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Women in the Early Christian Church

March 31, 1888 — International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington DC


To me, one of the most notable things connected with this Council has been the almost universal unanimity with which the delegates, both ministerial and lay, in invocation and speech, have ignored the feminine in the Divinity. So notable has this non-recognition been, that the morning when I presided over its proceedings I was in some little trouble to find the woman far enough advanced in theology to recognize the divine motherhood, but eventually, in Isabella Beecher Hooker, I secured such person for the invocation with which the programme of the Council demands all proceedings should be opened. The almost total ignoring of the Divine Motherhood of God by those who have in any way referred to the Supreme Power, has been to me a subject of profound surprise and astonishment.

All thoughtful persons, and foremost among them should be the women here represented, must be aware of the historical fact that the prevailing religious idea in regard to woman has been the base of all their restrictions and degradation. It underlies political, legal, educational, industrial, and social disabilities of whatever character and nature. The word “God,” which simply means good, has everywhere been interpreted by the Christian Church, especially for the last hundreds of years, as well as by the later Jewish theocracy, as of but one gender — the masculine; and it has been the occasion for the priesthood of both dispensations to ignore the feminine principle everywhere. Inasmuch as history teaches us that the rack, the torture, the destruction of human will, the degradation of woman for the past eighteen hundred years, have been dependent upon masculine interpretation of the Bible, based upon belief in a purely masculine divinity, this Council has been to me a dangerous evidence of woman’s ignorance upon this most important of questions. It was the teaching of Aristotle which the church endorsed under penalty of punishment for heresy that the supreme effort of nature was always for the masculine, she only producing the feminine when balked of her first intention.

And even when the great naturalist, Linneaus, of whom it has been said he made the frozen plains of Lapland to blossom like fairy fields, first made known his wonderful sexual system of plants, the basis of all modern investigation in botany, he was shunned as one who had degraded nature and insulted the Most High.

It is especially surprising that the advocates of social purity fail to recognize the femininity of the divine — of God; that they alike fail to see, to speak of, and to address the Divine Mother, when the fact of this ignoring by the church and by man has resulted in the creation of two codes of morals, everywhere recognized in society, the lax for man, the strict for woman. Had it not been for this theory which has grown out of the doctrines of the church in regard to the masculinity of God and the supreme wickedness of woman, the world would not now be filled with the grossness and moral wrongs which, because of her higher nature, are everywhere made to fall with supreme force upon woman.

In all ancient nations we find goddesses seated everywhere with gods, in many instances regarded as superior to them, and of greater influence in the affairs of the universe. Nor had this idea quite died out at the advent of Christianity. To the majority of the Christian world the early history of the church is entirely unknown, but the student can glean enough to show that the equal feminine nature of the divine was accepted by the church.

The fact that upon his baptism by John, the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in the form of a dove, is sufficient to prove this were other testimony wanting, the dove among all ancient nations symbolizing the feminine principle. It is also remarkable that the Hebrew possesses no masculine gender for dove. Not until after his baptism, when the spirit, or feminine principle of the divinity, rested upon and united itself with Him, did Jesus take up his ministry. As spirit in the Hebrew answers to all genders, and in Greek to the feminine alone, it is easy to see the false beliefs engendered by church teachings as to the masculinity and father hood alone of God. Our records of the first three Christian centuries prove that even the early and oft-quoted fathers of the church regarded the third person of the Trinity as feminine.

One of the most revered ancient scriptures of that period, “The Gospel according to the Hebrews,” in use during the second century, and of great authority, taught this, Origen, in the third century (A.D. 230), quoting from it. This Gospel was believed to have been compiled from still older manuscripts: one entitled ” The Oracles and Sayings of Christ,” a second ” The Gospel Preaching and Doctrines of Peter.” The great biblical scholar, Tischendorf, to whom the world is indebted for the discovery of the famous ” Sinaitic Codex,” and almost equally for the renowned Vatican Codex, hidden so many years in the Vatican palace at Rome, endorses the authenticity of this Gospel, believing it to have been in use by Justin, one of the earliest Christian fathers, whose birth is placed at A.D. 89.

Another canonical book of the New Testament, now lost, was known as “The Everlasting Gospel,” and was also called “The Gospel of the Holy Ghost.” In this Jesus is represented as saying: ” My mother, the Holy Ghost, took me.” The Gnostics, that early philosophical division of the church which claimed possession of the only true Christianity, denominated this feminine principle, Sophia, i.e., wisdom. With the Kabalists, the feminine signified those who possessed a knowledge of secret things, especially of a divine character. The “Divine Spirit” was conceded to be the feminine Jehovah, or the feminine principle of the Godhead. This spirit is not alone the comforter; it is the animating power — the life. A recent article upon the Esoteric or interior meaning of the gospels refers to spirit in this wise: ” One is she, the spirit of the Elohim of life.”

The primary sense of spirit, as given by Webster, is to drive, to rush. This recalls the Day of Pentecost, when the Spirit descended as a mighty, rushing wind, visible as tongues of fire. Fire possesses the same radical sense as spirit, signifying to rush. Either as spirit or as fire, this principle of the divinity denotes activity, animation, vigor, force, and is equivalent to life itself — the creative principle. In this Council there have been frequent references to the creation. Let me present the subject on the same Biblical basis, but from a different interpretation.

God, that is Father-Mother, said: ” Let us make man in Our image, after Our likeness.” So God, Father-Mother, created man, male and female created He-She, them, and called their name Adam, a generic term signifying “red;” or, as has been interpreted, “the one who blushes.” In addition, the woman, possessing the feminine attributes of the Divinity, received a specific name, significative of spirit, of life: Eve in our translation, Zoe in the Greek, both signifying life, the one who holds or gives life, the life-giver, the creative principle, in which respect the woman possesses superiority over the man.

The Old Testament, falsely translated as it has been, full of mistakes and interpolations as it is known to be, is pronounced in its recognition of a feminine principle in the Divinity. The word Jehovah, too holy to be spoken by the Jew, was formed by the union of Jah-Eve, signifying both the masculine and the feminine, while El Shaddai, translated “The Almighty,” is used only when some action of the Divine nature expressive of the feminine is required. Its external signification is purely feminine.

During the lapse of ages and growing materiality of the world the femininity of the Divine was forgotten, its holiness, or wholeness, lost, and until again recognized humanity mourns. Various bodies, material and mystical, lament the “lost name,” among them, the Masons, the inner meaning of whose rites, not understood by themselves, is based upon it. Through ignorance, prejudice, and fraud, the feminine having been lost, God has been presented to both Jew and Christian as solely masculine. The wholeness of the Divine name will not be restored until the feminine is again recognized as a component part of the Divinity.

The Lord’s Prayer, ” Hallowed be Thy name,” is an entreaty for the restoration of the “wholeness” of this name — for a recognition of the feminine in this name. It lies within the power of each person uttering this prayer to answer it himself — herself; and the remaining portions, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth,” depend upon a restoration of the wholeness of the Divine name by a recognition of the feminine in the Divinity.

By no external miracle is the world to be taught truth. The kingdom of heaven lies within; each person can hasten its advent for himself, her self. There is abundant proof that even under this partial recognition of the motherhood or femininity of God, women were officially recognized in the early ministrations of the Christian church. They were ordained to the ministry, officiated as deacons, administered the rites of baptism and the Lord’s supper, promulgated tenets, interpreted doctrines, and founded sects to which even their names were given. From Marcellina, in the second century (A.D.), a body of the church took its name. Her adherents were called Marcellinions, the same as the followers of Huss, Luther, Wesley, Calvin, and Swedenborg, at a later period, have been known as Hussites, Lutherans, Wesleyans, Calvinists and Swedenborgians. Although the writings of Marcellina have shared the fate of many canonical books, having been lost, her memory has descended to us fragrant with the deeds of a good life. As Deborah was the only Jewish ruler whom the sacred scribes, historians, and prophets passed by unrebuked, so we find the memory of Marcellina free from calumny and reproach. Her life and her doctrines were in accord.

Maxamilla, a prophetess, also lived in the second century — the latter part, about A. D. 190. Her writings are not extant. The present version of the New Testament mentions, by name, women who preached, and to whose services the early church was largely indebted. In the latter half of the fourth century and first half of the fifth the woman deaconate of the East had reached a position of great importance.

All the later Greek Fathers — Basil, Gregory of Nyassa, Theodoret, and others — refer to it, and notices of individual deaconesses become frequent in church annals. By the sixth century the office of deaconess had become entirely sacerdotal, forming a link between the secular and spiritual clergy. As part of this body, they were addressed as ” Most Reverend and Venerable.” Even as late as the seventh century this office was common in the Christian church, the Synod of Constantinople, in Tivoli, 691-2, promulgating a canon fixing the age at which both men and women could receive ordination for the deaconate. At this date women still administered baptism, as we find from a work of John Moschus, entitled ” The Spiritual Meadow,” which, appearing at the end of this century, referred to the office of deaconess in conjunction with the baptism of women.

As the centuries passed on and the idea of a purely masculine God gained strength, we find woman continuously losing her representative place in the church. From the fourth century canons were promulgated by various councils forbidding, first, her ministry and service at the altar; next, the deaconate and the right of performing baptism; yet, even then, her services were permitted at the bedside of a dying person in case no masculine priest was present. But very early a division had occurred between men and women in the church upon the subject of baptism, women claiming the right to baptize their own sex. At this ordinance the candidate was divested of clothing, anointed with oil, and other ceremonies practiced for driving out demons, with which all the unregenerate were supposed to be infested.

Man having separated himself from a belief in the femininity of God, continually degraded women in the church, as is shown by the action of these various councils. That of Laodicea (A.D. 365), by its eleventh canon, forbade the further ordination of women to the ministry, and prohibited them from even entering the altar. In the action of these councils, proof is shown that woman did not willingly relinquish her rights in the church. The Council of Orleans (A.D. 511), one hundred and forty-six years later, promulgated a canon excluding women from the deaconate, but the history of the church proves them to have continued in this office, especially in the Eastern church, three hundred years longer.

But the earliest European churches made great distinction between the purity of man and woman, even while women still possessed functional rights in those bodies. By a decree of the Council of Auxerre (A.D. 578) women, on account of their impurity, were forbidden to receive the Eucharist into their naked hands. They were also forbidden to sing in church on account of their inherent wickedness.

In the sixth century (Macon, A.D. 585) a council was held whose chief subject of discussion was the possession of a soul by woman. While upon one side was the determination of women to maintain their position in the church, upon the other side was the whole masculine power of the church sustained purely by its continuous teaching of the superiority of the masculine, the inferiority and subjection of women. The struggle was long. Despite the increasing loss of spiritual knowledge and the entrance of Europe upon that prolonged era of mental and moral darkness, when from the seventh to the eleventh century individual thought was so far crushed that not even a heresy arose; despite the action of councils and the concerted effort of the church for depriving her of spiritual power — we still possess historical proof of woman’s serving at the altar and administering the sacrament until the ninth century, when the Council of Paris (A.D. 824) again took the subject into restrictive consideration.

From that moment the darkness of Christendom became profound. Neither science, art, nor literature flourished; history itself died; and we know absolutely less of Christian Europe from 800 to 1100, A.D., than we do of ancient Egypt 3,000 years ago. When the feminine was wholly proscribed, the night of moral and spiritual degradation reached its greatest depth, and that condition ensued which has alike been the wonder and despair of the modern historian, but whose cause is easily discernible to him who reads aright. The church, while in word proclaiming the unity of God, had in reality passed over to idolatry in a worship of the masculine. In place of truth, falsehood prevailed; in place of unity, division. Has not the time, therefore, fully come for women to take council together? Has not the time come for an investigation of the principles of religion? Has not the moment arrived for woman to see the truths of nature for herself? Has not the time come for her to interpret the Bible herself? Shall she longer consent to remain a subject and isolated portion of humanity? For many centuries woman lived under the ban of silence. In the inmost recesses of her own heart she knew herself to be a component part of humanity — the chiefest part, inasmuch as through her life is ever preserved. But for long ages, to speak was death; even thought was controlled, and the bondage of her will seemed absolute. The world had lost its equilibrium, and its descent become easy. But balances cannot forever descend; ” There are two poles to the extremes of man’s nature.”

The night of ignorance, credulity, and despair is nearly at an end; the dawn is at hand; the feminine will soon be fully restored to its rightful place in creation and in religion as well as in law, in the divinity as well as in humanity, we shall find recognition of the sexual duality of all life, of the motherhood as well as the fatherhood of God.

The world is full of vague unrest; the people, the church, the state all have premonition of some great crisis at hand; but neither church, state, nor people see this crisis to be an entire revolution in religious thought regarding the feminine. The hour of this spiritual change is at hand. One of the most notable signs of this crisis is the recent formation by women of a society for the moral reformation of man — the White Cross. This is the more notable as the past action of the church has created two codes of morals; the strict for woman, the lax for man. In the White Cross for men, and its kindred Silver Cross for boys and youth under sixteen, the same moral responsibility, the same purity of conduct is demanded of men that is required of women.

A second and more recent sign of the world’s spirit to-day lies in the call for an International Scientific Congress of Catholics, soon to convene in Paris, whose wide list of subjects of such nature as a century or two since would have condemned a man to the stake for heresy, has received the sanction of Pope Leo XIII. In this programme, drawn up by the leading French scholars, are such questions as “the authenticity of the Pentateuch and the prophecies,” “the bases of morality and right” — to which end all of Herbert Spencer’s studies have tended — “the origin of life,” and “a textual criticism of the New Testament.”

When the conservative Mother Church endorses a council of her children, among whose objects are criticisms of the New Testament, and inquires into the authenticity of the Pentateuch and prophecies of the Old Testament, the world is in the midst of a tremendous religious revolution. And when in addition to this Catholic action we find Protestant theologians of prominence, with Bishop Carlisle at their head, engaged in a discussion as to the original form of the Ten Commandments, or “Ten Words,” and eliminating from the tenth as an interpolation all that portion in regard to a man’s wife, his ox, his cattle, and all things that are his, leaving it simply “Thou shalt not covet,” surely the spiritual enfranchisement of the world is at hand.

In view of all the past and present continuous revisions of the Bible and its many thousand acknowledged mistakes and interpolations, whereby not only the Ten Commandments are found wrong, and also the most cherished portions of the New Testament, as the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer, are proven to have been added to, it is folly to expect from women an undoubted belief in man’s theological statements and biblical interpretations.

Man has lost his power over woman. Mr. Moody, the evangelist, declared he found men a hundred-fold more receptive of his teachings than women. For fifteen years he had preached a sermon in the afternoon to women, and the same sermon as far as possible to men in the evening, and in nine cases out of ten with inconceivably greater results.

The right of private judgment possessed by women in the early Christian church, as we have noted, although afterwards denied both to women and to common men, was in reality the great lesson of the Reformation, although not yet fully conceded to the women of to-day. The world is alive with religious questions. The purity of the church is questioned. A tree is declared known by its fruits, says the London Table, and asks what is the actual and practical good of the professed Christianity of England at this present time, with the land absolutely seething with want, misery,” ignorance, and vice in their most degrading and debasing forms. Even in this country conservative men are demanding a new class of clergy more in accord with science and the spirit of the hour. Charles Francis Adams, in an address before the Social Union of Amherst College a few years since, bewailed the unprogressiveness of theology, declaring the need of a fresh class of clergy for the benefit of man’s education.

If such a fresh class of clergy is needed by men, how much more by women, against whose moral and material rights the interpretations of the Bible and the whole force of the church have been directed for nearly 2,000 years. The religious teachers of the present day need to be brave and liberal persons, possessing knowledge of science, history, and the laws of evolution. They need to be persons — they need to be women — who shall dare break away from all the false traditions of the middle ages, fearless in preaching the truth as to the absolute and permanent equality of the feminine with the masculine, not alone in all material, but in all spiritual things.



Source: Report of the International Council of Women, Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C., U.S. of America, March 25 to April 1, 1888, (Washington, DC: Rufus H. Darby), 1888, pp. 400-407.