One school of thought suggests that conversion and subsequent religious activity under the Methodist and Finneyan revivals helped empower women in such areas as public speaking, fundraising, and organisational leadership. Hempton is sceptical. The claim that "evangelical religion through its disruptive piety opened a small but expandable crack in the wall of male power and control", is a tidy theory with too many untidy loose ends.
More liberal groups like the Quakers, Universalists and Unitarians produced many of the women leaders in various abolitionist and emancipationist movements. Hempton points out that relatively few American feminist leaders came from the Evangelical stable, and most of those who did, eventually distanced themselves from it. Early conversion experience, and revivalist affiliations, for some of these women raised as many questions as they answered. Two key areas of intellectual discontent quickly emerged; biblical hermeneutics and evangelical dogma. By 1836 Sarah Grimke was arguing forcefully that any plain reading of the Bible will convince any reasonable mind informed by Christian conviction, that slavery was an abomination to the God who is 'in a peculiar manner the God of the poor and the needy, the despised and the oppressed.'
The open letter Sarah wrote was overtly critical of clergy who condoned slavery either by exegetical underpinning or by expedient silence. This and further letters begin to show a loss of confidence in the Bible as the primary arsenal of male power, and consequently her loss of confidence in any mainline denomination, for none upheld " the Scripture doctrine of the perfect equality of man and woman, which is the fundamental principle of my argument in favour of the ministry of women". (page97) The result of such a theological position was alienation from groups that upheld traditional biblical views - prominent amongst them those sponsored by Evangelicalism. In the minds of feminist activists still prepared to found their views on the Bible, abolition of slavery and the emancipation of women were key areas requiring political activism, the social persuasion of protest and debate, and a much more rigorously critical biblical hermeneutic.
"Love to God manifested by love to his creatures." That was a fundamental and sufficient theology for Sarah Grimke. It wasn't long before opposition to oppression fused with concentration on love as theologically definitive, raised serious questions over key evangelical doctrines founded on penal substitution, human sinfulness and hell. In reaction to such theology, leading Christian feminists adopted an increasingly rationalist and universalist position. Elisabeth Cady Stanton was the philosopher and intellectual engine of much mid- 19th century American feminism. Weighed down by the whole panoply of evangelical dogma, "these gloomy superstitions", these "fears of the unknown and unknowable", she found her way to light and truth by "rational ideas based on scientific facts".
There is something deeply significant, which evangelicals today need to think through with some self-reflective and self-critical candour, that these women, protesting against social and institutional oppression, believed they could trace in evangelical dogma and in evangelical biblical interpretations, ideas on which such oppressive attitudes were uncritically founded. Though 20th Century South African Apartheid or Segregation in the American south may seem extreme cases, they do show that abuses of the biblical text to warrant oppression is too well documented in history to be seriously denied. Alongside that of course, goes the honourable record of people like Wesley, Newton, Wilberforce and a host of other evangelical abolitionists whose contribution was decisive and rooted in a securely biblical theology of humanity.
Another Christian feminist, Frances Willard, moved from evangelical Methodism, to collaborative evangelistic activity with D L Moody, and then disenchantment set in. Her interests were more in social reform, particularly temperance and women's suffrage, and her theology morphed into a faith more inclusively catholic, less biblicist and more speculative even at times dabbling in esoteric spirituality. But again what inexorably drew her away from more evangelical principles, what disenchanted her, was what she saw as the inherently patriarchal and hierarchical exclusiveness of evangelical male clergy. This was coupled with a perceived anti-intellectualism and cultural suspicion pervading and constraining evangelical thought and practice seeking to be "in the world but not of the world." Each of these women, in different degrees, saw such attitudes as both informing and distorting Evangelical hermeneutics, so that patriarchy and the suppression of women's leadership and ministry, were inextricably linked to biblical authority understood in male terms, implemented to male advantage, and based on an almost total monopoly of male biblical scholarship. A closed shop of biblical knowledge, (and indeed of formal advanced education), they believed, secured male dominated control of ecclesial power
The importance of such research into the individual experiences and personal stories of those who, over two centuries, chose to make an exit from the evangelical big story is self-recommending. But after reading it I'm left with a hard to shake off depression, an inner repentance at the incapacity of many expressions of evangelicalism, historic and contemporary, to respond creatively and live adaptively with difference, able to welcome and learn from valid questions.
Failure to focus on the Gospel as the commanding invitation to follow Jesus in radical love, to join with Jesus in liberating protest, to be ministers of reconciliation through costly peacemaking, to live with open armed welcome that transcends our constructed divisions whether of gender, doctrine or view of the Bible; and instead to indulge in an eager pursuit of self-defeating and corrosive arguments over doctrine, or hard edged definitions of the Gospel whose goal is to claim exclusive possession of truth, while also disenfranchising those who dare to differ. These are amongst the failures that led to evangelical disenchantment, and therefore disenchanted evangelicals making their exit left.
And yes, there is another side to this story - but that gets told in plenty of other books, from responsible history and theological reflection all the way through to unabashed propaganda. For now, evangelicals who read this book with requisite humility, will hear important voices of protest and insider critique, that requires attention and honest self-appraisal - and the criterion of that critique in my view must be the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the extent of our faithfulness in following after Jesus.