Having in the previous posting given the reader an introduction into this series on the woman's role in the church, and on the question being studied, i.e. whether female members of the church of Christ may vote when a congregational vote is taken, we now will look at the issue historically to see what our Baptist forefathers believed relative to the subject and to learn what others who have studied the matter in depth have said on it. Further, I will at points say things relative to what "Primitive Baptists" (aka "Hardshells") have said on the issue. I do this for two reasons. First, because I was asked by a Hardshell to write this series, and Second, because my father and I disagreed on this subject. He held firmly to the view, as do other Hardshells, that women could not vote in the church. He also held the view that women should not have been given the right to vote outside the church in the political realm. Had he lived at the time of the women's suffrage movement in America he would have opposed giving women the right to vote.
The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 is clear that the general membership of the church should participate in church governance by voting. Here is what it says (emphasis mine):
8._____ A particular church, gathered and completely organized according to the mind of Christ, consists of officers and members; and the officers appointed by Christ to be chosen and set apart by the church (so called and gathered), for the peculiar administration of ordinances, and execution of power or duty, which he intrusts them with, or calls them to, to be continued to the end of the world, are bishops or elders, and deacons. (Acts 20:17, 28; Philippians 1:1)
Notice that the confession places executive authority in the local church or in the congregation and that its officers are "chosen by the church," that is, by its "members," male and female.
9._____ The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person, fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit, unto the office of bishop or elder in a church, is, that he be chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church itself; and solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with imposition of hands of the eldership of the church, if there be any before constituted therein; and of a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage, and set apart by prayer, and the like imposition of hands.
(Acts 14:23; 1 Timothy 4:14; Acts 6:3, 5, 6)
Notice from these words the congregational nature of the church avowed by the confession and how they affirm a woman's right to vote in their saying that elders are "chosen thereunto by the common suffrage of the church" and that "a deacon that he be chosen by the like suffrage."
Notice also how they assume that each church will have more than one elder and that ordinations do not require elders from other churches. They speak of the "imposition of hands of the eldership of the church."
In his book "Women Deacons and Deaconesses: 400 Years of Baptist Service" (see here), Charles W. Deweese wrote (emphasis mine):
"After reviewing English Baptist life in the 1600s, William Brackney concluded that
the role of women in the early Baptist churches tended to be passive and submissive to male leadership. The membership roles reveal large numbers of women in the early congregations (sometimes over 50 percent), and some churches elected female deacons." (pg. 52)
He wrote further:
"English Baptist historian John Briggs carefully studied primary sources relating to the feminine dimension in English Baptist life, many of which undoubtedly affected deaconess developments. He discovered evidence in the 1600s that women exercised informal leadership gifts in churches, actually became preachers, played key roles in the developing life of churches, suffered persecution because of their dissent, and "constantly encountered the problem of the Pauline prohibition--but against this were cited 'legitimising' scriptures such as Joel 2.28-29, John 8.36, and Galatians 3.28, a textual battle that still rumbles on (in 1986).
"Briggs claimed that "opportunities for women to participate in church life seem to have shrunk by the early eighteenth century, with some chapels even seating men and women separately," and women's right to vote in church life "was not the general practice." Still, Baptist women in the 1700s produced important writings, and participated in educational, business, and charitable enterprises." (page 54)
I think this shows that this issue, like the one dealing with the administrator of baptism, has been controversial among Baptists, even among Particular or Calvinistic Baptists. Were the Scriptures explicit on this matter, there would not be such difference of opinion. Each Baptist church must decide for themselves what they believe is the teaching of scripture. There are consequences for each side. If it is against scripture for women to vote or hold any office or perform any ministerial functions, then allowing such is sin and there will be adverse consequences. On the other hand, if women have such rights and privileges, then to deny them such is likewise sin and brings adverse consequences.
Leaving the history of the English Baptists of the 17th century, let us now look at some of the early American Baptists on the issue. The Kehukee Association in 1771 (see here) had this query.
Q'n - whether it is Lawfull for a woman to Vote in Conference or not.
Their answer was - Ans - it is not.
Morgan Edwards (May 9, 1722 – January 25, 1795), a leader among the Baptists in the oldest association in America, the Philadelphia Association, wrote:
“The Scripture forbids women to speak, ask questions, teach, dispute, rule, or vote in church.”
Edwards was born in Trevethin parish, Pontypool, Wales, and attended Bristol College, after which he began preaching in 1738. He pastored several small Baptist churches in England for seven years, then moved to Ireland, where he pastored for nine years. In May 1761 he immigrated to the American colonies, and became pastor of the Baptist church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He may have been the first American Baptist historian. His major work, Materials Toward A History of the Baptists (1770) is an important source describing the Baptists in America. He later produced a companion volume, Materials Toward A History of the Baptists in New Jersey (1792)
In spite of Edward's view on women voting, he nevertheless was for having women deacons, and even women elders, although it must be said that the women in these positions were not of the same nature as that of the men. But, more on that perhaps later. So, I find it somewhat a mystery how Edwards could promote women in ministry in the church and yet oppose them voting.
Wrote Dr. J. Michael Raley (see here):
"The women of Philadelphia's First Baptist Church, for example, voted in church business meetings from the church's founding in 1698 until 1761, when the men inexplicably excluded them, contrary to longstanding custom. The issue simmered until early 1764, when the men, pressed by the women, formally addressed the question, "Whether women have a right of voting in the church?" The men replied that, whereas the question of Woman suffrage was clear enough in civil affairs (where women possessed no such right), whether or not a woman had the right to participate in the decisions of her local church could be determined only from Scripture. The men, however, were unable to find such a right explicitly stated in the Bible. Instead, they cited 1 Timothy 2 (especially vv. 11-12: "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.") and 1 Corinthians 14 (especially vv. 34-35: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law. . . . for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.") Their written answer combined these two passages in an abbreviated, yet even more restrictive rendition "I suffer not a woman to usurp authority; but command that she be in subjection, as also saith the law" as evidence of "the subordination [of women] which the gospel hath established in all the churches of the saints."
Again, all this is simply more evidence that the subject is not an easy one and that it has been one that has been controversial among Baptists. Let each person study the matter and become fully persuaded in his or her own mind. Further, the kind of division that occurred in the Baptist church in Philadelphia has also occurred in other churches.
"Although the men promised the women that their "suffrage or disapprobation shall have their proper influence" and, further, "to invite them when anything is to be transacted which touches the interest of their souls," in practice they continued to exclude the women from church decisions. Incensed, the women of the church promptly informed the men of their "Mistake." Above all, they reaffirmed their "former Rights," albeit in a manner consistent with the teachings of the Apostle Paul: "We do assure the brethren we will not attempt to teach or usurp any authority in the church of God; neither would we be so ignorant as to shut our eyes at all times, when our rights, which we never did any thing to forfeit, are denied us." Still the men refused to give ground; as a result, these Philadelphia women subsequently boycotted the business meetings of their church in protest. The minutes of the church's business meetings thereafter through at least 1814 record only men as having been in attendance."
Who was activated by the Spirit of God in this debate? The men who thought they were upholding Scripture by barring women from having a voice in matters or the women who wanted to have a voice? Further, it seems like the church under consideration in the above were trying to find a common ground, trying to give women a voice, though not a full vote.
"In New Jersey, where women did in fact exercise the franchise in local elections from 1790 until 1807, women also voted regularly in the business meetings of many Baptist churches. In 1819, an intense debate over the issue took place at Piscataway's First Day Baptist Church. The members concluded "by a large majority that the sisters have an equal right, in all cases with the brethren, in voting, speaking and governing the church.""
One can find churches in history that were on either side of this question.
"In the Southern states, where male hegemony arguably was even more firmly entrenched than in the North, women nevertheless voted in Baptist churches prior to the Civil War.
A more conservative Southern authority on Baptist church discipline, A. S. Worrell, opposed allowing women to vote in their churches. "I know of but few Churches where it is customary for any considerable number of females to vote," he wrote. "Perhaps in the majority of our Churches they do not vote at all..." Worrell considered even raising a hand to vote in a church session to be a form of speech; women, therefore, could only vote by "speaking" in the church, something that the Apostle Paul had proscribed. Allowing women to vote in their churches, moreover, threatened to subject the male membership "to the government of woman, the opposite of what was designed by their Maker." Even worse, "where the Church has a majority of women as members, they could rule everything at pleasure." Worrell's admission, however, that women were voting in large numbers in but few southern Baptist churches that perhaps in the majority of them they were not allowed to vote at all together with his lengthy diatribe against women voting in the church, actually suggests that women were voting, at least in small numbers, in many Baptist churches in the antebellum South."
Of course, how many were for or against women voting in the church cannot be used as reason for its acceptance or prohibition. We do not judge truth by whether it is believed by the majority. Oftentimes the truth on a matter is held by the minority. Again, the purpose of this historical review of the matter is to get us to see how this matter has never had unanimous agreement but has always been a controversial issue, and that the reason for this is in large part due to the lack of biblical specificity and clarity on the question.
My father, Elder Eddie K. Garrett, Sr., as stated, was a strong advocate that women could not vote in the church. He opposed other "Primitive Baptist" churches who allowed women the vote. He also opposed Hardshells having women as "clerks" of the church. How many Hardshell churches agree with father? I have no figures, but based upon my years with them, I would guess that most Hardshell churches allow women the vote and to speak in conference.
Elder James Taylor in "Primitive Baptist Doctrine and Practice" under "Church Government," wrote (see here):
"Primitive Baptist government is congregational. All baptized members of each individual church are allowed to vote in church conference and partake of the Lord's Supper."
Again, I think this is the majority view.
In "Women, Work and Family in the Antebellum Mountain South," By Wilma A. Dunaway (see here), this historian writes:
"Antebbellum churches were dominated by male preachers, church boards, and teachers. Even women's Sunday school classes and prayer meetings were led by males, and churches often segregated seating patterns by gender...I have found no record of women voting in Appalachian churches, except among the Primitive Baptists and the Moravians." (page 444)
Dunaway also wrote:
"The male-dominated trials all but excluded women from the proceedings. Women voted in the more lay-oriented churches, such as the Primitive Baptist church. However, in those churches, where women had the vote, a quorum was determined by the presence of male members. Thus judgment by female peers was offset by the guarantee of male presence and authority. Women did not vote in the evangelical church trials although they were present in the congregation during the hearings. Baptist supporters of the right of women to vote in the church argued that the principle of equality demanded it. Furthermore, church suffragists believed that if women were denied the vote they would not then be responsible for the purity of the church. The latter argument hit at the crux of female church membership. If women did not participate in the exercise of discipline, how could they constitute a church?"
I think there are some strong arguments here in favor of women voting in the church.
Dunaway also wrote:
"Opponents argued that women's incompetence made them unfit to vote. It was claimed that women were by nature emotional and prejudiced and therefore could not maintain church purity. The right of women to vote raised the specter of the "unnatural" rule of women, and it was feared that voting in church would lead to national or state franchise. Participation in the exercise of discipline meant stepping out of women's "natural" domestic sphere. Anti-suffragists claimed support for their position in the Pauline and Petrine injunctions against women speaking in the churches. Did women have the right to constitute a church? Opponents of the vote for women argued that the "whole church" was a figure of speech which referred to men who voted and to women who acquiesced "in feeling" to the vote. Women's responsibility for the purity of the church was limited to the exercise of influence, pious example, and conversation." (pg. 13)
I think the arguments by the anti women vote side, as expressed in the above, are repugnant. From my own experience I have known Christian women who were more sound in Bible doctrine and practice than many men. But, the scriptural argumentation will be examined in upcoming posts.