The church calendar of my childhood was the really big wall calendar that hung in the church office and noted the dates, in different colored markers of course, of all the youth events and committee meetings. Not until I studied church history in graduate school did I learn that there was a Christian calendar that ordered the liturgical year, a calendar that set aside feast and celebrations. I also learned that the Christian calendars used by the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestants churches were not identical but do share in common the observance of the major holy days. What I did not have to be taught in grad school was that Baptists are slow adopters of all things new (and all things old). In my growing-up-as-a-Southern-Baptist-girl-in-Texas experience, I heard no mention of Advent or Lent, no reference to Holy Week or Ordinary Time, and certainly no embrace of an All Saints’ Day observance.
One of the best gifts of studying church history was learning to see beyond my limited childhood Baptist vision and being introduced to the traditions of the church, and one of my favorite of those traditions has been All Saints’ Day. I have an inexplicable affection for All Saints’ Day. Perhaps that affection was developed as a result of my study of church history, or perhaps it grew as a result of my fondness of a good story, or perhaps it began with my appreciation of the saints who have walked ahead of me–the ones who influenced my reading of scripture, who instructed me in the practice of my faith, and who taught me the importance of advocacy and activism. Whatever created my love of All Saints’ Day, I have now for many years held the day to be a grand gift. And tomorrow, November 1, Christians around the world will observe this holy day of remembrance.
Last week, my friend, Molly T. Marshall, wrote in her column, “Communion of the saints: remembering those souls, past and present, who light our way,” “Remembering those who have shaped our lives is an instructive spiritual discipline. We tend to think that those who have died have disappeared utterly from this world, no longer accessible. Yet, our imagination can bridge heaven and earth, and we can continue to receive the impact of their lives.” I love this thought–that there is a powerful bond between those in heaven and those of us still living on this earth.
For me, the most powerful bond that I have had with one of God’s already-living-in-heaven saints began there in graduate school. I wrote a seminar paper on several women abolitionists. One of those women, Sarah Grimké, became the topic of my dissertation, and while my study of her life and writings began as an academic pursuit, it soon evolved into what has become a twenty-five-year friendship with this woman who nudged me toward the work to which I have given most of my adult life.
Just in case you don’t know Sarah: she and her sister, Angelina were the first women from a southern slave-owning family to attack slavery publicly, the first women to act as agents of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the first women in the antislavery movement to address audiences of both men and women, and the first women abolitionists to defend the right of women to move outside their traditional role. Together, the Grimké sisters helped to change the nature of female activism in the United States.
Their public speeches and the presence of men at those speeches stirred up much criticism. Clergymen, male abolitionists, and even women denounced the Grimké sisters, and as a result, Sarah began writing. In 1838, a series of letters she had written were published as Letters on the Equality of Sexes and the Condition of Women. In these letters, Sarah offered a controversial yet innovative affirmation of the rights of women. Her convictions about the need for full female equality were reflected in what has become the most often quoted passage of her writings: “I ask no favors for my sex. I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from our necks, and permit us to stand upright on that ground which God designed us to occupy.”
I could (and I did) write thousands of words about Sarah, but today, I will let this saint speak for herself. Read her words and see if Sarah Grimké doesn’t become one of your most treasured saints as well.
On the need for new translations and interpretations of scripture, Sarah wrote:
[A woman] must enter her protest against the false translation of some passages by the MEN who did that work, and against the perverted interpretation by the MEN who undertook to write commentaries thereon. I am inclined to think, when we are admitted to the honor of studying Greek and Hebrew, we shall produce some various readings of the Bible a little different from those we have now.
On the creation of male and female in God’s image as recounted in Genesis 2, Sarah wrote:
“[The creation of woman] was not, therefore, merely to give man a creature susceptible of loving, obeying, and looking up to him, for all that the animals could do and did do. It was to give him a companion, in all respects his equal; one who was like himself a free agent, gifted with intellect and endowed with immortality; not a partaker merely of his animal gratifications, but able to enter into all his feelings as a moral and responsible being.”
On the life and teachings of Jesus, Sarah wrote:
I follow him through all his precepts, and find him giving the same directions to women as to men, never even referring to the distinction now so strenuously insisted upon between masculine and feminine virtues: this is one of the anti-christian “traditions of men” which are taught instead of the “commandments of God.” Men and women were CREATED EQUAL: they are both moral and accountable beings, and whatever is right for man to do, is right for woman.
On Paul’s instructions for women to remain silent in worship, Sarah wrote:
“I think we must be compelled to adopt one of two conclusions; either that the apostle [Paul] grossly contradicts himself on a subject of great practical importance, and the fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel was a shameful infringement of decency and order; or that the directions given to women, not to speak, or to teach in the congregations, had reference to some local and peculiar customs, which were then common in religious assemblies, and which the apostle thought inconsistent with the purpose for which they were met together.”
On women serving as ministers of the gospel, Sarah wrote:
“It is manifest, that if women were permitted to be ministers of the gospel, as they unquestionably were in the primitive ages of the Christian church, it would interfere materially with the present organized system of spiritual power and ecclesiastical authority, which is now vested solely in the hands of men. It would either show that all the paraphernalia of theological seminaries to prepare men to become evangelists is wholly unnecessary, or it would create a necessity for similar institutions in order to prepare women for the same office; and this would be an encroachment on that learning, which our brethren have so ungenerously monopolized. I do not ask any one to believe my statements, or adopt my conclusions, because they are mine; but I do earnestly entreat my sister to lay aside their prejudices, and examine these subjects for themselves, regardless of the ‘traditions of men,’ because they are intimately connected with their duty and their usefulness in the present important crisis.”
Pam Durso is executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry, Atlanta, Georgia.