Causes of Unrest Among Women of the Church

In the throes of the fundamentalist and modernist debates, the 1925 General Assembly of the PCUSA appointed a “Special Commission of Fifteen” “to study the spiritual condition of the Church and the causes making for unrest, and to report to the next General Assembly, to the end that the purity, peace, unity, and progress of the Church may be assured.”

Their report the next year listed the “lack of representation of women in the Church” as a contributor to the conflict.

In his paper “For Church and Country: The Fundamentalist-Modernist Conflict in the Presbyterian Church", Bradley Longfield discusses the events that followed:

In addition to approving the report, the Assembly also, at least partly in response to the Special Commission’s findings, commissioned a study on “Causes of Unrest Among Women of the Church.” In 1923 the women’s missionary organizations in the church, which women had founded and directed, were merged with two new denominational boards, the Board of Foreign Missions and the Board of National Missions. The frustration and anger among some women in the wake of this move helped inspire the General Assembly’s efforts to address women’s unrest in the late 1920s. Indeed, disagreement about the role of women in the church was one of the many issues that aggravated the fundamentalist/modernist conflicts in the church. Though most Presbyterians affirmed the importance of women’s public contributions to the church, by the late 1920s, as Margaret Bendroth has argued, “the defense of orthodox Calvinism became in part a masculine stand against the ‘feminine’ heart religion of the nineteenth century.”

In 1920 the church had considered, and defeated, a move to ordain women as elders. In 1928, following the results of the 1926 report, the Assembly appointed a committee of fifteen leading women to meet with denominational officials to discuss women’s issues in the church. This resulted in an overture before the church in 1930, largely advanced by denominational officials seeking to address women’s anger at the loss of their missionary agencies, to ordain women as elders and pastors. Though the effort to ordain women as pastors failed, women were approved to serve as elders.

Several significant fundamentalists were vocally opposed to the ordination of women, seeing this effort as one further move to accommodate the faith to modern culture. Clarence Macartney, for example, claimed that these proposals resulted from a “hankering and hungering after the fleshpots of this present world,” and a desire for “a new church and a new gospel.” “Many of the subtle and dangerous and seductive heresies and perversions and distortions of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he continued, “have sprung from the brain of women.” Likewise, Mark Matthews, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Seattle, understood the “present agitation to feminize the session and the pulpit” as the effort of a chosen few, such as Robert E. Speer, Secretary of the Board of Foreign Missions. Speer, a theological and ecclesiological moderate who had played a major role in the Special Commission of 1925, confirmed many conservatives’ worst fears about his theological orthodoxy in his outspoken support of women’s ordination.

The PCUSA would first ordain female ruling elders in 1930 and female ministers 1956.