Gender and the American Religious Historian: Seneca Falls Edition
Early Women's Rights and Religion
On July 16, Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, NY, held a grand re-opening of the Wesleyan Chapel, the site of the first women's rights convention in American history. The previous structure had been an artistic interpretation of the chapel, based on the two remaining walls of the original building. The new brick building reconstructs the stately yet modest Wesleyan Methodist Church, still retaining the original walls (see views of the old and new structures here). The new Wesleyan Chapel is definitely worth a visit to Seneca Falls (even in winter!), and its rededication offers an opportunity to consider the close yet tumultuous relationship between early women's rights activists and their churches.
Americans engage in a perpetual and vigorous debate over the religious beliefs of the male founders, but, with some important exceptions, such as books by Kathi Kern and Nancy Isenberg, we know little about the religious views of the women who adapted Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence to state that “all men and women are created equal” (the text of the Declaration of Sentiments is available on the Women's Rights Historical Park website). The convention organizers chose the Wesleyan Chapel out of necessity; it was the only building in Seneca Falls open to reform meetings of all persuasions. Still, the Wesleyan Chapel illuminates the close connection between the anti-slavery and early women's rights movements, and, more importantly, the religious non-conformity of those who attended the Seneca Falls Convention.
As Judith Wellman tells us in The Road to Seneca Falls, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was founded in 1843, when the Methodist Church in Seneca Falls split over the issue of slavery. Like many of their abolitionist sisters and brothers, the anti-slavery convictions of sixty Seneca Falls Methodists created conflict with the national church, which welcomed slaveholders into their spiritual fold. As a result, these dissenters left their church to begin one based in shared values, including opposition to slavery, intemperance, and war, part of a larger movement of abolitionist come-outers across the north.
Though none of the five principal organizers of the Seneca Falls convention were Wesleyan Methodists--in fact, all of the women, except for Elizabeth Cady Stanton, had Quaker origins--many of the convention's Quaker participants had just survived a similar schism in the Society of Friends. Approximately one month before the Seneca Falls Convention, a group of reformers, led by Thomas M'Clintock, whose wife Mary Ann M'Clintock helped draft the Declaration of Sentiments, walked out of the Hicksite Genesee Yearly Meeting, outraged that the Quaker leadership had tried to limit their abolitionist activities.
This religious context is hidden in the familiar egalitarian language of the Declaration of Sentiments. Called to discuss the “social, civil, and religious condition of woman,” the declaration contains religious as well as political grievances against the tyranny of man:
“He allows her in Church as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.”
“He has usurped the prerogative of Jehovah himself, claiming it as his right to assign for her a sphere of action, when that belongs to her conscience and her God.”
As Nancy Isenberg points out, antebellum feminists viewed the church as an obstacle to equal citizenship, offering ministerial and scriptural justification for women's inequality. These grievances in the Declaration of Sentiments might be interpreted as calls for integration into America's Protestant churches: the right to study theology, train for the ministry, and to interpret the word of God. Certainly, many nineteenth-century women's rights activists embraced these goals. The Congregrational Friends, formed after the schism in Genesee Yearly Meeting, equalized men's and women's meetings. But the women and men at Seneca Falls wanted something more: a revolution in American churches.
Lucretia Mott, the “moving spirit” of the Seneca Falls Convention, a Quaker minister, and one of the “exceptions” mentioned in its Declaration of Sentiments, offers one important example of convention's radical religious views. Though many of her beliefs had their roots in the Society of Friends (for example, she deplored an educated and paid ministry, which she and other Quakers disparaged as “hireling”), other beliefs brought her into conflict with Quakers. Since 1842, her Monthly Meeting had refused to give her a minute to travel (she did anyway). In 1847, one year before the Seneca Falls Convention, normally mild-mannered Indiana Quakers had verbally attacked and shunned her.
What was so offensive about Lucretia Mott? Mott embraced an activist stance that she provocatively named heresy. Invoking the early Quakers, she saw it as a duty to agitate, particularly on the issue of slavery. And she argued that, “ecclesiastical power is always to be opposed, whether it appeared in the Pope of Rome or an Elder of a Quaker meeting” (quoted here). What made her so obnoxious to her Quaker and non-Quaker opponents, however, was that she refused to leave the Society of Friends, no matter how much they wanted her gone. Ironically, then, at the Seneca Falls Convention, held at a come-outer chapel, and attended by many anti-slavery come-outers, Mott was one of the few activists present who had not left her church.
Reflecting on the summer of 1848, Mott celebrated “agitation” in all the churches as well as the “recent movement for the enlargement of Woman's Sphere.” (see Beverly Wilson Palmer ed., Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott). Lucretia Mott, and the women and men at Seneca Falls, prioritized individual conscience over religious hierarchy, doctrine, ritual, and the physical churches that contained them. The plain Wesleyan Chapel, originally built by a faith community dedicated to overthrowing the institution of slavery, and rebuilt by the National Parks Service, is an appropriate way to honor and remember these early women's rights activists.