Review: St. Marks and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895-1965, Ellen Blue, University of Tennessee Press, ©2011.
Ellen Blue's recent book, St. Mark's and the Social Gospel: Methodist Women and Civil Rights in New Orleans, 1895-1965 offers the non-specialist an illuminating history of St. Mark’s Community Center, now the North Rampart Community Center, one of New Orleans most important religious and social institutions. For the specialist, the book offers a deepened argument for the central role of white religious women in the social movements of the twentieth century as it traces the institution’s growing pains and survival from the Progressive Era through 1965.
One of the most fascinating discussions in the book concerns the work of Methodist deaconesses: women who were single, wore a simple, habit-like uniform, earned very little money, and could be sent to various settlements or churches, much as a minister would be sent to a church. The debates about the efficacy of their work spin around two poles: 1. the value of “band-aid” social work versus system-changing activism. For instance, were the women supporting a structure that required exploited “others”? 2. To what extent did this class of religious women function to keep women in their place in the Methodist hierarchy, or allow some women access to a quasi-professional role in society and the church?
Blue presents compelling research to argue that, in the first issue, women who trained at Scarrit Bible and Training School were well versed in the more radical theologians of the Social Gospel. She amasses convincing evidence that demonstrates how the deaconess training was very much in tune with ideologies that saw a need for larger systemic change in this country's class structure. However, that same convincing evidence is lacking in the specific discussions of the women who served St. Mark's. The New Orleanians like Mary Werlein and Elvira Beach Carré along with the women who were sent to St. Mark's Hall and who taught, nursed, visited, soothed, and encouraged thousands of poverty and working-class New Orleanians remain distant personalities. We learn little about their personal politics and beliefs or how they perceived their work and its political import. Most of the pre-World War II deaconesses and leaders appear to have left few letters or other documents that would allow us to understand if they believed themselves to be engaged in system-changing work. Blue wishes us to see the women as firm social gospel adherents who understood the necessity of changing the system in which such degrading poverty flourished. However, there does not seem to be much evidence for it outside of Blue's solid, but speculative argument. She makes the important point that the lack of evidence itself, is a sign that the church has not seriously enough investigated and recorded the contributions of women in its history.
This book reminds us of the straightjacket of gender roles. As Blue points out, the enduring power of the Cult of True Womanhood that prescribed women’s role as one of purity, domesticity, piety, and submission shaped the work of Methodist women profoundly. Their pathway to "good works" was the path of the nurturing woman in the sphere of the home. For the deaconesses, the "home" became an enlarged concept, extending to include other families. They, along with hundreds of other nineteenth-and early twentieth-century women manipulated this version of appropriate womanhood in order to find some social power and agency. Thus, the women of St. Marks attended to the spiritual and material needs of the neighborhood, much as a wife did to the members of her nuclear family. However, they did so as they lived independently and while doing work that they choose and believed in. Interestingly, Blue points out two events that lessened the need for "wifely" deaconesses: federal, state and local governments took increasing responsibility for the social welfare of poor and working-class families and the ordination of women in the Methodist church. When women had access to the more direct position of pastor, the position of deaconess became less attractive. When governments started health clinics, food programs, etc. there was, at least according to Blue and her sources, less need for the direct aid of the type provided by the church and community center.
A pivotal event in St. Mark's history is the manner in which the community center and the church supported desegregation in 1960. It was a turning point for the city, and certainly for St. Mark’s. The city was in crisis, having delayed integration as much as it could. It finally acquiesced and identified two schools for integration. The white families objected and boycotted the school. St. Mark’s pastor, the Reverend Lloyd Anderson Foreman, lived in one of those school districts and continued to take his daughter to the school in spite of tremendous pressures. St. Mark’s was vandalized, Foreman and his family were sent threatening letters, and the gauntlet he and his daughter were forced to walk each day---rows of jeering white people angry at Foreman’s betrayal and unimpeded by a police force--- sounds horrific. Ironically, this was before the community center itself was integrated. Moreover, Foreman was not perceived by his colleagues as a “liberal” theologian. His principled stance was less about the rights of black children and more about the rights of parents to have their children in school. In a 1960 interview quoted and commented on by Blue, he “stated that ‘personal conscience and Christian tenets were the guidelines’ he had followed, but that his primary purpose in defying the boycott was simply to defend his daughter’s right to attend public schools” (180).
Blue shows us the complex dynamics behind this moment of desegregation in 1960 and examines it as similar to the sets of forces that had been at play in regard to the work of the women of St. Mark’s and, indeed, are part of a decades-long debate about social action, individual choice and the power of social structures to influence action and choice. Foreman and, it seems, many of the women who worked at St. Marks’ over the decades, were sincere believers in the value of generous good works. Their efforts provided much sustenance to many people and, at least in Foreman’s case, had a tremendous impact on the city as a whole. Nevertheless, this important history warns against any easy assumptions of human motivation or simple cause/effect chronologies. The story of the St. Mark’s Community Center is an engaging, worthwhile, and microscopic look at religious, social, and political practices that contain within them our often ambivalent and contradictory, but deeply held beliefs about God, race, and gender.
Reviewed by JoAnn Pavletich
JoAnn Pavletich is Associate Professor and Assistant Chair of the English Department at the University of Houston-Downtown. As a VISTA volunteer in New Orleans in the late 1970s, she worked at the Lafitte Housing Project in Treme and was often a participant in and user of St. Mark’s community-based efforts to make New Orleans a more equitable and just city.