In the formative years of the Methodist Church in the United States, women played significant roles as proselytizers, organizers, lay ministers, and majority members. Although womenÆs participation helped the church to become the nationÆs largest denomination by the mid-nineteenth century, their official roles diminished during that time. In Beyond the Pulpit, Lisa Shaver examines Methodist periodicals as a rhetorical space to which women turned to find, and make, self-meaning.
In 1818, Methodist Magazine first published “memoirs” that eulogized women as powerful witnesses for their faith on their deathbeds. As Shaver observes, it was only in death that a woman could achieve the status of minister. Another Methodist publication, the Christian Advocate, was AmericaÆs largest circulated weekly by the mid-1830s. It featured the “LadiesÆ Department,” a column that reinforced the canon of women as dutiful wives, mothers, and household managers. Here, the church also affirmed women in the important rhetorical and evangelical role of domestic preacher. Outside the “Ladies Department,” women increasingly appeared in “little narratives” in which they were portrayed as models of piety and charity, benefactors, organizers, Sunday school administrators and teachers, missionaries, and ministersÆ assistants. These texts cast women into nondomestic roles that were institutionally sanctioned and widely disseminated.
By 1841, the LadiesÆ Repository and Gatherings of the West was engaging women in discussions of religion, politics, education, science, and a variety of intellectual debates. As Shaver posits, by providing a forum for women writers and readers, the church gave them an official rhetorical space and the license to define their own roles and spheres of influence. As such, the periodicals of the Methodist church became an important public venue in which womenÆs voices were heard and their identities explored.
Lisa Shaver argues that American Methodist publications in the first half of the nineteenth century rhetorically constructed women's roles in the home, in the church, in the community, and as writers—and in so doing gave women places 'beyond the pulpit' from which to be rhetorically effective. Her argument is well supported by attention to primary texts and to theoretical and scholarly sources. Shaver's book offers a focus on ordinary and unnamed women, rather than on the usual heroes of feminism and/or rhetorical history.
In 'Beyond the Pulpit', Shaver has thus made visible women who have long remained nameless and rhetorical activities that have long been ignored. And she has shown that, like the church itself, Methodist publications became 'liminal zones' or 'borderlands' for the rhetorical development of Methodist women.
Shaver not only makes critical interventions by moving feminist rhetorical studies 'beyond the pulpit' to excavate and explore the little narratives that indicate women's significance in Methodist communities, but she also offers an exemplary methodological model that guides scholars toward answering the question: How do we write histories that interrogate questions of rhetoric, religion, and gender?
Lisa Shaver is associate professor in professional writing and rhetoric and director of women’s and gender studies at Baylor University. She is the author of Beyond the Pulpit: Women’s Rhetorical Roles in the Antebellum Religious Press.learn more