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"God makes use of feeble means sometimes, to bring about His most exalted purposes": faith and social action in the lives of evangelical women in antebellum America

Date

2014

Authors

Austin, Beth Darlene Ridenoure, author
Alexander, Ruth M., advisor
Margolf, Diane C., committee member
Doe, Sue R., committee member

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Abstract

Historians of women's history and of African American religious history interpret Evangelical Christian theology in widely differing ways. Women's historians often have emphasized its complicity with the socially conservative, repressive forces with which women's rights proponents had to contend as they sought the betterment of American society. Historians of African American women and religion tend to highlight Christianity's liberating role and potential in the African American experience. These different historiographical emphases prompt reconsideration of religious conservatism and its effect on social activism, particularly as refracted through the lens of race and gender. Considering the ubiquity of Christian religiosity in the rhetoric, the epistemology and the moral culture that informed social discourse in nineteenth-century America, individual religious belief and its effect on women's social activism as they sought to define and expand their role in American society is an important element of historical analysis and deserves much greater attention by the scholarly community. This thesis is an attempt to draw together themes from various bodies of historiography in order to clarify the interconnectedness of religious belief, gender roles, and race relations in the history of the United States. It examines the lives and beliefs of ten American women, white and black, who adhered to the commonplace, conventional theology of Protestant Evangelicalism and who engaged in the reformist tendencies of the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth century, Protestant Evangelical Christianity became a socially useful and politically relevant means of integrating faith and daily life in the context of an evolving ideology of human rights, and served as a path through which Americans, both white and black, were able to appropriate and make effective use of the individual authority that had been idealized in the rhetoric of the American Revolution. Although the actions of nineteenth-century Evangelical women were not always intended to bring about political change, their collective embodiment of an outwardly-focused, socially-active Evangelical faith contributed momentum to the creation of a pattern of discourse within which marginalized Americans of later generations operated as they pressed for legal and political equality as American citizens. This thesis, by examining the ways in which the faith of conservative, Evangelical women empowered them to effect positive change in their own and others' lives, revisits the issue of religious conservatism and its effect on social activism, probing the question from the angle of empowerment rather than from limitation.

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2014 Fall.

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