CP: What do you think are the reasons for that conflict or that tension when it comes to women in leadership, not just in churches, but in Christian organizations as well?
Pope-Levison: It's been well documented that there's been a conservative pushback against women in any kind of leadership role, in Christianity. I'm just thinking about what happened in the Southern Baptist church in the 1980s and nineties. When I went to seminary in 1980 there were many Southern Baptist women headed into the ministry, and I went to Duke Divinity School so I went to school in the South, and that avenue has now closed down.
I think with the rise of complementarianism and women can be in ministry but they can't be the teaching elder of the church, that's so strong in certain circles and powerful circles, influential, popular circles of Christianity, evangelical Christianity in particular. That's very powerful, and certainly we feel it here at SPU. I think what this has done is to split even further Christianity in America around the mainline churches, which are decreasing in membership and maybe even decreasing in influence and the rise of Pentecostalism and the rise in Evangelicalism and nondenominationalism.
In many, many of those institutions, there's a lot of conflict over women, over the gender issue. So in a sense, those who are most supportive of women in ministry are losing their influence over kind of American Christianity as a whole. So I think this sort of conservative trend is having a large influence over the gender question in American Christianity.
CP: Obviously, Building the Old Time Religion is very personal for you. What is it you want readers to take away from the book?
Pope-Levison: I want them to take away that God has through the ages and including in this time in American history, God has continually raised up women to teach, to preach, to reach out to the poor, to come alongside the homeless and that women have responded in obedience and faithfulness to God's call. This group of women gave up so much to follow that call. They gave up a normal family life in a way. They gave up all of their financial resources and often went into poverty to continue these institutions. They were looked askance at by neighbors, by friends, family. They gave up so much to follow God's call.
I refer to them as the unsung, unheralded, unknown heroines of a critical time in American Christianity. I think that's the takeaway and I believe that God continues to call women and men to these sorts of institutions, leadership roles and so forth today. They are for me, incredible role models.
Read brief bios of some of the women evangelists mentioned in Pope-Levison's book here.
Read a preview of Building the Old Time Religion: Women Evangelists in the Progressive Era.