Badass Ladies in American Religious History: Coming to Jesus

Since the first Great Awakening in the mid-17th century, physical experience has been central to religious life in the United States. Before preachers like George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards roamed the countryside, religious experience was staid and intellectual. Before Whitefield and Edwards, the role of women in religious life was constrained. But after the revival culture sprung up, religious experience became ecstatic and physical and the Holy Spirit did not discriminate by gender. When this trend in religiosity began, the idea of the Holy Spirit choosing to move women was inconceivable. This attitude that women are undeserving of personal religious experience has continued throughout American religious history. In both personal narratives and in public culture, religious enthusiasm in women has been considered to be an outer manifestation of inner character.

Anne and the Antinomians is the name of my imaginary band...

Long before the first Great Awakening, the issue of women preaching often arose. The case of Anne Hutchinson, in 1638, is one such example. Hutchinson was a midwife who began holding prayer meetings in her house. Quite soon, she began to preach ideas that differed from those of the established male preachers, particularly John Winthrop. The religious patriarchy believed that her preaching was unsuitable for her sex, and after she refused to apologize for, or retract, her beliefs, she was banished from the Massachusetts Bay colony. In her trial, John Winthrop stated, “We do not mean to discourse with those of your sex.” In this instance, women were not only barred from communicating with God, they were barred from defending their own religious experiences.


After Hutchinson was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, some members of the patriarchy delighted to hear that she had given birth to a deformed baby. Certainly, her opponents would point to the Bible phrase, “Watch for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ferocious wolves. By their fruits you will recognize them.” This passage is interpreted to mean that there is an outer manifestation of inner holiness or depravity. If a wife was subservient, it showed that she was just. If a woman resisted her prescribed gender role, or gave birth to a deformed baby, it showed that she was a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a depraved being who masqueraded as a pious Christian.

It was a common belief, called “providence,” that God showed his displeasure or benevolence through everyday events. Thus, a deformed baby would be proof both that Hutchinson was bearing rotten fruit and that God was displeased with her. Winthrop and his colleagues also rejoiced in the “monstrous birth” of a follower of Hutchinson, Mary Dryer. The belief that the weakness of women was shown in the offspring they produced implies that childbirth was the main determiner of a woman’s godliness.

A century after Anne Hutchinson, during the first Great Awakening, the fruits of a woman’s religious awakening were examined and questioned. Bathsheba Kingsley was a woman who had a “series of dreams, imaginations and sudden Impressions & Impulses, supposing them to be immediate Revelations from Heaven.” Jonathan Edwards met with her and determined that she, like Hutchinson, was acting in a manner inappropriate for her sex. Edwards and his colleagues believed that Kingsley was under the influence of Satan, not necessarily because she believed herself to be communicating with the divine, but because “she [threw] off the Care of her Husbands House and Family, being a great part of her time gone from home”¦often stealing away her Husband’s horse to go away to other Towns Contrary to his mind”¦and in making almost a Constant Business of talk-ing against others wherever she goes freely.”

Through her disregard of normal female roles, particularly her enthusiasm about preaching and spreading God’s word, Bathsheba’s satanic influence was proven. Much as a deformed baby confirmed Anne Hutchinson’s deviant nature, Bathsheba’s nature was made clear by her inability, or disinterest, in following the will of her husband and the standards of behavior for women.

A cartoon satirizing George Whitefield's female following

In fact, doubters of revivalism often pointed to female enthusiasm as proof of its folly. A satirical cartoon, published in 1760, shows George Whitefield, the preacher whose manner and style of religious expression influenced the fervor of the Great Awakening, preaching to a group of women. Intending to show the superficiality of his style of preaching, the cartoonist has included what the women are saying. One says, “O’ what a pious creature he is,” while another one says, “His poor eye sparkles with Holy Zeal.” These two lines intend to show that the women are only listening to Whitefield out of interest in Whitefield himself, not for any religious message. This idea is also shown in the vendors selling copies of Whitefield’s latest sermon. Most telling, however, is what one woman in the front of the cartoon is saying: “I wish his Spirit was in my Flesh.” This comment implies that Whitefield preyed upon the sexual weaknesses and desires of women. Many depictions of women in revivals show them writhing on the ground, moaning and yelling in religious fervor. Whether this depiction comes from observers imposing their own views or what these women truly were experiencing, it is not difficult to understand how these women were viewed in sexual terms.


During the revivals of the first Great Awakening that blanketed the colonies in the mid-18th century, participants would frequently begin crying out and falling to the ground with religious passion. While this style of religious experience became common in the second Great Awakening and modern evangelical culture, it was a shock to the restrained, internal, Congregational tradition, especially the extent to which women participated in this outpouring of fervor. Most particularly offensive was the enthusiasm women showed.

It would be too simple to claim that the Congregationalists disapproved of enthusiastic women because they believed that women weren’t worthy of religious experiences. It was the physicality of female religiosity that was problematic for the more traditional congregations during the revivalism of 1730s and “˜40s. Women participating in those revivals would frequently cry out or fall to the ground with religious passion. The idea of women collapsing in religious ecstasy was incomprehensible to those who were uncertain of a woman’s ability to preach. If Ann Hutchinson holding glorified prayer meetings in her home was questionable, the notion of a women saying she had met with Jesus was ludicrous. In a tradition where salvation was determined by self-doubt, solemn testimony and the votes of elders, the absolute certainty and physicality of revivalism was foreign, misguided, and, in the case of female participants, sinful.

It is almost impossible to not see the similarities between physical manifestations of female religiosity and female sexuality, particularly the expressions of sexual ecstasy: A woman falling to the ground, moaning, tearing off her clothes, and convulsing, after the spiritual penetration of a masculine divine force (typically understood as the Holy Spirit). Perhaps it was the orgiastic nature of these expressions that threatened the early American male religious establishment. Throughout religious history, many men have described their relationship with the divine as a romantic one, but for a woman to do the same was viewed as subversive and sinful. It is no coincidence that the fruit of Anne Hutchinson’s relationship with what she considered to be God was a demonic child.

Even several centuries after Anne Hutchinson and Bathsheba Kingsley, female religiosity was considered suspect or separate from the male-dominated religious culture. In present-day Appalachia, female religiosity is encouraged, but only when separate from men’s religiosity. The practices of the snake-handlers in Appalachia took the notions of religious enthusiasm to an extreme. In his book on snake handling and extreme religiosity, Salvation on Sand Mountain, Dennis Covington spends time with a congregation of enthusiastic Protestants. The members of The Church of Jesus with Signs Following handle poisonous rattlesnakes while under the influence of the spirit. Services at The Church of Jesus with the Signs Following (TCJSF) are enthusiastic and visceral. At one service, Aunt Daisy Parker, a woman known for her ability to prophesize, stood up and began to predict the future. Covington described the scene like this:

Aunt Daisy Parker, [was] a severe looking old woman with an unpredictable temperament. The singing and praying had gone on for about an hour when Aunt Daisy suddenly leapt to her feet and began to prophesy”¦Then she started marching”¦she swung her arms in the air as she marched”¦I was sitting in the middle of the congregation and watching Aunt Daisy with increasing alarm”¦In any other context, I would have pegged has as an obvious lunatic. But then I realized that the rest of the congregation seemed not only to indulge her but to understand her.

Aunt Daisy’s expressions of fervor are reminiscent of displays of enthusiasm in response to George Whitefield’s sermons. But in contrast to the enthusiasm of women in the first Great Awakening, Daisy’s theatrics are condoned and encouraged. At TCJSF, women are encouraged to preach and handle snakes. In this context, the fruits of religious sanctification can be seen in the ability to handle snakes and survive snakebites. If a believer is bitten, it can be seen as proof that the Holy Spirit did not actually possess them. Men and women are equally able to experience the both the religious ecstasy and devastation of snake handling. Of course, TCJSF represents a small minority of American Protestants. Most Protestants would balk at the prospect of handling snakes. But Covington shows how the members of TCJSF justify their practices though the Bible.

But, as the climax of Covington’s book shows, TCJSF is not gender-blind. In the last chapter of Salvation on Sand Mountain, Covington parts ways with TCJSF over the rightly role of women in the church. After coming face to face with a female photographer, one of the preachers experiences what Covington calls “sexual discomfort.” He then delivers a sermon on the godly role of women:

It is not godly for a woman to do a man’s job!…To wear man’s pants! Or cut her hair like a man does his! It doesn’t please God to go on like that, acting like Adam was made out of Eve’s rib instead of the other way around”¦A woman’s got to stay in her place!…God made her for a helpmate to man! It wasn’t intended for her to have a life of her own! If God had wanted to give her a life of her own, he’s have made her first instead of Adam, and then where would we be?

While women are allowed to experience religious elation, their experiences were inferior to those of the man. To those at TCJSF, it is not the physicality of female religiosity that was troublesome – it was the shift in power dynamics that is problematic. The idea of female inferiority came from the Bible itself, not from fears of female sexuality.

An acceptance of female religious ecstasy does not mean that female sexuality is encouraged. For example, in the last chapter of his book, Covington attends a wedding ceremony. The newlywed couple shares their first kiss at the altar. In this way the culture of TCJSF mirrors the culture of the first Great Awakening and the case of Anne Hutchinson. But the members of TCJSF have managed to remove sexuality from their understanding of female religiosity and enthusiasm.

As the religious identity of America becomes more and diverse, mainline Protestantism no longer defines American religion. The case of Lia Lee and the Hmong culture of Merced, California, works in contrast to the cases of Anne Hutchinson, Bathsheba Kingsley and TCJSF. Lia Lee, as documented by Anne Fadiman in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, suffered from a seizure condition that eventually lead to her brain death. When Lia would have an episode, her body convulsed in ways that would convince the Congregationalists that she was possessed and under the influence of a deeply perverse demon. The Congregationalists and the skeptics of the first Great Awakening would have seen Lia’s seizures as decidedly sexual.

Again in contrast to the Congregationalists, Lia’s seizures were understood by her family and the Hmong culture as some sort of blessing that needed to be put under control. Lia’s teacher recalled that the Lees “felt that [Lia] talked to the gods during her seizures.” Her violent and dangerous seizures showed to her family that she was divinely sanctioned and might even become a spiritual leader for their community.

After the tragic end of Lia’s story, Fadiman hypothesizes that the Lees would still have felt their daughter was blessed. Fadiman imagines the Lees saying, “We are not sure we want her to stop shaking forever because it makes her noble in our culture and when she grows up she might become a shaman [a Hmong religious leader and healer].” The Lees may have considered Lia’s horrific seizures as a necessary side effect of her inner sanctification.

Throughout American religious history, external actions have been understood as indicators of internal justification. In the cases of Anne Hutchinson and Bathsheba Kingsley, their behaviors represented their deeply depraved nature. Their physical enthusiasm and rejection of traditional gender roles showed that they were under the influence of some sort of demon. Conversely, the women at TCJSF and Lia Lee were praised for their physical expressions of religiosity. In the case of the TCJSF, the women were blessed by the presence of a benevolent a divine spirit. And while Lia’s seizures came as a result of soul loss, her condition designated her as a spiritual leader in her community.

American religious history has been defined by personal religious experiences. However, the religious establishment, typically a patriarchy, has determined validity of these experiences. What was heretical in the 1700s can been seen as spiritual in the late-20th century. Based on what society expects from women, religious expression among women has been deemed either depraved or exalted.

4 replies on “Badass Ladies in American Religious History: Coming to Jesus”

Great article! While I’m no expert in American religious history, I think you rightly point out that many women (from diverse religions) who hold some kind of alternative position of power in male dominated cultures are often still restricted/marginalized/oppressed/etc.

Not to get too off topic, but this reminds me of the ordination of nuns in the Buddhist Sangha, or monastic community. While some people like to point out their seemingly authoritative position in Buddhism (Ooo! Look! A female renouncer! Buddhism must have been ages ahead of the feminist movement! The Buddha was sooo egalitarian! [no offense to the Buddha]), even the highest ranked female nun was still subordinate to the lowest ranked male monk.

Nevertheless, I agree that these women are badass and I’d love to see more articles like this on Persephone!

Seconded. This is quite interesting, and I’ve been enjoying reading the posts about history on this website as they’ve generally been about stuff that I’ve never heard of and/or presented an alternative viewpoint to a topic that I had heard of.

I think religious history is especially interesting, seeing how political and other motivations shaped how people believe what they believe, how certain customs arose, etc. If any of the writers are taking requests, could I suggest something on Mormon/LDS history? It’s pretty interesting that a fairly big religion arose so recently, and in North America at that.

If you’re really interested and have some amount of free time on your hands you should check out Catherine Albanese’s book called A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion. She discusses the Mormons/LDS/Joseph Smith and talks about all this crazy metaphysical influence on Jospeh Smith–stuff that modern members of the church try to hush up. It’s a massive book, and though it’s interesting, I would recommend that you at least check the index to see where she talks about Smith. Fascinating stuff.

Leave a Reply