Will D. Campbell
Vol. 7, No. 3, 1985, pp. 37-38
Shortly after the spring thaw of 1573 a woman prayed for her children.
O holy Father, sanctify the children of Thy handmaiden in Thy truth, and keep them from all unrighteousness, for Thy holy name’s sake. O Almighty Father, I commend them unto You, since they are Thy creatures; care for them, for they are Thy handiwork; so that they may walk in Thy paths. Amen.
She was a cousin to some of us. Her name was Maeyken Wens, an Anabaptist woman of Antwerp, who had been arrested a few days earlier for proclaiming the Gospel of Christ as she understood it from her personal reading of the Scripture, and from study and discussion of it with others of her sisters and brothers.
Cousin Maeyken withstood the inquisition of ecclesiastics and the bodily torture of those in civil authority. When she would not recant after six months of imprisonment, and would not promise to cease her spreading of the Word, she was sentenced on October 5 to death. Included in the sentence read by the court was the instruction to the executioner that her tongue should be screwed fast to the roof of her mouth so that she might not testify along the way to the place of burning.
The next day her teen-age son, Adriaen, took his youngest little brother, three year old Hans Mattheus, and stood on a bench near the stakes so that her first and last issue might be present at the moment of her death. When it began Adriaen fainted, and was not able to witness her parting. But when it was over and the ashes had cooled he sifted through them and found the screw with which her tongue had been stilled. Three other women and a man died that day for the same offense. The remembrance of them makes me exult in my heritage.
Four hundred and eleven years later, June 13, 1984, many thousands of Maeyken’s spiritual relatives gathered in convention in Kansas City and resolved that women should not be ordained as ministers.
WHEREAS, while Paul commends women and men alike in other roles of ministry and service (Titus 2:1-10) he excludes women from pastoral leadership (I Timothy 2:12) to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in Creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall (I Timothy 2:1 395.)
The remembrance of that act brings no exultation to many of us who wear the Anabaptist alias, Baptist. I have heard of no fifteen year old sons picking up the paper clips from the discarded resolutions which recommended the silencing of their mothers. Perhaps it is just as well. For that resolution will no more stop their mothers and sisters from declaring the mighty acts of God, with or without the laying on of human hands, than the tongue screws stopped those daughters of Sarah in the sixteenth century. Or my Mississippi grandmother who in 1932, and with no apostolic sanction, stood in the finest prophetic and priestly tradition and said to an angry band of men about to beat a black child with a gin belt, “He’s fourteen years old and you ain’t gonna beat him.” And they didn’t. Again, I exult.
Many, it should be said, deny the kinship between contemporary Baptists of twentieth century America and that tough and radical little band of left-wingers called Anabaptists. But increasingly the scholars acknowledge and affirm the nexus. Among them are William Estep of the Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Eric Gritsch of Lutheran Seminary in Gettysburg, the late Roland Baintain of Yale, and Donald Armentrout of St. Luke’s Episcopal Seminary.
Last week I sat in a hot and crowded courtroom in Glasgow, Kentucky and watched the continuing persecution of Maeyken Wens’s people. A young Swartzentruber Amish
man was on trial for not having the state mandated red emblem on his buggy. To do so, he testified calmly, would be a sin. To him it would be a violation of the second commandment, and he made it clear that he had no intention of doing so. He refused the oath, refused to hold his right hand up in obeisance to a court of human law, declined to say, “Your honor,” or respond in any fashion other than the Biblical yea or nay. There was no talk of racks, drowning, or burning. But the suspicion of the state of those who dare to be different was much in evidence. Testimony showed that the buggy, with the reflective tape designed by the Amish, could be seen at night for almost six hundred feet. The issue did not appear to be safety. The issue was Caesar’s prescribed emblem. I observed this tiny vestige of where I came from with gratefulness.
One week before that courtroom scene 45,000 Baptists convened in Dallas in an atmosphere of shame and held a four day shouting match over which faction of the denomination, the conservatives or the slightly more conservative, should be entrusted with the tattered coat of Christ. The duly ordained Reverend President was flanked by armed guards. They were not country dunces riding into the city on their watermelon trucks to fight over who would get their picture on next year’s Sunday School quarterlies. Baptists are now a middle class and accepted people. The preachers of the victorious faction, largely unaware and uncaring of their antecedent, preach from Hebrew and Greek texts. The laity come from the professional elite, the major protagonist being a prominent Houston judge. (In the days of Maeyken Wens he would not have been allowed membership by virtue of being a magistrate. In 1985 he lobbies on the Phil Donahue Show to take it over.)
Though there is considerable opposition to the resolution on the ordination of women passed by 58 percent of those voting a year ago, the effort to rescind it did not make it to this year’s agenda. To preserve the spirit of alleged harmony women are still adjudged unqualified to be ministers because they discovered sin first. One might think that since they have been at it longer they would be more competent in identifying and casting it out. But logic has never carried much weight where mischief and foolishness reign.
The percentage of women clergy in my holy mother church is less than one percent. But if those who did not spring from the left wing of the reformation are looking down their sophisticated noses at backwater Baptists and are gathering boulders they might first consider some relevant mote. Among Episcopalians and United Methodists the ratio is about thirty to one. And among Roman Catholics it is . . . well, never mind.
All of us might also hear some words of Kenneth Chafin, a Baptist seminary professor known for neither toadying to special interests nor knee jerk liberalism, words of both warning and hope. They should be heard by Nashville, Rome, Canterbury, and the rest.
The best students I have at Southern Seminary are women. They’ve got better minds and better backgrounds. They are better at preparing sermons than anyone else I have in the class. And yet the most ill-prepared, uncommitted, limited man I have has a better chance for ministry in our denomination than some of the most brilliant people I teach. Until the pulpits of this land begin to deal with that, we are wasting not just half of our gifts, we are wasting probably sixty percent of our gifts.
There are today almost sixty thousand students involved in some theological degree program. Twenty-five percent of them are women. Where will they go? The number being trained is multiples beyond the number of professional jobs currently open to them.
Of personal concern to me in all this is that my firstborn daughter entered Divinity School this fall. I don’t want her bruised by institutionalized tongue screws nor silenced by resoluted bigotry.
Of concern to the steeples should be some words of St. Paul:
. . . and how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach, except they be sent?
The writer was ordained a Baptist preacher in Mississippi forty-four years ago this month. This essay is reprinted from Christianity and Crisis.