culture in Regional Perspective, edited by Donald M. Lewis and Richard P. Pierard. It was validating to read about the impact evangelicalism has had on our current gender issues and how history has been slow “to recognize the complex but formative interactions between evangelical beliefs and cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity. It is unquestionably the case that evangelicalism had a vast impact on the intricate fabric of social relationships between men and women.” It has been disturbing to discover in my research how much damage has been done in this area due to the strong social influence of the church and early evangelical beliefs. Everything from the “stained glass ceiling” for women to the prescribed gender roles found in countless churches across America, we are suffering the immense consequences of these destructive beliefs.
Williams organized her chapter into sections based on five underlying assumptions. She states, “It is my contention that five underlying assumptions have shaped mainstream historiographical interpretations of the relationship between gender and evangelicalism. Each of these assumptions, for differing reasons and to varying degrees, inhibit and distort our understanding of the range and depth of evangelical influence on historical structures of thought and patterns of life.” The five assumptions she outlines are:
Assumption One: Who Is in Charge?
Assumption Two: It’s All About Women
Assumption Three: The Separation of Male and Female Spheres
Assumption Four: Hegemonic Evangelicalism
Assumption Five: The Correlation Between Social and Political Conservatism
Under her first assumption of “Who is in Charge?”, she makes the following powerful statement: “The scholarly agenda was shaped by the assumption that Christianity, and evangelicalism in particular, was and is unremittingly patriarchal. Evangelicalism is presented in the pages of such history books as a force that subordinated women to male domination in church and society. As a result, subjects such as female leadership in the church have become highly charged and adversarial, which often obscures the vital and creative interweaving of Christian spirituality and constitutive social ideals based on relations between as well as within the sexes. The word gender itself carries connotations of power, and early studies of this topic were concerned above all with the relative distribution of power between men and women within the structures of church leadership.” This explains a great deal of the brainwashing and patriarchal traditions that have been perpetuated in our churches. It also reveals how inaccurately history can be portrayed to promote a particular ideal as well. Another historian, Callum Brown, advocates for the strong impact of the feminization of religion on the character and role of the modern church. He argues that “in the Middle Ages and for much of the early modern period, female piety was understood in terms of the religious woman becoming male. Icons of female piety such as martyrs and ascetics were represented essentially in masculine forms, while femininity, menstruation and childbirth were all regarded as polluting and even dangerous to piety.”
This highlights the destructive image the church has given women and how it has systematically marginalized them as being dangerous or unneeded. It also reveals the subordinate role they were expected the play and how they were to live in the shadow of their man. This idea continues to get unfolded by Brown when he argues “that in the wake of the evangelical revival Christianity was feminized and depictions of women as avaricious, greedy, lustful and sexually predatory gave way to the venerated female spirituality of the Victorian woman, depicted so graphically in Coventry Patmore’s famous 1854 poem, “The Angel in the House.” If women do indeed predominate in every area of religious life except in formal leadership, then it makes little sense to limit the scope of enquiry to officially designated institutional leaders, as if it is they who lead exclusively and they who necessarily carry the tone and emphasis of community life.” Of course this caused me to do a little research on this “Angel in the House” poem to see how it really depicted women. Come to find out, it is a rather long poem published as a 184-page book inspired by Patmore’s wife, Emily, and depicts her as the ideal submissive woman of the age. Unfortunately, this became the gold standard for women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The following is an excerpt I found that gives a sense of the poem’s content:
Man must be pleased; but him to please
Is woman’s pleasure; down the gulf
Of his condoled necessities
She casts her best, she flings herself.
How often flings for nought, and yokes
Her heart to an icicle or whim,
Whose each impatient word provokes
Another, not from her, but him;
While she, too gentle even to force
His penitence by kind replies,
Waits by, expecting his remorse,
With pardon in her pitying eyes;
And if he once, by shame oppress’d,
A comfortable word confers,
She leans and weeps against his breast,
And seems to think the sin was hers;
Or any eye to see her charms,
At any time, she’s still his wife,
Dearly devoted to his arms;
She loves with love that cannot tire;
And when, ah woe, she loves alone,
Through passionate duty love springs higher,
As grass grows taller round a stone.
I also thought it was interesting that the Brooklyn College professor’s website where I found the summary of the poem had this quote: “For Virginia Woolf, the repressive ideal of women represented by the Angel in the House was still so potent that she wrote, in 1931, “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.” This is probably what many women would like to do to the many destructive narratives written about women in the evangelical church…actually I would like to join them in killing this divisive and abusive treatment of our sisters in Christ.
 Sarah C. Williams, “Evangelicals and Gender,”, in Global Evangelicalism: Theology, History & Culture in Regional Perspective, eds. Donald M. Lewis, and Richard P. Pierard, (InterVarsity Press, Kindle Edition), 271.
 Virginia Woolf was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virginia_Woolf