Photo Friday: Asa Bearss and the Question of Biblical Gender Equality

Asa Bearss and his wife, Nancy. Courtesy of the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives.

Church history likely will remember nineteenth-century Brethren in Christ leader Asa Bearss for his efforts in pioneering Sunday school work among the Canadian church. But as today’s installment of our Photo Friday feature reminds us, Bearss was a pioneer in more ways than one.

In a fascinating 1990 study, Janet Peifer surveys one hundred years of writing (1887-1987) in the Evangelical Visitor to determine how the Brethren in Christ have talked about the issue of women in ministry and leadership. She comes across some rather fascinating — and, given the time and the conservative theological temperament of many Brethren in Christ leaders, quite revolutionary — articles.

Perhaps the most striking is one penned by Bearss in 1895. Here’s a snippet:

Now if good old Paul was a good Methodist, or a superintendent in any Sunday School in the present century, he would be mortally ashamed of the above. Indeed, all that was written derogatory to the true position of women by the apostle may be directly traced to the popular and all pervading sentiment of the times in which they lived. Yet it is astonishing to know that in these modern times right among us, are those that construe the above language of Paul to mean that our women in the Church must keep their mouths shut as regards praying and prophesying in religious exercise. . . .

It is a popular delusion that American women have as many, if not the same privileges as men. The conservative man exclaims, “We worship them as angels,” and thoughtless women of affluence, and less favored women in humbler position bidding for masculine applause, respond, “We have all the rights we want.” I tell you we men have no rights to give woman, she possesses naturally the same rights that we do, [and] if she does not enjoy them some one [sic] is in the wrong.

There’s plenty of comment-worthy material in this brief excerpt: Bearss’ historical-critical approach to the Bible, a rarity among the largely uneducated Brethren in Christ; his implicit endorsement of the burgeoning (and secular) women’s suffrage movement; his apparent sympathies with Free Methodist doctrine on women in ministry; his simultaneously feminist and anti-feminist treatment of women. The list could go on.

Suffice it to say: An incredibly revolutionary take on biblical gender equality for the Brethren in Christ.

Read Bearss’ article in its entirely in the Evangelical Visitor, December 1, 1895, 354-357.

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About Devin Manzullo-Thomas

Father to Lucas. Husband to Katie. Prof and administrator at Messiah College. PhD student at Temple University. Member of Grantham BIC.
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4 Responses to Photo Friday: Asa Bearss and the Question of Biblical Gender Equality

  1. Harriet Bicksler says:

    Very interesting….especially considering the upcoming impact seminars on “Women as Pastors”!

  2. Devin and Harriet, I think that you’d find yesterday’s Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) blog post, “Where did you find your megaphone?” — http://blog.emergingscholars.org/2010/05/where-did-you-find-your-megaphone/ — of interest. The post is the first in a four part guest series by Janine Giordano, a graduate student and ESN member from the University of Illinois, on the topic of cultivating your voice and finding your audience while in graduate school. It’s not Brethren in Christ, but it shares a story relevant to the topic at hand.

  3. devincthomas says:

    Tom,
    Janine recently became a contributor to one of my favorite religious history blogs, http://usreligion.blogspot.com/. Glad to hear she’s part of ESN as well. I really appreciated her words- all of which make me glad that the Brethren in Christ (officially, at least) have such a strong stance in favor of women in leadership and ministry.

  4. Devin, Wow! A great example of “how small our world is” … social media (blogging, on-line networks) overlapping and providing conversation/connection/insights for larger “learning communities” 🙂

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