Obbie Tyler Todd
The Women Who Shaped American Christianity
Despite the accusations of some that Christianity diminishes the role of women in society, the Bible tells a much different story. In the Gospels, for instance, God assigns remarkable significance to women as the first to see the risen Christ. (Matt. 28:1-10) In the book of Acts, it’s a female business owner that aids Paul and Silas in establishing the church at Philippi, the first in Europe. (Acts 16) At the end of Romans, Paul speaks of a deaconess named Phoebe, “a patron of many and of myself as well.” (Rom. 16:1-2) Since its inception, the New Testament church has actually elevated the role of women in society, and in America, women played an equally remarkable role.
It’s rather unfortunate, however, that the colonies’ first heretic, Anne Hutchsinson, was also a woman. Sending shockwaves throughout Boston’s social order, the Antinomian Controversy resulted in Hutchinson’s banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and exile to Rhode Island (1638). But with the 18th century came not only the dawn of a new republic; it also witnessed the birth of a new American religion with the Great Awakening. While the leading theologians and revivalists during this period were obviously male, three particular individuals – Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, and John Wesley – were raised in especially feminine homes. Their lives were shaped unmistakably by strong women.
Jonathan Edwards has been appropriately called “America’s theologian” for his profound influence upon American religious thought. (Jenson, 1988) As a towering figure who continues to cast his long shadow over contemporary pastors such as John Piper, the nickname “America’s Augustine” has proven especially apt. (Niebuhr, 1937) Edwards was a pastor-theologian in the truest sense, helping his church and his countrymen to navigate the hills and valleys of the Awakening. However, before the Northampton preacher assumed the pulpit of his legendary grandfather Solomon Stoddard, he was raised in a home with ten other siblings…all of whom were girls. As the only boy, Edwards had ten sisters, four older, six younger. For this particular day in age, the fact that all of Timothy and Esther Edwards’ children survived infancy is nothing short of miraculous. Cotton Mather, for example, lost 13 of his 15 children. Because each Edwards girl stood at least six feet tall, Timothy was prone to refer to his “sixty-feet of daughters.”
Jonathan Edwards appears to have been very close to his sisters, all of whom were accomplished in some way. In a New England pastor’s household, learning was also encouraged for girls. The Edwardses sent all but one of their daughters to Boston for finishing school. Timothy’s oldest daughter Esther, who helped raise Jonathan, wrote a satirical piece called “The Soul” that was mistakenly attributed to her younger brother for years. In this tender, intellectual environment was Jonathan Edwards raised. In light of Edwards’ unique upbringing around so many women in one home, it is little surprise how frequently women served as models of piety in his writings (i.e. A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of God, 1737). Edwards’ poems to his wife Sarah during their courtship testify to a sentimental theologian much different than the one constructed by secular historians solely based on “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Of Jonathan and Sarah an adoring George Whitefield once wrote, “A sweeter couple I have not yet seen.” Edwards was undoubtedly shaped by pious, resolute women of God.
George Whitefield, “America’s spiritual founding father” and the principal evangelist of the Great Awakening, was also the product of a feminine household. (Kidd, 2014) Though many historians have focused more upon his romantic woes and loveless marriage, his childhood was spent without a father, who died when George was just two years old. His mother Elizabeth kept the Bell Inn in Gloucester, England, the environment in which the preacher spent most of his young childhood. According to Whitefield, it was his honor “to follow the example of my dear Savior, who was born in a manger belonging to an inn.” As the youngest of 7 children, Whitefield was raised in a class quite lower than most Oxford gentlemen. And when Elizabeth’s second husband filed for divorce and left with what he could, much responsibility was laid upon George and his brothers’ shoulders. However, it was Elizabeth who became the dominant influence in George’s life without a strong father figure. From an early age, Whitefield recalled his mother singling him out as the son for whom there was high hopes. It was also Elizabeth who pushed George strongly in the direction of the Church of England as a clergyman, albeit seemingly for monetary gain. With the family’s struggling finances, a career in the Church seemed promising. Nevertheless, in the end, it was Elizabeth’s influence that largely (though not exclusively) contributed to George’s professional ambition and his sense of destiny, both of which served him well in the American colonies. The man who would preach over 18,000 times in a span of more than three decades and would become America’s first celebrity and cultural hero would receive his first words of encouragement from his ambitious mother. While not of the same piety of an Esther Edwards, she was nonetheless foundational for the career path and zeal of her son George.
While Whitefield pioneered outdoor field preaching and served as the primary preacher for the American Awakening, it was John Wesley, a fellow Anglican, who became the architect of itinerant evangelism in America. Organizing small groups into societies and circuits, Methodism was forged out of Oxford holy clubs and eventually stretched into the American colonies with a lay message of perfection, piety, and sanctification. “I look upon all the world as my parish,” Wesley claimed. “This is the work I know God has called me to.” Out of the legacy of the Reformation, Wesley helped create modern American evangelicalism. His quest began in a predominantly female household. Wesley was the 13th of 17 children, and the 2nd of only 3 sons to reach maturity. Unlike perhaps most households of the age, John’s father Samuel, the ex-Dissenter turned Tory clergyman, was of the more emotional and sentimental personality. John’s mother Susanna, on the other hand, possessed a more cool, rational, businesslike mentality that stood in stark contrast to Samuel. To most Wesleyan biographers, it is unmistakable how much Charles favored the character and disposition of Samuel while John shared that of his mother. In contrast to Samuel’s support for William of Orange, Susanna the Jacobite once confessed to John, “Tis an unhappiness almost peculiar to our family, that your father and I seldom think alike.” Samuel’s chronic state of debt was a source of pain for the family. However, church attendance was increased for a season by Susanna’s experimental house meeting during her husband’s absence at Convocation in 1712, the likes of which has been seen as a prototype to Wesley’s Methodism.
Like Whitefield and Edwards, Wesley was shaped by his feminine context at home. The shaping of American religion was not the exclusive property of these three men, however, it is quite remarkable that these titanic figures in American religious history were so profoundly influenced by their sisters, wives, and mothers.