Across the centuries and the globe, Christian ideas, movements and leaders have at certain times been at odds with the dominant values and structures of civil society. The same was also true in the United States between the 18th and 20th centuries. There were Christian ideas, leaders, and movements that challenged values and structures of social and political establishment during that time.
Episcopalians in the first third of the nineteenth century had made great progress in putting the chaos and confusion of the Revolutionary War behind them. They had found a new more aggressive model for the episcopate, had adopted both the Thirty-nine Articles and a uniform Course of Ecclesiastical and had begun to send bishops to the West.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, slavery was a custom in American colonies. Through the work of African slaves, a new nation was built with a strong economic base through the production of tobacco and cotton crops. Around the mid-19th century, America was expanding to the west. Also, the abolition movement provoked a great debate over slavery that would divide the nation apart in the Civil War. The debate was not exclusive from the church. In the mid-1840’s both Methodist (1844) and the Baptists (1845) divided North and South over the question as to whether it was permissible for an ordained person to own slaves. Preoccupation with internal debates kept Presbyterians and Episcopalians from similar divisions for about a decade, but by the 1850’s both denominations faced serious conflicts over the church’s response to slavery.
Episcopalians were not able to fight off division until after the Civil War. William Jay of New York and Salmon P. Chase of Ohio were strong supporters of immediate abolition, but prior to the 1850’s few Episcopal clergy had followed their lead. Years later clergy were starting to preach openly against slavery including an evangelical clergyman by the name of Dudley Tyng. Later that same year, Phillips Brooks and other Northern students threatened to withdraw from the Virginia Theological Seminary if the school did not guarantee protection for students who spoke against slavery. The school agreed to the demands of the students and provided them space on campus to have discussions on the morality of slavery. The Civil War both ended the institution of slavery on which much of the church’s work was predicated and destroyed the financial base for new forms of evangelism. After the Civil War, the Episcopal church realized that the war had changed the church in significant ways. The character of the church’s ministry to black Americans took new forms and also affected the church’s theological parties.
Also, during this time frame, there were changing roles for women in society and in the church. Many Americans believed that men and women were to lead separate roles in the economy. The men typically worked outside the home, while women stayed at home. At home, women were to care for children and family, and run the family home. Women were expected to educate their children in both academics and religion.
Things started to change during the Civil War. With many men going away to fight in the war, women began to take over the jobs. However, in being employed, they usually did not find the jobs that were available to them fulfilling. Through it all, as the roles for women in society were still being defined, some women were beginning to find new freedom. It is this new freedom that women began to look for work outside of the jobs that had been defined as “women’s jobs” by society.
With things not panning out with secular employment, women turned to the church. They were hoping to find within it an avenue for meaningful work and an assurance of their value. The church was basically in the same situation as the secular world. Through the work of a few, the church found a way that woman could play a valuable role for the church. After spending some time in England, Horace Stringfellow, a Baltimore clergyman, was convinced that deaconesses were the best solution to the increasing demand for a social ministry that confronted him in his community. In 1855, Mary Black and Catherine Minard accepted the offer of Stringfellow and entered the female diaconate. Bishop Whittingham of Maryland supported the appeal of deaconesses of both Black and Minard and they began a nursing ministry at what they soon called Saint Andrew’s Infirmary. As a result, other Episcopal clergy followed this model. The bishops and deputies at General Convention began to discuss the female diaconate in 1868 but did not finally adopt a canon on the diaconate until 1889. This small act was one of the first acts that the church would continue to wrestle with and continue to redefine the role of women within the church. At the 1976 the General Convention, the bishops and deputies altered the church canons to allow ordination of women. Even with this change, women were not seen as equals. The struggle continued in both the church and the secular world.
Prichard, Robert W. A History of the Episcopal Church – Third Revised Edition: Complete through the 78th General Convention. Revised edition. New York, NY: MOREHOUSE PUBLISHING, 2014.