Biography 26.4 (2003) 755-757
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In Holy Boldness: Women Preachers' Autobiographies and the Sanctified Self, Susie C. Stanley examines the autobiographies of nearly three dozen women preachers from the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition, including such organizations and denominations as the Church of the Nazarene, the Church of God, and the Salvation Army; these autobiographies were published between the mid-nineteenth and the late-twentieth centuries. Few of these preachers will be familiar to most readers—even, I suspect, to experts in church history—and one of Stanley's goals is to bring the existence of these texts to the attention of contemporary scholars. Stanley's approach is more descriptive than analytical, and her interpretations generally feminist. Throughout the book, she argues that the experience of sanctification permitted, even encouraged, these women to transgress socially prescribed gender roles and assert public identities.
The greatest strength of Holy Boldness is that it does draw attention to a large group of women and texts that have thus far elicited only slight critical interest. Three of the autobiographies—those by Zilpha Elaw, Julia Foote, and Jarena Lee—have been discussed in scholarly journals and at academic conferences, primarily in the context of African American women's writing. Most of the texts Stanley examines, however, have remained virtually invisible in the academy. (How many readers would immediately recognize the names of Mary Still Adams, Mary Lee Cagle, Sarah A. Cooke, and Jane Dunning, for example?) Such neglect is particularly unfortunate for the disciplines of social history and religious studies. As Stanley points out, thousands of women were ordained or licensed to preach in the Wesleyan/Holiness tradition, a fact that has been generally ignored in recent arguments about the [End Page 755] ordination of women in more mainstream Christian denominations. A more thorough analysis of these women's lives and works could only enrich our understanding of women's influence on the development of evangelization, theology, and social service in the United States.
Chapters four through seven of Holy Boldness are most useful in this respect. In chapter four, "Sanctification: Autobiography as Testimony," Stanley provides her clearest explanation of the distinctions among "sinful," "saved," and "sanctified"—an explanation that will be necessary to anyone unfamiliar with this religious tradition. While this explanation should probably have occurred earlier in the book, its position here does permit Stanley to elaborate on Wesleyan/Holiness theology, especially as that theology understands the significance of gender and race. Chapter five, "Affirmation and Opposition of Ministry," situates opposition to women's preaching within a theological context, and demonstrates how these women interpreted the Bible as authorizing their ministries.
Chapters six and seven specifically examine the ministries the writers discuss in their autobiographies. Stanley separates them into "evangelistic ministries," those particular to such events as revivals and camp meetings, and "social holiness ministries," or ministries that also have a secular (and often political) component, such as women's rights and temperance. In both chapters, Stanley discusses several autobiographers, in part to demonstrate that such women were not anomalous, that they functioned as part of a community whether or not they were directly acquainted with each other. A disadvantage of this strategy, of course, is that the reader does not become intimately familiar with any one woman's voice. Reference to so many texts within a comparatively brief span of pages precludes an extended close reading of any one passage. Stanley's choice to include so many autobiographies in her analysis is appropriate, however, to her primary purpose of introducing this material to the scholarly community. The subsequent task remains to analyze one or more of these autobiographies in greater detail.
The greatest flaw of Holy Boldness is its awkward handling of more theoretical material. Stanley acknowledges that some of the ideas she attempts to incorporate lie "beyond the boundaries of my areas of training," and further, that "I have immersed myself in the critical literature of...