19th century Baptist women – their role in the church

In the previous post, I discussed how women were viewed by Baptist culture in 19th century churches. If you haven’t yet read that post, please do so by clicking here. Then, do come back and read about the expectations women faced in the church.

baptist churchThe Baptist Quarterly Review asserted that all Christians share common duties, regardless of gender. These included: leading a godly and prayerful life, attending communion, supporting the gospel, involvement in charity, evangelism, and engaging in church work. Clearly, women were expected to be active in their local church communities, contributing where they could – but only in ways which supported the ideals of biblical womanhood. In reality, women’s work in the church tended to be an extension of their domestic roles; their strengths of nurturing and comforting were utilized in philanthropic missions which catered to women, children, and the poor. One exception to this typical model was found in Mrs Spurgeon – who founded and ran a book ministry, whose purpose was to provide ministers in England with resources they could not afford themselves. The Baptist Quarterly described how women’s work ought to be conducted as follows:

“in quietness, without usurping authority over man and in subjection – in the subordination divinely appointed for women.”

Women were urged to be involved in prayer-meetings, mothers’ meetings, Dorcas Societies, sewing schools, and various other charitable groups which supported the needy and contributed to evangelism. Besides their contributions to charity, women also took part in the more formal aspects of church life. In many Baptist churches, women were permitted to vote at church meetings.


Women also contributed as deaconesses, a role created which especially involved ministering to women of the church – assisting with female baptisms, working as the channel of communication between the male deacons and other women of the church, visiting women suffering from affliction, and reporting all of her cases to the deacons.

The role of deaconess was not new to the 19th century – there is evidence women were appointed to this role in Baptist churches at least as far back as the 17th century. In 1678 Broadmead Church in Bristol decided to implement this role in their church. The primary role, as above, was to offer ministry to women – but in their case, responsibilities also extended beyond this to ministering to some male members as well. Due to these responsibilities, strict rules were enforced for the women who held this office. Namely, the following rules were enforced:

  1. These women must be unmarried, and happy with remaining unmarried.
  2. Only women over 60 would be appointed to this position.

These two rules were maintained to prevent any unscrupulous relationships – or even the appearance of such – from arising while deaconesses carried out their duties. In fact, Broadmead Baptist Church highlights this when they clarify the second point above, stating that women must be above 60 in order that “no occasion may be given” – perhaps assuming that women over 60 would offer no temptation to the men being visited?

The number of deaconesses in Baptist churches had declined substantially by the second half of the 19th century. This is likely to do with the reticence some church members had about this role of deaconesses, and its confusion with the role of male deacons. It was customary for church deacons to oversee the prayer and dissemination of the Lord’s Supper – a role most Baptist Churches would not have permitted women to undertake. The allowance of women to serve in a deacon-type role would have threatened boundaries which prevented women from leadership in the broader ecclesia of the church.

Minister’s Wives

The involvement of women most readily recognized, was that of minister’s wives, whose role was a heavy one, requiring -at the very least – a great deal of self-sacrifice and inconvenience. The husband-pastor had to frequently leave his wife to tend to the needs of church members. A good minister’s wife would be expected to support his work, and avoid obstructing his ministry.

pilgrims progressIn Joseph Ivimey’s Pilgrims of the Nineteenth Century (a 19th century version of Pilgrim’s Progress) he describes a scene in which two characters experience this very issue. A pastor-husband returns home to his wife late one evening after a long and burdensome day of ministerial work. He finds his wife waiting for him in the parlour, where he tells her the details of his day. In response, the wife offers up her support, saying

“I hope never to disturb my husband, sir, in his works of faith and labour of love; but the wives of ministers are called upon to sacrifice much of their own pleasure, that others may obtain the profit of their public labours.”

Mrs Spurgeon also struggled with this issue, which she describes in a letter published in her husband’s autobiography. She describes one occasion when Mr Spurgeon was leaving for a long preaching journey – a frequent cause for his absence. On this particular morning, she felt especially sad, considering how she would have to endure many days without him, yet again. Her husband, upon noticing her upset, preached to her with an illustration about sacrifice, indicating that her support of his ministry was an offering to the Lord. He said to her,

“Don’t you see, you are giving me to God, in letting me go to preach the gospel to poor sinners, and do you think He likes to see you cry over sacrifice?”

Mrs Spurgeon expressed her appreciation over his “tender correction” and remembered his advice whenever she felt downcast in the future about his absence.

Minister’s wives also had expectations heaped upon themselves, simply for holding the role of “pastor’s wife”. Obituaries of these wives frequently highlighted the numerous ways in which they were active in the church. An obituary in The Baptist Magazine in 1850 describes such a woman; marking her as a pious and zealous woman who “won the hearts of the people” in her congregation. Understandably, women who were wives of ministers generally were subject to more expectation. However, interestingly enough, H.J. Betts, pastor of Romney Street Baptist, did not agree with this sentiment. His counsels include a chapter on “minister’s wives” in which he debunks the belief that pastor’s wives should be the subjects of greater expectations.

“[The church] hires the pastor, but somehow or other, people have an idea that it hires the pastor’s wife as well…”

pastors wifeBetts then describes the myriad of expectations laid upon these women, as though they must be “paragons of Christian virtue” simply due to their husband’s status in the church. While he concedes that a godly pastor’s wife is entirely desirable he objects

“…against the too common notion that the pastor’s salary makes the wife a missionary, who is to labour with equal assiduity and earnestness for the good of the place, and to bow to the caprices, tastes, and prejudices of the people, without a farthing’s consideration.”

Betts concludes that the minister’s wife should have no more expectations than any other woman in the church.

Women’s role in the church was typically an extension of their domestic duties – in which they brought the skills and general character which womanhood was expected to uphold to their philanthropic duties in the church. For some churches, women were allowed to be deaconesses, which gave more prominence and recognition to their contribution. The most attention given to women in the 19th century Baptist churches likely rests with pastor’s wives, who were the recipients of heaps of expectations due to their husband’s role. In the next post in this series, I will discuss the expectations of women in the home.


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