United Church of Canada: one woman’s story

Right now, the 42nd General Council of the United Church of Canada is in session in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. And in June, across Canada we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the United Church. One little-known fact is that there were four women among the more than three hundred delegates to the founding council in 1925, and one of them was from Guelph, where I live. When Guelph’s United Churches joined together to celebrate the denomination’s 75th anniversary, I took on the persona of Edith Crow at the opening of the ceremony. This seems like a good time to hear what “Edith Crowe” said through my words in 2000:

My name is there: Edith B. Crowe, of Guelph, Ontario. My name is on the Roll of Membership of The First General Council of The United Church of Canada. It was the privilege of a lifetime to be part of that grand procession on June 10, 1925, as a new church was born. We streamed into the Mutual Street Arena while thousands who’d crowded into that old building sang “The Church’s One Foundation Is Jesus Christ Her Lord.”

The delegates were 150 Presbyterians, the same number of Methodists, and only 40 of us Congregationalists, plus 10 people representing local Union churches. Three-hundred-fifty members from all across Canada, and only four of us were women! And I was the only person from Guelph to be chosen.

The church was formed on June 10, but the work of the new denomination went on for several days. On one of those days, I had to deliver the report of the Congregational Woman’s Board of Missions. It was my privilege to be their president.

I had done things in public: I’d organized Red Cross work in Guelph during the Great War. And—I hope it doesn’t sound immodest—I was the first woman in Ontario to chair a Board of Education! But this was different. Standing in front of all those dignified men in their dark suits, I was more than a little nervous!

 But then, we were all called on to make sacrifices. That’s what the whole union movement was about. A professor who preached the communion sermon spoke about “the law of the Cross”: how the grain of wheat must fall to the earth and die so that something new can grow from it. And we were all aware of that. My denomination, the Congregationalists, was small and we had such a close fellowship. But all of us felt that we were called to give up what divided us and be one in Christ.

 And before our very eyes we saw a supreme example of what that meant. You see, one of the things we had to do in those next days was to choose a Moderator for this new church. Now Dr. Samuel Chown had been head of the Methodists for fifteen years, and most people thought he would be elected. But the Presbyterians had been painfully divided by the question of church union.

 Well, when it came time to choose, Dr. Chown stood up and said that the first Moderator ought to be a Presbyterian! He moved that the Clerk of Council cast a single ballot for Dr. George Pidgeon.

 I will never forget! It was as if a bolt of electricity had passed through the Council. We all clapped long and loud, and the ballot was cast, and Dr. Pidgeon became the first Moderator. Dr. Chown had done a noble and splendid deed and showed us what it meant to give ourselves for the sake of Jesus Christ, who gave his life for us.

And I hope that people fifty, seventy-five, even one hundred years from then will remember that that is how and that is why the United Church of Canada came into being, that we may be one in Christ.

Canadian Baptists Learn Women’s History

Marilyn Whiteley and Sharon Bowler at the meeting of the Canadian Baptist Historical Society
Marilyn Whiteley and Sharon Bowler at the meeting of the Canadian Baptist Historical Society

This morning Sharon Bowler and I made presentations at the annual meeting of the Canadian Baptist Historical Society. Sharon is editing a book to be titled Baptists and Women, to be published next year. I am delighted to be one of the authors contributing chapters. More than twenty years ago, when Elizabeth Gillan Muir and I were editing Changing Roles of Women within the Christian Church in Canada, we regretted a lack of scholarship on Canadian Baptist women, though we were able to include one excellent essay. I am pleased that the situation has changed and that Sharon has found authors to write about a wide spectrum of topics within that general area.

Sharon spoke this morning about tangential research. It allows for “meaningful straying” from one’s major research goal. How many of us, involved in historical research, have some side issues that beg for investigation? We are often well rewarded when we have – or make – the opportunity to follow up on the tangent.

All my writing about Isabel Crawford has been something of a tangent, since my main research has focused on Canadian Methodist women, and Crawford was a Baptist. My presentation this morning was a further small tangent. My chapter is titled “Crossing Boundaries: The Mission of Isabel Crawford.” I could have simply summarized the chapter or read part of it, but I wanted to do something fresh by expanding on one of its themes.

Crawford was born in Canada and spent her final years in the land of her birth. However, from 1891 until 1942 she studied, then worked, then retired, in the United States. In 1900 she became a United States citizen. And although she died in Canada, she had made arrangements for her body to be returned to her Oklahoma mission for burial. Her grave marker in the Kiowa cemetery at Saddle Mountain bears the statement, “I Dwell Among Mine Own People.” So today I took the opportunity to explore in her writings  her feelings about the “two flags” that she had come to love.

There are more papers to come and more tangents to explore, and for me that is what makes my life as a historian and writer so rewarding.

WITCH: A Group with a Provocative Acronym

For nearly a century, the American Society of Church History was pretty much an “old boy’s club.” It was founded in 1888, and after all, who studied, taught, and wrote church history then and for decades after that? Men. When women began to show up at its meetings, they felt conspicuous and isolated.

Finally in 1983, Jane Dempsey Douglass became the first female president-elect of group. She invited women members to an informal meeting. Two came, and the three agreed on holding a breakfast on one morning during the meetings of the ASCH. Soon the group adopted the name Women in Theology and History, never announcing but leaving it to attendees to recognize the acronym.

It was only a few years later that I attended my first ASCH meeting. I stood nervously, feeling much very alone in the crowd, as people milled about, waiting for the doors to open for the official welcome to the event. Then I spotted a man I knew, and he came over to where I was standing. “I see you’ve become interested in church history, have you?” His condescending tone chilled me. I don’t remember what I answered, but I remember quite clearly what I wanted to reply but was too polite to say: “Well I do have a PhD in church history.” I knew he did not.

At no other time did I feel so coolly treated, but I did feel invisible. Thus it was with great pleasure that I learned of the women’s breakfast. My anticipation turned to relief when I attended: here was a place where I belonged.

The format was simple and so it has remained through the years. During a continental breakfast in a hotel meeting room, we are called to order and welcomed. Then, one by one, each of us stands and tells who we are, where we’re from, and what we’re working on. We put our name and e-mail address on a pad of paper so that we can receive the list later and make contact with others who share our interests.

And so I went again in January of 2015 to the women’s breakfast, this time in New York City. There were more than thirty of us present, the usual mix of senior scholars, young scholars, independent scholars, and graduate students. We reported on works in progress, dissertations completed, projects planned, books published or, like mine, accepted for publication. In past years, a few have reported on painfully difficult job searches, on unemployment and underemployment.

Nowhere could anyone find a more supportive group with which to share as we sympathize or rejoice together. Through connections made there, women have developed ideas for meeting sessions, shared tips about job openings, and cooperated on research. Most of all, however, we know that we belong. There are still many tweed jackets and dark flannel sports coats in the meeting sessions, a good number of dress shirts and ties, but among them we can spot colourful blazers, sweaters, blouses, and scarves. We recognize those wearing them and know that no longer is this an old boy’s club. Women in Theology and Church History have a place here, a place earned by our competence but boosted by the confidence we have gained as members of the coven.