Authors like Anne Douglas (The Feminization of American Culture) and Leon Podles (The Church Impotent: The Feminization of Christianity) have documented what might be called the “feminization of the church.” More recent offerings like Why Men Hate Going to Church bring statistical data and anecdotal evidence that men just don’t seem to like, or fit in, at most churches. While I think these authors all make good points, I was recently struck at how “feminine” certain Puritan theologians were. For many in my conservative Reformed circles, the Puritans are the standard against which we measure our own orthodoxy and our spiritual fervor. Many Puritans are revered for their “manly” courage and heroic gospel deeds. I don’t want to belittle any of that–I simply want suggest that some of the these “manly” Puritans spoke, wrote, and preached in quite “feminine” terms.
Kimberly Brecken Long highlights this in her study, The Eucharistic Theology of the American Holy Fairs: “The Puritans produced numerous commentaries on the Song of Songs and greatly admired that of Bernard [of Clairvaux]; as Gordon Wakefield points out, they were ‘not afraid to talk of rapes, ravishments, and ecstasies'”(30).
She continues: “Even a sampling of Puritan sources shows the influence of earlier [medieval and Roman Catholic] devotionals. In Thomas Shepherd’s sermon ‘Behold the Happiness of those Espoused to Christ’ … Christ is the husband and woos believers to a match, an espousal. Similarly, in ‘Containing Motives and Arguments to Persuade Us Unto the Love of Christ, and to Be Espoused to Him,’ Shepard asserts that the love of Christ ‘is a conjugal love’; Christ is a suitor who ‘makes love to thee'” (31).
Thomas Watson did not shy away from feminine imagery either: “See the reason why the saints so rejoice in the Word and sacrament, because here they meet with their Husband, Christ … If Christ is so sweet in an ordinance [the Lord’s Supper], when we have only short glances and dark glimpses of him by faith, oh then, how delightful and ravishing will his presence be in heaven when we see him face to face and are for ever in his loving embraces!”
Bracken Long continues her overview by mentioning Edward Taylor, Richard Sibbes, and Sir Francis Rous (who apparently authored psalms which met with approval from the Westminster Divines).
At this point, some may argue that these Puritans could not escape the baleful influence of St. Bernard, and so perpetuated, or even advanced, the “feminization” of the Church. But, these are figures that are revered and venerated in some conservative Reformed circles. At the very least, it’s an interesting paradox. Have we reacted perhaps to strongly to the “feminization” of the Church? As C.S. Lewis put it, God is so “masculine” that we are all “feminine” in relation to Him.
For more documentation of this mindset, particularly among the laity, see Leigh Eric Schmidt, Holy Fairs: The Making of American Revivalism, pgs. 153-168.