Review, “A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism” @OUPAcademic

…it makes sense that Christian feminists today are often drawn to their nineteenth-century predecessors in their own search for inspirational forebears, to a time when Christianity and feminism were often closely aligned. – Kristen Kobes Du Mez

Rather than cutting the Scriptures up, in the mold of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Katharine Bushnell stayed well within the principles of Christian hermeneutical tradition and developed a solid theological feminism. Her work deserves to be reread, something ]] makes not only possible but desirable.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s story of Katharine Bushnell work, ]], is part biography, part literary commentary, and part social commentary — and, completely, a challenge to men and women alike “to discover what shape…freedom might take for the twenty-first century.” What A New Gospel for Women (NGW) entails, however, is not a mere recounting of an often overlooked person from history, but a significant portion of the life of American feminism encapsulating corresponding stories of the Methodist people, foreign missions, women’s suffrage, and what it is like to see fulfillment postponed. Indeed, for an account of events beginning in the 19th century, it reads like current events.

katharine bushnellI am not a student of feminism, although I have benefited from it. I do know the story of those considered the great pioneers, such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton — but likewise, I know the sad tale of how Christian theology was dispensed with, Scripture was brought low, and the movement suffered because of it. But, through these pages before me I am introduced to a woman who is a scholar, exegete, and theologian rivaling those of the great Antiochian and Alexandrian philosophers long before her. To be sure, by today’s standards she is often a mixed bag. At first, Bushnell was an opponent of traditional Christianity (her own version was that of the holiness tradition), only to then become welcomed by even the most conservative interpreters. She was a feminist, but by today’s standards — with her important take on birth control and abortion — I doubt she could maintain such a reputation. She was not a mere novel of history, a fortunate accident, but as Du Mez presents her, a truly quintessential prophet lobbying against entrenched power — both patriarchal and even imperial — and for the oppressed. Her life is the absolute fulfillment of Matthew 10.18.

The first four chapters are biographical. We are given a well drawn out, never boring, and often times too short account of the life of Katharine Bushnell — and like any good disciplinary attendant, Du Mez gives us the surrounding picture as well. She crafts the narrative about Bushnell by giving us what is going on in the world around her. Bushnell only comes into focus, then, when we see the town of Evanston, the mission to China, the American society, the colleges for women’s education, and the birthing of feminism in the late 19th century Victorian age. Du Mez, in these chapters, assemble the puzzle pieces that is Katharine Bushnell and presents a picture of a woman who very much deserves to be better known by people today — not as a historical figure, but as an ever-present reminder of the deep connection between Christianity and feminism, and, more importantly, what a deep exegetical review of our Holy Text may accomplish for those normally considered second-class.

Du Mez’s fifth and sixth chapters explore that exegetical review. In these chapters we are taken behind God’s Word to Women to see the processes that went into developing the exegesis — which includes something beyond understanding the context of the original page, but so too the context Bushnell lived in. She could see beyond the publication and understand the need of her would-be reviewers and readers to carefully craft, before they could issue their objections, the answers to the objections. In that, she does better than any theologians today. I am impressed with Du Mez’s presentation here. Bushnell is presented as a calm and assured exegete of Christian scripture — one who upholds the conservative and orthodox position of Scripture, even to the point of inerrancy, while pushing interpretation into a progressive arena. My heart is quickened to think that this has been done and can be done in such a way as to give American Protestants space to appreciate the work (even if they disagree) and perhaps even accept the work. I am amazed at her craftsmanship, at her skill, at her passion. Bushnell, via Du Mez, holds together the tension of a high view of Scripture, the need to correct Tradition, and the refrain of holiness. I cannot comment on Bushnell’s work — that is not the point of the review — except to say that in many ways, her work precedes trends in historical criticism prevalent today. Indeed, in scanning my library I see several references to her work as a noted scholar.

Du Mez’s final two chapters bookend the book, bring Bushnell’s life to a close, setting it into a rather sad juxtaposition. On one hand, we have a woman who brought justice to both China and India via her tireless crusade against the regulation of vice, the production of a rather important work (God’s Word to Women), and the end of the Victorian Age. On the other, we have the beginning of the divide in American Protestantism, the beginning of World War I, and the emerging New Feminism. What falls through the cracks is an important step in Christian feminism, biblical exegesis, and a huge moment for American Protestantism. Bushnell could have shown us that we did not have to pick and choose between conservative and liberal, fundamentalism and relevancy, but could very well have endured with our faith in tact and an ear to science (and historical criticism). And what a world it may have been — had both sides not retreated away from the feminism Bushnell promised. This retreating is covered unbiased by Du Mez. Neither side wins — as both, conservatives and liberal, create their own repressive anti-feminist movements.

As a white male United Methodist, a historical critic of Scripture, and a sometimes-theologian who presses others to examine Scripture in light of the context (both then and now) — and as one who cannot seem to fit into any specific category — Du Mez’s A New Gospel for Women is a pinnacle of acceptance and understanding. I sit in awe of what Bushnell accomplished — beginning with the Methodist Episcopal Church — and mourn for what it could have been. Perhaps, as Du Mez points out, the resurgence we see in Christian feminism will again turn to Bushnell and her long overdue reward, as prophet, will finally be given. I cannot help but to recommend this book to every American Christian, especially those in the Wesleyan tradition, and those with a hope that through a high view of Scripture we can dismantle oppressive structures and rather than dispensing with everything around us, construct from the ashes a better system befitting our Christian Tradition.


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2 Replies to “Review, “A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism” @OUPAcademic”

  1. Even the most cursory reading of primary source feminist literature quickly reveals late twentieth century feminism had two principal threads: Lesbianism and Marxism.

    By nature feminism seeks to either co-opt or to destroy all traditional male dominated institutions. The traditional family was it first victim. The church may be next.

  2. Joel, you are quite right. Although not known as a feminist, Phoebe Palmer was a Methodist revival preacher who wrote of “the promise of the Father,” the Holy Spirit falling upon sons and daughters, to justify her “testifying” in such a powerful way in camp meetings. One of the problems with much of progressive thought within Christianity is that it sometimes wants to make its case, such as, rights of women, through a critique/deconstruction of scripture rather than reading scripture as the Word of God to us. Thus, “look at how bad the people who wrote the Bible were, and we do not want to be that bad (or ignorant, etc). Then, they will go on to a largely Marxist style critique of traditional Christian values. In any case, at least from what I read in some studies of Palmer, there were many who had a high view of scripture and opposed slavery and proposed a change in the role of women in society and the church.

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