By Molly Mastrorilli
The 19th century was a wild time for women and their rights as there were multiple waves of feminism to push for their rights. However, in all the chaos there were women in churches across the country beginning to take action in the smallest of ways without even thinking. By opening the gate to equality in their churches women began to get one step closer to the ultimate goal of equality. Women in early American Lutheran churches took charge of bible studies, small group meetings, and fundraising amongst other tasks in the churches so that they were able to support their church and gain some power within it without overstepping the role of what it meant to be a woman.
As the American Lutheran Churches rose in America, men had the dominating and leadership roles and as an automatic women fell to the lower status roles that often took on a lot of grunt work. Men were the pastors and priests while women were given the task of organizing events such as fundraisers. This hierarchy very directly reflected a similar hierarchy to the one that women experienced within their own homes. This idea that women experienced a form of oppression within their homes and religion is conveyed in Beyond the Nuclear Family? Familism and Gender Ideology in Diverse Religious Communities by Penny Edgell and Danielle Docka where they write about the connections between religion, families, and gender. Speaking broadly they said this:
In the United States, religion and family have been intertwined and interdependent institutions and the construction of familism, or morally sanctioned ideals of the family, has been central to local religious life and to official religious discourse (Christiano, 2000; Edgell, 2006; Sherkat and Ellison, 1999).1
This statement explains a reason as to why women have been treated as lesser for so long in every aspect of their lives. Men would get all the credit for any work done at all while women were behind the scenes making sure everything was able to run smoothly let alone run at all. This necessity for women to organize large functions amongst other events for the Church meant that they were in need of a system within themselves to help make sure all operations were in order. The book Lutherans in America by Mark Granquist shows that he found a similar idea in his research of American Lutherans when he wrote, “Almost from their beginnings, most Lutheran congregations had some type of informal women’s organization or society within them.”2 With this kind of involvement on behalf of the women, they made small shifts in power and status in the Church much easier to make.
Men were often the guides of people’s spiritual journey in the Church, however, the initiative in group discussions and the starting of groups like bible studies was taken by women. A specific example of this engagement was seen at Bethesda Lutheran Congregation where they hosted Sunday schools for children, started a sewing club that included a bible study for women who were interested, and they later had “bible classes” for both men and women.3 In stories like this one women would start holding meetings in their houses and at Church for other women or couples to come to either participate in a prayer meeting or have a led discussion about the bible. While this may seem small it was the first small step that was made in the church in the fight for women’s rights and religious freedom.
Women had fought for their own equality in many areas of life but, unlike in their homes often times, they were able to pretty naturally achieve some semblance of equality in the Church when they began to create these groups and societies to help organize themselves. There are many examples of these groups and one example is St. Matthew’s Church in Portland, Oregon. This specific group was a missionary guild. Their first meeting was in 1943 and that was when their president, a women, lined out the purpose of the guild.4 It was groups like this that forced people, not just churches, to start to rely on women for many items and organizational things. That same report about the history of St. Matthew’s also described many of the tasks that the group took part in. It said the Guild participated in activities like “The Lutheran Welfare Center”, furnished a room at PLU, and did red cross sewing and made bandages during the second World War.5 Their ability to branch out and serve places other than their own Church is what slowly allowed them to become so important in the Church itself. Again this same idea was brought up by Granquist in Lutherans in America when he wrote:
“Women met regularly for prayer and devotions, for sewing and charitable activities, and to support the work of the congregation. These groups often formed a substantial part of the congregation, and very often the congregation relied heavily on their support of its basic ministries. Many pastors realized that the good opinion and active support of the women in their congregation was crucial to the effectiveness of their own ministry and that to “cross” the women’s group could mean a quick end to their pastorate.”6
Women were able to make up such a large part of their congregation and take part in so many areas of it that it became evident, even to the pastors, how important it was to stay in the good graces of the. With the support of the women behind a group almost anything could be accomplished because of the strength that they had as a connected and organized unit.
With these groups and societies working to support each other and their churches women started to take notice of the power that they now held. They began to connect with each other across the northwest and they were able to not only become stronger but actually form a tight web of connections within their region. By achieving these connections they were able to uplift themselves and their status within the hierarchy of the Church. By the time St. Matthew’s Missionary Guild had begun in 1943 that web of connections had already started to become set. In fact the Missionary Guild joined that web before their first meeting was even held.7 This web that they joined was referred to by many as the Women’s Missionary Federation or the WMF for short. This federation was run by women and it was for women’s groups like St. Matthew’s to participate in and gain an outside source of support as well as important connections for their church.
The Women’s Missionary Federation or the WMF was a large group run by women that at its core helped organize women’s groups from churches around the northwest. The WMF would hold a convention every other year and the host town/church would rotate about the congregations or missionary groups that were included as members in the federation. These were often times largely social functions for women to gather in one place from all across the northwest but they also served a purpose. These conventions allowed for missionary guilds like St. Matthew’s one to land on the same page as all other guilds in the region. In a time where news and people could not travel nearly as efficiently or as fast conventions made sure that that would not be as much of a problem. Being a member of the WMF did also mean that a fee of sorts must be paid in the form of a donation. They would cover the financial status of the WMF at these meetings. This included how much money was brought in, which churches gave money, and what the money paid in was then going to be spent on.
For a long time in America Women’s roles in Churches had been somewhat oppressive. But these examples help to see a point in which that oppression was making a shift. These sources tell stories of women who ran societies for women within their own Churches. Women were able to take control of their own direction in the Church and choose what they wanted to participate in. However, this shift in hierarchy in the Church did not mean equality for women had been achieved in other aspects of life let alone religious equality but it did mean a step in the right direction for women and their rights and religious freedom.
- Edgell, Penny, and Danielle Docka. Beyond the Nuclear Family? Familism and Gender Ideology in Diverse Religious Communities. Publication. Sociology. Vol. 22. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Accessed May 5, 2017. EBSCOhost.
- Granquist, Mark Alan. Lutherans in America: a new history. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015.
- Langhans, W. L., Pastor. History of Bethesda Lutheran Congregation. Report. Women’s Missionary Records, Pacific Lutheran University.
- Funston, A. S., Mrs. History of St. Matthew Missionary Guild. Report. Women’s Missionary Records, Pacific Lutheran University.
- Funston, A. S., Mrs. History of St. Matthew Missionary Guild.
- Granquist, Mark Alan.
- Funston, A. S., Mrs. History of St. Matthew Missionary Guild.