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Religio-Political Insights of 19th Century
Women Hymnists and Lyric Poets
Linda A. Moody
Nearly fifteen years ago when my grandmother died, I inherited a dozen or so hymnals that had belonged to her mother. My great grandmother had been a church organist for a small Methodist church in Michigan in the late 1800's and early 1900's. As I was looking for a particular hymn one day, I noticed that many of the hymn texts were written by women. These well worn marked pages represented hymns sung by congregations on countless occasions. As I looked at these pages, I began to think of hymn writing as an acceptable way for 19th century women to express their religious points of view and hymn publishing as an effective means of disseminating women's religious understandings. Even more, I began to think it possible that the authors of these theological materials had found an incredible way to see to it that congregants memorized and internalized the lines and meter of women's accounts of God. Using the methodological tools of Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza's "hermeneutic of suspicion," I was able to imagine in my mind's eye the author of a Shaker hymn praising God as mother winking across the pews at a friend who had helped her revise the final lines to radical lyrics set to a familiar hymn tune as the congregations blithely sang along praising Mother too. Questions that came to mind included the following: What were women hymn writers thinking about as their primary theological concerns? How many women were engaged in hymn writing? What types of theological assertions were these women making? How might the theological concerns of these women be merely a reflection of the popular currents of the day and how might they be different? After ten years of research, I now have catalogued hymns written primarily during the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries by some 300 women.
Though chairs of theology and the offices of priest and bishop may have been closed to many women through the centuries, preventing them from becoming renowned academic theologians, the legacy of these women hymnists can provide us with fresh insights into the contributions of women to the religious intellectual traditions of their day. For example, through their hymn texts, one can trace the theologies of known European women hymnists such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098 - 1179), Jeannne Marie Bouvier de la Mothe Guyon (1648 - 1717), and Charlotte Elliott (1789 - 1871). In the United States, Catholic women hymnists such as Louise Imogen Guiney (1861 - 1920) and Harriet McEwan Kimbal (1834 - 1905), Protestants Fanny Crosby (1820 - 1915), Mary Artemesia Lathbury (1841 - 1913), and Anna Bartlett Warner (1822 - 1915), and Unitarians Julia Ward Howe (1819 - 1910) and Frances Dana Gage (1808 -1884) made important contributions to the religious intellectual traditions of their day. In this article I am focusing on the lives and work of three women, Mary Artemesia Lathbury, Julia Ward Howe and Frances Dana Gage.
The theological and ethical commitments of these women hymnists can provide feminist scholars of religion with important material for theological reflection as we seek to find our own history as a central aspect of contemporary religious thought.1 These hymn texts are important historical materials for understanding the intellectual currents of the 19th century -- the ways in which women's hymn texts mirror the prevailing theologies of the time and also the ways in which women have shaped religious traditions, albeit in ways perhaps not remembered.
Unfortunately, in my research, I have sometimes found the same language of racism and sexism in the writings and lyrics of some women hymnwriters as in those of their white male counterparts. Obviously problematic are sexist or racist language, the use of primarily patriarchal God language with references to Father, Lord, and Master as the main metaphors for God, and in one case, a clear example of racist disdain for the native peoples of this continent. What I want to do here is to begin to let these women's songs be heard anew, to offer constructive criticism where necessary, and to re-discover the possibilities of religious imagination present in the poetry of the hymnist.
Clear precedent establishes the link between the muse, God, Goddess and music. Johann Sebastian Bach dedicated all his music to the glory of God. John and Charles Wesley felt compelled to express their religious views in the medium of hymn texts that could be sung to the glory of God. These renowned theologians, like their lesser known female counterparts of the 19th century, in fact, followed in the tradition of the Psalmist(s), who wrote verse in Hebrew scripture that became part of both Jewish and Christian musical traditions. To argue that women hymnists were writing theologically, then, is not difficult. To push the argument one step further, I want to argue that the genre of hymn text was particularly suited to women, especially in the 19th century, when women in many denominations, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, were not allowed to be pastors, preachers, priests, bishops, or theologians. For those women who were ordained as clergy or as deacons or who ministered through evangelism and preaching outside the bounds of denominational constraint, the hymn text provided a place where they too could express their theological views with some promise that these views could be spread through the publishing houses of Sunday school boards.
To argue that the genres of hymn texts and lyric poetry served as locus for women's theological expression, particularly in the 19th century, an argument I have made elsewhere, is to join an interdisciplinary body of women scholars who have found the search of 19th century women's primary sources to yield hidden theological treasures.2 Womanist theologians Emilie M. Townes, Delores Williams, Katie Geneva Canon and Jacqueline Grant have looked to 19th century and early 20th century African American women's essays, slave narratives, spirituals, novels, and poetry as sources for contemporary theological reflection. Katie Geneva Cannon argues that it is precisely within the African American literary tradition that the womanist community today can find valuable expressions of culture, theology, and ethics.3
Similar use of the literary tradition can be found in the work of ethicist Elizabeth A. Say and literary critic Cynthia Scheinberg. In her 1990 work, Evidence On Her Own Behalf: Women's Narrative as Theological Voice, Elizabeth A. Say names women's novels as locus of theological reflection. Say asserts that women novelists of the 19th century made use of the narrative form to engage the moral and theological debates of their time when pulpits and lecterns were closed to them. She writes,
The act of creation is, for women, an act of usurpation of traditional
groundings of authority. It has been effective because of the public
character of the novel and the way in which it is able to taker moral
and theological claims out of the rarified atmosphere of the academy and
into the arena of common debate. Through the use of narrative, women have been able to incorporate and encourage women who might be excluded if such discussions were confined to the domain of pure scholarship.4
In particular, Say looks at the work of British novelist and Christian apologist, Dorothy Sayers, who carried this legacy into the early 20th century. Similarly, Cynthia Scheinberg argues that 19th century British Anglican and Anglo-Jewish women poets found the genre of poetry to be an accessible site for theological expression.5
The list of scholars looking to 19th century primary sources as locus for theological reflection is growing. Women's novels, poetry, slave narratives, journals, letters, as well as hymn texts, are important documents in this process. My particular concern in cataloguing and studying 19th century hymn texts is that many of these dusty, torn, and worn texts are literally disappearing for lack of interest and because they are physically deteriorating. This article and the larger research project which gives rise to it are an attempt to understand the theological messages that these women wanted preserved beyond their own lifespans.This article will serve as an introduction to three women whose religious, political and ethical insights deserve our attention and further study.6 By examining both their lives and the hymn texts they wrote, our contemporary efforts in ethics, theology, and historical retrieval may benefit.
Mary Artemesia Lathbury
The daughter of a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, Mary Artemisia Lathbury (1841-1913) was born in Manchester, Ontario County, New York on August 10, 1841. Lathbury lived at Manchester for eighteen years. After one year's study at the school of art at Worcester, Massachusetts, she was appointed to teach drawing, painting, and French at the Conference Seminary at Newbury, Vermont. She later taught for five years in Fort Edward Institute, Fort Edward, New York; and six years at the Ladies' Seminary at Carmel, New York. In New York, Lathbury began her editorial work, much of it under the name of "Aunt May." She was the assistant editor of Methodist Episcopal Sunday School Publications and was a pioneer in the field of book and magazine illustration by women. Lathbury also wrote a collection of eleven songs entitled The New Era of Song, which contained her hymn "The Hymn of Life."7 Influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg's teachings, she joined the church of the New Jerusalem in Orange, New Jersey in 1895. Lathbury never married and died in East Orange, New Jersey on October 20, 1913. . Lathbury gave much of her life to hymnwriting and to church publications. These she dedicated "to Him who is the best friend that woman ever knew."8
Lathbury may be one of the best examples of a woman who believed that her work as a hymnwriter was an answer to the call to ministry. Her father and both brothers were clergy. Lathbury describes the moment when she felt called into full-time Christian service as a day when she heard the voice of God saying to her, "Remember, my child, that you have a gift of weaving fancies into verse and a gift with the pencil of producing visions that come to your heart; consecrate these to Me as thoroughly as you do your inmost spirit."9 Though she may not have carried the title of "minister," Lathbury's work has been described by others as ministry. She is described as "intensely religious;" "her personal devoutness is shown in her poems." Further, Amos R. Wells writes that "she spent herself freely for others, and many owe much to her loving ministries."10
Although Lathbury's name may be unfamiliar to us, it is clear that in her day she was a respected hymnist. Dr. Edward Everett Hale said of her, "She has marvelous lyric force which not five people in a century show, and her chance of having a name two hundred years hence is better than that of most writers in America."11 Another writer in "The Chautauquan" wrote of her, "Those who know her best will freely and unreservedly admit her to the list of uncanonized Women of Great Love."12 Of her gifts as a writer of religious texts, it has been said, "Miss Lathbury is known to the readers of current religious periodicals as a writer of more than ordinary merit. Her verses are always graceful and spiritual."13 Historian Samuel Duffield describes Lathbury as the founder of the Look-Up Legion, "which is based on the four good rules in Edward Everett Hale's Ten Times One is Ten. These are:
Look up, and not down;
Look forward, and not back;
Look out, and not in,
And lend a hand.14
These guidelines for Christian service describe the principles Lathbury held dear.
In addition to her leadership with the Look-Up Legion, Lathbury is credited, along with Methodist Bishop John H. Vincent, with being one of the founders of the Chautaqua Movement, a religious and cultural movement which traces its origins to the late nineteenth century Methodist campgrounds at Lake Chautauqua near Jamestown, New York. There each summer thousands of people gathered to listen to lectures, concerts, and sermons given by respected artists and intellectuals. The movement was designed to promote both religious and cultural education. For her contributions to the movement, Lathbury was referred to as the "Poet Laureate and Saint of Chautauqua."15 Despite her involvement in the leadership of the Chatauqua, historical records place her in the background of Bishop Vincent's shadow. While Samuel Duffield, author of English Hymns: Their Authors and History (1894), writes that Lathbury deserved the title "lyrist of Chautauqua," he continues the sentence by describing Chautauqua as "Dr. John H. Vincent's great Summer University," whose "Chautauqua" ideas are a power in the land.16 This recording of history hides the intellectual nature of Lathbury's contributions, always leaving her the "student" of the great professor of this summer university.
Lathbury's well known hymn, "Day is Dying in the West," was written in 1877 at the request of the Reverend John H. Vincent for the Chautauqua Conference in New York State. Reportedly inspired by the beauty of the sun setting over the lake, Lathbury wrote the hymn text, which was set to music in the summer of 1877 by the music director of Chautauqua, Professor William Fisk Sherwin.
Originally two stanzas and a refrain comprised this hymn. Later in 1890, when the hymn gained in popularity, Lathbury added two additional stanzas. Hear her words:
Day is dying in the west;
Heaven is touching earth with rest:
Wait and worship while the night
Sets her evening lamps alight
Through all the sky.
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts!
Heaven and earth are full of Thee!
Heaven and earth are praising Thee,
Our Lord most high!
When forever from Thy sight
Pass the stars, the day, the night,
Lord of angels, on our eyes
Let eternal morning rise
And shadows end.--Chorus17
Ever since it was first written, "Day is Dying in the West" has been used as the Vesper Hymn for all evening services at Chautauqua. In addition, it was included in Social Gospel theologian Horton Davies' liturgy for the Industrial Workers of the World.18 This hymn serves as an example of a theme often treated in women's hymns, that of death, dying, and the cycles of life. This class of hymn is designed to help the congregant stay in touch with mortality and with the rhythms of living and dying as part of earthly life. Often these hymns serve as reminders of the eschatological Promise -- that beyond evening is morning -- that beyond Death is Eternal Life.
Another well known hymn, "Break Thou the Bread of Life, was written in 1880 for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. This hymn portrays a reciprocal relationship between woman and God. Her seeking "beyond the sacred page" and her spirit "panting" for God call on God to be present. Her faithful desire urges God to come to be with her to break bread, the bread of life.
Break thou the bread of life,
Dear Lord, to me,
As Thou didst break the loaves
Beside the sea.
Beyond the sacred page
I seek Thee, Lord;
My spirit pants for Thee,
O living Word!
Bless Thou the truth, dear Lord,
To me--to me--
As Thou didst bless the bread
Then shall all bondage cease,
All fetters fall;
And I shall find my peace,
This hymn text can be read as a statement of woman's agency with God. She does not merely passively wait for whatever will happen, but rather by her faithful prayers, she calls God into being with her. She seeks out God and she trusts that her faithfulness will be rewarded. By reminding God to bless the bread and the truth, she humbly becomes part of a process by which bondage shall cease and fetters fall, a process through which peace will come.
Lathbury's "The Hymn of Life" is another of her highly regarded works. Smith writes of this hymn, "I regard it as one of the finest long-metre hymns of recent years. In grandeur of thought and poetic purity it ranks very close to Oliver Wendell Holmes's sublime hymn, `Lord of all being, throned afar'".20 In this hymn text we find that the Lord of all life is both near and far, present from the lowliest glow-worm to the celestial star. God is seen in God's works, which "with all the angels worship..." God is present in ancient rock and hearth flame and sun. Daisy and weed alike are "crowded with the thoughts of God." God both far and near, welcomes our hearts to find "a Home in Thee." The following two verses demonstrate Lathbury's understanding of God:
Lord of all life, the near, the far;
From the low glow-worm to the star;
Within Thy works Thyself we see,
And with all angels worship Thee.
In age-abiding rocks that bear
An elder Scripture written there;
In the red hearth-glow, and the flame
Of countless suns, we read Thy name...21
This hymn testifies that before the Scriptures took written form, God was. God was in fire, sun, rock and weed. This God found in nature is the subject of her praise. Prior to and apart from Christian scripture, Lathbury finds evidence of a God whom she calls, "Lord of All Life." The message implied is that one need not read Scripture in order to experience the presence of God in star and sun and fire and stone. Here Lathbury is making a major theological assertion that pushes at the christological core of her Methodist denomination. Not by heeding the words of Christ, nor by memorizing the Sermon on the Mount, but by appreciating the sacred flame of countless suns and the presence of "age-abiding rocks that bear/ an elder Scripture written there" does one find the Holy Name. Her words counter the message preached at fiery revivals all around her, "Accept the Word of the Lord!" Her calm reply? "Find God's Name in stone and fire and star."
One hymn text that is particularly interesting from the viewpoint of feminist theology is "A Song of Hope." As Lathbury writes this fanciful description of a speech God makes, one can almost feel the rhythms of the Great Weaver at the loom.
Children of yesterday;
Heirs of to-morrow.
What are you weaving?
Labor and sorrow?
Look to your loom again.
Faster and faster
Fly the great shuttles
Prepared by the Master.
Life's in the loom!
Room for it--
Children of yesterday,
Heirs of to-morrow,
Lighten the labor,
And sweeten the sorrow.
Now--while the shuttles fly
Faster and faster,
Up, and be at it,
At work with the Master.
He stands at your loom;
Room for Him--
Children of yesterday.
Heirs of to-morrow,
Look at your fabric
Of labor and sorrow.
Seamy and dark (problematic)
With despair and disaster,
Turn it, and --lo,
The Design of the Master!
The Lord's at the loom;
Room for Him--
Here is a clear example of language which is problematic. The "seamy and dark" metaphor, given that it contributes to racist use of language, cannot be condoned. Other aspect of the text are more useful. Of interest in these lyrics is the relationship between God and the children of yesterday weaving labor and sorrow. God urges the heirs of tomorrow to "look to your loom again." God is the source of all weaving, the One who prepares the great shuttles at the morn of the day. "Life's in the loom," proclaims God. As if to say, "Life's in the weaving of the tapestry of each day. Life's in the living of it, the creating of it. Come near." The workers are encouraged to return to their source. "Up and be at it, at work with the Master. He stands at your loom; Room for Him! Room." In intimate space, standing at the loom, both God and God's children work together, co-creating the world. When filled with despair and disaster, God's wayward children are asked to look once again at the fabric of their lives, "Turn it, and --lo, The design of the Master! The Lord's at the loom." While they had thought all was despair, in fact, God weaves a way for them. When one considers that the work of weaving was women's work in Lathbury's day, the analogy is even stronger. "A Song of Hope," perhaps better than any of her hymns, illustrates Lathbury's gift of "weaving fancies into verse." Here woman weaves; God weaves; Weaver and woman are one.
Julia Ward Howe (1819 - 1910)
Julia Ward Howe (1819 - 1910) was born in New York City on May 27, 1819. Raised in an Episcopalian family, Howe would later become a Unitarian. The daughter of Julia (Cutter) Ward and Samuel Ward, Howe is described as growing up "in an atmosphere of refinement."23 Though her mother died at a young age, Howe's father was well able to care for his six children as the Ward family were leading citizens of Rhode Island, "pure-principled defenders of liberty," and descendants of Roger Williams.24 Though not formally educated, Howe was taught by Joseph Greene Cogswell, master of Round Hill school. She learned several ancient and modern languages and became proficient in music at an early age. Throughout her life she continued to study philosophy, the classical languages, literature, metaphysics, liberal theology, and histrionics. Her daughters have described her life philosophy as "to learn, to teach, to serve, and to enjoy."25 After marrying Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe of the Perkins Institution in 1843, the couple traveled in Europe, when she suffered an eye injury which affected her ability to study. Shortly thereafter, the Howes settled in Boston and entertained widely. Despite opposition from her husband, Howe participated fully in public life. She is described as "a distinguished personality and intellect, an abolitionist, a suffragist, and an activist in a number of social reform movements."26
Both Julia and her husband Samuel were ardent reformers. They were supporters of abolition and co-edited the antislavery paper, Commonwealth. In addition to working for abolition of slavery, Howe was also concerned with prison reform, peace between nations, and the cause of women clergy. At the close of the Civil War, she conceived of a Crusade for Peace, appealing to "womanhood throughout the world."27 One of the fruits of her labor was a congress of women held in New York City to promote international peace, a cause she labored for until her death. According to Margaret Hope Bacon, it was Howe who first conceived of the idea of an annual celebration of Mother's Day "as a time for women to pledge themselves to peace."28 This idea was later carried on by Quaker women.
In 1868, Howe, Lucy Stone and others founded the New England Woman Suffrage Association. Beginning in 1869, Howe affiliated with the American Woman Suffrage Association, using her speaking and writing talents to promote its causes at conventions and in publications. For eighteen years she was president of the New England Women's club and for ten years she was president of the Association for the Advancement of Women.
Another social cause taken up by Howe was the promotion of women in ministry. Despite living in an era when it was not easy for women to attain positions of church leadership, Howe was often invited to preach in Unitarian and other churches. Willing to work outside the constraints of the churches of her day, beginning in 1873, she held annual gatherings of women ministers in her home. There Howe and other women ministers discussed religious, social and political concerns. She also founded the Women's Ministerial Conference.29 Howe's sphere of influence was wide: she lectured on women's issues and preached on the East coast and the West coast, in Santo Domingo, Paris, and Florence. In Rome she preached two sermons during Lent. Her accomplishments have been summarized as follows:
She wrote philosophical expositions of duality of character that aroused admiration even among the transcendentalists; she preached forceful sermons in the Unitarian pulpit; she read Hegel and Kant in the original; she spoke Spanish and Italian, and read and declaimed the ancient Greek; she made extemporaneous addresses to French and Greek notables in their native tongues, and won their highest respect for her adequate linguistic knowledge; and she wrote much poetry of fine feeling and of effective form.30
One biographer describes her zeal for the woman's cause as follows: "Never doubting that the woman's cause is man's, and the man's cause equally woman's, increasing years find her yet young in aspiration and in enthusiasm for humanity."31 For better or for worse, Howe is praised by one of her biographers for "her art of self-effacement in the truly altruistic service of others."32 Accounts vary on the place of her death on October 17, 1910.33
Howe was published widely and was known as a scholar, theologian, and hymnist, poet, and essayist.34 In addition, Howe wrote one of the most famous hymns sung in this country today, "Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Lord" or the "Battle Hymn of the Republic." Easily thought of as a hymn condoning war, nationalism, and the War God, closer attention reveals that this hymn was actually written for Union troops marching to free men and women from slavery. While it is certainly true that the hymn promotes the Union war cause as the means by which God's freedom is to be granted and God's truth revealed, it in no way generalizes war as inevitable or the preferred way of God's truth and freedom being granted. It was written for a specific situation and reportedly was inspired by a visit to the troops at Bailey's Cross Roads, near Fairfax Court House, Virginia, in the fall of 1861, shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War.35 Hearing the soldiers sing "John Brown's Body," she returned to her hotel to write "Battle Hymn of the Republic." This hymn became an inspiration to the Union army after Chaplain C. C. McGabe taught it to the 122nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. From there, "it spread like wildfire and became the rallying song of the North during the Civil War."36
Nicholas Smith tells the story of the writing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.37
Smith derives his understanding of this hymn from an account provided by Howe's daughter, Florence Howe Hall.38 According to Hall, it was in December of 1861 that Howe, her husband, Governor and Mrs. Andres, and others visited an armed camp near Washington. "A hundred circling camps" guarded the camp and railroad. An enemy attack forced Howe and company to travel a road thick with soldiers; they sang army songs, including "John Brown's Body" for the soldiers, who joined them. The account continues as follows:
The visit to the army of the Potomac gave Mrs. Howe a vision of the commotion of war, of lives sacrificed, and of the stress and agony of the government in its mortal grapple with rebellion. These scenes deeply touched her heart...and in the following night she sprang from her bed and wrote the expression of her soul in these words of living power.
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightnings of His terrible, swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps;
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel, writ in burnished rows of steel;
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! Be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.39
According to Howe Hall, when Howe returned to Boston, James T. Fields, editor of The Atlantic Monthly suggested the title "Battle Hymn of the Republic." The first page of the February Atlantic, 1862 carries the hymn, without mention of its author. Howe received five dollars for her poem. Later, when James Russell Lowell was editor of The Atlantic, he refused to publish Julia Ward Howe's poetry, claiming that no woman could write poetry and that "Mrs. Browning's efforts were a conspicuous illustration of this fact."40
A second important hymn written by Howe is titled "Hymn for the Fourth International Congress of Religious Liberals." An advocate of understanding among the believers of the world's religions, she wrote this hymn for a gathering of religious liberals held in Boston on September 22, 1907 at Symphone Hall. The words to this hymn describe a meeting of the messengers of many nations, diverse in feature, argument and creed, all who come together as "brothers" under "Hope's transcendent dome." No effort is made to level difference among the messengers gathered. In fact, God is credited with giving far lands opposing dusk and dawn. Despite this difference, God provides but one sun, one fostering spirit hovering everywhere, the basis of common purpose. God here is Father but no patriarch. God is seen in the divine light that visits human souls, as well as in the worm that spins the clothes of the monarch butterfly and coral that grows mysteriously under the sea. In this God, there is no flaw...all work by heavenly law:
Hail Mount of God, whereon with reverent feet
The messengers of many nations meet.
Diverse in feature, argument, and creed,
One in their errand, brothers in their need.
Not in unwisdom are the limits drawn
That give far lands opposing dusk and dawn
One sun makes right the all-pervading air.
One fostering spirit hovers everywhere.
So with one breath may fervent souls aspire
With one high purpose wait the answering fire.
Be this the prayer that other prayer controls--
That light divine may visit human souls.
The worm that clothes the monarch spins no flaw,
The coral builder works by heavenly law.
Who would to conscience rear a temple pure
Must prove each stone and seal it, sound and sure.
Upon on steadfast base of truth we stand.
Love lifts her sheltering walls on either hand;
Arched O'er our head is Hope's transcendent dome.
And in the Father's heart of hearts our home.41
The pluralist message of this hymn text is more characteristic of her turn to Unitarianism than of her Episcopal upbringing. In this hymn text we find the best of Unitarian principles: an understanding of God that surpasses nationalistic or sectarian interests, an appreciation of difference among messengers "diverse in feature, argument and creed," and a belief that the spirit hovering over one sun to warm the day and one air to breathe unites all human souls. This message is as timely today as when it was written, with perhaps a slight adaptation to include the Mother's heart of hearts our home.
Frances Dana Gage
Frances Dana Gage was born in 1808 in Marietta, Ohio. Her parents, Col. Joseph Barker and Elizabeth Dana Barker, were among the first white settlers of Washington County, Ohio. Her only formal education consisted of a few years in a frontier school. She clearly was of the working class, evidenced by her self description:
My strong hands have tilled the fields; and in my early childhood have harnessed the horse, and brought the wood to the door; have led him to the blacksmith's shop to be shod. These are things I do not often tell in public.42
In 1828 she married James L. Gage, a lawyer and iron founder. They had eight children.
Gage's devotion to the three causes which dominated her life began early. She thought of temperance/prohibition; the abolition of slavery and the rights of freed people after the Civil War, and women's suffrage/liberation as one single cause. Early in her life, Gage was a devout Universalist. She later left the church because she felt that the institution was not doing enough for her "triune" cause. Although not a member of an organized church in later life, she continued to speak, write and think in profoundly spiritual terms. She became so notorious as an abolitionist and radical that her person and property were daily threatened with violence; her home and the family business in St. Louis were burned three times, and journals refused to publish her articles43. Gage was a close associate of many of the foremothers of the women's suffrage movement: Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone, Lucretia Mott, and Matilda Joslyn Gage. As president of the 1851 Women's Rights Convention, it was Gage who introduced Sojourner Truth when she gave her legendary speech, commonly referred to as her "Ain't I A Woman" speech. Despite debilitating injuries suffered in a carriage accident, Gage continued to write and lecture tirelessly about temperance and women's rights. She and one of her daughters worked as volunteers in South Carolina for five years after the Civil War teaching and helping to relocate freed peoples. She died in Connecticut in 1884.
Gage tirelessly argued the causes of the anti-slavery movement and woman's suffrage. The 1848 Seneca Falls Convention Declaration of Sentiments provided that additional conventions be held in various parts of the country. On May 28 and 29th, 1851, the Woman's Rights Convention was held in Akron, Ohio. Gage was elected President of the Convention, even though she had no previous experience in a similar capacity. At this meeting she argued for the rights of woman with eloquence:
The rights of mankind emanate from their natural wants and emotions. Are not the natural wants and emotions of humanity common to, and shared equally by, both sexes? Does man hunger and thirst, suffer cold and heat more than woman? Does he love and hate, hope and fear, joy and sorrow more than woman? Does his heart thrill with a deeper pleasure in doing good? Can his soul writhe in more bitter agony under the consciousness of evil or wrong? Is the sunshine more glorious, the air more quiet, the sounds of harmony more soothing, the perfume of flowers more exquisite, or forms of beauty more soul-satisfying to his senses than to hers? To all these interrogatories every one will answer, No!
Where then did man get the authority that he now claims over one-half of humanity? From what power the vested right to place woman--his partner, his companion, his helpmeet in life--in an inferior position? Came it from nature? Nature made woman his superior when she made her his mother; his equal when she fitted her to hold the sacred position of wife. Does he draw his authority from God, from the language of holy writ? No! For it says that "Male and female created he them, and gave them dominion." Does he claim it under law of the land? Did woman meet with him in council and voluntarily give up all her claim to be her own law-maker? Or did the majesty of might place this power in his hands?--The power of the strong over the weak makes man the master! Yes, there, and there only, does he gain his authority.44
From this strong argument, Gage is careful not to leave open the possible criticism that she either fears or hates men. She continues her speech by indicating that she considers men her friend rather than enemy. Further, she argues that woman simply needs to speak for herself:
We fear not man as an enemy. He is our friend, our brother. Let woman speak for herself, and she will be heard. Let her claim with a calm and determined, yet loving spirit, her place, and it will be given her. I pour out no harsh invectives against the present order of things--against our father, husbands, and brothers; they do as they have been taught; they feel as society bids them; they act as the law requires. Woman must act for herself.
Oh, if all women could be impressed with the importance of their own action, and with one united voice, speak out in their own behalf, in behalf of humanity, they could create a revolution without armies, without bloodshed, that would do more to ameliorate the condition of mankind, to purify, elevate, ennoble humanity, than all that has been done by reformers in the last century.45
The second day of the convention proved contentious. Male clergy lectured against the rights of women, citing everything from the superior intellect of the male to the manhood of Christ to the sinful nature of Eve. Few women were speaking. In her reminiscences, Gage recalls that Sojourner Truth's arrival on the scene caused quite a disturbance:
There were very few women in those days who dared to "speak in meeting"...Some of the tender-skinned friends were on the point of losing dignity, and the atmosphere betokened a storm. When, slowly from her seat in the corner rose Sojourner Truth, who till then, had scarcely lifted her head. "Don't let her speak!" gasped half a dozen in my ear. She moved slowly and solemnly to the front, laid her old bonnet at her feet, and turned her great speaking eyes to me. There was a hissing sound of disapprobation above and below. I rose and announced "Sojourner Truth," and begged the audience to keep silence for a few moments.46
At that point, Sojourner Truth gave her famous "Ain't I A Woman" speech, arguing the cause of the black woman at the convention.47
The Akron Convention was not the first time that Gage used her influence on
behalf of African American women. In a letter to Matilda Joslyn Gage, Frances Dana Gage recalled the April 1850 Woman's Rights Convention at Salem, Columbiana County, Ohio. She recalls the meeting as follows:
Two of these [women in attendance] only asked for more just laws for married women. One hesitated about the right of suffrage. I alone in the beginning asked for the ballot, and equality before the law for all adult citizens of sound minds, without regard to sex or color...I drew up a memorial for signatures, praying that the words "white" and "male" be omitted in the new Constitution.48
On another occasion, the Twenty-ninth Annual Meeting of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, Gage took up her concern for the right of suffrage of freedmen and freedwomen. There she said, "I have read speeches and heard a great deal said about the right of suffrage for the freedmen...what does it mean? Does it mean the male freedman only, or does it mean the freedwoman also?...I know it is said that this is bringing in a new issue. We must bring in new issues."49 On the question of the rights of married freedwomen, Gage had this to say:
I would not say one word against marriage, God forbid. It is the noblest institution we have in this country. But let it be a marriage of equality. Let the man and woman stand as equals before the law. Let the freedwoman of the south own the money she earns by her own labor, and give her the right of suffrage, for she knows as much as the freedman. Bring in these elements, and you will achieve a success. But I will stand firmly and determinedly against the oppression that puts the newly emancipated colored woman of South Carolina under subjection to her husband required by the marriage laws of South Carolina. I demand equality on behalf of the freedwoman as well as the freedman.50
Another example of the ways in which Gage linked the anti-slavery cause with women's suffrage can be seen in a response which she wrote to Gerrit Smith's attack on the woman's rights movement. Smith argued that the women's movement was a failure, an argument that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Frances Dana Gage hotly contested. Gage particularly refuted Smith's notion that women are paupers and have only themselves to blame. Gage's analysis of the culpability of white males in obstructing the progress of the anti-slavery movement and the woman's movement can be seen here:
It is not women's fault that they are paupers, says Gage, but men's, for men have made the law that appropriates the fruits of women's labour and gives all of women's `earnings into the hands of manhood...'`Mr. Smith says', she continues, `That women are helpless, is no wonder, so long as they are paupers'; he might add, no wonder that the slaves of the cotton plantation are helpless, so long as they are paupers. What reduces both the woman and the slave to this condition? The law which gives the husband and the master entire control of the person and earnings of each: the law that robs each of the rights and liberties that every free while male citizen takes to himself as God-given.51
While Gage is to remembered for many of her concerns and causes, one obvious group whose rights she failed to defend were the American Indians. At the same Akron Convention where she defended Sojourner Truth's right to speak, Gage made an analogy between the conquest of native savages in the American wilderness and the conquering of old prejudices against white women and black men and women, prejudices she believed must be overcome. The analogy was a poor one to begin with, and in it she reveals her racist attitude against the Indian and her uncritical eye toward the destruction of native habitat and animals:
The Indians roamed the wild, wide hunting-grounds, and claimed them as their own. They must be met and subdued. The savage beasts howled defiance from every hill-top, and in every glen. They must be destroyed. Did the hearts of our fathers fail? No; they entered upon their new life, their new world, with a strong faith and a mighty will...The forest faded away, the saveage disappeared, the wild beasts were destroyed, and the hopes and prophetic visions of their far-seeing powers in the new and untried country, were more than realized.52
From this statement, it is clear that Gage failed to see the same image of God she saw in white and black humanity in the faces of native peoples. This failure cannot go unnoticed; racism against native peoples was as much a part of her vision as was her determination to fight against the ideologies restricting the rights of white women and freed slaves. I will not end this commentary on her life, however, with this critical note, but rather by allowing her to sing the song of freedom she was able to envision.
"A Hundred Years Hence" was written in 1852 for the singing Hutchinson Family of Ohio who were noted for their espousal of suffrage and abolition. The hymn was performed by the Hutchinsons as the closing piece of the convention which the National Women's Suffrage Association had called to mark the nation's centenary in 1876. The suffragists had been denied the opportunity to be a part of the official centennial celebrations.This hymn text is particularly interesting because in it, Gage demonstrates that she holds multiple commitments to working for the rights of freed slaves and against sexism, militarism, and the penal system.
One hundred year hence, what a change will be made,
In politics, morals, religion and trade,
In statesmen who wrangle or ride on the fence,
these things will be altered a hundred years hence.
Our laws then will be uncompulsory rules,
Our prisons converted to national schools,
the pleasure of sinning 'tis all a pretense,
And people will find that, a hundred years hence.
All cheating and fraud will be laid on the shelf,
Men will not get drunk, nor be bound up in self,
But all live together, good neighbors and friends,
As Christian folks ought to, a hundred years hence.
Then woman, man's partner, man's equal shall stand,
While beauty and harmony govern the land,
To think for oneself will be no offense,
The world will be thinking a hundred years hence.
Oppression and war will be heard of no more,
Nor blood of a slave leave his print on our shore,
Conventions will then be a useless expense,
For we'll go free-suffrage a hundred years hence.
Instead of speechmaking to satisfy wrong,
We'll all join the chorus to sing Freedom's song;
And if the Millennium is not a pretense,
we'll all be good brothers/neighbors a hundred years hence.53
Millenialism normally conjures up terrible images of fire and brimstone preaching, condemnations to hell, wild images of rapture (unfortunately not sexual), and a message of separation. Millennialism at the end of the 18th and 19th centuries in this country carried prophecies of doom. At the end of yet another century, there is some talk of similar prophecies. Even Y2K takes on spiritual dimensions in the rhetoric of some. What Gage offers in her hymn text is an alternative vision of millennial times. For Gage, the Millennium offers the promise of peace and freedom. Oppression and war will be heard of no more? Our prisons converted to national schools? Then woman, man's partner, man's equall shall stand? Gage was not correct. We have not reached her Millennium. We can, however, appreciate a prophet of a different vision.
Three short introductions to women hymnwriters can barely touch the surface of richness of vision and insight of a large group of women who found meaning in putting their understandings of God to verse. I have argued that in many cases these women's writings reflect the prevailing theologies of their day. 19th century revivalism, evangelism and discipleship were the concerns of women as well as men. However, we find also other interests expressed by women in their 19th century hymns. Among these are visions of God found in strange places -- at the loom or in a rock. A simple belief that hovering over one sun and one air is a spirit that unites people of different feature, argument, and creed characterizes one writer's theology. These metaphors and insights are worthy of our consideration.
1 See Moody, Linda A., Women Encounter God: Theology Across the Boundaries of Difference, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1996, 146.
2 Moodly, Linda A., Women Encounter God: Theology Across the Boundaries of Difference, Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 1996, 140, 141.
3 See, for example, Katie Geneva Cannons discussion of African American folk tales, spirituals and slave narratives in Katies Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community, New York, Continuum Publishing Company; Emilie M. Townes discussion of Ida B. Wells Barnetts anti-lynching campaign in Womanist Justice, Womanist Hope, Atlanta, Georgia, Scholars Press, 1993; and Delores S. Williams discussion of African American slave womens autobiographies and spiritual songs in Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books, 1993.
4 Elizabeth A. Say, Evidence On Her Own Behalf: Womens Narrative as Theological Voice, Maryland, Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1990, 116.
5 Scheinberg, Cynthia, Measure to yourself a prophets place: Biblical Heroines, Jewish Difference and Womens Poetry in Womens Poetry Late Romantic to Late Victorian: Gender and Genre, 1830-1900, eds. Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain, New York, St. Martins Press, 1998, 265-268.
6 An earlier version of this article was given as a paper at The American Academy of Religion - Western Region, March 25, 1997, The Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California. I am grateful to the Womens Studies Program of Mills College for granting me a Quigley Summer Fellowship in 1997. I am also thankful to my research assistants over the past decade, with special thanks to Garen Murray, Kate Bellm, Maria Vinci, Kelly Wellman, Kristina Del Pino, Jennifer Briggs, and Jennifer Schleininger.
7 In addition, she wrote The Childrens Story of the Bible (1898); Felda and the Voice, a book of fairy tales; Out of Darkness Into Light; From Meadow-Sweetto Mistletoe; Seven Little Maids; Ring-Around-a-Rosy; Idyls of the Months; most of which she also illustrated. Her work also appeared in The Youths Companion; St. Nicholas; Wide Awake; Harpers Young People; and The Outlook. See Claghorn, 145, 146, and Smith, 225-234.
8 Smith, 234.
9 Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Kregel Publications, 1982.
10 Amos R. Wells, A Treasure of Hymns, Boston: W. A. Wilde Company, 1945, 244.
11 Dr. Edward Everett Hale, cited in Smith, 225.
12 Cited in Smith, 225.
13 Samuel Willoughby Duffield, English Hymns: Their Authors and History, New York, London and Toronto, Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1894, 128.
14 Cited in Smith, 232.
15 LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Louisville, Kentucky, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, 233; National Cyclopedia of American Biography, Vol. X, New York, James T. White and Co., 1909, 179, 180. See also, Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, Grand Rapids, Michigan, Kregek Publications, 1982, 61.
16 Samuel Willoughby Duffield, English Hymns: Their Authors and History, New York, London and Toronto, Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1894, 78.
17 Cited in Smith, 232.
18 Jon Michael Spencer, Hymns of the Social Awakening: Walter Rauschenbusch and Social Gospel Hymnody, The Hymn, 23.
19 Cited in Smith, 228. Her hymn, Break Thou the Bread of Life has appeared in at least eight hymnals, including the American Service Hymnal (1968); Baptist (1973); Broadman (1977); Methodist (1966); Presbyterian (1955) hymnals and The Pilgrim Hymnal (1958). See Claghorn, 146.
20 Smith, 232.
21 Cited in Smith, 233.
22 Cited in Smith, 230.
23 National Cyclopedia of American Biography, vol. 1, New York, James T. White and Co., 1898, 402.
24 National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 204.
25 Biographical Cyclopaedia of American Women, 55.
26 Navias, 62.
27 Biographical Cyclopaedia of American Women, 57.
28 Margaret Hope Bacon, Mothers of Feminism: The Story of Quaker Women in America, San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1986, 203.
29 Navias, 62.
30 Biographical Cyclopaedia of American Women, 55.
31 National Cyclopedia of American Biography, 403.
32 Biographical Cyclopaedia of American Women, 55.
33 Claghorn places her death at Middletown, RI, while the Biographical Cyclopaedia of American Women, vol. 1, ed. Mabel Ward Cameron, New York, Halvord Publishing, 54, relates that she died at her home, 241 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts.
34 Howe was an anonymous contributor to the New York Magazine at age seventeen. Her first book of poems, Passion Flowers, was also published anonlymously. According to Unitarian historian, Eugene B. Navias, Howe published scholarly articles in the New York Review and the Theological Review before her marriage. See Eugene B. Navias, Singing Our History: Tales, Texts and Tunes from Two Centuries of Unitarian and Universalist Hymns, Boston, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1975. Other publications included Words for the Hour (1957), a drama, The Worlds Own; A Trip to Cuba (1860); From the Oak to the Olive: A Book of European Travel (1867); Modern Society (1881); Margaret Fuller: A Brief Biography (1983); a third volume of poetry, Later Lyrics (1968). She also contributed essays, reviews and sketches of travel to the Christian Examiner, Atlantic Monthly, Old and New, the North American Review, the Forum, the Epoch, Youths Companion. She was a founder, and, for twenty years, editor of The Womans Journal. (See Navias, 62). In addition, she was editor of Sex and Education, a defense of co-education. In addition to writing the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Hymn for the Fourth International Congress of Religious Liberals, and other hymns, Howe also composed other poems such as Our Orders, Endeavor, and A Thought for Washing Day, with its opening lines, The clothes line is a rosary. She also wrote a play, The Worlds Own, which was produced at Wallacks Theatre, New York City. Another play, a five-act tragedy, was not produced until after her death.. See Biographical Cyclopaedia of American Women, 56.
35 Howes daugher, Florence Howe Hall, describes the date of this encounter as December of 1861 (cited in Smith, 125) while Claghorn places the date as November 20, 1861 (123).
36 Navias, 62. Battle Hymn of the Republic was published in the American y Service (1968); Baptist (1973); Broadman (1977); Family and God (1976); Joyfully Sing (1868); Methodist (1966); Songs of Praise (1931); and The Pilgrim Hymnal (1958). Forty-six recordings are listed in Phonolog Reports (1978), Los Angeles, California. See Claghorn, 123.
37 Nicholas Smith, Songs from the Hearts of Women: One Hundred Famous Hymns and Their Writers, Chicago: A. C. McClurg and Co., 1903, 125-129. Smith notes that Rudyard Kipling once described this war lyric as the terrible Battle Hymn of the Republic. Smith, 125.
38 Florence Howe Hall, The Building of a Nations War Hymn, in The Independent, cited in Smith, 125.
39 Florence Howe Hall, cited in Smith, 127, 128.
40 Cited in Smith, 129.
41 Julia Ward Howe, Hymn for the Fourth International Congress of Religious Liberals, in Navias, 63.
42 Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, Vol. II, 199.
43 The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Vol. II, New York, James T. White and Co., 1921, 321.
44 Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1, 112, 113.
45 Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1, 113.
46 Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, vol. 1, 115, 116.
47 Nell Irvin Painter in Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, New York, W. W. Norton & Company, has raised questions about whether or not Gage exploited Soujourner Truth for her own purposes at the convention. The discussion of this issue is not yet resolved. Gages biographical writings may need to be re-evaluated in light of this critique.
48 Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, vol. 1, 117.
49 Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, vol. 2, 112, 113.
50 Stanton, Anthony, and Gage, vol. 2, 115.
51 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage (eds.), 1881, History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1, Fowler and Wells, New York; 1882, vol. 2; 1886, vol. 3. All reprinted, 1969, Arno and The New York Times (for vol. 4, see Anthony and Harper, 1902; for vols. 5 and 6, see Harper, 1922; cited in Dale Spender, Women of Ideas and What Men Have Done to Them: From Aphra Behn to Adrienne Rich, London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley, Ark Paperbacks, 1983, 255, 256).
52 Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, History of Woman Suffrage, vol. 1, New York, Fowler and Wells, 1881, 112.
53 In Singing Our History: Tales, Texts, and Tunes from Two Centuries of Unitarian and Univeralist Hymns, ed. Eugene B. Navias (Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association, 1975), 55.