Illinois Women and Religion

Funded through an Educate and Automate Grant from the Illinois State Library,
a division of the Office of the Secretary of State

Women and Religion in America 1600-1900

By Patricia Tomczak
Associate Librarian
Quincy University

The story of American women's religious activities from 1600-1920 parallels the transformation of American society. American women have been instrumental in evolution of the American religious experience beginning in an era that viewed women as only submissive wives through the tremendous social changes of the 19th Century.

The Colonial era (1500-1750) saw the Americas controlled by three European powers--Spain, France and England. The religions adopted by Spain, France and England were carried to their respective colonies in the New World. Thus, the Southwest region of what is now the United States, Mexico and Latin America, all which fell under Spanish control, were Catholic. The Catholic religion was also prominent in the French controlled provinces of Canada and the Mississippi River Valley region. Various Protestant denominations were the accepted religions in the English colonies that stretched along the Eastern seaboard of North America. Contrasting with this Christian mixture were the Native American religions and the African religions brought to the New World by the African slaves. Generally, these latter two categories of religions were destroyed by Christian missionaries of both Catholic and Protestant sects. However, their influence may still be felt through American regional art and folklore. For women this mixture of races and religions provided extraordinary opportunities for individual advancement but often at a high personal cost.

The Spanish and French colonies offered few educational or economic opportunities for women except through established convent life. The convent life separated women from the direct control of men while providing some social autonomy and educational opportunities. This was especially true for Native American converts who otherwise had little support from their tribe. One such convert was a Native American nun, Juana Ines de la Cruz, a renown scholar and poet who spent her life working in the convent at San Geronimo in Mexico City.

Members of various Protestant denominations settled the colonies of England. The denominations were often at violent odds with each other which only reflected the political and religious chaos of post-Reformation England. The Northern colonies, or the New England region, were settled by the Protestant denomination called the Puritans. The Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England to make it less priestly and closer to their interpretations of Biblical teachings. Contemporary Unitarian and Congregational Churches developed from Puritan beliefs. Women, in Puritan New England, were supposed to be dutiful daughters, submissive and faithful wives, wise mothers, prudent household managers and kind neighbors. Women were not expected to take an active role in the political or the religious life of society. Of course, not all women were willing to submit to these restrictions. One notable exception was Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) who began her own ministry interpreting the Church teachings through her own spiritual views. This caused great dissent among the Church leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1638, she was excommunicated and forced to leave the colony, moving to Rhode Island. Compared with many other women who deviated greatly from Church teachings, Anne Hutchinson was fortunate only to be forced to leave the colony. Often women who disagreed with Church beliefs found themselves branded as heretics or witches.

The colonists who settled Virginia and the Southern Colonies belonged to mainstream Protestant groups as the Church of England. Southern women were encouraged to participate in religious activities especially through private devotions. Religion provided women with an emotional outlet and social responsibility. Women taught religious values to their families and were responsible for the spiritual well-being of their household including the extended plantation community. They were involved in converting their African-American slaves to Christianity. African-American women found that belonging to a church afforded them some personal autonomy and helped sustain a sense of community within the confines of slavery.

The middle colonies of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Maryland provided refuge for many other religions including Jews, Quakers, and various German Pietist groups. For women, these less strict Christian sects allowed a greater portion of personal freedom and often gave them official roles in church government. For example, the Society of Friends or Quakers were known to have women leading prayer meetings and functioning as Church administrators.

Just before the Revolutionary War, a revivalist movement known as the Great Awakening, swept the English colonies. The home became the center for religious teaching, as religious beliefs became more individualized and personnel. Women were now viewed as morally superior to men. This was a major reversal of traditional Christian teachings which held that women, through Eve, were less moral then men and needed men's guidance to achieve Salvation. In the new republic (1789) as traditional religious values became secularized, it became the woman's responsibility to instruct her children in public moral conduct emphasizing virtue and service. Although educational opportunities for women increased in this period, society still did not permit women much social mobility or economic opportunities outside the home. A woman's education was to be used to better serve her family.

The 19th Century dawned with a surge in reform movements. Women were at the forefront of social change. Beginning with the American and French Revolutions, which called for equality at least for white men, and continuing through the years of the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War. Utopian religious sects as the Shakers founded by Mother Anne Lee (1784) and the Christian Scientists founded by Mary Baker Eddy (1866) linked the perfection of humanity with the feminine aspect of the divine. For example, the idea of Nature as feminine providing life, wisdom and love through creation became a prevalent theme in the philosophy, art and literature of the period.

Catholic orders of nuns arriving in America from 1820-1900 were very effective in building social institutions as hospitals, schools, orphanages, homes for the elderly and the mentally ill. Generally, nuns formed the backbone of the nursing and teaching professions throughout the 19th Century. In fact, three such women became saints of the Catholic Church.

Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), a Catholic convert, founded the religious community called the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph. This community, the first religious order for women founded in the United States, was dedicated to educating the poor through the establishment of parish schools. Mother Seton is credited with founding the parochial school system in the United States. For her life's work, Mother Seton was canonized a Catholic saint in 1975.

Rose Philippine Duchesne (1769-1852) was a French missionary and educator having joined the religious order called the Society of the Sacred Heart. She was a missionary to the United States, settling in St. Charles, MO where she founded several schools and ministered to the Potawatomi tribe in Kansas. She was canonized a Catholic saint in 1988.

Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) became known as the patron saint of immigrants. She was born in Italy and when she desired to become a sister was denied entrance to two orders because she was in delicate health. In 1880, she established a new order of women religious called the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. Mother Cabrini came to the United States in 1889 and established numerous hospitals, schools, orphanages and convents throughout the United States, Central and South America. Frances Cabrini was canonized a Catholic saint in 1946.

Protestant Christian women were no less active then their Catholic sisters. Lucretia Mott (1793-1880), a prominent Quaker, began the Female Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia in 1833. She would later become one of the major leaders of the women's suffrage movement. In 1848, the first women's rights convention opened at Seneca Falls, NY lead by Lucretia Mott, Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who together founded the National Women's Suffrage Association in 1859.

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) a minister's daughter and member of the Beecher family, considered the era's most morally influential family, attained fame as the author of UNCLE TOM'S CABIN (1852). The novel detailing the horrors of slavery, became the most celebrated novel of its time and a rallying cry for abolitionists.

In New York, 1851, in the Congregational Church, Antoinette Louis Brown becomes the first woman to be ordained a minister. Missionary societies as the Ladies Missionary society of Philadelphia begun by Sarah Josepha Hale (1788-1879) in 1851, begin to train young women as physicians and teachers so that they may be sent abroad as Christian missionaries. Sarah Hale was also the editor of the GODEY'S LADIES BOOK, the most influential American women's magazine of the mid-19th Century.

Dorothea Dix (1802-1877) and Clara Barton (1821-1912) begin the thankless job of nursing America's wounded soldiers during the Civil War (1861-1865). Drawing on the experience of Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, founded the American Red Cross in 1881. Dorothea Dix led the drive to build state hospitals for the mentally ill.

Temperance or the control of liquor was another concern of women in this era since many women suffered abuse due to their husbands or fathers alcoholism. In 1871 the Women's Christian Temperance Union was founded in Cleveland, Ohio at the Second Presbyterian Church by Annie Wittenmyer, who was also the editor of the magazine CHRISTIAN WOMAN.

Jane Addams (1860-1935), a Quaker, was America's most renown social worker. She founded Hull House in Chicago in 1889 as a neighborhood center to provide child care, education and training to men and women from the immigrant population of Chicago. She wrote and lectured on a variety of social problems as crime, poverty, public health and child labor finally winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

These are just a few examples of the many American women who made a difference and effected real social change under the umbrella of their religious beliefs. Some women worked for change by beginning a new religion, as did Anne Hutchinson or Mary Baker Eddy. Some saw God's hand in the struggle for freedom, as did abolitionist, Harriet Stowe or suffrage leader, Lucretia Mott. Others sought to relieve human suffering like Clara Barton and Dorthea Dix. Finally, there were those women who built lasting institutions dedicated to education and the relief of suffering as demonstrated by the work of the various orders of Catholic nuns or the social work of Jane Addams. American women have had a long and proud history of involvement with religious issues, social activism, and the struggle for freedom. This history continues today....



  1. Sophia May Chase and Jubilee College
  2. Emma Hale Smith, First President of Mormon Relief Society
  3. Amanda Berry Smith, The Singing Pilgrim
  4. Lena Doolin Mason, Evangelist
  5. Essays on Sisters in the Civil War - Civil War Medicine
  6. [Abraham] Lincoln and the Nuns - Civil War Medicine by Ann Tansey
  7. Peter and Frances Cartwright, United Methodist Church
    page 1 ... page 2
  8. Ashland Baptist Church Mirror, 1905
  9. Centenary Souvenir of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Poor of St. Francis, 1845-1945
  10. History of St. Mary's Hospital, Quincy, Illinois:

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This page last updated: February 7, 2008