The theological context and social praxis of Christian women in the United States: 1880–1930

Pamela Rauscher, Fordham University


This dissertation is a transcultural study of the relationship between theological self-understanding and social praxis among four diverse groups of Christian women during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It argues that divergent theological impulses (which were religious but not necessarily ecclesial) led various groups of Christian women, including white Protestants, African American Protestants, Catholic religious sisters of European immigrant background, and predominantly (although not exclusively) Catholic Mexican-origin women, to adopt equally divergent models of social reform. It further argues that all of these theological impulses were filtered through the critically important lenses of culture and politics. Indeed, the impulses that drove the various groups of women to enter the social and religious arenas differed greatly depending upon such factors as race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation. Class was also a significant factor in both inter and intra-group dynamics. The four groups profiled include three that, by the late 1800s, had achieved (or were in the process of achieving) nation reach, including the Woman's Home Mission Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South (white Protestant); the Woman's Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention (African American Protestant); and the Sisters of Mercy (European-descent Catholic). For Mexican-descent women, who had not yet organized on a national scale, I explore the reform activities and contributions of a number of individuals and local and regional associations. One chapter is devoted to each demographic group. Part One of each chapter examines the context in which each group was formed theologically. Part Two identifies the particular model of praxis the various women adopted in light of their specific religious backgrounds. I posit that white Protestants moved, during the period under study, from benevolent paternalism to a model that promoted structural reform. African American Protestants adopted what I call a model of empowerment that sought racial self-definition and self-determination. Catholic sisters worked within the institutional social ethic utilized by the Church in general. Mexican-descent women adopted a model of resistance to cultural violation. All of the groups were also motivated by a desire for cultural and religious self-preservation. Methodologically, this dissertation employs a social history, or “history from below,” approach, as well as the new feminist religious history, which is helpful in compensating for the dearth of quantitative data available for studying non-elite groups.

Subject Area

Theology|Religious history|Womens studies|American studies

Recommended Citation

Rauscher, Pamela, "The theological context and social praxis of Christian women in the United States: 1880–1930" (2003). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3098137.