Revisionist History Or Why the Church Needs to Stop Lying To and About Itself

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Another day, another Christian woman declaring her desire not to be called a big F-Feminist.

This sort of thing keeps happening, to the point where I don’t even feel like responding anymore. This one has at least kind of assessed feminism correctly, in terms of how it seeks after justice, but once again veers off into something completely ahistorical in their attempt to not associate themselves with the gender warriors.

It’s that historical argument that I want to respond to today. Hannah Anderson (no relation) argues that Christians have been and are at the forefront of social justice and therefore allowing feminism to supplant the desire for Christ’s kingdom is a problem.

This argument isn’t historically supportable, unless one has a very warped version of history. Anderson proclaims:

This deeper paradigm is why Christians have historically led the way in social justice–prison reform, animal welfare, the abolition of slavery, and yes, the protection of women and children. The first mass organization of women committed to social reform, the Christian Women's Temperance Union, was founded in 1874 by evangelical Protestants and is still in existence today. Although most often associated with the prohibition movement, the CWTU also advocated to protect working women from sexual harassment, fought prostitution, and lobbied for equal pay for equal work. Many in the CWTU were also part of the suffrage movement believing that women needed the vote in order to extend their moral influence over society

There’s no other way to put it – this is demonstrably false and far from historically accurate. Prior to 1874, there were numerous organizations, helmed and organized by women, dedicated to abolishing the laws about women owning property, and about prostitution being a black mark on a woman’s life. CWTU was not "the first."

For example, the New York Female Moral Reform Society (and its sister society, the Boston Female Moral Reform Society) formed in 1834, a full forty years before the CWTU. The Moral Reform movement – inspired by the ferocity of revivalist Charles Finney and helmed by his wife – was dedicated to promoting sexual abstinence by eliminating the double standard that punished women but let men off scot-free. The organization raised monies to help impoverished prostitutes in New York City find new, "respectable" work, and published the Advocate for Moral Reform. These societies eventually contributed to the abolitionist movement, as middle class white women sought social justice causes to get behind (many of these women were, in fact, motivated to do so by their faith, but not all).

Positioning the CWTU as the “first mass organization of women committed to social reform” is to erase the mass organizations of women who came, particularly the work of abolitionists and suffragists.

Anderson's example is notable because it's one of the few organizations that didn't have Christians on both sides of the fence. Many slaveholders, as we know, used Biblical precedent to justify their stance. Many men who were against women’s suffrage used Biblical ideas about womanhood to argue against it. Temperance and prohibition was one of the few movements that had a more clear-cut label of “Christian,” despite the demonstrable fact that Christians were heavily involved on both sides of social reform movements long before the development of the CWTU.

But this isn’t about feminism. Not really. This is about a much larger problem.

Anderson’s piece is merely one example of a troubling trend I’ve been seeing in evangelicalism, though it’s certainly nothing new. The modern day church is frequently engaged in the act of revising history to fit their narrative, and it’s possibly the most troubling thing I’ve seen in my 27-year existence. Particularly, history that is revised either to downplay the role Christians had in doing something bad, or, in Anderson’s case, to play up Christians’ roles in doing something supposedly good. These new narratives – of how evangelicalism has always been opposed to abortion, of how we supported women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements, of fighting for the rights of abused women (which is what the CWTU was) – ignore and erase the complicated nature of both the history and the faith of those involved.

Revisionist history makes complex stories and complex narratives neat and tidy for our own selfish ends, and yet the people I see engaged in it most often are evangelical Christians. It’s a denial of the complicated, messy nature that is human life, and belies a desire to have the world conform to our narratives, even if that narrative is a lie.

This practice makes us liars. This practice uses the name of Christ to lie to people about what really happened, to erase the Church’s own sinful complicity in perpetuating evils in history (and now), and to build up our own reputation. And it needs to stop, point blank. We need to encourage accurate scholarship, to embrace the messiness of the historical record, and to admit fault when fault is obvious. We cannot force history to meet our narratives, and to do so is to lie to both our audiences and ourselves.

If we are God’s people, we need to embrace everything that means, and own the complicated history of which we are a part. That is how we become an honest, real, and relevant church that fights for social reform.