The Religious Experience of Women in Antebellum America: Oppression or Self-Definition?

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Using as an illustration the life and Christian missionary 'career' of Ann Hasseltine Judson, this paper examines whether religious affiliation was 'oppressive' to women in the antebellum era in America or a means of 'self-definition'. The paper seeks to establish that the consensus amongst feminist scholars which in the 1990s judged religion to be on balance a negative influence on women in the period misinterpreted or left unconsidered crucial functions of the religious conversion experience in activating and motivating women to social participation, at the forefront of contemporary social action and innovation. The first part examines how feminist scholarship from the 1970s to 1990s failed to understand the key role of religion in expanding possibilities of personal agency and activities for women, partly due to the assertion that there was an actual dichotomy between the 'public' and 'private' spheres in antebellum America. In fact, for the majority of women in the first half of the nineteenth century the rhetoric of 'spheres' was conceptual rather than reflective of reality, and it is suggested that women themselves pioneered roles and activities in a third expansive 'social' sphere which overlapped in significant ways with both the 'public' and 'private'. The second part presents problems associated with the sources available to scholars, which hampered their ability to access material which would reveal the reality of women's lives as opposed to the prescriptions put forward in print by, for example, male clergy and physicians. The third part examines the life and experiences of Ann Hasseltine Judson - a lionised figure in her own time whose significance has since been obscured for the reasons described in the previous parts of this paper. The religious conversion experience and the sense of duty it gave to young women such as Hasseltine are examined in detail by referring to primary source materials. This sense of duty impelled young women to pioneer roles in teaching, writing, mission and social reform - roles which over time led to the feminisation of American religion and the rise of voluntary campaigns which prefigured more formal provision of social services by the state.
Original languageUndefined
Title of host publicationThe Religious Experience of Women in Antebellum America: Oppression or Self-Definition?
Publication statusPublished - 1991
EventSeminar Series: Seminar in the History of Religion - Department of History, University of Manchester, Manchester, United Kingdom
Duration: 21 Feb 1991 → …


ConferenceSeminar Series: Seminar in the History of Religion
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period21/02/91 → …


  • Ann Hasseltine
  • Ann H. Judson
  • Adoniram Judson
  • American missionaries
  • Christian mission
  • American religious history
  • American feminism
  • Evangelical religion
  • Women's Sphere
  • Domesticity
  • 'Private', 'public' and 'social' spheres

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