Columns, Faithful and Reforming

Women’s groups alter church

Bold Woman Day: Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America designates an annual Sunday in February to recognize “women who are bold, women who take risks on account of the gospel, women who believe more boldly still in Jesus Christ.“ Unattached to a dramatic event or historic meeting, not linked to an influential leader or a high-profile project, the day provides an excellent starting place for considering the ministry of thousands of women’s organizations in American Lutheran churches. These organizations — including local Ladies’ Aid groups, the Hauge Synod Mission Dove, the Lutheran Free Church Women’s Missionary Federation, and the Joint Synod of Ohio Women’s Missionary Conference — cultivated and were guided by remarkable women whose leadership multiplied the steady work of a multitude of their members.

Lutheran women’s organizations founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had much in common with other Protestant women’s groups of the time. These Christian women came together regularly for prayer and study, for companionship, and to share in various projects. Sometimes they met in the church, but often they met in one another’s homes, admiring and enjoying the hostess’ culinary skills. By the turn of the century, local groups were federated into national bodies that sponsored missionaries, supported charitable institutions, and produced educational materials.

L. DeAne Lagerquist

By their volunteer work and their fundraising, women helped to forge a more participatory understanding of church membership.

Like Methodists and Presbyterians, Lutheran women in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, in General Synod, Iowa Synod, and Augustana Synod congregations gathered to support their congregations’ ministries and one another. Since the second wave of Lutheran immigration to the United States from Scandinavia and Germany coincided with these developments, some women’s groups were founded prior to their congregations. The women’s organizations functioned as mothers of the congregations.

Nothing in Luther’s Small Catechism exempted women from either receiving God’s grace or excused them from the admonitions to love their neighbors; nonetheless most congregations prohibited them from voting and no Lutheran church ordained women. Although many of their members might not have recognized it, these groups were part of the woman’s rights movement that flourished in the same years. Just as advocates of woman’s suffrage insisted that all citizens were entitled to vote, these Lutheran women insisted on being active participants in the church and its work.

Among recent immigrants, women were central to establishing new churches in an unfamiliar setting. In the state-supported folk churches they left behind, membership had been assumed. In the United States things were different. Here church membership was voluntary; there were many sorts of churches to choose from, and all of them needed to be self-supporting. By their volunteer work and their fundraising, women helped to forge a more participatory understanding of church membership, more suitable to the American conditions.

Lutheran women drive missions

While the specifics varied in each group, there were general patterns and common activities, such as an annual mission festival featuring a visit from a missionary. He would preach and tell about his work in India, China, or Madagascar. Women prepared several hearty congregational meals and provided the handcrafted items auctioned to raise funds.

Once the clean up was complete, the women continued to support the missionary. Through correspondence and updates in church publications, they stayed in touch with him, with his family, and with their church community. In these ways, women fostered an expansive, global sense of the church knit together by personal relationships, informed prayer, and financial support. They understood that the church extended beyond their congregation and circled the world.

The church was also closer to home, of course. In those early decades, each social ministry or charitable institution managed its own finances, rather than depending upon a unified national church budget. When cash was in short supply, rural pastors received bushels of apples, baskets of eggs, and loaves of bread to supplement their salaries. Similarly women’s groups sent gifts in kind to orphanages and homes for old people, to hospitals and schools operated by Lutherans. They were partners in these ministries where faith was active in love.

In their congregations, women’s work extended their activities in their homes: feeding, cleaning, and teaching. Confirmation records suggest that their basic theological knowledge was comparable to their brothers’ in kind and at least as good, if not better, in quality. Women with musical gifts could lead the congregation from the keyboard, or by directing a choir. In general, however, their opportunities for formal leadership in the congregation were limited to the women’s organization or with children.

A place to exercise leadership

Women were able to exercise influence on congregational matters even without having a vote. If the women who had raised the funds judged that an organ or a furnace was more needed than some other item, the organ or the furnace was what would be purchased. This strategy recognized that women played an essential role to the congregation’s life and work. However, it also promoted an unhealthy linkage of financial contributions to decision making.

Within their own organizations, women both offered one another support and cultivated their own leadership. In some instances the pastor attended their monthly meetings to lead the Bible study and offer prayers. Some men thought women incapable of doing these things and others feared that once women assumed these responsibilities, they would come to desire others as well. Most often women took the lead themselves. Frequently the pastor’s wife was the founder of the local group and many served as officers in the federated societies. By the mid-20th century, the national organizations provided instruction that encouraged any woman to prepare Bible study or to chair a meeting.

The changes in women’s lives beyond the churches were also evident within Lutheran women’s organizations. Circles might be organized for young mothers or for professional women. Bible studies continued, but new programs also turned members’ attention to social conditions that restricted women’s lives. Now women have opportunities to take public leadership, both lay and, in some Lutheran church bodies, ordained.

L. DeAne Lagerquist is a religion professor at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota. She is the author of From Our Mothers’ Arms: A History of Women in the American Lutheran Church and The Lutherans. Mark Granquist, associate professor of church history at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, is the project editor of “Faithful and Reforming.”

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