Baptist Women Create Powerful Identities

Center for the Humanities Newsletter Photo
Susan Shaw

When Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon was censured for preaching in China, an activity denied to women, she threatened to resign and return to the United States. The church backed down, but this did not signify an improved position for women within the denomination, which historically has excluded them from positions of authority within the church and charged them with submissiveness at home.

“Despite these oppressive pronouncements, and often women’s own acceptance of the beliefs,” said Susan Shaw, “many women have found their experiences in Southern Baptist churches to be empowering.” The key to understanding the seeming contradictions, she has written, may be found in the “way these women have appropriated and embodied Baptist theology itself, in particular the doctrines of the priesthood of believers, the autonomy of the local church, and religious liberty.”

A Research Fellow and Director of Women Studies at OSU, Shaw is a co-author, with Mina Carson and Tisa Lewis, of Girls Rock! Fifty Years of Women Making Music (UP of Kentucky, 2004). The book chronicles how women performers in the heavily male-dominated rock music genre have managed to succeed—with difficulty, as it turns out. Shaw’s current book, also contracted with Kentucky, is Competent Before God: Southern Baptist Women, Agency, and Autonomy.

The book explores how Baptist women, particularly during the first half of the 20th century, “constructed gendered identities as Baptist women, how they understood, accepted, and challenged Southern Baptist ideas about women and how they found in Baptist theology the impetus to construct themselves as leaders, missionaries, teachers, and interpreters of Scripture while remaining strongly connected to the churches and denominations that at times sought to place limitations on their roles.”

The project is of wide significance, said Shaw, in that Southern Baptists now claim sixteen million members in 42,000 churches, mainly in the South, where they “exert an incredible amount of social and political influence, which ultimately affects the entire nation.”

In addition to personal interviews, important sources include the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives and the Woman’s Missionary Union Archives, which contain letters and other writings of Southern Baptist women. “These women lived through times in which the rights of women were dominant social issues—from suffrage in the nineteenth century to the Women’s Movement, ERA, and abortion rights in the twentieth,” said Shaw.

That Southern Baptists have no creed is critical to her exploration. The denomination’s confessional statement, The Baptist Faith and Message, is not binding on local churches or on any individual Baptist. The preamble to the statement stresses this point: “The sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience . . . We honor the principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers.”

As a consequence, said Shaw, “through the Convention’s 158-year history, individual Southern Baptist women have continued to believe what they choose to believe, to serve God in whatever ways they feel God has called them to serve, and to construct their identities as Southern Baptist women in whatever ways have seemed right to them. Of course, this has also meant that a great diversity of belief and experience has always characterized the gendered identities Southern Baptist women constructed.”

Another seeming contradiction within the denomination has to do with race. The Southern Baptist Convention was born out of support for slavery in the South, yet many Baptists found in their faith a demand for social justice, and they opposed racism in society and in the church.

Prominent among Shaw’s interview subjects are the Southern Baptist women of her mother’s generation. “While these women probably would not choose to use the word, they are the ones who taught me feminism. While purporting to accept theologies that deemed women subordinate, these women were leaders—in the home, church, and community. They were strong, opinionated and outspoken. They struggled against sexist oppression, while drawing strength from a sexist institution. This is the contradiction that intrigues me.”