Paul, And The Problem Of Other Christianities

“The ideology of Pauline studies privileges Paul’s voice over others,” laments one scholar, whose work I happened upon while researching the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. “What undergirds this ideology is a desire for univocity, a search for a single meaning, a universal truth that lies somewhere in the letters of Paul.”

He goes on: “It is hard to find a Pauline scholar or reader, whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ in outlook who does not go to hear a transcendent divine truth spoken in and through his or her interpretation of Paul.”

Since at least the reign of Justinian, much of the world has, at least in theory, looked to the writings of Saint Paul in order to hear the voice of God in them.

“The problem with this ideology, among others, is that it makes it all too easy to marginalize, categorize, and label as Other those with whom we disagree,” he suggests. “If there is a transcendent truth locatable within Paul’s writings, then diversity and difference become deviance. To fall outside the ambit of Paul’s rhetoric, however it is consructed by scholars and lay readers alike, is to place oneself outside the fold, the norm, and the conversation. By privileging univocity and uniformity and locating that uniformity in the construction – or reconstruction – of Paul’s theology or rhetoric, difference becomes a problem.”

Looking for the voice of God in the writings of Paul means looking for the meaning of existence in Paul’s ideology. In other words, trusting Paul, over against other candidates, to tell us the truth about the world. We are, then, accepting Paul’s narrative, rather than his opponents, Paul’s discourse, rather than that of the people he opposes.

Historically speaking, Christians have understood theology that is consistent with Paul’s writings to be generally within the bounds of acceptability and theology that grates against Paul’s writings to be false – even heretical.

One problem with this, as this particular author would frame it, is that by privileging Paul’s vision for Christianity over that of his opponents in Corinth, for example, we are affirming, in essence, that there is such a thing as universal, Transcendent truth that is true for all people, everywhere, at all times. Throughout history, the idea that there is such a thing as ‘non partisan’ truth, by which everyone is equally constrained regardless of whether they assent to it, has given those who are in power license to coerce those who do not share their beliefs into falling into line and accepting the truth claims held by the majority – the Inquisition, for example, or the Witch Trials, or the Mccarthyist nightmare of the mid-twentieth century. The notion that there is such a thing is universal, Transcendent truth has quite literally killed people.

“Rather than looking to Paul as the norm, the yardstick against which to measure thought and theology,” he continues, “I have tried to cast him as one among many, a move that privileges diversity. ”

In doing this, the author quoted above is not alone. It stems, in large part, from the assumption, in vogue since the days of Walter Bauer, that Christianity in its earliest forms had no ‘creed’ or structure to speak of. On this retelling of Christian history, the version of Christianity that we now practice as normative finally won out when the machinery of the state was employed towards suppressing those with whom the so-called ‘orthodox’ bishops disagreed.

Bauer’s thesis wasn’t particularly strong in the early 20th century, and there isn’t much left of it. But the sentiment remains, and serves as a springboard for theologians like the one quoted above.

In order to remedy the widespread problem of ‘Pauline privilege’ in New Testament studies, then, the author’s “work does not look for Paul’s interpretation.” Instead, he has “tried to make space for ‘some’ Corinthian ghosts to have their possibilities.”

In less jargon-heavy language, he has sought to bring Paul down off the pedestal, so to speak, and instead try to reconstruct the voices of his opponents. Paul was not, as he and others in this particular post-Bauerian tradition assert (but never demonstrate), a valiant ‘defender of the faith.’ He was, quite simply, an idiosyncratic figure with a particular understanding of what Christianity should become. His vision for Christianity was no more intrinsically valid than anyone else’s, and certainly no more intrinsically true than that of his opponents in Corinth. Thus, when he rails against his so-called ‘heretical’ opponents, he is not doing so as one endowed with Transcendent authority or vocation, nor as one who speaks for God, but simply as a power broker, vilifying his powerless opponents in order to advance his own agenda.

The author, then, has sought to ‘put Paul in his place,’ as simply one voice among others in a conversation among ‘equals – where no one voice has any ‘Transcendent’ value over the others – out of a “commitment to plurality, a desire for difference, and the hope that a form of sociality might emerge that does not worship Transcendent univocity and rigidly police and enforce its borders.”

As such, he is commited to “looking beyond, around, and outside Paul for ways of thinking, believing, acting, and doing that might have been and that might still be.”

In doing so “we make space for other theological voices to be heard, or other visions of life to make their case to us, or other ways of organizing society and forming the self to present themselves to us.”

His hope, of course, is that piecing together the voices of the ‘alternative Christianities’ whom Paul ‘othered’ might “become a kind of pedagogy, a training in looking for and affirming difference.”

He concludes: “If we grow comfortable with seeing and hearing and finding pluralites, if we learn to desire difference, if we make our readings exercises in dialogue and debate without assuming that we must arrive at a singular truth, perhaps we can learn to look in the faces of those we fear and hate – and, perhaps worst of all, simply ignore – and instead see in them the face of God.”

Well-intentioned authors who take this tack, it seems to me, are a bit like the fabled ouroboros – the serpent who eats its own tail.

In another work, another author clarifies the implications of this particular hermeneutic. In her essay, she attempts to “unmask” the “violent undertones” of Paul’s rhetoric. The epistles to the Corinthians must be read ‘against the grain’ of the texts, she says, because Paul’s approach is abusive.

He is like a battering-ram, vilifying the Corinthian Christians because their expression of the Christian faith is outside of his “norm.” We must abandon the assumption that Paul’s iteration of the faith was ever the “correct” iteration – such sentiments are simply artifacts from a bygone age, when the ‘collected power’ of certain interest groups (“Pauline orthodoxy,” of course) was wielded to violently crush all dissent.

We know, now, that there is no over-arching truth under which all convictions can be measured. There are only ‘local truths,’ normative only in those communities that have opted to embody them, together. So long, then, as there is such a thing as “normativity,” there will inevitably be an ‘oppressed party’ who does not fit the norm.

In this light, she suggests, like the previous author, that Paul was not the fearless defender of “orthodoxy” that we have long imagined him to be, but simply a charismatic and domineering figure whose vision ultimately won out in the zero-sum power struggle that played out among the pluriform and disorganized Jesus movement of the first century CE. That Paul’s ideology ultimately won out against his opponents, then, was not a ‘victory for the faith’ – it was simply ‘social injustice.’ He didn’t ‘overcome the heretics.’ He just ‘marginalized’ the groups who felt differently than him.

Shocking as such conclusions may be, they are inevitable in any hermeneutic that begins with the “lived experience” of a group and works outward from there. Because if the “lived experience” of any given group (such as Paul’s Corinthian opponents) is the measure of things, then there isn’t actually any such thing as ‘social justice.’ There is only a kind of Nietzschean dialectic whereby any given group may acquire power and become oppressors or remain powerless and become oppressed.

So by the logic of the two authors quoted above, it would also have been oppressive if Paul’s Corinthian opponents had won out against Paul. There is a hypothetical world in which Paul’s voice was marginalized and the ideology of his Corinthian opponents came to be normative in the Christian church. In that possible world, perhaps similar authors with similar dispositions would be writing books that seek to destabilize the ‘Corinthian privilege’ in modern Christianity.

But probably not. Books like Classicist Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People or (at least peripherally) N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, or nearly anything by Wayne Meeks or Rodney Stark (or, for that matter, Paul Was Not a Christian by Pamela Eisenbaum), go some ways toward illustrating the extent that Western progressivism owes it’s very existence – quite literally “lives and moves and has its being” – in moral categories bestowed upon us largely by Paul.

It is only a minor exaggeration to say that the above authors have Paul to thank for the notion that marginalization should be avoided wherever possible, and that communal norms, though important, do not de facto bear within themselves the weight of the gods. To put it another way, if it makes us uncomfortable that Paul so vociferously comes to blows with those who would impose a substantively different vision for the Christian faith upon the early churches, it is because the moral and intellectual vision that Paul and his cohorts bestowed upon us have conditioned us to value ‘diversity’ in ways that his ideological opponents did not. In all likelihood, had Paul’s vision for Christianity not won out, nobody today would be complaining about the ‘marginalization’ of others. Not because we wouldn’t have a marginalization problem, but because we would never have been taught to care.

But diversity, pluriformity, the very notion that dissidents should not be crushed underfoot – these categories, quite frankly, are meaningless unless they are universally, transcendentally true for all people, everywhere, for all time, regardless of whether anyone acknowledges their truth value. If there are only ‘local truths,’ which are only normative for those communities that ‘opt into’ them, in a sense, then there is not actually any moral obligation for powerful interest groups to forego trampling powerless interest groups. There is nothing liberative about trading uniformitarianism for a formless and void relativism.

So the ideology that undergirds the two authors quoted above is bad for justice. If, however, we attempt to begin with Paul’s strange egalitarian impulse – as seen, for example, in his handling of the tense Jewish-Gentile relations in the churches of Rome, or the class-related issues pertaining to who could-and-could-not don ‘head coverings’ in the socially stratified churches of Asia Minor – then we will, or should be, compelled to become advocates for those upon whom society has tread, not simply as reactionaries or guilt-ridden members of the dominant culture, but as redeemed people compelled by God to faithfully carry out the ‘Cultural Mandate’ by rooting out injustice where possible, even at great cost.


[For those who are curious: The first author mentioned is Cavan Concannon, from the book ‘When You Were Gentiles,and the second author is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, from her essay ‘Paul and the Politics of Interpretation.’]


It’s Cute That We Think We Hate Postmodernism

This blog post has a thesis: Wholesale dismissal of the core insights of “Postmodernist” thinkers generally stems from never having read them – or from having read them, but poorly. 

When I said this to a friend today, he was shocked, and asked just which core insights I had in mind. I can think of at least two.

At the very least, we should not dismiss the insight, at once profound and, in hindsight, self-evident, that human communities tend to gravitate toward marginalization. This is difficult to argue with, and, if you are a student of the New Testament, for example, or Church history in general, it will not be difficult to think of (rather uncontroversial) examples of this. 

Not least, I would imagine, Paul’s lifelong struggle to conform the disparate church communities over whom he had influence to the demands of the Gospel – namely, for those predominantly Jewish churches with whom he corresponded to embrace fully the Gentile converts in their midst. 

You don’t have to be a wholesale Foucauldian to recognize the human propensity to marginalize, as did those who (quite understandably) struggled to envision God’s covenant community as fully inclusive of Gentiles – who were uncircumcised, ate pork, and had fewer  culturally-ingrained sexual taboos, among other things. 

It was a two-way street, of course: Those predominantly Gentile churches, many of which Paul had planted or was now shepherding from afar, often struggled to be fully inclusive of the Jewish converts in their midst. The circumstances here are harder to sympathize with.

Quite frankly, Romans didn’t just love their Jewish neighbors. Most of what you’ve read about how the empire was a “bastion of multiculturalism” is misleading at best. The cities, especially, were a powder keg, and the so-called “multiculturalism” of the Pax Romana days consisted mostly in explosive sectarian violence and heavy-handed imperial repression. 

There was a litany of cultures, living together in relative stability. But it was not a Lockean arrangement; The stability of the empire rested largely in its being a military state. People from a multitude of backgrounds lived in close quarters without disintegrating into full-blown civil war because the State saw to it that opportunities to do so were rare.

So prejudice ran rampant, and minority groups like the Jews – especially of the Palestinian variety, who had not Hellenized at nearly the rate of there Alexandrian cousins – were the objects of near universal scorn. What “toleration” they received from the government was purely political prudence; What toleration they received from their neighbors owed chiefly to the fact that their neighbors didn’t want to be executed for “disturbing the peace.”

So when Gentiles joined these Pauline communities in ever-increasing numbers, it was inevitable that their Jewish co-religionists would not fare well initially. And they didn’t. The product of these inter-ethnic, intra-ecclesial tensions is that most of the New Testament was written.


There is another “core insight” that we should not dismiss. Namely, that there is a significant degree to which, in every age, culture, and community, the language we use gradually becomes like a vast “echo-chamber” that makes it difficult to think outside of certain fairly rigid, if spacious, categories. The result, of course, being that plenty of pertinent questions, whether moral questions or otherwise, never occur to us.

There is the reason, for example, that it took so very long for much of the Christian world to catch up with Paul, among other things, in regards to how marriage should operate. Paul’s notion of the self-sacrificing husband who reflects Jesus as he relates to his wife was certainly picked up by some of the Church Fathers, and later by some Reformers and Puritans, but the overall trajectory of Western society, aside from some exceptional cases, was simply to rehearse a number of variations on the traditional Greco-Roman pater-familial model in which the matriarch of any given household is either literally or functionally the “property” of her husband. That is, of course, just one example of how the linguistic “echo-chamber” plays out. 

Unfortunately, so-called “postmodernist” authors generally use such jargon-heavy language that their writings are borderline incomprehensible, so even when they have a salient point, it only rarely comes across in digestibly. They seldom bother trying to communicate in plain language because they’re usually just preaching to the choir. 

But even when they are only preaching to the choir, they are preaching a message that, at the bottom of things, ought to be heeded. They go off the rails, of course, and often. 

One needn’t read far to find exactly what I’m talking about: There is, implicit in much “deconstructive” discourse, the rather indefensible presumption that all “norms,” everywhere – regardless of origin or intention – are inherently oppressive

I hope that I don’t have to explain why that assumption is problematic; If you can’t imagine why so many twenty-somethings are immobilized by a kind of formless and void nihilism, I might suggest that it’s because we told them that “all truth claims are power plays.” 

But claims like that are “postmodernism” at its very laziest, and least astute. These implications are by no means necessary, or intrinsic to the phenomenon. Lyotard defines postmodernism as “a distrust of meta-narratives” and it may be that. 

But it is worth distinguishing between “a frankly uncritical distrust toward meta-narrative in general” and “a measured, conscientious posture of gentle suspicion.”

Who would disagree that it is certainly worth asking whether “the dominant assumptions of our culture,” at any given time, are actually correct? It ought to go without saying that if more people asked precisely that question of our culture, today, more people might be willing to consider that the Christian faith is not an artifact from a less-civilized age. If nothing else, I guess, it’s cute that we think we hate “postmodernism”: We are all, all of us, resolutely “postmodern” in our thinking, which, in itself, ought to remind us that very term itself is far less narrow than we imagine it to be.

Every Man In The Oneida Christian Community Was Married To Every Woman And It Did Get Wild (Part Two of “The Other Sexual Revolutionaries”)

“While the Second Great Awakening sought to save the whole country, some smaller groups of believers sought to save themselves from the country,” writes Edwin Gaustad. “Or at least they (like the seventeenth-century Puritans) wished to first save themselves and then, perhaps by example, save others. In the first half of the nineteenth Century hopes were high, land was cheap, and experimental visions abounded” (P. 149).

“Another such group was the Oneida community, founded by John Humphrey Noyes,” writes Nancy Koester. “Noyes was a revival convert who believed that Christ had already returned and that true Christians, such as himself, were sinless” (P. 64), which makes him sound further beyond the pale than he was. In reality, he was simply “influenced by the prevailing belief that Christians could overcome all intentional sin” (MacHaffie, P. 123), which had come especially in vogue during the Awakening due to the widespread influence of mass revivalist Charles Finney.

As such, “Noyes envisioned the ‘Perfect Society’ as holding everything in common, including property, industry, and spouses,” writes Koester. “In 1846 in Vermont, Noyes instituted a ‘Complex Marriage,’ in which any adult male in the community can have sexual relations with any adult female” (P. 64)

He believed that “sexual relations were a gift from God which would not disappear in the Kingdom, but rather would be extended to include all the saints instead of just one husband given to one wife,” writes Barbara MacHaffie. “This, he believed, was the meaning of the phrase, ‘They shall neither marry nor be given in marriage.’ The leaders of the community regulated the frequency of sexual liaisons between men and women, insisting that they did not condone free love and also making sure that no permanent attachments developed” (P. 125).

Instead, “The community itself would determine who should mate with whom, that decision being guided by the best principles of eugenics, or ‘scientific propagation,'” writes Gaustad. “Monogamy, Noyes believed, ‘is an absolute bar to scientific propagation.’ Consider, Noyes wrote, ‘how much progress would the horse breeders expect to make if they were only at liberty to bring their animals together in exclusive pairs.'”

He continues: “Noyes believed that monogamy made no more sense than celibacy did.” (He was not a fan of the Shakers). “What did make sense was bringing together the best specimens of the human race to procreate and thereby to lift all humankind up to the level where a truly spiritual revolution could occur” (P. 151).

In Noyes’ estimation, monogamy was so morally disastrous from a communal standpoint, that “’What we have in effect done,’ he said, was ‘choose the worst over the best.’ For ‘The good man will be limited by his conscience, while the bad man, free from moral check, will distribute his seed as widely as he desires’” (P. 152).

For good Christians to practice monogamy meant that good Christians seriously limited their ability to procreate en masse – which meant, in the days before reliable birth control, that lawless folks who were neither monogamous nor virtuous would far outnumber good Christians in their progeny, who could then remake the world in their inglorious image.

Thus, in Gaustad’s words, “To bring about spiritual revolution, a sexual revolution was required as well” (P. 151).

“Noyes believed that Oneida represented God’s kingdom on earth where selfishness, sexual inequality, tiresome labor, and death itself would be overcome,” writes MacHaffie. As such, they “dramatically altered the Victorian picture of the ‘Ideal Woman’ as wife, mother, and keeper of the hearth. The family was seen as a stumbling block to these groups since it diverted the attention and efforts of women and men away from the good of the community” (P. 124). They abstained from traditional family structures like contemporary Baptists abstain from alcohol: Even if they did not regard them as sinful, they regarded them as irredeemable obstacles to honoring God’s will in the fullest.

“For the vast majority of Americans, religion was a support to traditional forms of community,” writes Koester. But for the Shaker and Oneida communities, it did the opposite (P. 65). “Women were encouraged to take the initiative in beginning relationships and Noyes expressed particular concern that they be sexually satisfied by their partners. To reduce the chances of pregnancy, Noyes taught a method of birth control in which the male partner could, through discipline, eliminate the ejaculation of sperm during sexual intercourse” (MacHaffie, P. 125).

This was “an age of hope, Noyes observed, but so much of people’s hope was misplaced, being centered on an idealization of the past or on expectations of some divine fulfillment in the future,” Writes Gaustad. Whereas the Shakers sought (ineffectively, I should point out) to emulate the earliest Christian communities, and doomsayer groups sat on their hands waiting for the King to come home, the gathered Church at Oneida would endeavor to construct the kingdom of heaven in their own midst. “Noyes believed in a spiritual revolution that was now at hand, ‘An outburst of spiritual knowledge and power, a conversion of the world from sensuality, from carnal morality, and from brain philosophy, to spiritual wisdom and life,'” as he put it (P. 151).

Thus, at the compound, “where men and women freely intermingled, women farmed alongside men and men learned to sew. Women, it seems, were also encouraged to drive the teams of horses and work in the machine shops,” writes MacHaffie.  “The leaders “discouraged the formation of bonds between mothers and children and relegated their care to men and women of the community in a special wing of the house.” The result being that Oneida women were not imprisoned in a cult of domesticity and consigned to embodying “traditionally maternal” norms and habits.

Perhaps as much as the Shakers, “Residents of Oneida challenged the idea of male and female occupational spheres. The communities were self-sufficient, producing the products and foods necessary for daily life – similar to the pre-industrial households of colonial America. In both instances, women had useful and productive work to fill their days” (P. 125).

“The community grew to about 200 members, supporting themselves through logging, farming, and the manufacturing of Steel traps,” writes Koester. “Another Oneida community excelled in the crafting of fine silverware, by which the Oneida name is still widely known” (P. 64).

Not unlike the Shakers, “Noyes insisted that God had masculine as well as feminine dimensions or elements. Often the word ‘androgynous’ (having the characteristics or nature of male and female) is used to describe their perspective” (MacHaffie, P. 125).

“Such sectarian groups offered women opportunities for participation and recognition which went beyond what was available to them in traditional Protestant churches.” MacHaffie goes on: “Perhaps most significantly, they were prepared to see women as inspired channels for new truth from God” (P. 126).

According to Nancy Koester, “In 1879 Noyes fled to Canada to escape lawsuits,” and without his stabilizing leadership, “Oneida Community members abandoned ‘complex marriage'” (and the eugenic underpinnings that came with it) “in favor of monogamy” (P. 64). In Noyes’ absence, it would seem, they determined (foreshadowing a 2015 Time Magazine article) that, even if monogamy isn’t ‘optimal,’ it’s nice.”

The Shaker Christians Mandated Celibacy And Eventually They Just All Died (Part One of “The Other Sexual Revolutionaries”)

“Pre-Civil War America became a laboratory for religious experiments,” writes Nancy Koester. “Even though the great majority of people stayed within more conventional forms of Christianity, they were always some who thought they could discover, restore, or invent ‘True Religion.’ Available land helped to make these experiments possible” (P. 63).

The Second Great Awakening had inscribed a kind of “utopian proclivity” in much of the American consciousness. Generally, this led to the kind of progressive reforms for which nineteenth century activist Christianity is best known. But it also produced “separatist” communities who sought the live together, cloistered from the outside world, embodying to the best of their abilities the terms of “God’s new order.”

One such “early Utopian community, the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (known more familiarly as the Shakers) arrived in America from England in 1774 under the direction of mother Ann Lee,” writes Edwin Gaustad. “Lee taught that procreation was unnecessary since the kingdom of God was near at hand. This being so, Shaker men and women should live apart, living celibate lives. If a married couple joined the Shaker community, the marital relationship ended as the common life began” (P. 150).

These enclosed communes “included both men and women, but celibacy was strictly enforced through indoctrination and careful regulation of day-to-day activities,” writes Barbara MacHaffie. “Men and women ate at different tables, worked separately, used separate stairs to their living quarters, and sat on opposite sides of the room for worship” (P. 124).

According to Gaustad, Shakers saw themselves as “reviving the Pentecost church in their own time, one feature of that church being the commitment to live a virgin life” (P. 150).

Procreation was not simply unneccesary, though. “Lee came to believe that sexual intercourse was the source of all sin and that the family was based on carnal lust,” writes Koester. “Therefore, the perfect community must practice celibacy, which alone could bring equality between the sexes” (P. 63).

It is easy to forget how many of the early Christian communities held celibacy to be the optimal or even normative mode of Christian sexual expression. Works like the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla reflect this mindset. For the communities that produced the fictitious narrative, compulsory abstention from sexual relations owed less to the dominant culture’s Platonic unease with “bodies” and “material” than with an essentially feministish protest against the broad exploitation of women in Greco-Roman sexual practices.

As I’ve written elsewhere, “There was no ‘recreational’ sex for women in Rome – at least in the mainstream. Sex was not a game in the Empire Aeneas built – it was a tool, specifically, to dominate others. Affairs were not unheard of, but they were rarely for fun: Rome was entrenched in a rigid class system in which upward social mobility was nearly impossible. Sexual favors were often doled out in exchange for gifts, both monetary and otherwise,” but if you were a woman, sex was not about your pleasure – or your consent.

So when Thecla, an engaged noble woman from Iconium, hears St. Paul delivering a sermon, she devotes herself to chastity – much to the dismay of her mother and the chagrin of her fiance. When she will not back down, her loved ones (and eventually all of Rome) team up to martyr her, first with fire, then with lions, and finally by means of a whole array of Wile E. Coyote tricks and gadgets. In each case, the Lord rescues her, cementing, for those early Christian communities out of which the work emerged, God’s solidarity with womankind, who, in God’s new order, will not submit themselves to exploitation.

It is difficult for those of us born after the era of “sex positivity” to grasp the extent to which compulsory celibacy could have been liberating rather than stifling, both for women and for men, not only in the years immediately following the Resurrection of Jesus but even in the Shaker communities.

“Child-rearing became a shared responsibility,” writes MacHaffie. “Orphans and the children of new converts among the Shakers were cared for by a group of adults” (P. 125). According to Koester, “Their basis for Christian Community was the village, where property was held in common and all duties were shared. They built villages in which men and women lived separately and everyone contributed to farm work or crafts” (P. 64).

“Women generally did the indoor work and men did the heavier outdoor tasks but there was no indication that one type of work was superior to the other,” writes MacHaffie. “There is also evidence that men in Shaker communes carded wool and picked fruit, duties normally assigned to women” (P. 125).

They “multiplied in the first half of the 19th century as these ascetic visionaries moved into Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.” Though a fringe group, the sheer breadth of their reach suggests that their communities struck a chord with the populace (Gaustad, P. 150).

“The group began to attract revival converts who sought a radically new way of life,” writes Koester. And according to Gaustad, they “grew to about 6,000 by mid-century” (P. 150). But if “The Shaker rule of celibacy freed women from child-bearing and child-rearing,” Koester goes on, “it also meant that without new converts or the steady adoption of orphans, the movement would eventually die out” (P. 64).

Shakers not only “altered basic ideas in the Victorian ‘Cult of True Womanhood,'” writes MacHaffie, “But also challenged the traditional theological concepts” (P. 125). Although some Medieval and many “Modern” theologians had popularized the idea that God was literally male, the Shakers reclaimed something akin to the early Christian notion that God is neither male nor female, but that both maleness and femaleness are derivative from the nature of God. Although we speak of Him often in masculine language, the Patristics thought, this was chiefly a practicality: No one, they would say, should be deceived into thinking that God was male.

And so “The Shakers used their belief in the ‘androgynous’ nature of God as a keystone in the life of the community.” And more: “They built into their theology and group structures an equal rule for women. The Shaker ministry, which presided over the community, was made up of two women and two men. An equal number of Elders and Eldresses supervised the spiritual life of the Shaker families (30 to 90 people) while deacons and deaconesses attended to the practical details of communal life” (P. 126).

But the pathway that the Shakers took to get there was almost irredeemably problematic. “Mother Ann’s children had died in infancy, and in her grief she received visions that she believed were from God,” writes Koester. “In these visions, she saw herself as a female incarnation of God, a counterpart to Jesus” (P. 63). The logic ran that “God had first appeared incarnate in a male, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, the Divine Essence had its second incarnation in a female, mother Ann Lee” (Gaustad, P. 150). Previously, the human face of God was Jesus – a man. But “with the coming of the female Messiah,” writes MacHaffie, “The original equality that women had with men was restored” (P. 126).

Eventually, their commitment to celibacy doomed their communities to “a slow decline and ultimately near extinction,” says Gaustad. “When revivalism and utopian experimentation waned, so did the growth of the Shakers” (P. 150). According to Koester, “At the close of the 20th century, only one Shaker village remained, with just a few believers” (P. 64).

Nonetheless, in their day they were remarkable. “Studies of some Shaker communities in the last century show two female members for every male on average,” writes MacHaffie. This is noteworthy and it isn’t. In its earliest stages, the “Christian Revolution” was a peaceable uprising of women (and the men they’d won over with their otherworldly vision for a world put to rights).

By the nineteenth century, however, Christianity in America was largely the domain of “Godly (or ungodly) Men,” with women by default relegated largely to the background. Thus, it is possible that “Women may have been attracted to the sectarian communities for reasons directly related to their status in church and society.”

She continues: “Evidence taken from direct testimonies” suggest that “The revival spirit created in the atmosphere of intense religious feelings and yearnings which were satisfied for some women in sectarianism. Also, contact with other women, especially in communal sects, seemed to provide some women with a much-needed sense of ‘sisterhood.’ Testimonies from Shaker women, for example, reveal their intense enjoyment of conversation with women in their own communities and visits and letters from sisters and other locations. By joining the sectarian groups, however, women may also have been unconsciously rebelling against their status in the Protestant churches and in American culture” (P.127).


Works quoted above:

Gaustad, Edwin S., and Leigh Eric. Schmidt. The religious history of America. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2004.

Koester, Nancy. Introduction to the history of Christianity in the United States. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.

MacHaffie, Barbara J. Her story: women in Christian tradition. Philadelphia: Fortress Pr., 1988.

Meeks, Wayne A. Origins of Christian morality: first two centuries. Yale University Press, 1995.