Q&A: Women as social gospel practitioners

History has largely ignored the work of churchwomen, according to the Rev. Ellen Blue, and she’s written a book in hopes of beginning to change that. A professor of the history of Christianity and United Methodist studies at Phillips Theological Seminary in Oklahoma, she is the author of St. Mark’s and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895-1965 (University of Tennessee Press, 2011).

Dr. Blue, an ordained United Methodist elder in the Louisiana Conference, answered questions via email from staff writer Mary Jacobs. This is an edited version of that interview.

What led you to write about this particular group of women?

This story just grabbed hold of me. It’s hard to research churchwomen’s history, and there were several points when I should have had enough sense to quit, but I didn’t. When I was looking for a topic for a term paper, a colleague told me there’d been two settlement houses in Louisiana, both still in existence, and that one was run by Methodists. A settlement was a facility where folks moved into a less affluent neighborhood, got to know their neighbors, and then tried to help them achieve what the people deemed important. Education and activism were big pieces of the work.

Ellen Blue

As a child, I read a biography of Jane Addams, who founded the Hull House settlement in Chicago, and a young adult novel about nurse Sue Barton set in the Henry Street Settlement in New York City. That kind of reading shaped my vocational desires and calling. As I began to understand the women at St. Mark’s were doing that same work, I was inspired.

Your book is focused on St. Mark’s, but also tells a larger story. What is that?

The story is about women who faced serious urban problems head on and made a huge impact in the lives of thousands of New Orleanians. Very little attention has been given to the history of women’s work in the churches overall, but it’s especially the case for women engaged in social gospel work.

Around the turn of the 20th century, social problems arose or worsened with industrialization and urbanization. Immigrants poured into the U.S. and needed help with many aspects of life. Families were crowded into tenements. Children worked under dreadful conditions in mills and factories. The history of women’s innovative ministries to address these problems was ignored by the church because it wasn’t spiritual enough. (One influential pastor called the women’s work a “secularizing evil.”) On the other hand, secular social historians ignored their work because it was too spiritual—they called it “mere mission” activity intended only to facilitate proselytizing.

How was the work of the women at St. Mark’s viewed within the denomination?

The women encountered deep-seated resistance to their racial openness. After the Southern church (Methodist Episcopal Church South) broke off from the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC) before the Civil War, they stayed separate until 1939. Most MECS members supported Jim Crow. Yet lots of white MECS deaconesses who studied at Scarritt College joined the NAACP in Nashville. In their appointments, they worked for racial tolerance and equality. They were the spiritual mothers of the St. Mark’s congregation that supported their pastor when he and his daughter broke the white boycott of William Franz Elementary during the school desegregation crisis of 1960.

Your book is essentially a “biography” of a group of churchwomen over a 70-year span. Why that approach as opposed to a biography of an individual?

One reason churchwomen’s history is discounted is that they accomplished things collaboratively. Many historians accepted Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory, and we still think that’s what leadership means—one individual shaping history through personal power. We recognize collaborative leadership as desirable but have trouble applying that knowledge when we evaluate past leaders. Work accomplished over many decades by dozens of people is far tougher to research and document, but it was the most accurate way to do it. Recovering this story is a step toward valuing less hierarchical leadership.

The editor wanted to change a sentence in my introduction—“None of the women was considered worthy of a biography—to read, “None of the women was worthy of a biography.” That’s a huge difference. Some were absolutely worthy of full biographies, but because no one collected their papers, it’s not possible to write one.

United Methodist deaconesses feature prominently in this story. What did they contribute that was different from what other laywomen were able to contribute?

Deaconesses are laywomen, but there were significant differences between their lives and those of New Orleans women who founded the ministries. Until 1959, all deaconesses had to be single. They lived together in community, immersed in the neighborhoods they served; at St. Mark’s, four deaconesses lived on the third floor.

Deaconesses had extensive educational requirements. Local laywomen studied books on their reading list and sought speakers on social problems, so they were well informed. But deaconesses had formal theological educations steeped in social gospel thought.

This is the story of a church that truly made a difference in its community. What “lessons learned” might United Methodists glean from this book about what it takes to truly effect positive change in a community?

The New Orleans laywomen who established St. Mark’s Community Center and supported it devoted time to reading and discussing theological topics. They formed beliefs about how God would have them respond to spiritual and societal needs around them, and then had the courage to do what it took.

Lots of people, including some large-church pastors, criticized them harshly. But they were certain that providing education and health care was part of what God called them to do. They ran a free health clinic that openly served both black and white New Orleanians on a first-come, first-served basis as early as the 1920s. The women’s Bible study and reading programs gave them confidence to press on not only when it conflicted with the values of their society, but also when it brought them into conflict with many leaders of the Southern church. They were smart and dedicated, and they lived out what they believed it meant to be Methodist.

What do you hope readers will take away from this story?

Historically, Methodism was not a church that worshipped on Sunday but then reinforced the status quo the rest of the week. John Wesley expected Methodists to do something about problems around them. He founded free health clinics and schools for poor children and insisted that Methodists spend face time with poor people. Social gospel practitioners met social problems in their time with the same philosophy Wesley lived by in 18th-century England.

The deaconesses talked about bringing “life abundant” to people whose lives they touched. Jesus said, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Deaconesses thought abundant life required a strong spiritual component, but also required that you have basic material necessities—food, clothing and shelter—and an opportunity to be educated. Their ministries were multi-faceted, creative and courageous, and ours today should be the same.



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Mary Jacobs

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