Nicole Myers Turner is assistant professor of religious studies at Yale University. Her first book, Soul Liberty: The Evolution of Black Religious Politics in Post Emancipation Virginia, was published in 2020 with the University of North Carolina Press and appears in both a print edition and an open-access, enhanced e-book through Fulcrum.
“The Black Church” is a construct. It was born out of a critique that Black churches should do something to address the problems Black people faced. This interpretation of Black churches has tended to focus on the politics and social engagement of Black churches, but I suggest that such interpretations do not fully engage how gender roles and dynamics were shaping and being shaped by the political and social context.
Traditional interpretations of gender in Black churches highlight the breakthrough accomplishments of women in leadership, accomplishments like those of the first Black woman ordained African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister, Jarena Lee; of the first Black woman ordained Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray; and of the first Black woman elected AME bishop, Vashti McKenzie. More critical analyses look more deeply, beyond such breakthrough examples, to note that Black women’s spiritual labor has been invisibilized, and that they have long been the backbone of the church, whether through fostering a gender consciousness upon which a race consciousness was built, through their organizational skills, or through their financial support.
Traditional interpretations of gender in Black churches highlight the breakthrough accomplishments of women in leadership.
Certainly, these are important conclusions to draw about the gendering of Black church spaces. Yet instead I suggest that paying attention to the influence of the intersecting forces of race and gender on Black church formation will give us a far better understanding of both the moments when breakthroughs occurred and how gender roles were formed within churches as responses to the social and political context.
What would happen if we attended to each of these breakthrough moments of women’s leadership as indicators or signs of something more widespread—namely that a process of undoing gender inequality was beginning to take place within churches? And what if we inverted our explorations to consider not just when breakthroughs happened, but how spaces became gendered in the first place and thus created the need for those breakthroughs? If we did so, we’d recognize that the racial limitations of gendered roles set the stage for debates within Black churches and that the politics of Black churches have long been gendered from within as much as they have been constructed from without.
Breakthrough women’s leadership were events that directly challenged the nineteenth-century paradigms of gender and race.
First, breakthrough women’s leadership were events that directly challenged the nineteenth-century paradigms of gender and race. In the early nineteenth century, gender roles were framed by Christianity and Victorian ideals of femininity. Women preaching was not the norm. But within Black communities, both enslaved and free, gender-specified roles for men and women were complicated and shifting. Women’s space was created among enslaved people through labor and laboring. And yet this space of enslaved labor did not afford enslaved women the “protection” of femininity or enslaved men the “privileges” of manhood. In free Black communities, the limitations were parallel: Free Black women might not be able to stay at home, but instead worked as domestic laborers for white families, and Black men, excluded from the market, could not claim patriarchal control that being the main breadwinner allowed. Thus, the marks of race inflected gender roles and delimited the prospects for Black people—which is not to suggest that these patriarchal Victorian arrangements were even ideals worth striving for or that all Black people pursued them. Churches, however, became key sites in which we can see how the contests over these ideas played out.
Within churches, the discourse about women’s roles existed in this racialized gendered context. When Jarena Lee was ordained to the ministry in this context, her elevation challenged Victorian ideals about women’s place and highlighted the tension in this model that accrued power to men. Thus, Lee’s ordination reflected a significant breakthrough and break down of the race-gender paradigm of the time.
Not only is the political Black Church a construction, but women’s exclusion was part and parcel of its creation.
Second, as the political and social context shifted after Emancipation, Black churches became spaces where these tensions were worked out in a way that aligned gender roles more closely with the Victorian ideal than with the lived reality of Black lives. After Emancipation, Black churches became sites of political participation, a transformation wrought not only by Emancipation and the formation of separate Black churches but also by male enfranchisement and participation in politics. This transformation shaped the evolution of gender roles toward a more explicit embrace of male leadership and an increasing marginalization of women. Take, for example, decisions made about unwed pregnancy within the Gilfield Baptist Church of Petersburg, Virginia. These discipline cases initially penalized only the women, drawing on a legacy of church discipline that made little sense in a context in which enslaved people could not formally marry. Choosing to discipline unwed pregnant women but not their partners emphasized the subordinated positions of women as the disciplined and shamed parties.
The politics of Black churches is also a gendered politics, one that reveals the ways ideas and practices around gender-specific leadership rested on contests about family and sexuality shaped in the political, economic, and social complexes of slavery and freedom. Not only is the political Black Church a construction, but women’s exclusion was part and parcel of its creation.
This essay is part of a series co-sponsored by the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The series is co-curated with CARSS Director Josef Sorett of Columbia University and Ahmad Greene-Hayes of Princeton University.