The customs and traditions for women in religion varied considerably across denominations in England during the 19th century. While there was a shared ideal of “respectability” which focused on women working in the home, and men as the breadwinner outside of the home – this manifested in various ways throughout different denominations; and there were certainly a plethora of denominations in this period.
For instance – Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists were more likely to allow women to take part in “public” work associated with the church than other nonconformists (Unitarians, Congregationalists) or the state church (Church of England). Further differences could be found even within these three, as Methodists and Quakers, for a time, were happy to allow women to be involved in the preaching ministry (typically restricted to men amongst other denominations).
This selection of blog posts will just be focusing on the traditions and expectations of women within the Baptist tradition in the 19th century. Before I instruct you on the expectations of living as a 19th century Baptist woman, allow me to take a bird’s eye view of women in this era. How were Baptist women viewed by the church in the 19th century? Keep in mind, as you read, that these conceptions were not atypical towards women in the 19th century – Baptist or not; though the examples given in this particular post will be drawing upon Baptist records. As my research continues through post-graduate studies, I will include findings regarding women of other denominations in this blog as well.
How were women viewed by the Church?
1. Women were the weaker vessel:
Women were viewed as inferior; or at least as weaker than men, especially intellectually and physically. John Gill, a prominent 17th century Baptist whose writings were well-respected through the 19th century (and, indeed, even today) elucidated on the comprehensive roles of husbands and wives in his Body of Divinity. Women, Gill argues, are the weaker vessel and therefore need shelter and protection from their male counterparts (in most cases, their husband or father). This phrase ‘weaker vessel’ dates back to William Tyndale’s translation of the bible in the 16th century; he used this phrase when translating 1 Peter 3:7:”Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.”
Women’s weakness was portrayed in numerous ways beyond the physical – it was believed women were weaker intellectually, and could be more easily deceived; for it was Eve who was initially deceived in ‘The Fall’, not Adam. Furthermore, it was believed that women could not handle rigorous intellectual activity – if they tried, many doctors believed, they risked hampering their fertility. Indeed, when Oxford and Cambridge began to admit women to matriculate, many intelligent and capable women were not permitted to go by their families – for fear that they would become unmarriageable to the opposite sex.
It was also displayed in the beliefs about women’s psychological welfare – until the early
20th century, nervous dispositions and disorders were exclusively a female malady. Indeed, this is backed up by an anonymous female writer who published an article in The Baptist Magazine, discussing the impediments caused by women’s nervous disposition. Our anonymous author argues that baptisms should be practiced by women as well as men, so that women can be baptised in private by their own sex. The reason for this – women find the ordeal of a public baptism too difficult to muster, due to “the excitement and anxiety of going through the service before a multitude [which] would destroy all those calm devout feelings which ought to characterise the act.”
Nervous dispositions were also addressed in the minutes of Romney Street Baptist Chapel. A prerequisite to membership at the chapel was the public delivery of a candidate’s testimony. However, it was recognized in 1823 that this was an “insurmountable difficulty” for some candidates. In these cases, their anxiety would prevent them from “uttering anything more than a simple negative or an affirmative.” As a resolution, Romney Street agreed to allow a member’s testimony to be read by a pastor or deacon in their stead. Though the church minutes do not explicitly say this latitude was given for female members, it is quite likely this was the case. King Street Church, another Particular Baptist Church in Westminster, created a similar allowance in their church; in their case, this was due to a female member who “from a very nervous excitement” was unable to share her testimony before the church.
2. Women’s strength was in nurturing.
While women’s weakness in disposition was often discussed, equal emphasis was attributed to women’s strength in nurturing. She was seen as the self-sacrificing comforter and soother – both of her husband and children. H.J. Betts, Romney Street’s fifth pastor, when writing about “a good wife” emphasized her ability to comfort her husband, tending to his infirmities and likewise hiding them from nosey friends and neighbours. Furthermore, she cares so greatly for her husband’s health that in his sickness “she feels more grief than he knows.” William Landels, a prominent Particular Baptist and Pastor of Regent’s Park Chapel, wrote a conduct manual for young women in the 1850s. In this manual, he comments on women’s skill in providing comfort:
“All the qualities of her nature – the softness of her voice, and the gentleness of her manner – her quick perception of the wants of others, and her delicate tact in ministering thereunto – her self-sacrifice – her sympathy, so easily excited yet so difficult to exhaust – her patience and constancy – all render her peculiarly to fit to nurse an afflicted body, or soothe a distempered mind.”
3. Women were equal on a spiritual level
Though physically and mentally inferior, it was believed that women were, on some level, equal with their male counterparts. Women were spiritually equal, but socially subordinate. William Landels, a promiment Baptist author of conduct books for men and women, makes this argument and adds a caveat; he impresses the need for a wife to be the helpmeet for husband, yet, he qualifies- “it is only in this condition [as an equal] that she brings the help which [her husband] requires.
The Baptist Quarterly also highlights this in its 1888 edition, when its editor asserts that women are equal with men spiritually; they receive the same salvation, the same redemption, through the same saviour’s blood. However, argues the author of this article, although women are equal with men spiritually, they do not have the same role requirements as their male counterparts. This is not meant to be a comment on what they can do, but what they have been appointed to do, via scripture – perhaps a fairly progressive view, considering that innumerable men still believed that women’s role differences were grounded in intellectual and physical inferiorities to men.
Nonetheless, Landels shifts the argument by focusing on the expectations accorded to women by Baptist beliefs of that time. The expectations of Baptist women in 19th century Britain would have been largely confined to two localities: the home and the church. In these two domains, women were expected to maintain duties, which were often drawn from their interpretations of biblical mandates, viewed through the lens of 19th century customs. These will be addressed in the next blog post on this topic.
Angus Archive and Library: King Street Baptist Church,
Betts, H.J. (1854). Gleanings from a Pastor’s Portfolio. London : Houlston & Stoneman; J. Bigg & Son
Gill, J; Staughton, W. (1810). Gill’s Complete Body of Practical and Doctrinal Divinity. Philadelphia: Delaplaine and Hellings
Hughes, K. (2014) Gender Roles in the 19th Century. London: British Library. Accessed at http://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians
Knight, F. (1997) Male and Female He Created Them: Men , Women and the Question of Gender. In: J. Wolffe, ed., Religion in Victorian Britain: Volume V – Culture and Empire. Manchester: Manchester University Press
Landels, W. (1859). Women’s Sphere and Work. London
Why are Women not Baptising Women? (1861). The Baptist Magazine
Women’s work in the Church. (1888). The Baptist Quarterly Review
Westminster Baptist Church: Church Minutes C.4.1