28 Jan 2016

Silena Moore Holman: New Woman & Exegetical Conscience of Churches of Christ

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, Bible, Church, Church History, Culture, David Lipscomb, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Ministry, Restoration History, Silena Moore Holman, Women

The Direction We Look from Changes What We See

Silena Moore Homan (1850-1915)

Silena Moore Homan (1850-1915)

Christ and the Christian religion has been woman’s best friend” – Selina Holman (1888)

How do we see things? I do not mean how does light enter our eyes and is transformed into the sense of sight.  Rather how to we interpret and understand the world around us? Does our historical circumstance change what we see? Does our economic status highlight or filter out certain perspectives? And does our experience of life as a male or female have any bearing on not only what we see but how we see it? These are important questions for any person that takes the Bible seriously. We do not want to read the Bible in such a way that simply put an imprimatur upon our economic way of life. We do not want to make the Bible to simply “amen” our historical situation as if it were the kingdom of God. Nor do we want the Bible to simply sanctify our male or female point of view.  We want the Bible to challenge us back to God’s own creational and redemption purposes in this world. So the question stands: Does our experience of life impact both what we see in the world and more importantly what we see in the Bible? Perhaps we need to give this more reflection than we have. Selina Moore Holman was convinced it did.  Writing in 1896 in the Gospel Advocate she asked her male correspondents, “My, friends, the point of view from which we consider has much to do, after all, with the manner in which we form our conclusions. Has it not?”  The truthfulness of this statement is unassailable, yet some refuse to consider that there is any other way of looking at things than the one they already have.

“A Woman’s Point of View”

While it is universally recognized that “perspective” can have a radical impact upon not only how we see but even what we see, most of us resist this truth. Yet perspective literally changes the meaning of what is up and down as space travel has shown us. Point of View effects if something is east or west. The most conservative definitions of modesty has evolved drastically as our times have changed.  And even how the Lord Jesus himself looks is greatly affected by our point of view.  The Holy Spirit saw fit to canonize three some what similar and one very dissimilar view of Jesus in the Gospels. John presents something about Jesus that he saw that Matthew did not.  How impoverished we would be if we did not have John’s point of view.

Silena Moore Holman (1850-1915) was born into a world that did not welcome other perspectives. The world was struggling and loosing the perspectives of African-Americans.  It was a time of the eradication of native American populations. It was a time of progress however for white males.

Silena testified to the unspoken angst of many women. Women were taught in every way possible that they were inferior and a burden. “Mothers” she declares “always wanted their children to be boys, because ‘boys have so much better chance in life.’ Girls regretted that they were not boys, because then there would be some place in the world for them, at least until they were married.”  Marriage and ultimately having children were the only real value for women.  “Girls were trained to believe that their lives were a failure if they did not marry.” It was men, not women, that gathered in council, Holman declares, to actually debate if women had souls or not (there were contemporary debates about whether Blacks have souls, thus the classic by W. E. B. DuBois, The Souls of Black People). A great deal of “the prejudices of heathenism cling to us” in our attitudes toward women she lamented.

GAVolLIX49It surprised no one, given this situation, that when T. J. Hunsaker, wrote to David Lipscomb, editor of the Gospel Advocate, about an unpleasant situation in March of 1888. Hunsaker writes about a disturbance in a local church. An elder had withdrawn from the church because women read the Scriptures out loud and had offered opinions on the Bible during a Bible study. The Bible declares, “let your women be silent!” David Lipscomb thought the elder was extreme and unfit for the job because he withdrew. Lipscomb believed that a woman could share comment and even read a verse in such a setting as long as she was unpretentious in doing so. He agreed with the elder that Scripture banned the woman from standing in a “promiscuous assembly.”

To his credit, Lipscomb, after citing 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Cor 14, recognizes, “If language is pressed literally on all occasions when brethren meet for worship, a woman cannot sing or open her mouth or do anything else where brethren and sisters meet.”  Lipscomb admits the text does not literally mean what it appears in all its particulars, as the elder had mistakenly done. Thus the text requires interpretation because it does not mean literally what it says.  It just means women have no actual place other than the pew.  God, by design, had intended woman for only a domestic sphere.  Lipscomb, it must be stressed, did not believe he was insulting women but any woman and most men today reading his reply would be surprised by its condescending tone.

Silena Holman waited until May 1888, perhaps hoping someone else would speak up.  She finally replied in the May 2, Gospel Advocate in an article titled “A Peculiar People.” She begs permission to have a “woman’s point of view” to be heard on the matter. We are a peculiar people she said! Reminding us of Rooster Cogburn, she laments that many only know one passage in the Bible, “Let your women be silent!” In a remarkable move, she states that all Scripture must be understood in its wider context.  It is dangerous to base our ideas on only one passage.

There are many passages in the Bible that we are compelled to interpret by the light of other passages, or by the general teaching of the Bible. Paul in 1 Cor. i: 17 says, ‘Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.’ The denominations quote the passage to show that baptism is not so much importance, as we believe it to be. And yet interpreted in light of numerous other passages in the Bible on the subject of baptism, we are compelled to believe that, whatever be said, Paul had no intention of deprecating the importance of baptism.”

With several other examples, Holman shows that on numerous matters we do not take a given passage alone but see that it is “harmonized” with other passages.  If this was all we had from Paul himself then there would be no question she argued. One text that gender clearly impacted the prejudice of the reader, she insisted, was Philippians 4.3.  It is one of the texts that make us say there is more to the story than 1 Tim 2.

Phil. iv.3, we read of ‘those women who labored WITH ME {sic} in the gospel.’ If he had said these men who labored with me no one would have thought anything else than that they were, like Paul, preachers of the gospel. But as it was only ‘these women,’ why of course they did – they did – we we don’t know exactly what they did, only we guess they didn’t preach any. But how could they labor  with Paul without the same sort of labor he did is hard to be understood.

Selina wondered why passages that seemingly endorse very public roles for women are swept aside as if they had no import at all. Did not Jehovah God make Deborah both Judge and leader of Israel? Was not Anna a prophet of the Lord in the most public of all places, the Temple? Did not Priscilla instruct a man “eloquent in the Scriptures?”

Finally, Holman cites several passages that seem to indicate that women would have a bigger role in the Messianic kingdom.  Joel said that the Spirit would be poured out on sons and daughters and that both genders would be deemed prophets. She cites Psalm 68.11 according to the Revised Version (American in 1901, ASV), “The LORD giveth the word: the women that publish the tidings are a great host.” This is in plain view in the New Testament. It was from the “lips of the Saviour” himself that women, not men, were given “the first commission” to proclaim the gospel. Women were included among the proclaimers baptized in the Spirit just as Joel prophesied, and Peter states happened. Philip’s daughters continue the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy in Acts 21, and we know this is public proclamation because the apostle Paul states clearly that prophecy is “for the edification of the church” (1 Cor 14.4).  With all this and more, Selina says “indeed we are a peculiar people” because “we have grown to wise and too good to permit what the disciples permitted as a matter of course.”

Holman believed in the inerrancy of Scripture. The Bible was the final authority in all matters of faith and practice she states repeatedly. But she admits, what many have admitted before, that 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2 are neither plain nor clear.  Citing the apostle Peter himself she says,

I have not desired to invalidate a single word written by the apostle Paul. I fully believe his letters are the work of inspiration. And though, in them, I find, as the apostle Peter says of them, (2 Pet. iii.15,16) ‘Some things hard to be understood,’ I am willing to stand or fall with any command he has given. My only endeavor has been to reconcile Paul with Paul, and himself with other inspired writers.

Selina Moore Holman & Dr. Holman & family

Selina Moore Holman & Dr. Holman & family

Big Brother Pounces on a Poor Little Article

Though no one, apparently, was bothered by either Hunsaker nor Lipscomb’s reply … great umbrage was exhibited toward Silena’s article.  A. A. Brunner responded to Holman in June 1888. We are hard pressed, I admit, to find a more sexist response to Holman. He dismisses her whole essay on the basis that it expresses the question “from a woman’s standpoint.” By its very definition this cannot be “the Bible’s standpoint!” None of the argumentation is dealt with, as it would have been in a myriad of other articles from brethren. Rather she is dismissed with the wave of wand.  The passages simply have no bearing on the subject.  Then he attempts to shame Holman into leaving exegesis to men by stating her attempt to interpret Acts 21.9 (Philip’s daughter prophets) and 1 Cor 14.4 (prophecy is for the building up of the church) is akin to a person citing Judas hanging himself with another passage that says “go and do likewise.” Holman’s article is proof of why the text says “Let your women keep silence!”

If Brunner thought he had put Holman in her place he was greatly mistaken. In August, Holman took on Brunner’s condescending sexism and his exegesis head on in an article boldly titled, “Let Your Women Keep Silence.” She laments that fact that Brunner had shown himself to be basically a school yard bully when “some big brother jumps on my poor little article with all his weight and utterly crushes me” (when I read this I always hear just a hint of sarcasm 🙂 ).  “Bro. Brunner rather criticizes my assertion that I looked at the matter from a woman’s standpoint, as if woman’s standpoint and a scriptural standpoint were quite two different things.” She asserts that the myriad of texts she provided was evidence that she was taking the biblical point of view.  Then she challenges him on his Judas comment and criticizes him for trying to embarrass her rather than looking at the actual argument. She calls out to the readers of the Gospel Advocate, “I appeal to the brethren throughout the state to know if the comparison is a fair one.”

Sister Holman did not stop, though Bro. Brunner probably wished that she had. She declares that she had no more mishandled Scriptures (Acts 21.9 & 1 Cor 14.4) than faithful the brothers that use a myriad of examples of baptism from Acts to show that Paul’s words in 1 Cor 1.18 were conditioned on the circumstances. She repeats, “there would not be the slightest doubt as to Paul’s meaning, if that was the only passage in the Bible on the work of women in the church.” The problem is that many refuse to recognize there are in fact other passages and in Paul’s own writings! But “those who love the Bible seek to harmonize its teachings.”

Public vs Private

Brunner had dismissed Holman’s exegesis. One was public and one was private. For Holman, Brunner had revealed his modern male cultural bias. Prophecy was a public function as Paul states.  Second, 1 Corinthians 11, proves the women praying and prophesying was public because even today women in the middle east are not required to veil themselves in private settings. Paul is not telling women kneeling by their bed to veil themselves before uttering a prayer. And finally the very notion of “private” vs “public” was foreign to the biblical point of view.  Where does this artificial distinction end? “Suppose a dozen men and women were in my parlor and I talked to them about the gospel and exhort them to obey it? Exactly how many would have to be added to the number to make my talk and exhortation public instead of a private one?” She would go on …

A learned Christian woman may expound the scriptures and urge obedience to them, to one hundred men and women at one time, as well as to one hundred, one at a time, … and no more violate a scriptural command in one instance than the other.”

“Now Bro. Brunner, will you not answer a few questions fro me?”  She asks are women forbidden to sing? “If not, why not?” Can men sing songs written by women? Are not their thoughts being directed by a women, yet a large portion of hymnody is from women. Can men read articles by women? And what did Paul mean in Galatians 3.28?

To my knowledge “Bro. Brunner” never replied to Sister Holman.

Celebrating the Progress of Women

The cultural changes in the status of women proved to be a sore point with large numbers of men in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The Gospel Advocate had published a rather unflattering review of trends among “womankind” in 1896. The “New Woman” was caricatured in many conservative publications both religious and secular. But why should we lament progress Holman asks? “Nobody seem surprised or hurt that men of this generation are not just the same in their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations as their slow moving fathers of a generation ago.”  So if women are also somewhat different in education, abilities and dreams than their grandmothers why would this offend you.

A "new woman" in her hat and bike in September 1895. Looks "manly!?"

A “new woman” in her hat and bike in September 1895. Looks “manly!?”

Contrary to the caricature, which Holman declares “do not exist,” the New Woman is full of hopeful signs for the future. Women no longer have to “marry for a living!” She does not have to marry at all if she does not wish to for “she has Paul’s permission to remain unmarried–and who can furnish higher authority?”  It does not signify, as the writer in the GA claimed, “that a girl wants to be a man because she rides a bicycle or sometimes a collar.” Nor does her current style make them unholy wenches. “I know the girls who dress that way are as sweet and lovely and pure and womanly as any of God’s creatures.” Perhaps the greatest victory of the New Woman was not the right to vote but that she demands that men take responsibility for their own lives and actions without blaming the evils of the world on “womankind.” No, the New Woman has no “wish to be a man” rather she is “proud to be a woman.” The “woman of today,” she writes is unconvinced that the Scripture teaches the mind of woman is inferior to that of men or that women were less rational then men.

Silena did believe, with Lipscomb, that the husband was the head of the wife. She did believe that a woman’s greatest fulfillment was in having a wonderful home. But that home include a woman who was intelligent, cultured, involved in the world and was recognized as a person of value – because she had value – in and out of the home. Near the end of her long “career” she wrote in the Gospel Advocate,

Men may change with the changing conditions of modern life but when women find themselves trying to keep step with their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the new order of things, the brethren stand in front of them with a drawn sword and demand a halt, because, they say, the Bible forbids, when it does nothing of the kind.”

Proverbs 31 was the New Woman! The New Woman actually would produce better wives and mothers rather than hinder motherhood. Men had, for centuries, lived far below the inspired word of God in relation to women and it was only in her own day that many were coming to see what was in the Bible all along. This is almost the restoration plea in progress!

Liberals that are Conservative & Conservatives that are Liberal

Silena was born in 1850 and her father died from battle wounds in the Civil War at age 14. She was the oldest of six girls and one boy and her years of poverty shaped her greatly.  She supported her siblings by almost any means necessary. She became a school teacher in her community. She even, through her own work, purchased the family home that had been lost after her fathers death. She would marry a physician and elder T. P. Holman in the Washington Street Church of Christ in Fayetteville, Tennessee near the Alabama stateline. She would have seven sons and one girl. So she knew from personal experience that women were capable of more than many men seem to thought.  She would become president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union for the State of Tennessee and promoted prohibition zealously.

Silena promoted prohibition through the Temperance Union and in the church. Today many would look at this as very conservative. She held to biblical innerrancy and certainly did not hold to positions that came to characterize the Disciples of Christ. She crossed swords with David Lipscomb on the use of fermented wine, “the drunkard’s drink,” in communion.  She thought the church should join the moral crusade and ban alcoholic beverages in all there various forms.  David Lipscomb, while expressing no prejudices against unfermented grape juice, was not sympathetic to the crusade at all. She was “conservative” on the matter and Lipscomb was quite “progressive.” She thought the New Woman made better women. Lipscomb thought the trend was virtual infidelity opposing virtually all that the New Woman stood for especially the right to vote (which was in all men’s minds a biblical matter regulated by the very texts Holman thought was “obscure.”).  Fast forward to today and even the most conservative among us side with Silena on the New Woman and not David Lipscomb … but most have never taken the time to ask why.  Voting, working outside the home, speaking in church were all linked to 1 Cor 14.34-35 and 1 Timothy 2.12f a little over a century ago. As Lipscomb’s friend E. W. Herndon wrote in the Christian Quarterly Review, in the very year Selina had (1888) for a woman to vote “violated the scriptural principle of wives submitting to their husbands.”

Editorial Praxis

David Lipscomb did not like Silena Moore Holman’s position on either women, temperance, communion and a number of other matters. In fact he writes amusingly, “it gives a body the blues to read Sister Holman’s” articles.  He criticized her essays.  He challenged her interpretation of both culture and Scripture. He even could join Brunner in being patronizing toward her. Yet as strange as it may seem to

David Lipscomb (1831-1917)

David Lipscomb (1831-1917)

us today he respected her. He believed that the “purity and love of her heart” caused her to see things that she “wished to see.” While condescending it is remarkable that Lipscomb never accused her of not believing in the Bible. He did not suggest she had become a liberal modernist or a denier of inspiration. He did not even say that she was a silly woman! He disagreed and did so strongly.

But David Lipscomb’s greatest compliment to Silena Holman was in this … he published her articles when he was under no obligation to do so! And he did so repeatedly.  From her year long “debate” in 1888 to 1913 the editor of the Gospel Advocate chose to publish articles that gave him the blues. Even the aged Lipscomb, published the aged Holman yet again in 1913, on “The Woman Question, Again.”

Why would Lipscomb publish what he did not agree with? The answer is simple: David Lipscomb was not a sectarian.  He was a man of conviction. He was a conservative. But Lipscomb believed in letting the argument be put before the people in the pursuit of truth.  Thus we have a personally conservative man exercising surprisingly liberal editorial policies.  All because he was “truth seeker.” Would the Gospel Advocate of 2016 publish Silena Holman even once much less for 30 years? Why not? The question matters.

What Do You See? Anything?

Silena Holman died on September 18, 1915. Her funeral was conducted on her own lawn with over a thousand people in attendance. Her public work was honored by the State of Tennessee by hanging her portrait in the Statehouse.  T. B. Larimore, probably the most famous evangelist of the time, preached her funeral. He praised her compassion, her intelligence, her charity for those who disagreed with her and her praised her industrious and honorable life.

What do you see? David Lipscomb saw some one worthy of taking up space in the Advocate and having a venue to share her ideas with the whole brotherhood. What did Brunner see? A human that needed to be dismissed because she dared to say there was another angle.  Holman forces us to answer such questions as why do we explain 1 Cor 1.18 from a wider vision but refuse to do so on 1 Tim 2.12.  Is not 1 Cor 1.18 “just as plain” as the latter? It is a good question? What do you see? Selina believes in the inspiration – indeed inerrancy – of the biblical text as any fundamentalist, and yet says we do not actually believe Paul because we make him contradict himself. What do you see?  I will let Sister Holman have the final word:

While many say that women are not permitted to do any kind of public work in the gospel, and in this view are sustained by a large number of commentators, still the number of those who think that women should do public work in the gospel is growing larger and larger everyday, and on this side may also be arrayed a large list of commentators, among them the learned Dr. Adam Clarke, who holds a high position in the exegetical world. Now let us turn to the other and unpopular side of the question of woman’s public work with Christ. I assure you that though unpopular, it has another side. In truth I find most questions have two sides, and the trouble with most people is that they can’t be made to believe there is another than the side at which they are accustomed to look.”

8 Responses to “Silena Moore Holman: New Woman & Exegetical Conscience of Churches of Christ”

  1. Dwight Says:

    It is strangely ironic that the position on Temperance to use unfermented grape juice in the communion was a progressive position then, but it was opposed initially by most congregations due to the fact they had used fermented before that as that is what they had, but this position we would call conservative today and that this Temperance movement was largely pushed parallel and then grafted into the women’s movement.
    I agree that we don’t engage in discussions any more over doctrine as we want to shut the other conversation down. Many believe even though there are many people, there should only be one voice…the preachers as he is the one of authority. Honest discussing means hearing that which may seem foreign to us and then reasoning and then responding and both sides must use scriptures as the basis.

  2. linda Wiese Says:

    These are the very same questions I ask as a 20-30 year old and now I am 64 yrs old and we are still struggling with the exegesis of scripture. Many have continued to have the same thought process as this article. Each person has to study and come to the conviction in their own mind. The heart is also involved and humility. But women are not used in the Kingdom to the abilities and gifts God has given them. Silena Homan a gift from God.

  3. Ron Fraser Says:

    To allow for women’s silence in a patriarchal culture, is perhaps understandable. If we interpret Paul missiologically, which is the way he needs to be interpreted, it is also quite sound. To insist on women’s silence in a non-patriarchal culture, using the same hermeneutic, at least in Canadian culture, is quite unsound. Selena saw some things essential to the mission of God! We must too!

  4. Alice Holman Ahrens Says:

    Silena was my great-grandmother. She must have been an amazing woman!

    • Profile photo of Bobby Valentine Bobby Valentine Says:

      Really. Alice it is my pleasure to meet you. And your great grandmother was indeed “an amazing woman.” I welcome any tales you wish to share about her if you have some. What a wonderful woman of God.

    • Profile photo of Darryl Willis Darryl Willis Says:

      I was a youth minister at Washington Street in Fayetteville for over six years (’90-’96). I have always been fascinated with Selina’s story. Is the photo the homestead on Mulberry Avenue? Of course that style is common in the region, but it really looks familiar to me.

  5. Profile photo of Paula Robbins Paula Robbins Says:

    My grandpa was six years old when Silena Coleman wrote her first article in 1896. It is bemusing to to realize the changes that the church has accepted and embraced during this time, but how many of the fundamental questions voiced by this sister have continued to be ignored. During my childhood, many criticized and rejected women who wanted to be employed. Now, most of our fellowship expects women to maintain employment after getting married and giving birth and would criticize her if she did not do so! I wonder if some of the resistance to women participating in public worship comes from misunderstanding the nature of worship assemblies? It seems that many of the attitudes and traditions we have about the assembly reflect Western Christendom (Roman Catholic/ Orthodox?) rather than anything based in the teaching or examples of the Scriptures. It seems that misogyny, ideas about church “offices” and authority, the inferiority of non-Caucasian races and other non-Biblical ideas became institutionalized in that tradition and continue to be accepted today without much thought or study being invested. Just a thought.

  6. Dorothy Simmons Says:

    please add me to the email list to receive posts Thank You

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