Mary A. Safford

Woman as a Minister of Religion - May 19, 1893

Mary A. Safford
May 19, 1893— Chicago, Illinois
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Following are extracts from Safford's address at the World's Congress of Representative Women.

As that monarch of the forest, the oak, is the result of the evolution of physical life, so woman's place in the church as a minister of religion is the result of that evolution of spiritual life which will yet transform the world.

For centuries the power of church and state rested on human souls with crushing weight. Little hope there seemed that the sons and daughters of God could ever rise into the noble stature of a free manhood and womanhood. But the demand for civil and religious liberty grew stronger and stronger, and slowly but surely the divine right of kings has given way to the diviner rights of human souls; the authority of the priest has yielded to the authority of reason and conscience, until at last the world is awaking to the truth that every human being has a right to grow. Thus it has come to pass that to-day woman stands in the pulpit as an ordained minister of religion. The growth of civil and religious liberty explains her advancement in the state and in the church. As a part of humanity she has shared in its unfolding life. With the growing recognition of the worth of the individual, woman is coming to her own.

Vainly does the church attempt to stay her progress. At one time, armed with the power of the state, it could forbid her standing in the pulpit as a minister of the eternal gospel of truth, and love, and righteousness. Now it can only fling at her the missiles of ridicule and invective. No longer a child, woman claims the privilege of deciding for herself what is right. When told that woman is not fitted to preach, that it is enough for her to attend the weekly sewing society and embroider altar-cloths, she quietly answers: "You can not decide these matters for me. The right of private judgment is mine as well as yours, and I shall exercise it."

In a word, while conservative clergymen have been slowly adjusting their spectacles to look up Biblical texts to be used as weapons against her, she has left them to their discussions of disputed passages and serenely gone forth to proclaim the living word of truth to the many who have gladly welcomed her as a true minister of God.

The eternal sanction for entering upon any good work is the ability to perform it. The questions, "Can woman preach?" "May woman preach?" which some well-meaning people are still debating with ludicrous solemnity, have been answered affirmatively, in the most convincing way, according to the scientific method, by actual experiment.

As Galileo, when ridiculed and denounced for declaring that all bodies fall equally fast, performed his experiment at the leaning tower of Pisa, by which he demonstrated the truth of his assertion for all time, giving to the world the first law of falling bodies, so woman, though told that she could not preach, has proven the contrary in a way that makes the arguments of her opponents amusing.

In the face of deep-seated prejudice and bitter, persistent opposition, she has shown beyond question that she is not only able to preach, but is also able to do far more to endure the strain of long city pastorates and build up strong, growing churches. The place she holds to-day as a minister of religion has not been given to her ; she has won it for herself, and holds it by right divine.

Doubtless the woman makes as many mistakes as the man in ministerial work. But despite the fact that the leading theological schools have been closed against her, that she has been compelled to labor under great disadvantages in securing that thorough preparation for her work which is essential to the highest success, she has already accomplished far more than could justly be expected, and the future is full of promise.

While ministering most helpfully to the deep needs of human souls, so far as her influence reaches, it tends in a special way to make religion less one-sided, less masculine in some departments, less feminine in others, more human and divine in all.

While interested in theology as the thought side of religion, women do not emphasize it at the expense of right feeling and right action, but find God in all that liberates and lifts, in all that humbles, and sweetens, and consoles. To them the life is more than the creed; hence their presence in the pulpit tends to soften theological animosities and promote religious unity. Woman's fanaticism in the past has been largely due to her blind belief in the teachings of the church, which has presented religion from the masculine standpoint only, making it largely consist of intense devotion to certain theological beliefs.

But now the subject is also presented from another standpoint; and more and more, as men and women study side by side in theological schools, and work and confer together as equals in the ministry, religion will become less masculine in the pulpit, less feminine in the pews, more nobly human in both. Thus in its greater completeness it will the more strongly appeal to all human beings, and the churches will cease to be so largely composed of women.

The Roman Catholic church, by its exaltation of the Virgin, supplies the deep need of the human heart for infinite mother love; but those who would worship God alone must be led to realize that the Eternal is mother as well as father to all human beings; they must be led to see that the words, "As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you," have as deep a meaning as those other beautiful words, "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him." We must do away with the exclusive use of masculine nouns and pronouns when speaking of the Eternal, that in the all-wise, all-loving one every yearning of the human soul may find fullest satisfaction.

Women in the ministry also exert a special influence in setting aside those offensive marriage customs which are relics of a time when woman was really given away, was not recognized as an independent human being, but was transferred from the guardianship of her father to that of a husband. When entering into the most sacred relationship of life, where man and woman should stand side by side as equals, whatever detracts in any way from dignity and sweet sincerity should be put aside. The bride should not be given away, nor asked to promise to obey, for the promise if sincere means subordination, and certainly there should be no idle forms, no meaningless promises of any kind. The whole service should symbolize a voluntary, sacred union of equals; for in view of the subtle influence of outward forms upon human thought and feeling, whatever tends to ennoble the marriage service tends to ennoble marriage, and thus to uplift and purify humanity.

But while in special ways the influence of woman in the ministry constantly tends to remove long-standing abuses, to which in the very nature of things she is more sensitive than her brother ministers, her work in general is the same as their work, and must be tested, as theirs is tested, by its actual results. Since woman's civil rights are not yet fully recognized, her public ministry of religion might be suppressed by conservative clergymen were it not for that separation of church and state, that religious liberty, which has enabled her to win the place she holds to-day. For this reason, apart from all other weighty considerations, women make a great mistake when they uphold any legislation which tends to the union of church and state, which interferes with that religious freedom which by the constitution of these United States is guaranteed to all. When honest men are fined and imprisoned for refusing to keep Sunday instead of the Sabbath as a day of rest, when Government aid of a World's Fair is conditioned by a Sunday-closing clause, earnest, thoughtful women should utter a protest against such manifest injustice to those who do not hold the religious views of the majority.

There is no tyranny more to be feared than ecclesiastical tyranny, and unless women are willing to be deprived of hard-won privilege, they must persistently oppose whatever tends in any way to destroy religious freedom. Vigilantly guarding that, they will be able not only to hold the place already secured for themselves as ministers of religion, but to make it a place of constantly growing influence; for the times are ripe for change. The world grows weary of worn-out creeds and lifeless traditions, and asks for something better. Men and women, who think and judge for themselves, demand a religion that authenticates itself to reason and conscience. Hence the minister who would meet their needs must be thoroughly alive, must be responsive to the best thought and noblest feeling of the age. Never was there greater need of a thoroughly equipped ministry, and women have reason to rejoice that those who enter it can not lean on external supports, but must prove their calling by their work.

In a ministry that must demonstrate its worth by what it does to help the world, woman need ask no favors, but may quietly go forward in the strength of the Eternal to accomplish all the good that her ability permits.