The Original Order of Things

[1] The relationship between the political enfranchisement of women and their position in the Lutheran church illustrates the very slow pace of change when entrenched ideas are threatened by newer ones. So much so is this the case that the words of women who sought such power are largely drowned out by the words of men as church history was, until recently, written almost exclusively by men. The lens of the male historian is both problematic and enlightening, because clearly, Lutheran women did participate in suffrage movements around the world and in the United States. It is also evident that they sought rights within the church. However, there are few records of their voices, although the words of those men who opposed them are easy to find.

[2] For context, the Seneca Falls convention occurred in 1848, women achieved the right to vote in 1920, and yet, not until 1970 did any Lutheran church in America have a female pastor, and even today some Lutheran synods still refuse ordination and even voting rights to women within the church body.

[3] The intellectual problem of female religious authority goes back to the earliest Christian Churches and is still dividing Christians. It is perhaps not surprising that Lutherans are among the most divided on the issue, because at the heart of the Lutheran faith is adherence to the word of God as found in inspired Scripture, and the Bible is in not perfectly clear on the position of women in religious leadership. Parts of the Bible highlight women as religious leaders, examples, and even heroes, while others command that women be silent. This leaves the question in an uncomfortable limbo and forces Church leaders to emphasize one part of Scripture over another. This article seeks to highlight the historical evidence on the Lutheran discussion of women’s rights and the relationship of the advance of women’s political rights to women’s rights in the church. It asks one simple question: What was the connection between advances of women in public, political life and their roles in the Church?

[4] An article appeared in the Lutheran Witness, twenty years after the introduction of an amendment allowing women to vote in America and twenty-two years before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. The article, titled, “Scripture on the Women Question,” clearly outlines the prevailing ideas on the role of women in the church, the family, and society at the turn of the century. Like many paternalistic articles on women, it begins by praising the “weaker sex.” The author acknowledged that “women may equal men in mental power, and that hence, they can successfully engage in all those pursuits,” which call for a “superior mind.”[1] Christians have not been remiss in giving credit to women for the “eminent service, which they have, in every age, rendered mankind.” There are some books by women, the author went on to say, that are “always welcome in Christian homes,” and he reminded the reader that women have the special talent to care for children. Women, like men, have been given talents by God that should not be “hidden under a bushel.”[2] These ideas of the author reflect the secular advances of women in education and participation in the nineteenth century. The article also expresses the qualities of an ideal Lutheran woman who studies the Bible, worships diligently, helps promote the faith within her family, and honors God in her work.

[5] Yet, despite all of the talents women possess, the author added that they are in no way equal to men in the church. “Scripture . . . while according to women her full rights, does not forget the original order of things, by which the woman was made subject to the man both before and after the fall.”[3] This subordination is absolute, even though, “she may have received a finer education than her husband.”[4] Not pulling any punches, the author stated that there is a “line drawn, not by man’s hand, but by God’s, over which women may not step without upsetting the order of God.”[5] This too, reflects the author’s Victorian culture, inherited by earlier centuries relegating women to the private sphere of the home, where they were to be helpmates not partners to their husbands. Despite any “gains” women had made, allowing them to have authority over men was considered a bridge too far.

[6] The final paragraph bears repeating as it offers a final warning to those who upend the original order of things:

Surely, Scripture has spread such a glamor of exquisite piety and fragrant devotion around woman’s truest and noblest work, that of unselfish and self-forgetting ministering, as to almost cause her to forget her subordination, which the creator has instituted from the beginning for the sake of order and discipline. Oh, that woman would regard her best interest! Oh! that she would abhor the pride of a Vashti, and pattern after a submissive Esther! . . . . The modern woman, who proposes to serve where her service is neither required nor desired, and refuses to serve where her service is most loudly called for, is walking a hard road,– hard enough to cause all her well-wishers to look on weepingly as she blindly rushes to her self-made degradation.[6]

Harsh words. But the ideas offered here represented the mainstream of thought in the Lutheran church on women’s position in the church, ideas that that would prevail despite gains women continued to make in the public, political realm.

[7] These ideas were by no means new in 1898; rather, they were a reflection of ideas about women that permeated Victorian culture. Perhaps still relying a bit heavily on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) iteration of “separate spheres,” women were seen as needing protection. They were to be ensconced in the private realm where they could be protected from the rigors of political and public life. Not only did women need to be protected but so too did men. There was a clear fear that allowing women to take on attributes of men, such as getting a higher education and participating in political life, would lead necessarily and irrefutably to men becoming less manly. The notion of women upending the normal order meant nothing less than a total breakdown of natural society. These ideas and fears permeated the rhetoric around women’s rights. Cast in the light of the major changes to society wrought by the first world war, after which women received the right to vote in Germany and England, it would have seemed to many that the early decades of the twentieth century were, in fact, the end of the old world for what could be more unnatural than women exercising authority over men.

[8] Conservative church leaders, like other political and social conservatives, had historically opposed intellectual currents that threatened old and natural authorities. And yet, there were some early moves to give women voting rights in the Lutheran churches. European Lutheran Churches dealt with this issue decades earlier than their counterparts in the United States. The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Holland gave women full and equal voting rights in 1908.[7] There were outliers in America as well. In 1901, the Reading Times reported that in an “annual meeting . . . of the First Lutheran Church, of this city, a motion was carried suspending that article of the constitution which precludes the women from voting.”[8] The article noted that “this action was unprecedented in this congregation.”[9] The Bethany Swedish Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois gave women voting rights in their church in 1917.[10] Other liberal interpretations of women’s role in the church may have existed prior to 1920, but they certainly did not prevail.  And examples of women actually exercising authority in the church are difficult, if not impossible to find.

[9] Outside of the church, Lutheran women were participating in the suffrage movement. Many suffragettes were first involved in the Temperance Movement, which sought to outlaw the use of alcohol. Linked to their roles as wives and mothers, they wanted their men to be sober providers. While some men may have resented the sentiment, the Temperance Movement allowed women a public space to express political goals. The link to suffrage was clear. It would be far easier for women to achieve political ends if they could vote. An article in the Indiana News in April 1914 reads as follows: “In Illinois, besides the various kinds of associations that have been mentioned societies of Catholic, Jewish and Lutheran women worked for the vote, and religious societies in many places are taking up the work.”[11] The article continues by saying that, “The Women’s Christian Temperance Union of 300,000 is really a suffrage association.”[12] Newspaper articles from the period also show that churches often hosted suffrage events such as inviting speakers to address women’s church groups.

[10] In June, 1919 Congress passed the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote; it was ratified in August 1920. The hard-fought battle of the suffragettes had been won, but how would this achievement change the role of woman in other realms? When women finally prevailed in winning the right to vote for political leaders, they undoubtedly assumed that it would pave the way for more rights elsewhere. In fall 1920, Lutheran women, many of whom were part of the Missionary Society, a long-standing women’s association that promoted missionary work, presented “resolutions requesting the United Lutheran to give full voting privileges to women on all its boards.”[13] The President of the Women’s Missionary society likened the action to “what our forefathers rebelled against.”[14] Lutheran women were clearly seeking more rights in the wake of the suffrage movement. In Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the English Lutheran Synod heard a petition from women for “equal voting and council rights with men.”[15] The measure was struck down. Women may have been ready to take on more responsibility, but it would seem their menfolk were less moved by the new political reality.

[11] According to Mary Todd, author of Authority Vested, A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church, the Nineteenth Amendment did not significantly alter the perception of women’s roles in the Lutheran Church. She argues that the “Lutheran doctrine of the Two Kingdoms assured that women’s roles in the realm of church and state would remain distant and unconnected.”[16] In other words, just because women make political advances in the world of politics does not mean that those same rights should be extended to the Church.  This argument prevailed and still prevails in some Lutheran churches.  While women in many European and American Lutheran churches were voting members of the church, The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod did not allow women to vote until 1969 and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod still denies women the right to vote.

[12] Despite the lack of immediate gains in 1920, Lutheran women in some synods did eventually gain more authority within the Church. But, again, this process was very slow and remains incomplete and controversial. Louis Sieck (b. 1884), a Lutheran minister and seminary president, is often cited on the topic of women’s rights for his contribution to the debate in the Lutheran Witness as the 19th amendment was being debated. He rather famously wrote that “Many of us have been accustomed to regard Women’s suffrage as too insignificant and too absurd to deserve serious attention.”[17] So insignificant did such Lutheran leaders think of women’s suffrage that they were “hoping secretly that it would die a natural death.”[18] Seick admitted that it had become one of the most “profoundest questions” of his time.[19]

[13] While some Synods gradually allowed women more authority in churches, it took a good deal longer for women to add ordination to their rights. So entrenched was male authority, that women could not preach in any American Lutheran church for decades after getting the right to vote in their churches. Church authorities were clear that men should retain spiritual authority over women both at home and in church. Still today, different synods have answered the question of female ordination in different ways. While some Lutheran churches in 2020 celebrate their fifty year old decision to allow women to preach and be ordained, others have not yet made the same decision. The variety of answers on this question may stem from Martin Luther, who at once praised women as religious leaders in the home, while prevaricating on public rights.

[14] In his study entitled, “Luther on Eve, Women, and the Church, Mickey Mattox found that Luther “credited Christian women with a capacity for the active and even heroic confession of the faith.”[20] He goes on to contend that Luther allowed that women might “sometimes correct or instruct their husbands and pastors.”[21] Perhaps most compelling is Mattox’s argument that

Elsewhere, Luther had clearly acknowledged the legitimacy of a woman’s preaching in some form of public assembly, particularly within female communities like that of the Christian convent where men were not allowed. He also recognized that the question of women’s preaching could be raised on the basis of his doctrine of the common priesthood, and even admitted its necessity when no suitable man could be found for the task.[22]

Despite these examples, Mattox concludes that in the 16th century, “Luther himself did not support the ordination of women to the public ministry, and this is one of those stubborn historical facts one must simply accept.”[23]

[15] Francis Pieper (1852-1931), Lutheran theologian and seminary president, spoke to the issue in 1933 in “The Laymen’s Movement in the Light of God’s Word,” where he declared that, “Holy Scripture excludes women from all public teaching in the presence of men.”[24] Citing Paul’s instructions to an early church, Pieper argued that Paul’s “Prohibition,” against women speaking in church “is to be in force in all places and at all times until Judgment day.”[25] Women could certainly teach children in school but not adolescents and adult men. He dismissed women leaders in the Bible as a counterpoint saying that God might make “exceptions,” but men may not.[26]

[16] The other side of the debate is that history is just that, history. At a time when women lacked access to education and intellectual independence, it made sense that women’s authority in the church should be equally limited. But times change. Would Luther, or even Pieper, make the same arguments regarding modern women? Lutheran women were admitted to Lutheran colleges in the middle of the nineteenth century. This was in line with Luther’s insistence on religious education and literacy for individual piety. In their work, L. DeAne Lagerquist and Caryn D. Riswold find that these early colleges anticipated that this education would lead women to careers perhaps in nursing, but more importantly it would make for “better educated potential wives and mothers.”[27]  As women became more educated, however, the question did not get easier in the church. Writing on the topic, Gracia Grindal traces the debate on women preaching in the 1960s. She finds that question was as “vexing” in 1969 as it was to Luther. A report from a committee studying the issue failed to come to a final answer after significant study and debate. The report by the Division for Theological Studies, a subcommittee of the Council in the United States of America (LCUSA), found that the “biblical and theological evidence is not conclusive either for or against the ordination of women.”[28]

[17] While there are connections between women’s quest for suffrage and for ordination throughout American history, the final moves to ordain women in American Lutheran churches seem tied far more to the feminism of the 1960s than that of the suffragists. In her doctoral thesis, Donna Koch finds that women’s ordination in 1970 came from the same movements against authority dominating the social scene of the 1960s and 70s.  Lagerquist and Riswold find that the later waves of feminism led religious women to “reflect on their own experience and religious heritage,”[29] leading them to criticize and seek change for the church. After women were ordained, they became a far more visible and forceful presence in the church.[30]

[18] Any final assessment would find that the Lutheran churches in America lagged well behind social movements that gave women more access to positions of authority. From suffrage to ordination, different Lutheran synods have continued to embrace different interpretations of the Bible’s stance on women’s roles. And, surely the debate is not yet over. While women can vote and preach in the ELCA, other Lutheran church bodies refuse to bend, preferring to uphold what they consider the original order of things.



[1] The Lutheran Witness. 7 February 1898. Accessed June, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. The connection between what happens in the world outside the home and what happens within is consistent with how nineteenth-century social conservatives viewed society. If one upsets the order of the things in the home, then the social fabric of all things is endangered.

[6] Ibid

[7] Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, 23 June 1908.

[8] Reading Times, Pennsylvania, 02 January 1911.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 31 December 1917.

[11] The Indianapolis News, Indianapolis, Indiana, 11 April 1914.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Evening Star, October 1920.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Wisconsin State Journal, 21 June 1921.

[16] Todd, Mary, Authority Vested, A Story of Identity and Change in the Lutheran Church.  Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans-Lightning Source, 1999.

[17] Sieck, Louis, “Attitudes Lutherans Should take Towards Women’s Suffrage.” Lutheran Witness. 13 May 1919, 149.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Mattox, Mickey. “Luther on Eve, Women, and the Church,” in The Pastoral Luther: Essays on Martin Luther’s Practical Theology. Edited by Timothy J. Wengert. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017, 264.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Pieper, Francis. “The Layman’s Movement in the Light of God’s Word,” in What is Christianity and Other Essays. St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1933.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] L. DeAne Lagerquist and Caryn D. Riswold. Historical and Theological Legacies of Feminism and Lutheranism,” in Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives. Edited by Mary J Steufert, 15-30. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010.

[28] Todd, p. 251-252.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

Julie Tatlock

Julie Tatlock is assistant professor of history and chair of the Department of Justice, Sociology, and History at Mount Mary University.  She has published on a number of topics including women’s history, pedagogy, and world history. Her most recent publication is “Enhancing Student Engagement Online: Creative Pedagogy in a Digital World.” She is a member of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.