University of Rochester

Author Explains How Women in the Church of God in Christ Created Social Change through Spirituality in the Early 20th Century

March 7, 2008

In the early 20th century, equal opportunities for women at the work place and in the political arena were severely restricted. Laboring under the twin burdens of racial prejudice and patriarchal hierarchy, African-American women were often relegated to scrubbing floors, washing clothes, laboring in fields, or caring for the children of white families.

Despite these economic and social challenges, a group of African-American women managed to negotiate power for themselves and the black community. Decades before the civil rights movement, half a century before the women's movement, these women discovered a surprisingly potent path to power. Their secret, says Anthea Butler, author of Women in the Church of God In Christ: Making A Sanctified World (The University of North Carolina Press), was living a sanctified life.

"The women in the Church of God in Christ wielded social, political, and spiritual power in the church by their example of living the sanctified life," says Butler, assistant professor of religion and classics who specializes in African-American religions, evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and gender issues. "By being moral and spiritual exemplars, they were able to share power and at times take power away from a male-dominated clergy."

In this first major study of what is now the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, Butler acted as both a scholar and participant observer to tell the rich stories of the founding members of the church's Memphis-based Women's Department from 1911 through the 1960s.

"As a youth-oriented culture, we need to move beyond what we assume about these older women in their Sunday finery, furs, and hats," says Butler. "They wanted not only to do 'right by God,' but to open pathways for women and the black community through their own brand of religiously based social activism."

While doing research in places like Chicago, Memphis, and Florida, Butler interviewed senior church members and sorted through old boxes of files and papers found in their attics, basements, under beds, and as Butler recalls, "nearly electrocuted myself when I plugged my laptop into a house with poor wiring." The information she gathered was vital to the church's history and "may otherwise been lost forever to time, trash, or Alzheimer's disease," Butler notes.

Respectable dress and deportment were important "spiritual weapons" throughout the church's history, as were cleanliness, moderation of food intake, fasting, prayer, and abstinence from alcohol, a concept derived from I Corinthians 6, which states that the body is a "temple" that must be kept cleansed for the Holy Spirit to remain in it. By living the sanctified life, women in the Church of God in Christ could perceive themselves as set apart, despite what white racists or resentful outsiders could say to the contrary, Butler says. As Arenia Mallory, president of the Church of God in Christ's Saint's Industrial School admonished her students, one should "Walk in dignity, talk with dignity, and live with dignity."

By using their charismatic authority, women in the Church of God in Christ were able to become social power brokers both inside and outside the church setting, working for biblically based social reforms aimed at alleviating poverty and discrimination and improving educational opportunities. Lillian Brooks Coffey, for example, started a home for older church women in Detroit in the 1940s and worked closely with Mary McLeod Bethune for the National Council of Negro Women. Church members eventually took their mission to Washington, D.C., through the auspices of the National Council of Negro Women, to which many belonged.

"What is absolutely amazing is that these uneducated women, who worked 10 to 12 hours a day or more, were able to connect to community and civic leaders in the 1930s and 40s," says David Daniels, professor of church history at the McCormick Theological Seminary and an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ. "Dr. Butler shows that being sanctified was not just a personal means of salvation, but a way of networking with the world that took these women and their social agenda all the way to the White House."

For Butler, even today as U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton makes a run for president, the issues that women in the Church of God of Christ faced mirror broader concerns women still confront today.

Despite the advances of the feminist movement, some women still make less than their male counterparts, childcare costs remain high, and sexual exploitation and violence against women has not abated, she says.

"Organizations like the Church of God in Christ's Women's Department reached across social, racial, and denominational lines to advocate for and make women's living conditions better," Butler says. "It is this kind of community spirit that is sorely needed for women across the world today.

Butler, who recently received a 2008-2009 research scholarship from the Women Studies in Religion Program at the Harvard Divinity School, is beginning work on her next book, The Swamp Angel of the South: Joanna P. Moore and Home Missions Work 1863-1869. Butler will explore the life of Moore, the American Baptist Home Missionary whose interracial work, women's organizing, and partnerships with African- American women resulted in the creation of a bible study magazine HOPE, used extensively by African Americans in the South.