Did the church hire her too? – The role of the Pastor’s wife in the 19th century.

In his book Baptists through the Centuries, renowned historian David Bebbington pointed out the dearth of research women within religious history research – specifically of the Baptist persuasion:

‘Although the role of women has typically been neglected by Baptist historians, their history deserved to be noted since for a time in England there were commonly two women on the roll for every man. Women have therefore constituted a larger section of the Baptist community than men.’

The contribution of women to a church was vital and the omission of women is a great disservice to histories of religion or the church. In a previous blog post I discuss how Baptist women could anticipate they would face a general expectation which suggested they should prioritise the home and domestic work over all things – even their ministerial endeavours.

However, much more can be said about religious women living in the 19th century than is covered in this assessment. Whilst expectations were given, they weren’t always followed. Indeed, in my PhD work part of my research explores this even further: I assert that expectations were known and internalised by many Dissenting women (Baptists, Congregationalists, Unitarians and Quakers) even though they weren’t always followed. There was frequently room (in varying degrees) for negotiation for women who were interested in ministerial endeavours.

Certainly this was immensely clear through the example of Quaker women who, although they certainly reflected upon the domestic expectations, were content with prioritising ministerial needs, if they believed the Holy Spirit had impressed this urge upon them. The example of Anna Braithwaite (and others) exemplifies this, which can be read about in either of these blog posts:

Ministry of Family? A woman’s conundrum

What did female Quaker ministry look like? Tales of the Inner Light

The Pastor’s Wife

 Recently I have been ruminating upon another angle of this gender/religious intersectional research: and that is the role of the pastor’s wife. While, in the 21st century, women can serve as ministers in many denominations (arguably on equal ground with male ministers), this was seldom the case in the 19th century. Furthermore, many denominations in the 21st century still assert that the pulpit is a male-only domain – echoing the interpretations and expectations manifested by my 18th and 19th century subjects.

However, interestingly, whilst these 21st women are excluded from serving in the pastoral ministry, there is sometimes still an expectation that they are hired as a ‘co-labourer’ with their husbands (albeit, formally unrecognised and formally unpaid). I’ve even heard of anecdotal evidence wherein a male pastor was not hired if he was bereft of a wife who could also serve the church…

So my curiosity has piqued. Did women in the 19th century experience something similar? Could 19th century women, married to pastors, be expected to serve as a ‘co-labourer’ with their husbands in any degree?

Let’s look at two examples from the 19th century to glean the beginnings of an answer: Congregationalist John Angell James, and Baptist Henry John Betts.

Henry John Betts

Henry John Betts was invited to the pulpit at Romney Street Baptist Church in December 1846. This small chapel in Westminster, London – had been built in the 1820s; though the church itself had formed in the early 1800s (sometime between 1807 and 1815). Betts was the sixth minister of this relatively new congregation; his predecessor – Edward Ransom Hammond, has resigned in 1846. As was typical in this church (and, indeed, other Baptist churches), Betts was invited to preach for a few months as a ‘trial’ after which the church invited him to settle at the church. In June 1847 Betts received an offer from Romney Street to settle as their minister, which was pitted against an offer from Cambridgeshire. Betts accepted the former and became settled as their minister in August 1847.

Not much was noted about Betts’ ministry in the church minutes; he continued in his position for 4.5 years – and offered his resignation in 1852. In the minutes, his resignation letter cites his reason for leaving as mainly regarding ‘disrespectful comments made about him and his wife’. Notably, this was not an uncommon reason for departure – at least two former ministers had noted ‘character aspersions’ against themselves as a reason for leaving. Betts, however, was the first resignation to note his wife.

A few years later, Betts published his pastor’s portfolio – in which he issues a few strong assertions about the expectations of a pastor’s wife.

“[The Church] hires the pastor, but somehow or other people have an idea that it hired the pastor’s wife as well. From the day she enters the parish, she is a marked woman. Her dress is expected to be of the most saintly pattern. The color of ribbon may endanger the peace of the whole community. She must be the best woman in the world, the head of all benevolent enterprises, Sunday-schools, ladies’ fairs for procuring flannel shirts for Hottentots, sewing circles, Bible classes… She must be the politest woman in the world, receiving calls always, and visiting from house to house, and make herself generally agreeable. She must be the most exemplary woman in the world, never laughing above the prescribed key. In short, she must be the paragon of all excellence, and possess a constitution like a horse, patience like an ox, and a good nature like a puppy… And why? Simply because her good husband has consented to do a most important, a most holy work, for small pay.”

Was Betts reflecting upon his previous experience? Or observations he had made about other friends in the ministry? It’s unclear what motivated Betts to adamantly deride these assertions, though he clearly perceived that these expectations were far too steep when it was the pastor, and not his wife, who was employed. Betts ends with the following comments:

“We appreciate fully the desirableness of having, in the wife of a pastor, a pattern of the feminine proprieties and Christian virtues, as much on account of the pastor as the people; but we protest 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 ends with the same priority (as I note in my other blog posts) a pastor’s wife, as any other wife should prioritise the home:

“She has her household duties to perform, and we know not why more should be expected of her than any other good Christian woman, who has the care of a family, and a toiling husband to kiss, comfort, and console.”

John Angell James

John Angell James, on the other hand, seemingly diverged from Betts’ views.

John Angell James was a renowned Congregationalist minister who became the minister at Carrs Lane Chapel in 1806 – at which he would serve until his death in 1862. James was an avid writer, who churned out an immense number of publications on religiosity & spiritual living – many of which highlighted how to cultivate a godly home and family life. One of these, first published in 1822, was titled The Church Member’s Guide (so popular was this publication, it went through at least 10 editions).

In this publication, James also sets out his expectations for a pastor’s wife; though these are distinctly different from those proclaimed by Betts.

James begins this section of this publication by defining the pastor’s wife as holding ‘A station so honourable, so important, so responsible’ that it requires great attention and lead to severe consequences if it was not upheld properly.

Firstly, he agrees with many commentators of this time, and suggests that her role should primarily be in the home. James extends this to suggest that her care in the domestic sphere will reflect upon her husband.

“A minister derives some degree of respectability from the state of his family. Home scenes, according as they are lovely or repulsive, form a beauteous halo round, or dark specks upon, the orb of his public character”.

It was incumbent upon a pastor’s wife, notes James, that she ensures his house is orderly; her husband’s reputation had to be well-represented and protected. James goes on to suggest that the pastor’s wife should hold a very particular character: the most important traits included piety and prudence. He cites the pastor’s wife as the ‘emblem’ of the godly woman, representing her husband and leading the women in the church as the paragon of this archetype:

“Her habits, her conversation, her whole deportment, should bear the deep, bright impress of heaven. She should be the holiest, most spiritual woman in the church.”

James goes on to suggest the various ways in which she can serve the church: through her advice, leadership, conversation, and various ministries. James suggests that the pastor’s wife should be the confidante of all women, have no friends favoured above another, and should be a frequent visitor to the poor and sick. He concludes by suggesting:

“She is the wife of a man, whose master is God, whose business is the salvation of souls, whose scene of labour is the church of Christ, and the consequences of whose exertions, whether they succeed or fail, are infinite and eternal; LET HER ACT ACCORDINGLY” [emphasis by James].

In sum:

While, according to Betts, a pastor’s wife was to be viewed equal as other women in the church and not saddled with any additional responsibility – James clearly purported that the pastor’s wife could be the foundation stone which either supports or destroys her husband’s ministry.

No pressure…(!)

Now, whether or not these didactic messages were internalised or practiced, is worthy of further study. As many historians are quick to admit: while teachings, books, and sermons suggest something was ‘the right way to live’, this is not proof that guidance was practiced by all who heard.

Furthermore, I am quite interested in further research which extends this comparison (even didactically): what did other Baptist churches teach? Other Congregationalists? What about Anglicans? Quakers? Unitarians? Methodists?

All interesting subjects for further enquiry.

And…if you have any ideas from your own research: do let me know in the comments!


Gleanings from a Pastor’s Portfolio By H.J. Betts, 1852

The Church Member’s Guide by John Angell James, 1822

Church Minutes, 1811-1885, Westminster Baptist Church

Jones, R.  (2013, October 03). James, John Angell (1785–1859), Congregational minister and author lawyer. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

2 thoughts on “Did the church hire her too? – The role of the Pastor’s wife in the 19th century.

Add yours

  1. Hi Angela, I’ve done a bit of research into the role of the minister’s wife in Australian Baptist churches in the early 20th Century as part of research for a PhD. My view is that, like all women, there was a spectrum along which ministers’ wives fit. I have found examples of women who essentially continued to work as a “minister’s wife” after the husband left the ministry, or died. I’ve also got some of women who rejected the role – but actually not very many. I find this a fascinating part of my research.


    1. Thank you Rebecca – Yes, I can definitely see this as being the case. Pastors’ wives in any denomination (as with all women) did not perfectly fit into any mould (as much as we might be inclined to make general comments about them).

      I’d be supremely interested in hearing more about your research sometime!


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