This Day in History -- The First Feminist Convention

On this day in 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held at the Wesleyan Chapel in Seneca Falls, New York, in the Finger Lakes region of the state. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott led out in the gathering ”to discuss the social, civil and religious rights of women.” The gathering was attended by 250 women and 40 men.

After two days of discussion, Stanton drew up a “declaration of sentiments” imitating the organization and style—and copying many of the words—of the Declaration of Independence. The list of grievances included much about the fact that women were denied the vote.

“He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise.

“He has compelled her to submit to laws, in the formation of which she had no voice.

“He has withheld from her rights which are given to the most ignorant and degraded men - both natives and foreigners.”

Most interesting for present purposes is this complaint:

“He allows her in Church as well as State, but a subordinate position, claiming Apostolic authority for her exclusion from the ministry, and with some exceptions, from any public participation in the affairs of the Church.”

The Seneca Falls feminists were way ahead of their time, but they set in motion events that, over the past 17 decades, have led to the near complete de-sexing of the American nation. Nowadays, the idea that men and women are in any significant way different, or should have different roles in the family or in any business, profession, institution or human enterprise of any description whatsoever is comprehensively rejected in our society, and the expression of such heresy is very close to being a hanging offense.

The utter rejection of any species of sexual organization obviously extends to the Christian Church; no statement of Scripture to the contrary, regardless how plain or how frequently repeated, is considered to be of any weight. Nor any statement dating from after the close of the canon, such as this one:

“Those who feel called out to join the movement in favor of woman's rights and the so-called dress reform might as well sever all connection with the third angel's message. The spirit which attends the one cannot be in harmony with the other. The Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women.” 1T 421.4

The Seneca Falls Adventists are currently in control of almost all administrative posts in North American Adventism, they have thus far ignored all world church votes, and they have no intention of abiding by any future votes of the General Conference in session. This being indisputably the case, it is not at all clear to me why we are even having another GC session next year. Habit, I guess.

Elder Wilson seems to believe that the church, being divided among Seneca Falls Adventists and Bible-believing Adventists, can nevertheless somehow accomplish its mission. If he thinks that, he is mistaken. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has reached a T-junction in the road: we can either go the way of Seneca Falls or we can submit to God’s created distinctions between men and women. If we choose the Seneca Falls route, we will quickly become a liberal church and will have no further part to play in salvation history.


UPDATE 7/20/19: One of our readers wrote me and pointed out that according to the book, “Radical Spirits” by Harvard Divinity School professor Ann Braude (1989, 2nd ed. 2001) the table on which Stanton and Mott penned the “Declaration of Sentiments” was used by a spiritualist medium, and had been the object of rapping or knocking:

“Raps reportedly rocked the same table where Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton penned the “Declaration of Sentiments,” which formed the convention’s agenda. The table stood in the parlour of progressive Quakers (and future Spiritualists) Thomas and Mary Ann McClintock.”

The thesis of Braude’s book is that there is an overlap between Spiritualism and the early women's rights movement, and that spiritualism provided the early feminists with a religious alternative to male-dominated mainstream religions. Braude points out that spiritualism allowed women to serve as mediums, ministers, and lecturers, and enabled women to act as leaders and public speakers, roles largely denied them in mainstream churches and in business, politics, and the professions.

Braude also argues spiritualism appealed to sorrowing mothers’ strong desire, in an age of high childhood mortality, for empirical evidence of the immortality of the soul—through communication with departed loved ones.

One aspect of the connection between spiritualism and the women’s rights movement is confirmed by Ellen White, namely that spiritualists were among those who were urging that men and women did not need to dress differently from one another. Ellen White was concerned not only that the “dress reform” and women’s rights were wrong on the merits, but also that if Seventh-day Adventists embraced the “dress reform” movement, they would become associated with the spiritualists who were also backing it, and thus lose all credibility with sober-minded people. This is clear if you read the full 3-paragraph passage from volume one of the Testimonies:

“There is an increasing tendency to have women in their dress and appearance as near like the other sex as possible, and to fashion their dress very much like that of men, but God pronounces it abomination. ‘In like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety.’ 1 Timothy 2:9. {1T 421.3}

“Those who feel called out to join the movement in favor of woman’s rights and the so-called dress reform might as well sever all connection with the third angel’s message. The spirit which attends the one cannot be in harmony with the other. The Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women. Spiritualists have, to quite an extent, adopted this singular mode of dress. Seventh-day Adventists, who believe in the restoration of the gifts, are often branded as spiritualists. Let them adopt this costume, and their influence is dead. The people would place them on a level with spiritualists and would refuse to listen to them. {1T 421.4}

“With the so-called dress reform there goes a spirit of levity and boldness just in keeping with the dress. Modesty and reserve seem to depart from many as they adopt that style of dress. I was shown that God would have us take a course consistent and explainable. Let the sisters adopt the American costume and they would destroy their own influence and that of their husbands. They would become a byword and a derision. Our Saviour says: ‘Ye are the light of the world.’ ‘Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.’ There is a great work for us to do in the world, and God would not have us take a course to lessen or destroy our influence with the world.” {1T 422.1}

The connection between spiritualism and the women’s rights movement probably merits more research and a separate article. Even without the spiritualism connection, however, “The Scriptures are plain upon the relations and rights of men and women” and very plain that women are not to serve as ruling elders in the Christian Church. We must be faithful to the Scriptures on this point.