- Beyond the Pulpit: Women's Rhetorical Roles in the Antebellum Religious Press by Lisa J. Shaver
The religious landscape of antebellum America was profoundly transformed by the rapid growth of periodical publications. "Virtually nonexistent in 1800," writes Nathan Hatch in The Democratization of American Christianity, they became "the grand engine of a burgeoning religious culture, the primary means of promotion for, and bond of union within competing religious groups" (125-26). In her timely study, Beyond the Pulpit, Lisa Shaver examines the popular periodicals of the denomination that, by 1850, had become the largest religious organization in the United States: the Methodist church. Founded in the early decades of the nineteenth century, Methodist Magazine (1818), the Christian Advocate (1826), and the Ladies Home Repository (1841) created a growing community of believers who, through the shared act of reading, connected with other Methodists across the country and participated collectively in the affirmation of their faith. But, Shaver argues, these Methodist periodicals did something more: they created an empowering rhetorical space for the multitude of ordinary women who contributed to the well-being of the church and the spirituality of its constituents. As such, the male editors of these periodicals unintentionally blurred the boundary between the separate gendered spheres they firmly wished to promote, transforming women into powerful rhetorical agents in their burgeoning Methodist community and preparing the way for more significant change.
A Methodist with a strong sense of connection to the women of the church, Shaver initially turned her scholarly attention to the small number of women who dared to assume the role of preacher or exhorter in the early years of the Methodist movement. She soon recognized, however, that scholarship on women in the church focused primarily on the pulpit as the church's only significant rhetorical space. A churchgoer herself, Shaver had always known that it was the women who "ran the church," the women who taught Sunday School and Bible School, raised money for church missions, maintained the prayer networks, and prepared the "bereavement dinners" (2-3). Drawing on this knowledge and capitalizing on the recent availability of digital archives, Shaver looked "beyond the pulpit" for "the little narratives" or "brief everyday descriptions" of women's rhetorical activities that appeared in early-nineteenth-century Methodist publications (7). Searching for texts written by women, about women, and directed at women, she found that, in addition to teaching Sunday School and collecting money for the church, these women organized and participated in benevolent societies, worked as missionaries in Sabbath Schools, served the church faithfully as the wives of ministers, and, [End Page 197] in both life and death, acted as models of piety and holiness. "Through their depiction in Methodist publications," she argues, "women became spiritual models, exemplars, and heroines for a rapidly expanding Methodist community" (132). In Beyond the Pulpit, Shaver has thus made visible women who have long remained nameless and rhetorical activities that have long been ignored.
And she has shown that, like the church itself, Methodist publications became "liminal zones" or "borderlands" for the rhetorical development of Methodist women (133).
In her lucid introduction, Shaver not only lays out the organization of and justification for her study but also provides a useful history of the Methodist church in America, its commitment to the dissemination of religious publications, and its complex relationship to the nineteenth-century ideology of separate spheres. Her first two chapters focus on the rhetorical spaces—the deathbed memoirs—in which women first appeared in the widely-read early publication, Methodist Magazine. In the early years of the magazine's history, memoirs of pious Methodists were thought to be an important tool in the church's evangelical mission, and the death-bed memoirs of women provided especially powerful examples of a good Christian death. "Dying well," after all, "was an accomplishment for which" women could be "recognized, exalted, and held up as models" of salvation and faith (40). Shaver embeds her analysis of the memoirs themselves in a discussion of the history of...