Posts Tagged ‘Women’

Award Winning Research Essays

Wednesday, July 10th, 2013

The Journal of Ecclesiastical History has announced the winner of its first annual Eusebius Prize, which goes to the best submitted essay on any topic in early Christian history. This year’s winning paper is entitled “On the Diversity and Influence of the Eusebian Alliance: The Case of Theodore of Heraciea,” by Matthew J Crawford of the University of Durham. Cambridge University Press has made the prize-winning paper available online for free through September 30. You can read it here.

Also in prize-related news: the deadline for the Sidney Mead Prize has passed, but there is still time to submit nominations for the Jane Dempsey Douglass Prize. The Douglass Prize goes to the author of the best essay published during the previous calendar year on any aspect of the role of women in the history of Christianity. Nominations must be in by August 1.

To nominate an essay for the Douglass Prize, send a letter or an email to our Executive Secretary, Keith Francis (keith.francis@churchhistory.org) with

1) The author’s name
2) The author’s affiliation
3) The author’s contact information, and
4) The title of the essay

Last year’s winner was Sarah Adelman, whose essay “Empowerment and Submission: The Political Culture of Catholic Women’s Religious Communities in Nineteenth-Century America” appears in the Fall 2011 issue of the Journal of Women’s History.

Ideas Have Consequences: The Theological Roots of the Nineteenth-Century Women’s Movement

Monday, September 24th, 2012

by J. G. Brown

The brouhaha over Todd Akin’s comments on “legitimate rape” has been especially virulent in the Saint Louis, Missouri area. It dominated our media for weeks. Akin received a degree from Covenant Theological Seminary in Saint Louis and attends a church associated with that seminary (Presbyterian Church of America). The media frenzy compelled Covenant Theological Seminary to issue an official statement denouncing rape as a violent and heinous crime.

But whether or not Todd’s church promotes an “anti-woman” culture is a question not readily settled by public pronouncements. There is a certain irony in all this, in that Akin’s church is a part of the broader evangelical tradition, a tradition that was largely responsible for the emancipation of women in the early nineteenth century. I have spent a considerable amount of time studying this evangelical conundrum, in an attempt to understand its relationship to culture, then and now.

The Presbyterian Church in America and Covenant Theological Seminary have a well articulated position on the role of women in the church. The PCA believes that men and women have equal value in the eyes of God but different roles or functions within the life of the church. Women, for instance, are barred from being deacons and elders. Church polity concerning women is based largely on I Timothy 2:11–14, a biblical passage that prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men. The PCA believes that male spiritual headship/female subordination is grounded in the created order, an order that Christianity redeems but does not alter. The English Standard Version Study Bible (2008) explains what is called the complementarian view on the I Timothy passage.

The commentators support the view that gender roles in the church are rooted in the created order. They also remark that this passage does not have “in view the role of women in leadership outside the church (e.g., business or government).”1 The PCA/ complementarians claim that they are upholding the historic Protestant interpretation of this passage. This may be an assertion easily made by theologians, but can it be substantiated by historians? New research on early Protestant beliefs concerning natural law and the spiritual and temporal kingdoms brings the complementarian claim into serious question. It also provides new insights into the significant role evangelicalism played in the emancipation of women.

The early Protestant reformers held to a two-kingdom view that was in some ways similar to their medieval forebears. This is especially clear in the writings of both Luther and Calvin. They both defend the moral goodness of the sword-bearing state and the Christian’s participation in that state. They believe Christians are citizens of two kingdoms, both ordained by God. These two kingdoms, however, operate for different ends and under very different rules.

The spiritual kingdom is expressed on earth in the church, which has a redemptive and eschatological purpose. It does not bear the sword and submits to the redemptive ethic of Scripture as revealed in Jesus Christ. The temporal kingdom, on the other hand, can use the sword and is based in natural law. Natural law, for the Reformers, is that law imprinted on the consciences of humankind (Romans 2:14-15) and found in the moral principles underlying the Mosaic law. Natural law also finds its origin in creation ordinances.2 Consistent with Protestant convictions, both Luther and Calvin believed that sin has marred human ability to fully discern natural law outside of God’s special revelation and regenerating grace; nevertheless, through the remnants of natural law, God graciously restrains the consequences of sin in this world.

After doing extensive research, I have concluded that most prominent theologians in the English-speaking world, prior to the mid-nineteenth century, held something similar to a natural law/two-kingdom view. For them, natural law/creation ordinances mandated the subordination of women to men in the temporal kingdom. The church, on the other hand, was animated by egalitarian principles, such as the priesthood of all believers. The church might honor “the order preserved by the world” (as Luther expressed it), but the principle of male headship/female subordination was not organic to the church.

This is spelled out clearly in Luther’s exegesis of Galatians 3:28: “In the world, and according to the sinful nature, there is a great inequality of persons, and this must be observed carefully . . . . But in Christ there is no law, nor difference of persons, there is only one body, one spirit, one hope one gospel.”3 Protestant exegetes, up to the nineteenth century, believed social hierarchy, including male headship and female subordination, was a necessary component of temporal social order, established by God at creation. In this respect they were conservative, re-enforcing traditional cultural norms. However, contrary to today’s conservative theologians, they did not make creation ordinances organic to life in the church.

A survey of commentaries written before the mid- nineteenth century, dealing with pivotal passages, such as I Timothy 2:11-14, I Corinthians 11:3 and I Corinthians 14:34-35 confirms a natural law/two kingdom view. For instance, John Calvin believes that, in I Corinthians 11:3, man is placed in an intermediate position between Christ and the woman. Yet, at the same time, in Galatians 3:28, Paul says, “in Christ there is neither male nor female.” Calvin resolves this dilemma as follows: “When he [Paul] says there is no difference between the man and the woman, he is treating of Christ’s spiritual kingdom, in which external qualities are not regarded or made any account of.”

This spiritual kingdom has its present expression in the church, and, in fact, it is this spiritual liberty and equality that underlie the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. However, in this world, our spiritual liberty and equality in Christ always should respect social order and decorum. Therefore Calvin goes on to qualify his position:

In the meantime, however, he [Paul] does not disturb civil order and honorary distinctions, which cannot be dispensed with in ordinary life. Here [I Corinthians 11:3], on the other hand, he reasons respecting outward propriety and decorum—which is part of ecclesiastical polity.”4

Calvin later again affirms this principle that male headship reflects “external arrangement and political decorum.”5 He would regard today’s complementarian assignation to men of “spiritual headship” as a strange co-mingling of spiritual and temporal kingdom principles. In accordance with basic Protestant doctrine, Calvin says that the spiritual head of woman is Christ only; however, in the kingdom of this world, she is subject to man. Later theologians follow a similar line of thought.

Puritan Matthew Poole argues that the headship of man over women, referred to in I Corinthians 11:3 is strictly “political or economical.” He also believes that when Paul says that the “head of every man is Christ,” he is referring to all church members, male and female, since Christ is the spiritual head of men and women alike. Baptist theologian John Gill writes that natural law/creation ordinances establish the subordination of women in the civil realm. (Consequently, female subordination is also observed in the church.) Evangelical Anglican exegete, Thomas Scott, says nothing of male spiritual headship and restricts female subordination to “this lower world.”6

Consistent with their understanding of the different principles that govern the civil and spiritual kingdoms, most early theologians also recognized the possibility of something contra mundum in the life of the church. Luther writes in his exegesis of I Timothy 2 that “if the Lord were to raise up a woman for us to listen to, we would allow her to rule like Huldah.”7 Calvin acknowledged the possibility of women with an extraordinary call, as did Matthew Poole, Matthew Henry, Thomas Scott, John Wesley, and Adam Clarke. In fact, Methodist theologian Adam Clarke even reprimanded women who failed to act/speak under the prompting of the Holy Spirit.8 Today’s complementarians either reject or ignore the idea of the extraordinary call.

Theologians who were part of the Magisterial Reformation often gave the temporal kingdom an expansive authority — and sometimes distinctions between the two kingdoms were a bit muddled. However, none made creation ordinances foundational to the spiritual kingdom/church, and most recognized the possibility of women with an extraordinary call. No wonder it was in the church or during religious revivals that the voices of women were first heard in American history.

This was a phenomena that was indeed something new under the sun. The egalitarian theology of the spiritual kingdom does much to explain why there were female preachers, evangelists, and exhorters long before there were female politicians, business leaders, and academicians. In 1827, Harriet Livermore preached before the U.S. Congress (and twice again thereafter), long before that august body would countenance a woman sitting among their ranks.9

Lillian O’Connor’s study of the rhetorical styles of women involved in the ante-bellum reform movement found that almost all the early women orators spoke in what was called “pulpit style.” This was because these women had first presented their thoughts publicly inside a church, often from a pulpit.10 Catherine Brekus’s painstaking research on female preaching in America between 1740 and 1845 does much to re-discover the voices of women who others had long ago attempted to obliterate from the historical record. These women were motivated by spiritual kingdom theology —that in Christ there is neither male nor female. They answered an extraordinary call. The narrow path they blazed through the wilderness has become a broad highway of opportunity for women today. Theological ideas do have consequences, then and now.

Notes

 
[1] English Standard Version Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 2328.

[2] For a full treatment of natural law and the two kingdoms see David VanDrunen’s book, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms : A Study in the Development of Reformed Social Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

[3] Martin Luther, “Lectures on Galatians, 1535″ in Luther’s Works, Vol. 26 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1963), 356.

[4] John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians in Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 20 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 354.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For a detailed account of Poole, Gill, Scott, and other exegetes on this issue see J. G. Brown’s book, An Historian Looks at I Timothy 2:11–14, The Authentic Traditional Interpretation and Why It Disappeared (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2012), Chapter One.

[7] Martin Luther, “Lectures on I Timothy” in Luther’s Works, Vol. 28 (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1973), 280.

[8] See An Historian Looks at I Timothy 2:11–14, Chapter One.

[9] Catherine A. Brekus, Strangers and Pilgrims, Female Preaching in America, 1740–1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 1, 12.

[10] Lillian O’Connor, >Pioneer Women Orators: Rhetoric in the Ante-Bellum Reform Movement (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), 115–16.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation: Religious Tourism (or Lack Thereof) in Norwich and King’s Lynn, England

Friday, July 27th, 2012

by Donna Ray

Being a fan of the medieval visionary writers Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, and assuming that many others across the globe shared my fandom, I expected at least a minor crush of tourists when I recently visited these women’s hometowns of Norwich and King’s Lynn, England. I was disappointed but not surprised to find no mention of either Julian or Margery in the official tourist literature for East Anglia despite their renown in religious and scholarly circles. Emphasis in promotional brochures was rather predictably placed on shopping, nightlife, restaurants, “family fun,” and local football.

It’s hard for long-dead religious figures to compete, however deserving: Julian (ca. 1342-ca. 1416) wrote the Revelations of Divine Love, a hopeful meditation on the tender love of God and the first known book by a woman in English. The Book of Margery Kempe, published in 1436, has less spiritual heft than Julian’s book—its protagonist being more boisterous and less stable, in every sense of the word—but is nonetheless full of theological and cultural interest and arguably the first autobiography written in English.

Norwich was up first on my trip: Only brief notice appears in a city-sponsored brochure of “numerous medieval churches” (there are, in fact, thirty-one). This paucity of boosterism, in addition to the fact that St. Julian’s Church and the Julian Centre are off the beaten path and in a rather seedy part of town, might explain why I was the only visitor there in late June.

I received a very gracious welcome, however, from the two women running the Centre (library, gift shop, and adjoining guest house), who reasoned that the recession also had something to do with the downturn in visitors; although, on a good day, they might have half a dozen. The church itself, now part of the Anglican Diocese of Norwich, is small and cozy, formally outfitted for Anglo-Catholic mass held there on Mondays and Fridays and solemn evensong on the first Sunday of each month. But the church primarily functions as a shrine to Julian, an anchoress whose small cell was attached to the south end, near the altar. An annual Julian festival and lecture are held on the grounds each May.

 

The south side of St. Julian’s Church, Norwich (the reconstructed anchorhold at center)

 

St. Julian’s Church is not far from the River Wensum, which runs through Norwich. The church can be accessed by foot by crossing the new Lady Julian Bridge (opened in 2009 and named at the behest of local Anglican nuns) over the river from a commercial district. From the quieter and older King Street on the other side, where sits a medieval trading hall, a new sign points the visitor to St. Julian’s Alley, which leads to the church.

The church and Julian Centre can also be reached by car along Rouen Road, lined with government housing, car shops, and graffiti-covered walls, just south of the city’s red-light district. Another Anglican church two blocks away serves as a drop-in counseling center for area prostitutes. Some beer cans and empty cigarette packs littered the otherwise lovely and steadfastly maintained churchyard, watched over by the Friends of Julian of Norwich and a stray white cat.

 

The Lady Julian Bridge, crossing the River Wensum

 

 

The neighborhood around St. Julian’s Church (not visible here, but across the street from the medieval trading hall and center)

 

Julian settled into her cell in 1373, at age 31, and remained there for the rest of her life. Here she led a life of prayer and devotion; wrote her Revelations, or >em>Showings; and counseled visitors who came to the south window of her cell. Another opening on the north side of the cell, toward the altar, was her window to the Blessed Sacrament; and a third allowed communication with a servant.

The original church building may have been erected in the tenth century; but the anchorhold was pulled down after the Reformation. The church was bombed and severely damaged in World War II, but it was rebuilt afterwards, including a new replica of the anchorhold based on the ancient footprint. The cell is now, however, a small carpeted chapel, so one has to mentally strip away the modern accoutrements to imagine what the space looked like when Julian lived there.

 

Julian’s cell as it looks now

 

Among the other medieval buildings of note in Norwich are the imposing Norman cathedral and castle, some distance from St. Julian’s Church but no doubt visible from it in Julian’s day. Less imposing, but important as a religious landmark, is the timber-framed Briton’s Arms, now a restaurant but once a beguinage for a small community of semi-religious women—the only surviving medieval beguinage in England, built probably in the first half of the fifteenth century. The Carmelite solitary and scholar Elizabeth Obbard is reportedly writing a book on Julian’s connection to the beguinage, possibly as a resident there before she became an anchoress. Some scholars also speculate, given Julian’s maternal sensibility, that she may have been a wife and mother before she became an anchoress. There is no evidence that she was ever a nun.

 

The Briton’s Arms: once a medieval beguinage, now a restaurant

 

Whatever the case, we know that fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Norwich was a tumultuous place: the Black Death struck there at least three times during Julian’s lifetime and wiped out half of the city’s population, perhaps including (although this is entirely speculative) Julian’s own family members. Norwich also felt the effects of the Hundred Years’ War, the Peasant Uprising of 1381, ongoing theological strife (a pit for burning Lollards stood not far from St. Julian’s Church), and papal schism. Julian’s presence must have been an eye in the storm, her cell a place of reassurance and stability. The mission of the church hasn’t changed; in its brochure, the Julian Centre says that it aims “to be a place of quietness and prayer in the midst of a busy city.” One hopes the new bridge and signage will help them fulfill that mission.

 

 

Next up on my trip was a train ride to King’s Lynn, 44 miles to the west of Norwich, on the River Ouse. Here the medieval historical sites are somewhat more front-and-center, as the town is smaller and the monuments thus loom larger. The city tourism center also offers a “pilgrimage trail” map for those wishing to see the medieval sites. On these two rainy days in early July, however, my husband and I were the only pilgrims in sight.

No one knows exactly where in the city Margery Kempe (ca. 1373-1440) lived, but her home was likely not far from the river in the market district where the well-established, wealthier families lived. (Her father was the mayor, her husband a merchant.) As in Norwich, King’s Lynn—called Bishop’s Lynn in Margery’s day, or just Lynn—is crammed with old churches and the ruins of medieval religious communities, some of them repurposed for modern non-religious use.

In contrast to Julian, Margery gave a lot of attention to physical space and movement, with vivid accounts of the many cities to which she traveled in Europe and the Holy Land. The place that features most prominently in Margery’s biographical account, however, is her home church in Lynn: St. Margaret’s, founded in 1101 and still an active (Anglican) parish church now formally named King’s Lynn Minster.

St. Margaret’s, in contrast to St. Julian’s Church, is enormous—the architectural centerpiece of the town as well as the spiritual centerpiece of Margery’s lively and sometimes tortured spiritual narrative. Margery spent hours praying there, receiving visitations and instructions from Christ, engaging in pastoral tasks, shedding her signature tears, sometimes receiving support but often noisily irritating the people around her. By her own account, she saved the church from fire by her intercessions, which were followed by a timely snowstorm. Another time, she was allegedly hit by a heavy beam that fell from the ceiling of the church, and yet was miraculously unharmed.

 

St. Margaret’s Church, King’s Lynn

 

 

Interior of St. Margaret’s Church

 

The narratives of Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe come together briefly in Margery’s Book (1:18). During a visit to Norwich around 1413, Margery visited the cell of the renowned anchoress, who for three days gave her much needed reassurance, encouraging confidence in God and fearlessness in trouble. Margery in fact made more than one trip to Norwich, crossing the boggy expanse of Norfolk to receive the counsel of those celebrated for their piety, seeking as she did always and everywhere both peace and vindication.

 

Via Brother Leon of Walsingham, at St. Michael and All Angels, Brighton

Contemporary icon of the meeting between Julian of Norwich (left) and Margery Kempe

 

Nothing beats religious tourism for the church historian. Seeing a place, rather than just reading about it, gives a sense of scale and proximity and provides a total sensory environment. Despite the centuries of change, and sometimes neglect, that overlay historical sites, there is no better way than an on-site visit to absorb the spirit of the place and the people who lived there. In Norwich and King’s Lynn, as in so many historical religious sites, one can still perceive the spiritual liveliness and perseverance of the inhabitants.

Even in the faded and damaged places, one can get an immediate whiff of the long-term narrative and appreciate the vacillating fortunes and failures of religious institutions and people, even to the present day. For anyone who seeks them out, these places still convey a comforting sense of stability amidst chaos, whatever it may be.

 

Donna Ray is a lecturer in History and Religious Studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

Cars, Planes, and Gospel Grenades: Women Evangelists Settle Down

Saturday, June 23rd, 2012

by Priscilla Pope-Levison

I’ve been writing on women evangelists for some twenty years now, and I thought I’d seen it all: Maria Woodworth-Etter who fell into forty-five minute trances during her sermon with her right arm raised above her head, moving slowly back and forth, and her index finger pointed upward, or Uldine Utley, a child prodigy dressed in her signature all-white dress, hose, and shoes, who at age fourteen filled Madison Square Garden for a four-week, two-sermons-a-day evangelistic campaign.

Then in December, I made a trip from Seattle down to Portland, Oregon, where I met, face to face, the legacy of Florence Crawford, a Pentecostal evangelist from the initial, heady days of the 1906 Azusa Street Revival. From Los Angeles, Crawford traveled north to bring the apostolic faith message to the Pacific Northwest and eventually settled in Portland, where she founded the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM). Her creative and expansive adaptation of transportation technology for evangelism in and around her Portland headquarters ranks as an entrepreneurial marvel.

 

Photos courtesy of the Apostolic Faith Church, Portland, OR.

 

Crawford began modestly enough with a gospel wagon purchased for $250 in 1908. She owned only the wagon; horses had to be hired for each evangelistic meeting in a Portland park. White canvas stretched tautly over each side of the wagon provided a surface for gospel slogans printed in large capital letters: PREPARE TO MEET THY GOD and TURN YE FOR WHY WILL YE DIE.

She quickly transitioned from a horse-drawn wagon to the automotive horsepower of a Federal truck, complete with detachable seats for carrying literature. In 1913, a band of a dozen workers took the truck on its first evangelistic trip, driving from Portland to Vancouver, British Columbia, a one-way distance of more than 300 miles. Within two years, by 1915, she had purchased enough automobiles, fourteen in all, to ensure that each city with an AFM mission—Vancouver, Seattle, Tacoma, Eugene, Dallas, and Portland–had at least one car to use for evangelism.

 

Apostolic Faith Church.

 

Once she had amassed a garage full of automobiles, she purchased a 3-passenger Curtiss Oriole, The Sky Pilot, in 1919. Her son, Raymond, pioneered aerial evangelism, which entailed dropping religious papers from the air, like 1000 papers over rural Idaho and 9000 invitations over Portland.

 

Apostolic Faith Church.

 

Targeted areas for the literature drop included Oregon’s state penitentiary, reform schools, poor farms in Multnomah and Clackamas countries, and town centers throughout greater Portland on a Saturday afternoon. Dive bombing areas with religious literature did not last long, however, because in 1922, legal restrictions were passed, prohibiting the practice, so Crawford sold The Sky Pilot.

Not content to evangelize by road and air, Crawford initiated an evangelistic outreach to the sailors aboard merchant ships from many countries docked in the Portland harbor, located about 100 miles from the Pacific Ocean on the Willamette River. For harbor evangelism, she bought a 28-foot motorboat named the Morning Star. AFM workers steered the Morning Star alongside docked ships, and, when given permission by the captain, set up an extension ladder to climb aboard in order to distribute religious literature and invite sailors to services at the mission.

 

Apostolic Faith Church.

 

For ships whose captains prohibited them on board, the workers launched “gospel grenades”— waterproof packets of religious papers printed in the language of the sailors on that ship. Factoring in the height differential between the Morning Star and a seagoing ship, the grenades had to be thrown as high as fifty feet in the air in order to land on deck.

Obviously, Crawford was nothing if not entrepreneurial in her use of transportation technology for evangelism. Yet there is something distinctive in the way she chose to exercise that entrepreneurial spirit: she hunkered down in one location and launched evangelistic forays from her Portland headquarters. She bought cars to be driven up and down the coast from Oregon north to British Columbia. She bought a plane to drop literature throughout Oregon. She bought a boat to ply the Portland harbor. In other words, Crawford stayed put and focused her entrepreneurial evangelism in nearby neighborhoods and cities.

In the years prior to the Progressive Era, women evangelists with that same entrepreneurial spirit chose to itinerate. Jarena Lee, for example, who in the 1820s and 1830s itinerated throughout New England, north into Canada, and west into Ohio, traveling by foot, stagecoach, and boat to preach in churches, schools, camp meetings, barns, and homes. Her contemporary, Nancy Towle, preached throughout the United States, Canada, England, and Ireland. These evangelists embody the moniker, “rootless women,” coined by Elizabeth Elkin Grammer in her book, Some Wild Visions: Autobiographies by Female Itinerant Evangelists in 19th-Century America.

Crawford represents the next generation of women evangelists, who settled down from a wandering itinerancy and built institutions to gather in converts, engage in evangelism, and establish a legacy in brick and mortar, in the bylaws and printed materials of their churches, denominations, schools, rescue homes, and rescue missions.

Like Mattie Perry, who, at a nondescript crossroad at the foothills of the Appalachians, opened Elhanan Training School in a former hotel, which she refurbished and furnished. Like Emma Whittemore, who launched her first of nearly one hundred Door of Hope rescue homes amidst the squalor of a New York City tenement. Like Bishop Mary Lena Lewis Tate, who gathered her converts first into “Do Rights” bands, then into her denomination, the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth. These largely unsung entrepreneurial women evangelists resolved to settle down and build institutions, often financing them with little more than donations of pennies and crates of apples. Remarkably, many of their institutions continue a century later, including Crawford’s Apostolic Faith Mission, which sends out across the globe from its Portland headquarters more than two million pieces of literature each year.

Priscilla Pope-Levison explores more about the institution building of women evangelists in her book due out with NYU Press in 2013. Her previous book on women evangelists is titled Turn the Pulpit Loose: Two Centuries of American Women Evangelists (Palgrave Macmillan 2004). More information is available on her web site, Women Evangelists: A Forgotten History. She teaches theology, church history, and women’s studies at Seattle Pacific University.

Giving the Devil His Due

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

by Tom Simpson

© Copyright Jon Styer/Eastern Mennonite University (CC BY 3.0)

Just in time for Mother’s Day, a bit of commentary on a very recent moment in church history, and something for your syllabi:

Like many of you, I teach a range of upper- and lower-level courses on religion. In all of them, I use an assortment of strategies to bring the students to “breakthrough” moments, moments when they realize that the academic study of religion, irrespective of our different backgrounds, leads us to questions, and insights, of ultimate importance.

In this regard, the arresting documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell has been a godsend. It tells the story of ordinary Liberian women, Christian and Muslim, who banded together, praying, fasting, and protesting until they “did the unimaginable” – they brought an end to Liberia’s recent, raging civil war. In the film we see Leymah Gbowee, one of the movement’s heroines, launching the campaign in Monrovia’s St. Peter’s Lutheran Church. At film’s end, we find her there again, on Mother’s Day, with her sisters in the struggle, the “mothers of Liberia,” rejoicing and basking in the choir’s praise: “And I thank God, thank God, for Momma.

I show Pray the Devil Back to Hell so frequently and so enthusiastically because it offers a portrait of religion at its best, and religion at its worst. Here is love in its fullest measure, nonviolence in its fullest expression. For my students, born in the 1990s, who want to understand the resistance campaigns of Gandhi and King, but find those histories increasingly remote, this film makes it plain. And yet in the same film we find religion’s dark side: Liberian President Charles Taylor, standing in church, testifying that he enjoys the blessing and protection of “Jehovah God Almighty.” “No one can bring war against me,” he adds; “I am war itself.” Taylor’s warring opponents, moreover, attend the mosque as religiously as his supporters go to church.

Maybe you already know all this. Pray the Devil Back to Hell isn’t on the margins of our consciousness anymore, the way it was when I got my first copy of the film back in 2009. Now PBS has made it a centerpiece of its “Women, War, and Peace” documentary series, and Leymah Gbowee has a Nobel Prize, as does Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Liberian president whose victory was the culmination of the women’s campaign. Charles Taylor too has been in the news, finally receiving his verdict at The Hague.

If you decide to use the film in class, let your students know that they’re in for an intense, but rewarding, experience. I pause during the film, no more than 30 minutes in, to see how they’re doing, and I make sure to leave time for them to reflect and talk afterward. Inevitably, they respond with gratitude. They witness the power of love and the deep wisdom beyond university walls. My abiding hope is that they will never be the same.

 

Tom Simpson, Ph.D., teaches religion, ethics, and philosophy at Phillips Exeter Academy. You can find more of his reflections on religion, culture, and the teacher’s craft at tomsimpsononline.wordpress.com.