People Worth Knowing
It is not much of an exaggeration to say that women made revivalistic Protestantism happen in the nineteenth century. For example, as historian Mary Ryan has shown, Charles Finney’s New York revival meetings were organized, prepared, and prayed for by an extensive network of Christian women. Moreover, these women often brought the men in their lives—husbands, fathers, sons, and more distant relatives—to Finney’s meetings.
Women’s influence soon reached far beyond the prayer meeting and the revival, especially through their participation in social causes. It was in the crusades for educational reform, abolition, and temperance that three of nineteenth-century America’s most prominent Christian women made their names and changed their nation: Catharine Beecher, Sojourner Truth, and Frances Willard.
Catharine Beecher (1800–1878)
The oldest of eight surviving children of the influential Connecticut minister and social reformer Lyman Beecher (1775–1863) and his wife, Roxana, Catharine Esther Beecher was trained from girlhood in the custodianship of her nation. At 16, her mother died and she took on the mothering role for her younger siblings—a training ground for her later influence as a founder of schools and trainer of teachers.
A woman described by one historian as “plain of appearance, with heavy features, dark hair worn in lank ringlets, and a sallow complexion,” Beecher was frail, suffering “recurrent nervous collapses and attacks of sciatica,” which slowed but never stopped her indefatigable reforming efforts. But she had no time for the “weaker sex” philosophy that assumed women were less capable of learning and leading than men.
Catharine saw America’s female seminaries (quasi-colleges or academies focusing on subjects considered appropriate for women) as neglecting both physical education and the practical skills necessary to the middle-class Victorian woman who managed a complex household and provided the physical and moral care for the next generation.
In response, Catharine, herself a schoolteacher from early age, founded several schools for women.
The success of these schools was uneven, but Beecher placed her stamp on women’s education and the arts of home management. Her widely read books, Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841), Domestic Receipt Book (1846), and American Woman’s Home (1869), penned with sister Harriet, launched home economics as a respected science.
Even more significant, Catharine picked up her father’s crusade to “Christianize” the West—through education. (At odds with her father’s stern Calvinism, she eventually transferred her membership from a Congregational to the Episcopal Church.) In the 1840s, she began traveling and writing energetically in the urgent cause of sending women teachers to the frontier.
Her Duty of American Women to Their Country (1845) caught the attention of, among others, the ex-governor of Vermont, William Slade, who founded the Board of National Popular Education.
With Beecher as head recruiter and trainer, the Board sent more than 500 school teachers westward from New England. After Beecher divided the Board over disagreements, she continued the crusade through her American Woman’s Educational Association.
During the decades before her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and her brother Henry Ward Beecher began his Civil War-era rise to pulpit stardom, Catharine was America’s most renowned Beecher.
Sojourner Truth (c. 1797–1883)
Sojourner Truth’s deep-toned speech, marked by a Dutch accent absorbed during her youth as a slave in Ulster County, N.Y., challenged and captivated anti-slavery audiences across the country. Truth was born Isabella, and in her early years took the name Van Wagener in honor of a family that helped her escape slavery in 1827, one year before emancipation was declared in New York State.
Early an adherent of Methodism, Isabella’s mystic personality made her susceptible to the magnetism of religious charlatans, and she spent several of her early years attached to the cultic New York ministries of Elijah Pierson (self-styled “The Tishbite") and Robert Matthews ("Matthias").
In 1843, Isabella took the name “Sojourner Truth” and began traveling East, spreading a simple gospel message of a loving God. In Northampton, Massachusetts, she joined a communal group and encountered abolitionism for the first time.
A singer and raconteur known for her homey wisdom and sharp repartee, Truth spent the late 1840s as a featured speaker on many anti-slavery platforms. In 1850 she traveled west again, attracting larger and larger audiences, sharing stages with such renowned abolitionists as Frederick Douglass. She sustained herself by selling her autobiography and was often opposed—sometimes violently—by Southern sympathizers.
Truth’s tall frame and somewhat masculine features helped fuel rumors that she was not, as she claimed, the mother of many children who had seen difficult years under slavery—but rather, a man masquerading as a woman for his own political advantage.
When one audience member at an Indiana woman’s rights convention shouted out this charge against her, Truth put an exclamation point to her withering rejoinder by baring her breasts before the stunned crowd.
After the outbreak of the Civil War, she traveled throughout Michigan, gathering donations of supplies for regiments of black volunteers.
In 1864 she was received by Lincoln at the White House, and soon after, she drew up a widely-signed petition for the founding of a “Negro state” in unsettled parts of the West. Though her proposal fell flat, many blacks did move west in the 1870s, likely under the influence of her encouragement.
Sojourner Truth’s lasting influence has been as a symbol of woman’s indomitable spirit and public achievements. She died in 1883 in Battle Creek, and her funeral there was said to have been the biggest ever seen in that area.
Frances Willard (1839–1898)
As Sojourner Truth was a symbol and rallying figure for abolitionism and woman’s suffrage, so was Frances Willard—a fellow Methodist—for the cause of temperance. Born in New York, Willard grew up on the frontier, in the Wisconsin Territory.
From her earliest years, Willard coveted the educational opportunities that were given preferentially to males. When her father grudgingly consented to her attending the Congregationalists’ Milwaukee Female College, she began on the path that would lead to her graduation in 1859 as a “Laureate of Science.”
Frances, who cut her hair short and preferred to be called “Frank,” soon grew into Frances the self-assured leader, with the skills and confidence necessary to pull together, in 1878, a petition asking that the women of Illinois be given the vote on liquor issues. In the years before the Civil War, drinking had risen to astronomical and socially disruptive heights. America was drinking itself to death.
Willard stood in solidarity with countless women who experienced in their own homes the negative impact of this largely male love affair with alcohol. She gathered the names of more than 100,000 women on her petition, and though it failed in its goal, it gained her the leadership of a new organization dedicated to eradicating the curse of drunkenness from America.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was born in 1874 out of the momentum of a winter’s campaign across New York and central Ohio in which women, professedly emboldened by the Holy Spirit, demanded that saloons in those states be closed. Willard became WCTU’s president in 1879.
Capitalizing on the Victorian assumption that the woman’s sphere was the home, Willard was able, under the slogan “home protection,” not only to rally tremendous support on the issue of temperance, but to make strides on female suffrage. Voting for measures against alcohol, Willard argued, was the only way women would succeed in keeping its scourge from destroying their husbands and their homes.
Willard proved a masterful power broker, gathering the support of many constituencies. She built social networks and private relationships with the consummate care of the diplomat. In her public and personal relations, she was unfailingly caring even as she was firm—the iron fist in the kid glove.
Under her expert leadership, the WCTU became and remained, through the turn of the century, both the largest temperance organization and the largest women’s organization in the country.
In the end, Willard succeeded where more strident, less careful women failed, because she deeply understood the role of gender images in nineteenth-century public life. The near-adulation her memory continued to receive after her death in 1898—including the placing of her statue in the Capitol at Washington in 1905—shows how effectively she was able to use this knowledge.
Detailed, interesting critical biographies are available for each of these women:
Kathryn Kish Sklar, Catharine Beecher: A Study in American Domesticity (W. W. Norton, 1976).
Nell Irvin Painter, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol (W. W. Norton, 1996).
Ruth Bordin, Frances Willard: A Biography (University of North Carolina Press, 1986).
The Feminine History of Humanity
In 1852, more than a century before scholars began unearthing the lives of significant “church mothers” to stand side by side with the traditional celebrations of the Church Fathers, the Irish novelist and biographer Julia Kavanagh (1824–1877) published perhaps the first survey of prominent Christian women, Women of Christianity, Exemplary for Acts of Piety and Charity (1852).
Born in 1824 in County Tipperary, Ireland, Julia early absorbed the literary passion of her father, poet and philologist Peter Morgan Kavanagh. Her first novel, Madeline, drawn from the life of a peasant girl of Auvergne, established her reputation. Nineteen others would follow, including Nathalie, Daisy Burns, and Rachel Gray.
When Kavanagh was still a young woman, her father deserted their family, and she remained unmarried, caring for her mother, for the rest of her life. Nonetheless, she was able to travel across Europe, and her experiences drew her to the writing of historical biography. This she began to do with Women in France During the Eighteenth Century (1850), which, with her French Women of Letters and its companion English Women of Letters (1862), was noted for its literary power.
In the 400 pages of Women of Christianity, Kavanagh told the stories of women from Dorcas in the Acts of the Apostles to the English prison minister Sarah Martin (d. 1843). In the book’s introduction, she observed that while “men have filled [history’s] pages with their own deeds,” their focus on wars and governments has given us “the annals of nations, not the story of humanity.” Her conclusion: It is in the untold stories of women, in their gentleness, courage, charity, and holiness, that we may begin to find the latter.
—James D. Smith III
By Chris Armstrong
[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #81 in 2004]
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