- Canadian Methodist Women, 1766-1925: Marys, Marthas, Mothers in Israel
Graced by an attractive cover and written as a richly anecdotal narrative, Canadian Methodist Women, 1766–1925 has clearly been a labour of love for independent scholar Marilyn Whiteley. While the book eschews theory and historiographical debates and pays only limited attention to the larger social contexts informing the Canadian Methodist experience, it will, nonetheless, be of interest and value to university historians as well as to others interested in Canadian church and social history.
Rather than relying exclusively on the rich holdings of the United Church/Victoria University Archives in Toronto, Whiteley has travelled to Conference archives from Newfoundland to British Columbia to look for local traces of Methodist women's volunteer church work (chiefly in Woman's Missionary Society and Ladies' Aid records). Canadian Methodist Women is not, then, simply Ontario history, writ large. Canadian Methodist women, Whiteley argues, handily adapted to changing times and circumstances in the service of their church, performing both as practical Marthas and as contemplative Marys, and drawing on a 'strong empowering tradition' (5) from Wesley's own era to exercise leadership, particularly from the late nineteenth century.
The book's early chapters deal with pioneer women who played host to, or were wives of, itinerant preachers. Part 2, 'Evangelical Experience and the Means of Grace,' draws heavily on obituaries to consider Methodist women's spiritual lives both in the private realm, where intense prayer and repeated readings of the entire Bible were reportedly not unusual, and in the public settings of revivals, prayer meetings, and class meetings, the last a congenial 'middle ground outside the home' where women could both give and receive spiritual nurture, sometimes in mixed-sex groups (80). Subsequent chapters on the 'Organizing Church' cover charitable work and Ladies' Aids, fundraising, Sunday School teaching, and church musicianship. The last two sections of the book are concerned with aspects of Methodist women's history that other scholars have explored more fully: overseas [End Page 522] missions, and such elements of 'social Christianity' as temperance and deaconess work and outreach to immigrants. For me, these are the least satisfactory chapters. Whereas the coverage of the itinerancy and class-meeting eras seems well-served by Whiteley's eye for illustrative or mythic anecdotes, the chapters on the later period needed more and sharper analysis and more attention to the larger social context. Moreover, Whiteley's desire to reclaim and celebrate Methodist women's accomplishments results in some puzzling observations. WMS supporters of home missions, for instance, are said not to have worked for the 'assimilation' of immigrants but only to 'Canadianize' and 'Christianize' them (182). And an article on American Methodist women is approvingly quoted for its contention that 'the social gospel was born only when male ministers and professors and laymen began to think and behave in ways which nineteenth-century American culture considered characteristic of womanhood' (184). One wishes that Whiteley had undertaken, however briefly, to relate this perspective to Canadian historians' debates about the origins and meaning of the social gospel. Finally, while there are understandable reasons for her decision not to include the experiences of the many women who by the late nineteenth century worked professionally for the church – in missions, the deaconess movement, and other areas – their absence is not signalled in her title, and given that absence, readers may sometimes be hard pressed to understand just what it was about the professionals' work that impelled volunteers to such zealous and long-lasting support.
These concerns notwithstanding, I was delighted to see that in her last full chapter Whiteley dealt with the early-twentieth-century movement for rights for women within the Methodist church. For activists on the issue like the indefatigable Helen Spencer Detlor, and perhaps even for Nellie McClung, the admission of women to 'all the courts of the church as lay members,' a victory won at the 1918 General Conference (234), was arguably of more practical importance than the better-known...