Tag Archives: 19th century

Poverty and racism: What would Charles Sheldon, “Mr. WWJD,” do?


In researching the man who originated the phrase “What would Jesus do” for Patron Saints for Postmoderns, I discovered something exciting. This novelist, whose In His Steps immortalized the idea of asking oneself “What would Jesus do?” before making any major decision, was no starry-eyed dreamer who lived only in his writing. Rather, he was one of the most active men of his day in the cause of social justice. Here’s what minister-novelist Charles Sheldon did when, as the brand new pastor of a Topeka, Kansas church, he was suddenly confronted with the problems of urban poverty and racism. [The following is an excerpt from the chapter on Sheldon in Patron Saints.]

Crossing Class Lines

From the first, Sheldon did well for his new church. The upper room over the butcher was often full, and soon the group was building a big stone edifice. When the new building opened, on June 23, 1889, Sheldon preached a defining sermon to what would be his lifelong flock. We can imagine their mix of pride and discomfort—“what had they gotten themselves into?”—as the young pastor announced that he would always preach “a Christ for the common people. A Christ who belongs to the rich and to the poor, the ignorant and the learned, the old and the young, the good and the bad. A Christ who knows no sect or age, whose religion does not consist alone in cushioned seats, and comfortable surroundings, or culture, or fine singing, or respectable orders of Sunday services, but a Christ who bids us all recognize the Brotherhood of the race, who bids throw open this room to all.” Little did those unsuspecting congregants know what concrete shapes their activist pastor’s dreams would assume in the years to come. Continue reading

Three evangelical woman leaders and a female historian of women in Christianity


For a while Christian History & Biography magazine ran a column titled “People Worth Knowing.” We’d find two or three people with some thematic connection and write up brief, linked profiles. Here is one of my favorites, on several fascinating woman leaders in 19th-century evangelical Protestantism. Appended to the end of the article is a brief piece by Jim Smith, who was an advisory editor for CHB and is now my colleague at Bethel Seminary (on the San Diego campus), on a 19th-century woman who wrote about women in church history:

People Worth Knowing
No Little Women here
Chris Armstrong

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. Continue reading

Low social status = high spiritual power: the power of the poor, black, female holiness evangelist among white holiness folk


You can see other posts on this blog for biographical information about Amanda Berry Smith, the well-known post-Civil War holiness evangelist. At noon today I’ll be down at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis to talk to the Twin Cities Emergent Cohort about Smith and the holiness movement’s treatment of racism and other social ills. During my graduate years at Duke University, I took a course with scholar of African-American history Laurie Maffly-Kipp and wrote a paper that asked why Smith was so successful in white campmeeting holiness circles.

The paper is much too long to post here, but here is a section that gets to the heart of some interesting gender and race attitudes that shaped the largely middle-class white devotees of the late 19th-century holiness movement (which started and retained its greatest strength within white Methodist churches, but spread well beyond this, to Christians of many denominations, black as well as white). I think an understanding of these attitudes as they impacted Smith’s life is important for evangelicals–especially but not exclusively those in the holiness and Pentecostal movements. The “gender essentialism” and “romantic racialism” examined here are still very much in play.

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How did [Amanda Berry] Smith operate in white circles?

Victorian gender essentialism

Smoothing [Amanda Berry] Smith’s integration and eventual success in white holiness circles were a pair of intrinsic advantages she possessed by virtue of her status as a black woman. The first of these had to do with the essentialist views of womanhood prominent in the white America of her time. “The dominant thought of the age embraced an essentialist understanding of gender; it ascribed to womanhood a feminine essence that was virtuous, patient, gentle, and compassionate, while it described manhood as rational, aggressive, forceful, and just. Unlike man, woman was considered naturally religious, bound by greater emotionalism, and with a greater capacity to sympathize and forgive.”[i]

Victorian gender-essentialism made women peculiarly able to represent certain aspects of “holiness” religion: its commitment to relationality, affectivity, subordinate union with Christ, absolute dependence on God for everyday matters, and so forth. As Higginbotham notes, this essential feminine spirituality was most closely associated with the maternal role. Not surprisingly, then, a number of key nineteenth-century female holiness leaders were mothers manqué, whose children had died young, freeing them to “expand the circle” of their maternal attentions to the church at large. Phoebe Palmer, Amanda Berry Smith, Maria Woodworth-Etter…all lost most or all of their children before entering upon their public ministries. And all played expertly upon the notions of feminine essence current at the time, presenting to their audiences a curious but compelling combination of maternal authority and feminine susceptibility to the influence of the Spirit. The feminine hand that rocked the cradle of evangelicalism—went the argument—was in turn nurtured by the Spirit, in intimate and emotional ways not usually avowed (if experienced) by men of the time. This appears to be true for Smith and Truth[ii] no less than for the whites Phoebe Palmer and Maria Woodworth-Etter. Continue reading