The Bible Student’s Sacrifice: Gender Fluidity and Consecrated Identity in Evangelical America, 1879-1916

In: Religion and Gender
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American feminist scholars have often represented gender in nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism as a binary conflict between oppositional ‘male’ and ‘female’ categories of identity and experience. Drawing on the theoretical work of Jeanne Boydston, this article argues that gender within evangelical religion is better understood as a ‘system of distinctions’ that could be articulated in a variety of ways, some of which violated the gendered division of masculine/feminine. The American Bible Student movement, as a fervent millennialist organization, demanded that its members sacrifice their individuality to become ‘harvest workers’ for Christ. This sacrifice temporarily provided Students with a degree of freedom to construct spiritual identities that combined ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ signifiers, destabilizing the binary meaning of gender. After 1897, a series of internal challenges and schisms re-solidified the gender line, associating stability with the limiting of women’s power within both church and home.

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