Mary McCartin Wearn, ed. Nineteenth-Century American Women Write Religion: Lived Theologies and Literature (Ashgate Press, Farnham, Surrey and Burlington, Vermont 2014), $134.96, ISBN 9781472410429 (hardcover), pp. xv + 200
Reviewed by: Tonya J. Moutray, Russell Sage College, Troy, NY, November 2015
American women writers played a significant though often unacknowledged role in shaping Protestant theology and practice, Mary McCartin Wearn argues in her Introduction to the edited collection Nineteenth-Century American Women Write Religion: Lived Theologies and Literature. The book centers on the common efforts of women to live out their religious beliefs by immersing themselves in reform initiatives and using their skills as writers to promote their ideas to wider audiences. Writing in response to gender inequality, racism, and poverty, women were central to the project of creating a pluralistic and democratizing American religious culture, particularly following the rise of evangelical revivalism during the Second Great Awakening (1790–1840), which resulted in the formation of new Protestant denominations and was characterized by an appeal to emotions and the supernatural to inspire social reform in preparation for the anticipated Second Coming of Christ. Some women authorized their very involvement in public work by claiming divine inspiration, thus bypassing official church hierarchies altogether.
Just as nineteenth-century Protestantism encompassed a multitude of denominations and sects with both overlapping and unique theological emphases, Wearn’s collection attempts to represent this diversity of religious thought. In so doing, the essays examine a plethora of individual authors, as well as groups of writers bound by common or competing agendas from multiple religious traditions. The volume positions lesser-known figures, including Josephine Bunkley, Julia A.J. Foote, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, and Harriet E. Wilson alongside popular writers, such as Louisa May Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, and Rebecca Harding Davis. The contributions of female abolitionists are also represented, as well as activists from diverse Protestant backgrounds, including Unitarian, Congregationalist, Methodist, Mormon, Swedenborgian, and Shaker traditions. The inclusion of Transcendentalist and Roman Catholic perspectives hints at the wider religious and philosophical divisions that were already entrenched in an increasingly pluralistic American society. From personal memoir to fiction, religious tracts to poetry, the different genres explored within the collection attest to the ways in which women were repurposing a traditionally masculine set of religious discourses for wider social uses and popular consumption.
Wearn’s Introduction provides a useful theoretical and historical framework for the volume and the topic in general. Importantly, Wearn positions her text as an intervention to the ‘secularization slant’ characteristic of feminist revisionist work in the nineteenth century, a slant that has distorted scholars’ understanding of the social impact of faith in women’s lives and the literature they wrote (p. 6). Though women experienced differing degrees of subordination within institutionalized religion, Wearn argues that it is also important to look at how church-based organizations supported women’s efforts to gain authority and agency in spiritual and temporal matters. As ‘corrective scholarship’, the essays ‘articulate the proliferation of ways nineteenth-century women expressed belief, explored faith, and practiced religion in their personal lives and communities’ (p. 9). In addition, the nineteenth century saw the rise in publishing of texts written by and for women, making it possible for them to join more fully in the debates about how to end slavery, effect successful working class reform, and advocate for women’s rights.
The first three chapters examine women’s autobiographies, although many of the texts within the volume are also derived from personal experiences. Nancy F. Sweet revisits the antebellum convent escape genre, arguing that the genre itself testifies to the ways women defied both domestic and institutional disenfranchisement. Josephine Bunkley’s 1855 memoir details her involvement with the Sisters of Charity in Maryland. According to Sweet, the very existence of Bunkley’s text, and others like it, suggests that the convent held appeal for American women because of the lack of equivalent opportunities for them in Protestant denominations, though Bunkley concludes that she and her fellow sisters were ultimately deprived of personhood and forced into subordination within the convent. Sweet argues that Bunkley’s narrative prioritizes autonomous female agency both in her choice to join and leave the convent. Joy A.J. Howard studies Julia A.J. Foote’s A Brand Plucked from the Fire (1879), a text that advocates for empowered female leadership outside of the official legitimization of the church. The first deacon of the African Methodist (AME) Zion Church and strongly influenced by the Holiness Movement (which authorized dreams and visions as divinely inspired and whose audience was working-class urban youth), Foote became a significant figure among a growing contingent of African American women preachers. Rachel Cope’s essay looks at three key religious figures: the mother of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr., Lucy Mack Smith, Rebecca Cox Jackson (a Shaker writer), and Fanny Newell (a Methodist writer). The essay examines how these writers utilized the memoir genre to authorize their dreams and visions as divinely inspired, a move that ‘freed women from the confines of worldly male authority’, so that they could ‘transcend narrow gender roles’ and ‘define their own religious lives’ (p. 54, p. 58).
Women writers sought to address poverty and racism through overtly religious correctives. Randi Lynn Tanglen’s chapter on Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig (1859), and Valerie D. Levy’s work on abolitionist women activists, highlight the significant role that women played in shaping such political discussions. Levy’s chapter covers a spectrum of anti-slavery activists, including Lydia Maria Child, Lucy Stone, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, and Antoinette Brown Blackman, illuminating the interconnections between these women’s approaches to reform and involvement in public leadership. Tanglen discusses how Wilson’s autobiographical novel points to the limits of both the Sunday School movement (designed to promote literacy among working class youth) and romantic racialist theory, which posited an intrinsic black Christian piety and was espoused by many fellow abolitionists. Benjamin G. Sammons, in his chapter on Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron-Mills (1861), argues that Davis embeds an ‘incarnational’ approach into the very act of reading; in so doing, she hopes to spur readers into active service on behalf of the disenfranchised.
Gregory Eiselein’s chapter recuperates Louisa May Alcott’s religious ideas from a critical heritage that has focused primarily on her secular leanings. A non-conforming Transcendentalist, Alcott ‘promoted a modern, pluralist, and feminist religious belief’, which utilized elements of both Christian affect and practice (p. 119). Repositioning Alcott in the religious milieu of the Great Awakening and Protestant evangelicalism, Eiselein brings her into the same room with the other writers in the volume.
Although many of the writers in the collection espoused feminist ideas, several chapters focus specifically on the intersections of feminism, gender, and religious reform. Roxanne Harde’s chapter on Elizabeth Stuart Phelps discusses how Phelps legitimizes gender equality through a feminist reinterpretation of the gospels. Karlyn Crowley examines Julia Ward Howe’s The Hermaphrodite (1846–1847), a text that transgresses gender norms through an intersex figure, Laurence, who is rooted in a Swedenborgian notion of gender complementarity. In the end, Laurence becomes a mediator between ‘genders, sexes, and eventually material and spiritual worlds’ (p. 104). Finally, Wearn’s chapter on the poet Sarah Piatt explores women’s stakes in the temporal world and the call to motherhood and domesticity that competed with spiritual discourses promulgating the surrender of earthly pleasures. Comparing Piatt’s poetry to that of Anne Bradstreet, Wearn argues that both women protest gender inequality by asserting a philosophic materialism over spiritual resignation.
Overall, the volume covers many aspects of women’s religious culture in nineteenth-century American society and, as such, will appeal mostly to graduate students and researchers studying the topic broadly, specific reform movements, or individual authors. Because women’s religious writings have not garnered enough critical attention, the collection fills a needed gap in nineteenth-century literary and historical scholarship. The volume’s treatment of nineteenth-century American Catholicism is limited to Sweet’s chapter and may not be as useful for scholars working in this area. However, the work further equips scholars of nineteenth-century American religion and literature to navigate women writers’ doctrinal and pragmatic concerns within evangelical Protestantism, which positioned itself as uniquely ‘American’ in opposition to Catholicism.