American Religous Experience

Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers & Pilgrims: Female Preaching in America, 1740-1845. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998 (Pp. x, 466; $17.95 paper, $49.95 cloth)

In this fascinating account, Catherine A. Brekus relates the story of women who publicly proclaimed the Gospel during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The work is divided into three parts, with the first part devoted to the eighteenth century, the second part to women's activities of the nineteenth century, and the third part to the growing reaction against women preaching during the middle third of the nineteenth century.

Although women were not ordained within the American evangelical denominations, some denominations--most notably the Freewill Baptists, African Methodists, Methodists, and Christian Connection-- allowed women to relate of their experiences or to lead in prayer and song. In theory, women were not allowed to deliver a sermon based upon a text of the Bible; but the line between delivering a sermon and relating of one's experiences was vague at best, allowing women within these denominations to engage in a wide variety of proselyting activities. Because these denominations emphasized an appeal to lower socio-economic classes, with a lack of formality in worship, unconventional practices such as women preaching were more readily accepted in these denominations than in the more formal denominations. Brekus argues that these women were quite successful, especially during the first third of the nineteenth century. She further suggests that female preachers exhibited a restrained form of feminism They believed in their duty to spread the Gospel and to save souls, but they did not wish to challenge male authority within the churches or within society. As these denominations became increasing respectable, however, they wished to terminate such unconventional practices as women proclaiming the Gospel in public. Consequently women within these denominations shifted to a more private sphere.

Relying upon the published stories of these women, as well as accounts of their male counterparts, Catherine Brekus presents us with a fascinating story.

Leo Hirrel

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