Carrie Chapman Catt

Woman Suffrage and the Bible - 1890

Carrie Chapman Catt
January 01, 1890
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The Bible and Woman Suffrage

Text: Cor. I 9-27

But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means when I have preached to others it should become a cast away.

The Christian believes the Bible to be the revealed Word of God, and as such, he accepts it as his guide through life. It is natural, that he not only should seek consolation from its pages in every time of need, but that he should also search within it, for the solution of every problem of life. If he is an earnest, honest Christian, whenever he is in doubt concerning any political, business


…cerned the Ephesians and how much the U.S.? How many of their stipulations were intended for the Corinthian only, and how many for the American? How many of those commands were intended for the Roman and how many for me?

The other difficulty was that pronounced by Julius Caesar when he said “Men believe for the most part, that which they wish.” It is a fact we all recognize to-day. Our opinions are molded for us by the conditions of our birth and environments; by the facts, prejudices and inferences poured into the child mind. Now, and then there is what is called an independent thinker, one who is said to have original ideas, but however, great may be the man, a very great many of his opinions are his, nevertheless for no other reason than that his father, or mother believed them. The man with a theory is very sure to find plenty of evidence to prove it correct and the man with a half-formed opinion finds upon every side any amount of reason for holding it. We are all wont to jump at our conclusions in a very human way.

There was once a spiritualist who had long been a believer in spiritualistic phenomena, but had never had personal demonstration. One day as he was writing letters, he wet a stamp to put on an envelope, when it slipped out of his fingers and fell to the floor. He stooped to pick it up, when to his amazement it moved away from him in a sudden, jerky way, then settling down in a gradual slow movement, it crept on. He sat staring at completely bewildered. Suddenly it began to climb the wall. Convinced he had found a wonderful manifestation, he rushed to the door and called in an unbelieving friend to witness his triumph. No sooner did his friend spy the stamp than he exclaimed: “But what makes it go?” The phenomena was easily explained when the stamp was found to be sticking fast to the back of a big blue bottle fly. The spiritualist was not more foolish than you or I. It is the way we all have. There is practically no such thing as unprejudiced investigation. We make our investigations with a pretty clearly fixed idea as to what the conclusion will be. Our decisions are a good deal like that of the Wisconsin Judge described in a newspaper squib. It was his first case. He heard the prosecution attorney and was very much impressed. He announced to the lawyer for the defense that he should permit him to go on with his side of the case, but he would tell him right now, he should decide for the plaintiff.

It is no wonder, then, the Christian, with his poor, prejudiced nature go to the Bible to investigate and comes away with some very queer notions of what it contains. The fact is, each man's comprehension of God and his Holy Word is in exact accord with his own disposition and character. If he is a broad-minded, generous, humane, liberty loving man, God is to him a sweet spirit of love and benevolence and his word [illegible] only the broadest opportunities and possibilities for all his children. But if he be a narrow cruel, selfish tyrannical sort of a man, God is to him an autocrat ruling with despotic power, exacting obedience to the most arbitrary laws simply because he wishes to show His power.

Two individuals of equal mutual development, may each go to the Bible for help in the solution of a problem and each may come away with a conclusion, but their conclusions are directly opposed. Both cannot be right and it is quite likely neither are, yet both with [finality?] contend God is on his side. For centuries after the establishment of Christianity, there were the mildest contentions, and discussions and bitterness among Christians, each faction presenting an abundance of texts, passages and paragraphs to prove its position correct.

But, as you say, if it is so difficult to find God's real will, of what value is the Bible? If Christians differ so materially what is there in Christianity. Christianity is a spiritual thing. It is a guide to the development, beautifying and perfecting of spiritual life and Jesus is the ideal, the model, the leader for men to follow. That is all; but it is enough.

Said Paul

But I keep under my body and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.

A tiny, little girl, who was accustomed to attend Sabbath school, where each teacher taught her class a verse from the Scriptures every Sunday was one day taught this verse from St. P. (Quote). It was a difficult passage for her child understanding to comprehend and when she had come home and was asked by her Father to repeat it, she had seemingly forgotten every word of it. In a little time, she came running again to her Father, her little face beaming with delight and exclaimed "Papa, papa, I know it now." "Well, said he, what is it? "It is, I must keep my soul on top." Her baby mind caught the correct meaning and her interpretation of the great Saint's words contained the whole essence of Christianity. Had there been no more Bible than that one Command, "Keep the soul on top," it would have been sufficient for the moral guidance of men. The sermon on the Mt., the commandments, the Golden Rule are all embodied in this declaration of Paul's. And more, the brief sentence contains the whole history of the life and teachings of Christ. The soul on top; the soul with its attributes of intelligence, charity, love, tenderness, mercy, gentleness, it is commanded is to be seated upon top the throne in every real Christian life and in humblest subjection before it bows the body with its attributes of envy, greed, revenge, lustfulness, appetites, hatred, deceit. This is the ideal Christian life. None will doubt it. This is Christianity.

For such spiritual life, the Bible is an ample guide. Its directions are explicit enough, broad and general enough to meet every emergency. There is no spiritual doubt it will not relieve, and no spiritual demand it will not satisfy. But there its missions ends. The seeker for spiritual consolation finds the Bible complete, full, satisfactory, but the searcher for material guidance finds its statements contradictory, ambiguous, inexpedient. It is an all complete teacher



Now, friends, I ask you to be real Christians, to put the soul with justice and love of right on top and make the body with prejudices and selfishness bow in submission while we investigate the Word of God concerning women.

Fifty years ago, there was nowhere an opportunity for women to secure an education. The schools, colleges, universities were everywhere closed against them. The prejudices of the day and the teachings of past centuries said she had no need of mental training, while the church added, "Paul commanded women, if they would know anything to ask their husbands." Women were not permitted to pray or speak in church for Paul said, "Let the women keep silent in the churches." I once heard a woman relate her experience in a church meeting. She had attended the first business session after she had become a church member – a young girl of about eighteen. A trivial matter came up for discussion and was put to vote. A rising vote was called and as she had an opinion concerning the matter, she stood up with the rest. The women on the seat with her tugged a her dress and urged her to sit down. But she stood in her place until the minister

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…women were a subordinate, inferior class, without talents, abilities or individuality. Churchmen simply believed that which they had been taught to believe and readily accepted Paul as their authority.

But women found their husbands a very unsatisfactory fount from which to quench the thirst for knowledge. They came very weary of asking questions their husbands could not answer and demanded more reliable opportunities. They plead that God would surely not have given them talents if it had been the Divine will they should never be permitted to develop or use them. The demonstrated that they would make better women and better mothers with the broader outlook upon life an education would give. But the prejudiced old world shook its head. At last the soul of the church came out on top and the Congregational School of Oberlin opened its door to women and a little later a Methodist College in Iowa [Grinnell College]. Still the prejudices were very slow in breaking way. A very great portion of our people held much the same view as the prominent Englishman who visited a collegiate institution for women in this country many years ago. He was evidently much interested in everything he saw. Finally taking the head of its college one side he said "Now this is all very interesting, but I really want to know what influence it is found to have upon their future lives, don't you know." She was please with the question and proceeded at once to give him statistics of how many more teachers, how many missionaries, how many bookkeepers and so forth. But the information didn't satisfy him. "Ah that's very interesting," he said "very interesting, but that isn't it. What effect does this higher education have upon – upon their chances." "Upon their chances, she exclaimed, chances for what?" Why of course," said he, "their chances of getting a husband." She couldn't satisfy him, but a little later when they went into the gymnasium and the apparatus for physical improvement was pointed out to him he exclaimed "Now this is indeed interesting. This might do, for after all, don't you know their working improves a girl's chances like a good [illegible] of the person. Margaret Fuller

Little by little the intelligence and justice of the world came out on top and now the woman seeking an education finds colleges without number ready to receive and to instruct her.

It was not permitted for a woman to speak in public, but at length some Quaker women who had been accustomed to speak and pray in their own meetings felt called of God to go with a message to the people. Abbie Foster Kelly was the leader among them. But the public were so outraged at her presumption, everywhere she went they threw rotten eggs at her. The mobbed her in the street. Men scorned at her and the small boys and hoodlums followed her with shouts, throwing sticks and stones at her. Women disdained to give her a glance regarding her as vastly more a disgrace to their sex than the outlawed women they met in every city. But Abbie Foster was born to be a martyr and she continued in her course, insisting upon her right to tell the people everywhere the unutterable wrongs of human slavery. Others followed her, until it would have seemed women had proved their right to convey thoughts to the public. Yet I have heard Lucy S[tone] say who came twenty years later that when she first began to speak upon the same question, she met the same treatment. Had eggs but not bad eggs. Water thrown on her in sermons. Stones, sticks, mobs.

Story of Antionette Brown Blackwell.

Yet in time the prejudices did wear away until now, when a woman is not only free to speak to the public when ever she has anything to say, but the public very patiently listens a good may time when she has nothing to say.

It is now emphatically and permanently demonstrated, in America at least that a woman has a right to all the education she ability to grasp or financial ability to pay for. She is free to enter almost any occupation or profession her fancy or taste dictates. She is permitted to speak in public as often as she can get any body to hear her. She is permitted in most churches to hold office, to vote and in not a few she is allowed the responsibility of preaching. What then is to become of the commandments of Paul? Has this Christian nation gone contrary to God's desire. Not so. P.[aul] came to preach concerning the soul, not the body. He came to give instructions in spirit life, not governmental and social affairs. He accepts the institutions of the day as he found them without a hint of any effort to change them in any particular. Do you think if he should come here today he would begin his Christian teaching by commanding changes in our governmental affairs. Would he command that all the college doors should be closed to women? Would he order every woman speaker to put a seal upon her mouth. No! No one thinks so for a moment. The wise and the ignorant theologian likewise agree the centuries misunderstood Paul.

Paul commanded the slave to make no effort to be free but to seek slavery rather. The nations to whom P preached all kept slaves and surely if God through P. had desired to correct the customs of men by commands concerning material things P. would somewhere have let fall an order that slavery was an infamous institution but he did not do it. The idea was evident that everywhere he enjoined the individual to accept whatever circumstances surrounded him and be a Christian there. But because he told the slave to be contented with his servitude, thirty years ago three hundreds of ministers who proved to their congregations that God was himself the special guardian of slavery. The body was under and they believed that which they wished. It required a long and cruel war before they could understand the Bible aright. Again Paul said Let no Christian go to law with his brother. The reason was because when they did so in Corinth, a heathen was the judge and their discussions became a refutation of the Ch. brotherhood they taught. Christians of today who have had honest differences do not think because of this command that they must not settle their differences before a civil tribunal composed of men. Paul again commanded them to accept no pay for their work, but no Ch. in U.S. deems this a command for him to obey. Anarchists.

Again P. emphatically commands that no woman should pray or prophecy with an uncovered head, while no man should pray with a covered head. There was a good reason. In Corinth, all harlots went about with uncovered heads. It was a sign of their shame, an advertising card which announced their business. More, it was the punishment set upon them by law. Good women and wives wore a sort of drapery as covering. It is probable some of these harlots had attempted to enter these Ch. assemblies and to affiliate with them. Paul's command was virtually saying no harlot could be a Ch. and let no man come among them until she could wear her head covered. On the other hand, men wore the head covered to show that they were under subjection to human authority. Paul demanded their coverings to be removed when they prayed that it might be a token they bowed only to Divine authority. Certainly these commands concerned only the Corinthians yet I know of no other reason why the women of to-day sit in church and other assemblies with heads covered and men with heads uncovered. The simple covering of the Corinth women has gone out of style but the custom remains. If women must keep the head covers they had to have an attractive covering and in consequences the little bundles of silk and feathers and flower and lace are in vogue and you, gentlemen have them to pay for. Peter and Paul both said women should not appear with braided hair, gold or costly array. That modern Ch. do not accept this every Ch. and congregation will testify.

But Paul said nowhere a woman should not vote. He said nothing about affairs of state. He did not say what men should vote. But they tell us the whole spirit of P's teaching letters taught the inferior position of women, for did he not say "Neither was the man created for the woman, but the woman for the man."? Peter too said "Wives be in subjection to your own husbands."

It was the custom and the law in those days for a woman to be in submission to her husband, and the man who couldn't compel his wife to obey him in the smallest trifle would have been hooted at by the boys in the street as a veritable coward. Peter simply recognized this condition and bade Ch. women of that land not to defy the lay. But in the same verse he tells the reason why. Be in subjection to your husband in order that ye may be the better convert them to Christianity since ye obey the law. Again Paul as if he found he might be misunderstood directly after he has said the woman was created for the man Nevertheless neither is the man without the woman

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…sin had been committed it was distinctly said "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him, make and female created he them and God said unto them, have dominion over the Earth." Not a hint is there but complete equality of rights, privileges and dominion. It was the ideal condition of man defined by God, but here came sin and after sin the curse. But even then God did not say "let thy desire be to thy husband and let him rule over her which would have been the form of command, but he said "thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over her" which as the form of prophecy and long centuries of humiliating suffering for women have proved the fulfilment of the prophecy. God said to man: "Cursed is the ground for thy sake. Thorns and Thistles shall it bring forth to thee. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread." In the ideal condition in which God had created the world for man, there was no necessity for toil. The fields were green with verdure and abundant with fruit and flowers. With the curse all this disappeared and in accord with the prophecy thorns and thistles sprung up. To sustain life, it was necessary for man to eat. Was it necessary or needful that he should eat thorns and thistles because they grew? He did not accept it so, but for centuries has been laboring to restore the earth to this ideal condition in which God created it. Hills have been cut down, valley filled in, former prairies and dense forests converted to green fields and made to their rich harvest of fruitage.

Every effort of the life of men has been to make the earth a "Paradise regained". True men had had the incentive of better food and more comfort as a reward for their toil, yet they could have lived on thorns and thistles for more than one nomadic tribe has proved it possible, but there was implanted in the breasts of most men a discontent with the existing and a longing to attain the ideal. But if it was right, as all men say, for man to attempt to regain the ideal, is it not also right for woman to attempt to regain her ideal of equality? More than this, Christ came to redeem the world. The one object of his earthly existence was to undo the effect of the curse and to lead men to search for the ideal. The foremost object for which the Christian church was established was to offset sin and the effect of the curse. Then ought the Christian Church to stop short of placing women in the equality where sin found her? Yea, it is the duty to place her there.

Upon every side the signs of the times are plainly to be seen which promise the enfranchisement of women. Society in American and elsewhere is turning over its prejudices and letting the light in upon them. It is getting ready to take this step of progress. To claim the Bible is opposed to it, has an effect, but it is a very different effect from that expected by those who urge the claim. When the man or woman of sense, honor and justice hears the polygamist say polygamy is right because Solomon had many wives; when he hears a bestial man say the indulgence of lustfulness is right because God's appointed had concubines; when he hears the slave holder say slavery is right because God's people held slaves; when he hears the drunkard claim total abstinence is wrong because Christ made and drank wine, when he hears that intelligent, moral righteous Am. women must not have their opinions counted in governmental affairs because Paul said to women of Corinth: "Be in silence and subjection." he is very apt, in the way we all have of jumping at conclusions to say then the Bible is false; it is not the word of God if it teaches such injustice and such untruths. I verily believe there are thousands more of unbelievers in Am. Today than there would have been if Christians had not made the attempt to make the Bible stand for so many abominable things. The exclamation of Madame Roland upon the scaffold is quoted. "O Liberty what crimes are committed in thy name!" It is easy to paraphrase it. "O Bible, what iniquities, what infamous, what contemptible abominations has thou been made to protect!"

My Ch. friends, let me ask you, (now that we have reach a gov. where the laws are made by the people, is it the soul or the prejudice of injustice on top when you say to the woman of property "you cannot say how your tax money shall be expended for the protection of your property because P. said to C. women Let the woman in in subjection;" where you say to the women fresh from the university, "We can't let you vote your opinion molded by years of study and training, for P. said to C. women Ask your husbands if ye would know anything;" when you say to the mother of children whose moral and character she is held responsible for, We can't let you say what public influences shall be around your children because P. told the C. women to keep silent?

The question of w. suffrage is before the Am. People for solution. It is a problem upon which a Ch must form his opinion. He cannot find direct commands for his guidance within the Bible. Yet if he is an honest Ch. he will bring to the problem his best judgment and conscience and will be sure when he makes his decision he has done so, with the best in him on top.

I am able to find nothing in the Bible which could possibly indicate that God wished the women of America to remain in political bondage. God certainly desires women to vote or not to vote. If he wishes w. to vote, men who deny them the privilege are working in opposition to Him. If he does not wish them to vote, He is all competent to put it into their hearts not to do so and to hold them in the sphere he wills. Men only let down the bars when they remove disabilities. Whichever may be God's Desire the only safe way to be on his side is to give women the franchise. If that be his will, it will please him, if not he would prevent them.

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