Women and power in the Church of God in Christ, with Anthea Butler [MIPodcast #73]
If you’re familiar with African American religious history, you know that black women outnumber black men in the church. There are a lot of theories about why, too. Author Zora Neale Hurston, for example, said that black women were “the mules of the world,” and that the church gave them a place to lay their burdens down. But what if there’s something more to it than that? What if women go to church for empowerment? To wield power in sometimes subversive but spiritual ways? Subversive, because in many black denominations only men can be ordained to the clergy, but women have found ways to lead nevertheless.
Anthea Butler joins us to talk about her book, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World. The Church of God in Christ, or COGIC, is a Pentecostal denomination that began around the turn of the twentieth century. Women have played crucial parts in the development and growth of the church, despite not being ordained.
Butler also recently delivered a Maxwell Institute Guest Lecture here at Brigham Young University on Baptist missionaries who came to Utah to save Mormons. You can find that lecture here.
Anthea Butler is graduate chair and associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Butler’s research and writing spans religion and politics, religion and gender, African American religion, sexuality, media, religion, and popular culture. She has appeared on MSNBC, CNN, in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other media outlets. She is the author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making A Sanctified World.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges.
If you’re familiar with African American religious history, you know that black women outnumber black men in the church. And there are a lot of theories about why, too. Famed author Zora Neale Hurston, for example, said that black women were “the mules of the world,” and that the church gave them a place to lay their burdens down. But what if there’s something more to it than that? What if women go to church for empowerment? To wield power in sometimes subversive but spiritual ways? Subversive, because in many black denominations only men can be ordained to the clergy, but women have found ways to lead nevertheless.
Today, we’re talking with scholar Anthea Butler. She’s the author of the book Women in the Church of God in Christ. The Church of God in Christ, or COGIC, is a Pentecostal denomination that began at the turn of the twentieth century. As you’re about to find out, women have played crucial parts in the development and growth of the church despite not being ordained.
Anthea Butler recently delivered a guest lecture here at the Maxwell Institute on Baptist missionaries who came to Utah to save Mormons. You can find that lecture on our YouTube channel.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and don’t forget to take some time to rate and review the show on iTunes and let people know what you think.
BLAIR HODGES: Anthea Butler joins us today from the University of Pennsylvania. Thanks for being on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
ANTHEA BUTLER: Hey, thanks.
HODGES: Do you mind if I call you Thea? Is that all right?
BUTLER: Yeah, that’s fine.
HODGES: Okay, good. We’re talking about your book called Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World. This book tells the story of African American women’s church work in the Pentecostal denomination—this is the Church of God in Christ. So readers might be surprised in a book about Pentecostalism—and especially African American women in Pentecostalism—to find out that the story begins with a white Baptist woman named Joanna Moore. Tell us about her.
BUTLER: Well, Joanna Moore is probably actually the reason why I’m actually at BYU doing this podcast too, so I’m always happy to talk about her. Joanna Moore was the first American Baptist home missionary to the South. She actually went to a place called Island Number 10 in the middle of the Mississippi River and worked right at the end of the Civil War. The reason why she starts off this book is because she produced a magazine called Hope which was a Bible study magazine. The reason why that Bible magazine came to be was because of the White League, a group who was a precursor to the Ku Klux Klan, and she was working outside of Baton Rouge and had a training school for women, and they tried to burn the training school down, and they beat the pastor up who started the training school. And so she knew that there had to be a way to reach African Americans because she wanted to help people learn how to read and write and sort of gather themselves after Reconstruction.
What happened was she decided to do this magazine called Hope, which was a daily Bible study. It got produced by her, it started in Plaquemine, Louisiana. And that was mailed out to people and it was also sold, so it’s kind of interesting because it’s a two-fold kind of a piece. One was you could use it for what you called “Bible Bands”—which is Bible studies, which Bible bands still actually exists in black Baptist churches—or you could sell it, and that was a way to make money, and you could also have Bible bands so it was a two-fold kind of thing. Part of it was about entrepreneurship, the other part was about helping people learn how to read and helping them to memorize scripture in a certain kind of way.
HODGES: Was the entrepreneurship a conscious part of it for her? Did she want black women to be able to use it that way and not only—
BUTLER: It wasn’t conscious. It wasn’t conscious in the sense of, they started off that way. It just became a lot easier to produce, because if you could produce and mail out a bunch to one person and one person could go and sell it—they also had subscriptions too, so you could do both ways.
HODGES: What made her like other white Baptists at the time, and what made her different from others?
BUTLER: She wasn’t really like any other white Baptists. And I say that in in this sort of way because she lived closely with African Americans and that’s not what at least southern white Baptists were doing. Northern American Baptists, which she was a part of, were basically a lot of them were philanthropists. They wrote a lot about what they needed to do. There were home missionaries like her, who followed her, who would end up working with African Americans and other groups, especially Mormons here in Utah. But she wasn’t like really any other white Baptist, and I think that’s what makes it interesting.
Let me put it to you this way. She’s not like other white Baptists because when she dies in 1916, seven thousand people gathered at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for her funeral. R. H. Boyd preached her funeral, who is the head of the National Baptist Convention during that time period. People are lauding her. She’s not like any other white Baptist because she kept correspondence between W. E. B. Du Bois and others around who were big players during that time period—big religious players, big players in education. So she has her hands in a lot of spaces, and there’s a long term project I’m going to work on about her but for right now, you know, I’m still gathering information and doing some research.
HODGES: Yeah, Joanna Moore, she’s a fascinating figure. Through her publication Hope she’s talking about this idea of holy living. But not just holy living for its own sake. There’s this theological idea of “sanctification” that was the goal. Talk about what that is sanctification.
BUTLER: Yeah. Well, sanctification in the Christian tradition goes through a lot of different kind of phases. If you go through the beginnings of the nineteenth century, you know, [John] Wesley says that “my heart was strangely warmed.” This is a second experience.
HODGES: He’s a Methodist.
BUTLER: Yeah, he’s a Methodist. And people talk about this sanctification experience. In the time period that Moore is in, sanctification is seen a couple of ways. One is about, you are free from sin. You are able to be sinless before God, right?
There’s another way to think about sanctification, and that’s what a lot of English—or what we call Keswik people—thought about, which was enduement of power for service. It gave you the power to serve others. And so Moore is kind of an interesting person, because she’s straddling both of these, I think. So, the ways in which she thinks about sanctification is, it sets people apart. It sets her apart. If you get sanctification it’ll set you apart to do good works. But it also is a way to think about race and racism during this time period, because she has a way of saying that, you know, if you’re in the holiness movement—which she was a part of during that time—then you should see everyone as equal, and as we know, post-Reconstruction period was not like that at all.
HODGES: No, no. So sanctification was supposed to change you then.
BUTLER: Yeah, it had to change you, yeah.
HODGES: Did they think that it would make you perfect at some point? That you literally wouldn’t sin in this life?
BUTLER: Absolutely, in this lifetime, you would be perfect. You could achieve sinless perfection. And so, that’s part of the sanctification I think it’s hard for people to see. And then you needed it to live that out. You needed to prove it. So, you know, you didn’t smoke. The joke I like to say is, what people said back then, “you don’t smoke or drink or chew or go with girls that do,” right? So, you have to think about how what you do, what you wear, how you behave in public—All of those things become a real big part about living what is called a sanctified life.
HODGES: There were some disagreements among Baptists about sanctification, and maybe even how to tell that you had been sanctified.
BUTLER: Absolutely. So, for some Baptists during this time period sanctification is about sort of a theological way, but you don’t have to do all these things to live it. And then others said, “Oh, yes. You do.” And we need to make the difference between the two.
So E. C. Morris is one of the people at the beginning of the National Baptist Convention in 1895, he has a big tract about sanctification. What ends up happening, it breaks up black Baptists. They split up over this issue of sanctification. And the people who start the church that we’re going to be talking about, the Church of God in Christ, leave this black Baptist group to form their own sort of “Holiness” group and church.
HODGES: Yeah, talk about that idea of Holiness, because this seems to be the concept that was really swirling with controversy.
BUTLER: Yeah, I mean, the Holiness movement is—I want to talk about as a movement first, because I think that’s a really important way to talk about this. If we talk about nineteenth century religion, it’s not just about healing at the end of the nineteenth century. It’s about holiness. So you’ll hear the words “holiness” and “healing” going together. And both of those movements kind of come together and say, “We have some thoughts about what sanctification really is.” This becomes a big argument. For a Baptists, Baptists are cessationists. They don’t believe in the gifts of the Holy Spirit. They don’t believe in speaking in tongues—
HODGES: That stopped after the New Testament, “cessantionist,” yeah—
BUTLER: Yeah. That’s stops at the New Testament. After Jesus leaves, you know, and they do a little bit of stuff. “No more of that, okay?” So, no more of that stuff, but these people really believe that could happen. So they’re praying for healing. They are looking for what would be the evidence of the “second blessing,” right?
HODGES: Are other Baptists looking askance at this, like “Whoa, whoa, whoa you guys”?
BUTLER: Yeah, other Baptist are going like, “Ehh…,” they don’t like that, you know, they don’t like that at all, and that’s anathema to them. So, you have a lot of splits because of that, and this is right before the beginnings of the Pentecostal movement.
So, they’re trying to work something out theologically, but at the same time these people who end up going into Pentecostalism from the Holiness movement are also looking for different signs to show how they’re sanctified. And it didn’t have to be just dress and all that. They were looking for some kind of experience that would make that happen.
HODGES: What kind of experiences?
BUTLER: And that would be speaking in tongues. And so, somebody named Charles Parham, who’s not really a part of this book but is kind of tangentially important, believes that the second blessing is evidenced by speaking in tongues, or “glossolalia.”
HODGES: What was the first blessing?
BUTLER: The first blessing is sort of something different. You just know that you’re sanctified because you’re in it, okay? You’re achieving perfection. But the proof of that is that—
HODGES: Then you want a second blessing—
BUTLER: Yeah, the proof of that second blessing is you get to speak in tongues. How do we know that we’re sanctified? We speak in tongues, right?
HODGES: Was that the chief symbol for Charles?
BUTLER: For him, yes. For some others, yes. Then, we get too deep in the weeds if I start going into all the little finer points of who thinks what and why. [Laughter] But for this particular book, Church of God in Christ—which is one of the churches that forms out of the split—they believe that you could have the second blessing. You didn’t necessarily have to speak in tongues, but you definitely had to live a sanctified life, which is, you know, free from sin, no drinking, none of that stuff, right?
HODGES: Did Joanna Moore feel like she—Did she testified that she received that second blessing?
BUTLER: Oh, yeah, yes she did, yes. There’s a whole sort of biography of her called In Christ’s Stead where she talks about her life and working with African Americans, and she talks about her experience of being sanctified and how that happened for her. And I think that’s a way in which she tries to negotiate her space within both sides of the track. I mean, this is a difficult position that she’s in as a white woman to be ministering to African Americans during this time period.
HODGES: Yeah, and to a group of African Americans that seems to be kind of breaking off from this other group.
BUTLER: Oh, yeah, and not just that. I mean, it’s the South.
BUTLER: So, you just don’t do that if you’re white woman. You don’t. Sorry.
HODGES: And then even in the circles that she was running in there with division there, too. So she was entering into these…
HODGES: That’s a really layered situation for her.
BUTLER: Very much so.
HODGES: She wanted people to become sanctified like her, then. This Hope magazine, did she talk about her sanctification experience in there as well, or mostly Bible stuff?
BUTLER: No, the magazine is very different. The magazine is more like you’ve got thirty or thirty-one days of Bible study, and then you have people writing to her and she prints letters.
HODGES: Oh, okay.
BUTLER: So you see the correspondence. Occasionally she might tell a story about herself. But this magazine is more geared towards the people who are experiencing Bible Bands or reading the magazine, and she wants them to see themselves in that. And so, what they start doing late in the 1890s is to put their own pictures in it. It comes alongside what was called a Fireside school, so she produced materials that were able to be sold that would sort of teach a range of children—maybe from the age of three or four to about maybe early teens—so they covered dating and courtship and marriage and how to clean the house, you know, what Jesus wants you to do. Those kinds of things. Yeah.
HODGES: She wanted people to become literate too, right?
BUTLER: Yeah, absolutely.
HODGES: So she’s using the Bible through this publication to help teach people that as well.
HODGES: Lizzie Robinson is someone who comes up in the book. She was a former slave, an African American who was deeply moved by Joanna Moore’s message.
HODGES: What made the idea of sanctification so powerful to former slaves like Lizzie? Why was this resonant?
BUTLER: Well, I think part of it is about what people say about black bodies. I mean, if you think that your body is not worthy, you’ve been enslaved, you constantly have white people telling you all the time that you are less than human, this is the time of social Darwinism. If you look at any of the charts during this time period, African Americans are the lowest on the scale in terms of the races. This is racial hierarchy and classification. I think for somebody like Lizzie Robinson, who may not have seen all of that but certainly would have experienced people behaving that way towards her in the South. I think that sanctification offers something for her.
I should say there is something you don’t know that’s not in the book. One of the things that’s really interesting about her is that she actually shows up a lot earlier than I ever thought when I wrote the book. She actually shows up in a lot of anti-Lodge and anti-alcohol material. So she’s actually somewhat—
HODGES: She’s an activist.
BUTLER: Yeah, she’s an activist even before she gets to Hope, because they’re showing letters from her and another piece called “Cynosure” where she’s writing to them. And I think as a result of doing this temperance work, probably, is how she saw Hope magazine, and that’s when she says she becomes sanctified, because she was reading the magazine.
HODGES: Sanctification—So she was seeking the same kind of thing that Joanna Moore was seeking, this way of sort of remaking your body, and believing that your body is worthy of this sanctification as well, which was elevating, and I think, you know, self-esteem was an issue here or a consideration.
So, sanctification wasn’t meant to be just a private thing though, right?
BUTLER: No, no, no. It’s a very public thing. You need to show that you are. I mean, because it doesn’t matter—I mean if it’s something interior, what’s the point? The point is to be a witness.
HODGES: Yeah, witness so that you can also bring other people into that, too, and this was kind of the networking that happened.
HODGES: So, what was Lizzie Robinson doing?
BUTLER: Well, let’s talk about it in terms of the book because I think this is easier. So, let me just sort of lay out kind of a map here so you can see what happens. She becomes sanctified. And what happens because of that is she gets involved in some prayer groups. She gets introduced to the person who is going to end up being the leader of the denomination she will belong to, the Church of God in Christ. And he sort of asked her to come along, “Let’s see how this is going to work out. You might be able to help me because I have these loose bands of praying women.”
Now, these were all probably mostly Bible Bands. And the reason why I know that is because there was sort of a group of women in Memphis, and there was a school in Memphis that they were all attached to. So, what happens with Lizzie Robinson is that at the beginning, she sort of gets along with all the rest of these women that are in this Church of God and Christ group. Now, the problem with Church of God and Christ is that they start off as a Holiness group, but Bishop Mason, who is the founder ends up going to the Azusa Street Revival of 1907.
HODGES: This is in California.
BUTLER: In California, in Los Angeles, and he speaks in tongues. And that’s not a good match for the guy he’s with, Charles Price Jones, who is Holiness, who is sanctified, but doesn’t think speaking in tongues as part of all this.
HODGES: He’s a cessationist, kind of?
BUTLER: Well he’s not a cessationist. He just doesn’t think that speaking in tongues is proper. He doesn’t think it’s right.
HODGES: Too weird? Too “enthusiastic”? What is this issue?
BUTLER: No, it’s the nuance about what you think theologically. So again, weeds, right? [laughs]
BUTLER: So, we don’t want to get too deep for everybody, but basically they disagree about how you get to see sanctification. For some people, speaking in tongues was the sign that you were sanctified. For other people, you didn’t need that sign to be sanctified. That’s the probably the simplest way to explain that.
But that becomes a real point of contention with them and they end up suing each other. Mason walks off with the name “Church of God in Christ” and most of the people. And Charles Price Jones makes a group called Church of God in Christ (Holiness). They are much smaller and they don’t have the incorporation.
Let me say this, too, because this becomes important. Incorporation is a big deal. You don’t think about this when we think about religion or religious groups, but incorporation is a huge deal. If people become incorporated during this time period you get seventy-five percent off of your railway ticket if you’re a pastor in that group. So all the men who get ordained can get seventy-five percent off of their ticket on any train line, which makes it easy for them to become mobile. Not so great for women because they weren’t ordaining women, but it does save a lot of money. This was a really important thing that he won.
So with Lizzie Robinson, I think her and Bishop Mason end up becoming kind of this interesting mother and father figure in the denomination, in a sense, at the beginning, because they helped to grow it in different kinds of ways.
HODGES: Yeah, they come together to sort of make Church of God in Christ become what it became.
HODGES: You mentioned these differences between men and women and what their roles were like. In the second chapter of your book you say “Pentecostalism provided African American women with both struggles and opportunities to advance in ministry.” These are women like Lizzie Robinson. They were sometimes seen as speaking out of turn.
BUTLER: Yeah. Well, I think Lizzie Robison—This is the complication of thinking about things like this. There’s a part in the book that I talk about where she has a group of women meeting and she says, “How many of you been called to be a preacher?” And these women stand up. And she says, “Every last one if you sit down, every last one of you sit down. God did not call you to be preachers,” you know? But she obviously could be a speaker and a leader.
So, there was a lot of tension between charismatic authority—what you could wield as a woman, because you could prophesy, you could speak in tongues, you were a good speaker, you were a good Bible teacher. And this “temporal authority,” I like to call it that, it’s a temporal authority that you can be ordained as a pastor.
Now, in this denomination, women could not be ordained, okay? But they had what Cheryl Townsend Gilkes called a “dual-sex structure.” So men had episcopal structure where they were able to be ordained. Women sort of rose up through the ranks once this Women’s Department gets started soon after the split in the denomination, with Lizzie Robinson at its head.
So, there were roles for women, but you couldn’t be in an ordained role. So in that sense, you had charismatic authority. You just didn’t have real authority.
HODGES: She had ways of justifying this, too, just in the way she talked about what she was doing. So, she would say, “I’m not preaching. I’m teaching.”
BUTLER: Exactly, and “preaching” and “teaching” is a connotation that people still use today. So preaching is sort of like exhorting. You’re standing in front of the pulpit. You’re running a Sunday service. You could be a Bible teacher. You could run a Bible study. You could do all of those things. You could say “this is the moment where we’re going to teach you about the scriptures and teach you how to read them or teach you how to understand them or exegete them,” but you couldn’t say you were a preacher because that was a male role. And that became a very interesting way—So, it was a negotiation that women were always doing. If you said “I’m a Bible teacher,” it’s a lot easier than saying “I’m a preacher.”
HODGES: Hmm. Do you see any irony in that? The fact that you mentioned the meeting where she stood up, kind of as a leader, and said “who thinks they’re a preacher here,” and then tells them all “Actually you’re not. You can’t be.” [laughs] But she’s being a leader in that moment.
BUTLER: Yeah, no. You know, no I don’t see any irony in it, and if you work long enough with reading women’s stuff you realize that sometimes women are the ones who tell other women what to do far more than men. And that’s the irony of all this, is that women sometimes are better policemen for patriarchy than men are. So, yeah. She’s definitely doing that, but she’s doing it in this specific role that she holds. I think for her, being this very strict holiness woman with a certain way of dressing and a certain way of being, there was just no room for error for her.
HODGES: What was her personality like?
BUTLER: Pretty stern.
BUTLER: I mean, she wears long black skirts, very starched white blouses, you know, showing no skin whatsoever, pulled back hair. You couldn’t really perm—You know, there were ways in which African American women can straighten her hair during this time period—no makeup whatsoever. You know, very matriarchal, in a way.
HODGES: She became a leader with some charisma, but you also talk in the book about how people described her as kind of cold as a person.
BUTLER: Yeah, pretty cold, and actually somebody who was even arranging marriages at one time!
HODGES: Tell me about that!
BUTLER: Oh, no. She actually would say, you know, “You belong with this person,” if she went to some church or something and there was somebody single. So she felt like it was a part of her Christian duty to help people get together or to say, you know, “You’re in sin. You can’t do this. You cannot do this,” and so, this became—This is a very big point of contention in a lot of Pentecostal churches because divorce was not a thing. Back then, you didn’t get divorced, right?
So, one of the things that ends up being a very big deal in the denomination is called “double marriages.” When I started doing the project I thought, “Oh, double marriage must mean that you were divorced and you got remarried.” That’s not what it meant. It meant that you’re actually a bigamist, because you’d move—you know, you might be in a Southern state and you’d have a family, and you’d move to Chicago during the Great Migration, and you got another wife.
BUTLER: So, that created a lot of problems for people, because—
HODGES: Double standards, too, you talk about in the book—
BUTLER: Yeah, double standards, yeah—
HODGES: How was it different for men and women?
BUTLER: Well, it’s different for men because you could go get another wife. If you did that as a woman, you know, and somebody found out about it, obviously you would not be considered to be a nice woman.
HODGES: And there are women who were even cut off or excommunicated, or—
BUTLER: Yeah, you’d get cut off. I mean, there’s a great story in the book about a woman who is married to man and he’s got a wife somewhere. And he gets to stay in the denomination and gets to keep being a preacher and she is sat down from being an evangelist.
HODGES: And she didn’t even know. He was the one that was married to other people. [laughs]
BUTLER: Yeah, he’s the one that’s married somebody else! I mean this happened to a lot of people.
BUTLER: It’s a terrible story, but, you know.
HODGES: Mason was really impressed with Lizzie Robinson and he elevated her to what you refer to as General Overseer of Women’s Work. That was like the original title, I don’t think that title stuck.
BUTLER: Yeah, it was the original title, yeah.
HODGES: What was that position about in the context of the COGIC organization?
BUTLER: Well, in the context of the church, it was like “you take care of all the things that are going on with women.” So basically, if there are women in trouble in the church, if there are women that need to be in certain places within the church, let’s say—this is during the Great Migration of course, so you’ve got a lot of movement up to Chicago in Detroit and other places—
HODGES: Yes, this is black people moving up from the South to the North.
BUTLER: Yeah, to the North, and then you actually have people moving west too, which is another kind of migration altogether to Los Angeles. What ends up happening is that you’ve got lots of women who are being raised up in churches who have this same kind of charismatic authority, but you need to have something to do with them. How do you get them organized? So, you can’t just have like a Bible Band leader. You end up having what was called back then a “church mother.” And so, a church mother was somebody who was in the church, who was usually an older person who had spiritual and charismatic authority, that the pastor trusted. They usually ran things.
So she had to be in contact with all these women who were church mothers. Then as time went on, they established a way that they would have what would end up being called the State Supervisor and then a National Supervisor. So, that was a way that women would come together and begin to meet. They didn’t start meeting till much later as a group, but there was always a day at the Convocation—which was the annual meeting for the denomination—that they would have a day where they would be able to get together and sort of lead the service as women, you know, quote-unquote.
HODGES: As women over women, right?
BUTLER: Yes, as women over women, and men would be in attendance.
HODGES: So, they could lead a meeting with men in attendance as well?
BUTLER: Yeah, they just weren’t preachers.
HODGES: They were just teaching.
BUTLER: Yeah, they were just teaching. So, again, that’s the whole thing. They weren’t preachers.
HODGES: Was Mason drawing on other groups for inspiration here in this organizational structure?
BUTLER: I’m not sure about that. I don’t think so? But I mean there were lots of other kinds of models around.
HODGES: What about the Baptist Church? Did they have a women’s department in a similar way?
BUTLER: Yeah, they had a women’s department, but that hadn’t been around that long. That only got started in 1900 and they were out by then. They weren’t Baptist by then. So, and what they were doing was very different than what COGIC did. And so I think the ingenuity of Mason is that he just said, “I’ve got a woman who’s a great organizer. Why not just let her organize?” And in that sense, you know—In some ways he wasn’t a great manager, because sometimes when there was strife he would just you know, like, “Let’s just pray!” Then, he’d pray for the next three hours right? Until everybody got tired and they forgot what they were fussing about in the first place.
HODGES: [laughs] That’s a good idea.
BUTLER: Yeah, no, it is! But you know, it’s kind of frustrating for people sometimes.
HODGES: Yeah, the people that want their problems solved.
BUTLER: Yeah. But Mason was sort of like, “You need to do this.” You know, he had certain ideas about things. When I think about the big ideas of things that he wanted to do, part of that had to do with, “Let the women organize themselves. We need education, and we need to have a big building for this church.” I mean those are the three big things that happen before 1945 that are big pieces of the church that go on to sort of anchor everything.
HODGES: Do you think Mason bucked against the restrictions that were put on women, or do you think he was fully aligned with them and just found these other ways to sort of work around them?
BUTLER: I think that he was clever in the sense that he knew how to work around certain kinds of constrictions, and it just didn’t bother him as much. I mean, I don’t see him as being a person who thought a lot about what everybody else was doing. I think he feels like A, he was led by God; B, that this is something that he could do that was different; and C, there was already a free-floating structure in place, and part of that had to do with, you know, Hope—
HODGES: The magazine and the Bible Bands.
BUTLER: Yeah, the Bible Bands and all that stuff. So, there was a natural way to organize, but it was just easier to let them take it and do what they needed to do with it. And plus, women provided a lot of the resources for the church. I mean, you know, they’re the ones who it’s easiest for them to get a housecleaning job or taking care children, child-rearing or something if you move from the South to the North. It was easier for them to be able to meet together. It’s easier in a time of lynching and racial violence for women to do things that men can’t do, you know, it’s easier because you’re not seeing a black man walking down the road in the South instead of two black women walking down the road, right?
So, this means that the church can grow in a different way. And so it was easy. So somebody like the next person we’re going to talk about—Lillian Brooks Coffey. It’s easy for her to go to Detroit as an older teen and begin to dig out—what was called “dig out a church,” because she’s a young woman and she doesn’t have the same encumbrances.
HODGES: We’re talking with Anthea Butler. She’s graduate chair and associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. We’re talking about her book Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World.
You just mentioned Lillian Coffey, Thea, and in chapter three you bring her into the story—She would ride to leadership in the Church of God in Christ, but she was not a carbon copy of Lizzie who came before her.
BUTLER: No, not at all. And I think there’s a really important reason why she’s not a carbon copy. Not for the obvious reasons, but she’s raised in Mason’s home. And that is a very different thing, because they had a very close relationship. So this is somebody A, he really trusts; B, he raises up almost like his own daughter. So, that affords her a different kind of place within the denomination than everybody else has.
And eventual relationships that she would go on to make alongside someone else—Arenia Mallory—would become sort of this way that the denomination would begin to change, and change in some really good ways in a sense, to sort of enter into the twentieth century, as it were.
I think she’s also different because she’s probably what somebody would have called a go-getter. She didn’t let a lot of grass grow under her feet. So first she’s taking care of Mason’s kids, and she moves, she ends up being sent up to Chicago and becomes friends with a couple of people who become very important in the church. Louis Ford is one of them who ends up being a bishop later on. She starts the process of, you know, I’m going to put it in quotation marks, “Preaching on street corners.” And then gathering people in what they call “digging out a church,” in other words, starting from scratch. Then you get a group of people together and you meet in a storefront, basically. She ended up starting—I can’t remember the exact number, it’s probably somewhere between eight and ten churches in the Chicago area that are really founded by her work, you know, doing evangelization on the streets.
HODGES: And it would be hard for people like her, because they would go dig out a church, as you said, but then as women they couldn’t then take leadership over that very church that they established.
BUTLER: No, but you call a friend. And usually what happened was people would write and say, “We have enough people for church, and I know this man who would be really good at it.” So, it was kind of an interesting way of women being able to point out—And it didn’t always work, but they’d be able to say, “This person might be a really good pastor for this church.” And that person might get the call, and they’d be able to go up and take that church. And it made it really good for them, because basically this would usually be somebody you can work with. This was somebody who was open to having women do things within the congregation. Sometimes that worked out very well. Sometimes it didn’t.
HODGES: What’s an example of when it didn’t work?
BUTLER: Well, when it doesn’t work is when the pastor comes up and says, “I don’t want you there.” Or it doesn’t work when, sometimes you might even be married and you think that you’re supposed to do things that your husband is not.
So there’s one particular instance in the book that I talk about in California where there’s Emma Cotton and her husband and they’re down in San Diego, and she ends up being, I think, probably a more charismatic preacher than he is. And so that runs into a lot of problems for them because you can see where she’s taken over from where this is supposed to be, “Oh, you’re going to do the women’s stuff, and I’m going to do the men’s stuff.” And you just see her sort of rising and him sort of—
HODGES: And the people are responding to her—
BUTLER: Yeah, people are responding to her, but they’re not really responding to her husband. So, that creates a little bit of stress for them.
HODGES: She bolted, right?
BUTLER: Yeah, she ends up bolting, but she comes back and it’s okay.
HODGES: Happy story in the end for her [laughs]—
BUTLER: Yeah, happy story in the end. But, you know. I think it’s a tension between, you know, when you have charismatic figures and then one person is more charismatic than the other party, and that marriage ends up becoming a problem.
HODGES: Yeah, marriage comes up throughout the book in really interesting ways. Gender roles continue to change, as you mention, Lillian Coffey was someone who was moving the denomination in a future-oriented direction here.
HODGES: What was concerning to her that she thought needed to change?
BUTLER: Well, one of the things—I wouldn’t know if I would call it concerning. It’s probably more like, “How do you change when you’re introduced to something else?”
So, one of the ways that she’s introduced to something else—I would say it’s in the 1930s—is she’s introduced to Mary McLeod Bethune through someone else we’ll probably talk about shortly, Arenia Mallory. And this is through the educational system in COGIC. COGIC starts a school outside of Jackson, Mississippi in the late 1920s. And Arenia Mallory is a very different kind of person than everyone else in the church because she comes from a big family in Chicago, they are well-known, Ethel Waters ends up being a relative of hers, and Bishop Mason asks her to go down South to take care of this church.
Now, the two of them become friends. But the issue here is that, with bringing Arenia Mallory in, a whole other world opens up, and that world opens up between black women’s sorority movements and black women’s club movements. Before this, you have somebody like Lizzie Robinson who’s dressing very plainly, blah blah blah, and then when the AKAs—a black sorority that starts at Howard—come down to Mississippi to work at Saints Industrial School, COGIC’s school, that is the moment when things started to change, because—
BUTLER: —you get a bunch of vibrant, young African American women who are very stylishly dressed alongside some people who are not so stylishly dressed!
HODGES: Was that scandalous at first? Because they came in—
BUTLER: Well, it’s scandalous, yes, scandalous because they ended up having to change their clothes, you know. So that’s one thing. They can’t wear short dresses, they can’t wear hose, and all sorts of things like that.
HODGES: So they came and played ball when they came down to the school.
BUTLER: Yeah, they played ball, they had to. I mean, it’s the South and they’re with this church. But it opens up a space for COGIC women to begin to meet other kinds of society black women. And so, through that association and friendships that they had with Mary McLeod Bethune—who’s close to Eleanor Roosevelt during this time period—they just get a whole ‘nother thing. And so both Lillian Brooks Coffey and Arenia Mallory go into this black women’s club movement, what was called the National Council of Negro Women. And that’s a very important group in terms of thinking about different organizations of black women.
Now, here’s where the tension is. The tension is, is that if you are in this world of very elite black women in the late 30s and the 40s and the 50s, and you belong to a church that values Holiness and sanctification and right living, and you dress frumpy and they have really nice suits and hats on and everything else, you’ve got a disconnect, right? Because the disconnect is that we’re living in two worlds. One world is this very world of Holiness and the other world is this very fashionable world—club movement, politically involved, involved with segregation and trying to advance civil rights, all of this stuff.
So, these women are traveling two different worlds and they have to figure out, how are we going to bring our worlds together? I think this is the genius of Lillian Brooks Coffey. So, one of the things she starts to do after she takes over from Lizzie Robinson is that she says it’s okay to start wearing makeup.
HODGES: She tells the Women’s Department this?
BUTLER: Yeah. “It’s okay to wear makeup!” But actually, more importantly, they start to advertise in the newspaper women’s undergarments, like girdles and things like that, because that was like a no-no. And she started wearing her hair straight, which is another big thing, because you can’t really—you’re not supposed to be straightening your hair during this time period.
HODGES: I want to dig into why a little bit more, right? You talk about the fact that throughout this history, racism is stronger than ever here, right? So, in the face of racism, you say that black people had to “restructure the public image of the black physical frame from bestial to Negro.” They wanted black people to look and act differently if they were ever going to be sanctified, or respectable even.
BUTLER: Well, it’s more than that. I mean one of the things that I disagree with—and I’m just being to be blunt about it—is that there’s another great book on black women. One of the first ones that’s written by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham called Righteous Discontent. She’s writing about black Baptist women and she says it’s a “politics of respectability.” She says in that, that the politics of respectability was about dressing right so that white people would not make a judgment, which I think is true to a certain extent, but in COGIC this is not about dressing right for white people, it’s dressing right for God.
HODGES: “COGIC” is Church of God in Christ in case anyone forgot.
BUTLER: Yeah. They were doing this for God and white people don’t matter here, okay? But what does matter is to God. So, this is a re-framing in a way of sanctification, not because of the public, but it’s also about the private and who are going to be in this denomination, and how we’re going to show that A, God is blessing us; two, that we’re sanctified in the sort of way. So, whereas people were wearing long skirts and all that stuff before, that doesn’t really quite work in the 30s and 40s, right? How do you modernize?
And so one way to modernize is to sort of redefine what it means to be a sanctified woman. And that’s what Lillian Brooks Coffey did. She was able to model that to other women. So, if you’re second-in-command to Lizzie Robinson, who’s an older woman going into her 80s, and you’re dressing a little bit more fashionably, but not too fashionably because you don’t want to get her upset, and by the time Lizzie Robinson passes away in 1945, that’s when this whole thing really just changes in a certain kind of way. And you begin to see how women’s dress changes in the denomination, how sanctification gets refrained at a certain kind of way.
So, it’s the same thing, except that it’s a lot nicer suit, it’s a lot nicer hat. You might be wearing gloves, you might have a fashionable purse on. You don’t wear these frumpy kinds of things. And you can press your hair, which means to straighten your hair, you can you can do that. And so I think for her, this is a way of bringing these two worlds that she has together, the world of the club movement—which is a political-social world—and this world, this religious movement that comes together with it.
HODGES: Do you think they lost a lot of members as a result of that change?
BUTLER: No actually, they probably gain some. And this is the biggest part. I mean, one of the things that ends up being very problematic for people, especially in the Great Migration, is that they say, “Oh, I don’t want to join those people. They look frumpy. They don’t drink, they don’t do this, they don’t dance, they don’t do all this other stuff.” And so when this begins to change, it brings a whole ‘nother kind of woman into the group. So I think for them, this was a moment of growth, it’s not a moment of retrenching at all.
I mean what becomes, I think, interesting is how they have to negotiate this in certain kinds of ways. And so how did they do it? I mean, obviously, they didn’t—Well, wearing pants was a bad thing, right? That kept straight through, you don’t wear pants. With Lizzie Robinson you don’t wear pants or with Lillian Brooke Coffey. But you definitely wear a different kind of skirt with Lillian Brooks Coffey, you’re not wearing a skirt down to the ground, you’re wearing something else. It’s much more fashionable.
HODGES: So, there was some consistency there, this is the trick for—
BUTLER: Yeah, there’s consistency, it’s just different in terms of the modulation of it.
HODGES: Yeah. That’s the trick for when religions undergo change through time, to also maintain this idea that their principles are eternal and unchanging but also…
BUTLER: How do you…
HODGES: Yeah, how do you do that and not fall off the radar for the people that you’re trying to bring into the sanctification movement?
HODGES: Also, you point out an interesting tension with the teachings about women’s bodies, that they were made responsible oftentimes for men’s immorality, like if they dressed improperly, right?
BUTLER: Yeah. That’s always a big thing. What do you do if you dress improperly? I mean I remember Lizzie Robinson says, one of these things, “These skirts are in the wrong spot in your body,” you know, “You can see everything!” I’m being nice, I’m not quoting exactly what she says, but—
HODGES: Yeah, and there were songs and poems about it, too, like “Rusty Knees.”
BUTLER: Yes, “Rusty Knees,” and you know, “Women’s Dress (You Can’t Hide),” that’s the one from F. W. McGee…
[Music clip of Women’s Clothes (You Can’t Hide), by Rev. F. W. McGee]
BUTLER: It’s great stuff. But there’s a lot of emphasis on what you should wear and what you shouldn’t wear, especially if you’re in an urban space you have a lot of opportunities to see, “Wow, somebody’s got their flapper dress on!” “Wow, somebody’s got this really, you know, a lot shorter skirt on.”
You might want to try it, but you also really get censured by the women in the denomination. So, there would be things that actually were made up, like lap cloths, for instance. If your skirt was too short and you’d sat down in the service, somebody would just sort of throw a hanky over you and cover your legs. If you went up to the altar to pray and the skirt was too short, they put something over you, or they’d cover you with what was called a “modestly cloth,” right, and so nobody could see anything. So these become really interesting sort of pieces to what happens in a worship service in the black church, too. Especially in COGIC churches, because that modesty can’t just be about outside the church, it has to be inside the church, too.
HODGES: That’s where the idea of “modesty” seems to have kind of shifted for the Church of God in Christ, where modesty initially wasn’t just about covering skin—that was a big part of it—but it was also about not dressing ostentatiously and not to spending a lot of money.
HODGES: That part kind of fell away, but the skin coverage element didn’t fall away.
BUTLER: No. The skin coverage element doesn’t fall away, but it started getting more expensive and that’s the truth. And then if, you know, the book doesn’t really go into this, but if you get into the 70s and 80s, 1980s in the church, this whole thing explodes into like complete fashion show where people are spending lots and lots and lots of money on clothing and “adornment” as I call it. Whether that’s hats or shoes or whatever, there’s lots of money going into that.
And I think that that was, for a lot of people, especially older people in the denomination, a problem, because they said, “well, Holiness is supposed to be this and you’re doing all of this stuff.” But it also creates a whole ‘nother kind of cottage industry within the church for people to sell things, magazines, all kinds of things that end up happening because of this change in dress.
HODGES: Do you think women internalized that a lot? I’m thinking in terms of recent conversations about campus rape culture, things like that, where people are saying you shouldn’t bring up what a woman was wearing when she was assaulted.
BUTLER: Mhmm. Yeah. I mean, I think this—But that’s always been a thing for black women, it’s always been a thing. We don’t have to even talk about it as just a COGIC thing. It’s always been a thing about when people think of black women sexually, it’s about, “Oh, she must be loose, she must be this, she must be that.” So, the onus is already there because of being racialized, and when you’re racialized in that way, you have to think about how—What are the ways in which I’m going to fix this? One of the ways I have to fix this is I’m going to make sure that I’m completely covered up, I’m going to make sure that I have the proper clothes on. And in COGIC, it’s not only that, it’s the fact that you need to represent the church, you need to represent a sanctified body. And that’s one of the ways you do it.
HODGES: And with all the downsides you mentioned, you also say that there’s also a sense in which thinking about their clothes in this way was also a kind of empowerment for these women. It showed that their bodies commanded a certain kind of respect and that sort of thing?
BUTLER: Yeah. And I mean, within the denomination it demands respect, too, because early on some of the women’s leaders come up with kind of an outfit to wear. So, that gave them a sense in which they had a position within the church, even though they might not be ordained clergy. But when they had meetings or they had events and they wore their outfits—they wore the habit or they wore their “surplus,” which was a long dress. Whatever it was that they were wearing, that was how they designed this particular outfit for the Women’s Department, that gave them a way in which to have an official sort of position without being official in a certain way. Routinization of dress helps you to kind of bring everybody together in a certain kind of way.
HODGES: That’s Anthea Butler. You might have heard her or seen her on MSNBC, CNN, or read her in the New York Times or the Washington Post. She’s the author of Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World, which is one of the only academic books that I’ve seen that specifically addresses women in the Pentecostal movement. It doesn’t seem like a lot of research has been done there.
BUTLER: Yeah, there’s starting to be some more books. I’m thinking about Judith Casselberry who has an interesting book out now—and I’m going to forget the name of it but if you look up, Judith Casselberry, and she’s at a college in Maine, I’m just forgetting! But she has a really interesting piece out about black Pentecostal women right now, too.
[NOTE: The book is Judith Casselberry, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism (Duke University Press, 2017). Casselberry is an associate professor of Africana Studies at Bowdoin College in Maine.]
But there’s not a lot written. And part of that has to do with what I’ve talked about as “high boundaries,” about churches that are really hard to study because, first, they don’t like to let a lot of people in it, they’re a very kind of closed group. And you have to spend time trying to figure out what it is they actually believe and to befriend people. And the second part is they might not have normal archives. This was not a normal archival project where I rolled up to an archive and I got things. I actually had to meet older women who have been in the church, people who have been collecting for a long time. I actually even got electrocuted while trying to get this book together because I plugged in my laptop at somebody’s house and it had a short and it burned my finger. So, yeah…
HODGES: [laughs] A shocking experience.
BUTLER: Yeah, a shocking experience. But you know, you do you have to do to get the material.
HODGES: That’s really interesting. So, this was something—I remember, there’s a footnote where you talk about how you wore a sundress to one of the interviews and you regretted the decision after that.
BUTLER: Yeah, I did, because this was actually a relative of Bishop Mason, who was still alive, and I went—
HODGES: Mason is the COGIC founder—
BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. This was his sister. And I wore a long sundress. I thought I’d done it right. But the sundress had like a square neck and it was short sleeved. And she’s like, “Baby, when I was your age we wore our sleeves down to our bone right here at the end of our wrist.” I’m like, “crap!” you know, “I know I messed up now, she’s not going to talk to me!” [laughter] She ended up talking to me, but I think she talked to me out of pity, and she just thought “I’m just gonna pray for her because she’s just really not saved.”
HODGES: [laughs] You even say in the footnote, you say, “I wonder what else I could have learned if I had worn something else.”
BUTLER: Yeah! If I had had the right outfit on, what would she have shown me?
HODGES: You talk about them being sort of being closed off a little bit. The role of education in Pentecostalism, and in these particular Church of God in Christ churches, there are stereotypes about them being anti-intellectual or having a strained relationship with education.
BUTLER: Yeah, I mean the stereotypes about that is like, these come from a lot of sociological things that are made in the teens and the 20s. I mean some of it actually also comes from people like Upton Sinclair, who ended up writing about Pentecostalism. So there’s a sort of sense in which Pentecostals must be dumb, stupid, blah, blah, blah. That’s not really true.
One of the things that’s interesting is that there’s a lot of different Pentecostal groups who are trying to do schools and Bible schools and things like that. Now, the question is, is where do you get the education from? And so in COGIC’s case, they wanted to make their own school in part because they wanted to be responsible for educating the youth within the denomination so that the Saints Industrial School that starts at Mississippi becomes an important piece of the denomination. They end up doing sort of like a trade school thing at first and then it moves up to be almost a junior college. And then it’s now closed. But it was a huge piece of the history of the church. And I think that, for them, education—like for many African Americans—was really important during this time period. You don’t not get educated.
What I do think is that, how that education changed was with the entrance of the Alpha Kappa Alpha’s who came in and said—
HODGES: The sorority.
BUTLER: The sorority, it says “We’re going to come in and help, and we’re going to assist you with medical needs and some other things.” When money starts to kind of flow into the school, that ends up making it sort of the premier place for some of the people—the bishops and others who are high up in denomination—to send their kids to.
HODGES: As they’re making these connections with the outside world, they’re also shifting in pretty big ways from positions they held earlier. One of the biggest changes that you point to is the shift away from pacifism.
So during World War I they were staunchly opposed to the U.S. being involved there, but then Pearl Harbor really change things.
BUTLER: Yeah it really does. I mean, part of that’s about black servicemen, a lot of black servicemen, end up going into World War II, and this whole stance changed. So whereas in World War I, they’re sort of against it, Mason gets arrested, there’s others in the church that don’t do it. By the time they get to World War II, it’s like they are on fire and gung-ho in being out there. So what you see in The Whole Truth—which was a denominational newspaper—you’d see letters from soldiers who were in Europe or fighting on other fronts around the country, and they actually start a whole women’s group called the WANDS [Women’s Army for National Defense], which are basically like a women’s corps that helps out with some of the places in which there were servicemen in the United States getting ready to get shipped out. So, they have their own little outfit, they’ve got all this stuff, Arenia Mallory is a part of that.
And I thought that was a really interesting piece of all of this, because it goes from, like, “We’re pacifists over here” in 1916 and 1917 to “We are full-blown, have a whole women’s group that is dedicated to those who are doing military service, and we even have on our own military sort of outfits to wear when we’re doing this thing. And we’re trying to help the troops and send them things” and all that.
So I thought that was a really interesting change. But it’s also, again, that turn towards modernism, I think, that’s really important in the denomination and that sort of shifts the way they see themselves in the world.
There is also a sense in which later on, after the war, they really are against Communism, like a lot of Christian groups are. They see that as a very big threat. And so you start to see in the Women’s Department material talk about how they support America and support the flag, all of this stuff.
HODGES: Patriotism skyrockets.
BUTLER: Patriotism is a big thing. And I think it was always there. It just becomes a different way of expressing it.
HODGES: How did they frame that patriotism in context of other African Americans who understood, better than most, the shady history of the United States and how it came about, yet they had pride in this country that had oppressed their ancestors and even some people that they were directly related to?
BUTLER: I think one of the big misnomers about the Church of God in Christ is that people always think that because they were pacifists, and because they took certain stances in 1940 and 1950, that they did not have a critique of racism, that they didn’t have a critique America. But they did. And you can see this later in the 1960s where there are certain COGIC figures who get involved in the civil rights movement.
And I think for the women’s group, especially, I think that tension comes about—or is probably seen in different sorts of ways once they start to meet in an annual meeting every year. So, it’s very interesting to see every year how they would have a Convocation Book, when they start to meet in 1951, where they got letters from different authorities. If you look at the 1951 book, one of the pictures of Arenia Mallory is with one of the judges that is going to end up being a Supreme Court judge, okay? And that’s really important. So, they look for governmental figures to sort of send them letters, to welcome them, whether that’s the president, or the governor of the state, they look for all of that as a way to connect themselves to the government. And I think that’s a really important piece of that. I think it’s Rehnquist, actually, that she ends up taking a picture with.
HODGES: Anthea, your book really does trace this shift from the early days of the denomination to this bigger embrace of modernism in a way that still—They really wanted to stay true to these fundamental principles. What do you think carried across through these transitional changes? From pacifism to embracing war, for instance, or what ideas about sanctification stayed true—or not “stayed true,” but stayed similar?
BUTLER: Oh, I can think of one big thing, but I can encapsulate it in a song. “This is the Church of God in Christ. You can’t join it. You gotta be born in it.”
I mean, it’s a group of people who have really close ties. And the ways in which they think about sanctification is really important. So, they actually have this song that got sung all the time, which was kind of weird for outsiders because they’re like, “How do we break in,” right? But this is a way in which they keep their boundaries up, and you can’t just know what they know. You need to be spending some time there. I think that’s one way to do it.
I think the other way to do it is that they end up building edifices, and the sort of ways in which they build the denomination is different. So, during the war they get to steel to build Mason Temple. They start to expand Saints School. They start to expand these relationships with different women’s groups and different other groups around. They start to, you know, during the 1950s they go overseas to a couple of ecumenical conferences. They are in the world in a different kind of way. But yet still, they still really profess sanctification, and that remains a core identifier, a core religious belief of theirs.
HODGES: What is the place of African American women look like in the Church of God in Christ today? What does it look like?
BUTLER: Well, that’s interesting, because part of it is—It’s a lot of older women. It’s harder for younger women, because there’s still prohibition against ordination. So, one of the biggest tensions that they have is trying to keep younger women, because there’s not—Depending on what church you go to, if you’re going to, let’s say, a Southern church that’s a little more conservative than maybe a church like West Angeles Church of God in Christ, there’s not a space for you in that kind of more conservative space. If you’re in the Presiding Bishop’s Church in LA, you have lots of opportunities to do some different things.
So I think one of the biggest issues they have to face right now is, how do they keep younger working women, who are professional women, involved in the church when these restrictions and these boundaries are so high. So that’s one thing.
I think the second is that they have an aging population. And so that aging population has to deal with change in certain kinds of ways. And sometimes it’s happened really well and sometimes not, okay?
They also have to deal with the fact that they have—like any church that has really high boundaries and high belief systems—you have to figure out how do I engage the world yet still maintain what we believe. Whether that’s about same-sex marriage or abortion or anything else, which all of the things that, you know, COGIC is definitely in line with other Evangelical churches and groups that don’t believe in those things, right?
So, that’s the thing for them. They have to figure that out in the midst of all these different kinds of changes, and the midst of pressure to change in different kinds of ways theologically. So they’re not necessarily “Prosperity Gospel” people, but people like Joel Osteen and others are peeling off things. As a matter of fact, Joel Osteen is going to be speaking at their annual meeting this year, which a lot of people got upset about. They didn’t like it.
HODGES: And you recently wrote about Joel. [See Butler’s New York Times piece here.]
BUTLER: I wrote about Joel, and I think that in a way that’s their way of trying to accommodate this new space, but it also has really made a lot of people upset.
HODGES: Why invite Osteen other than, like there’s T. D. Jakes or other people like that. Why Osteen over someone else?
BUTLER: You know, that’s my question. I really would like to know who invited Osteen. But I think that he’s a choice that, in one way, is an innocuous choice. I mean he’s not anybody who’s going to come say anything awful or anything that they don’t know, right?
HODGES: It’s a pretty basic message. If you’ve heard him speak once you know what he’s going to say.
BUTLER: Yeah, you’ll know exactly what he’s going to say. So, it’s an uplifting, you know—
BUTLER: Motivational speaker. He’s not really a Christian preacher. I’m sorry, but he’s kind of this motivational person. I think this is where the criticism comes in, because they don’t see him as being a real Bible person, right? And a person who knows scripture, a person who understands it. Now, if it had been Joel Osteen’s father that would be a different thing altogether. And I think actually what might be happening is that people who remember Joel Osteen’s father—who was very much a health-and-wealth gospel person, but a real strong, kind of southern white male preacher type—who could resonate with some of these COGIC people. That is probably the reason why. Maybe they’re doing it because he’s, you know. That’s the past that they remember, but that’s not Joel Osteen.
HODGES: Your relationship to the subject is interesting. You come from a Catholic background yourself. How do you approach the study of religion in general, being a religious person?
BUTLER: I mean, well I approach it two ways. I mean, you always have to think about—when you’re religious studies scholar—you’re not trying to put yourself into it. So, that’s a really big thing. I think for me, that the biggest thing that I operate with is that I want to respect people where they are in their faith. And so, in other words, I’m not here to sort of tell you you’re wrong. I’m not here to tell you that you should think differently. I’m here to try to understand why you do and what you do. I’m more interested in lived religion. I’m not interested in trying to change somebody or trying to win them over or anything like that.
This is where I think my Catholicism helps me, because I think maybe if I came out of another tradition that was more proselytism-based, I wouldn’t be that. But then again, I also think that it wouldn’t make me the scholar that I am if I was that. So I think that’s part of it that is really important for me.
I think that what helps me as a person of faith is—it’s probably going to sound like something that’s very contrary, but is very much operational in the work that I do—I question everything. I don’t just believe it, just because you tell it to me or just because I read it or just because anything else. The great thing about Catholicism—there are some things that are not great about it—but one thing is that you always have a conscience. You need to ask the questions. And if you can’t ask the questions about your faith, if you can’t ask questions about other people’s faith, then what is the point? What is the point of doing the work? What is the point of trying to figure it out?
And I also think that—the last thing is that—what I think and how I practice my faith is personal to me. So, I don’t try to put that on other people. I try not to make that be a big thing. There are lots of people who don’t even know what I believe, and that’s okay because part of that is about me trying to be an inquisitive scholar and think about the things I do.
I realize that that’s not the way for everyone. But it is my way. And I think that is what helps me do the work that I do.
HODGES: And I think that’s important to emphasize, that there are different perspectives and methods and ways that scholars of religion and religious studies, scholars or historians, approach their work. Some of them want to be more vocal about their faith. Some of them don’t. And there actually is room in the academy for different styles that way.
BUTLER: Yeah. I mean this is going to be a big battle in one of our groups in the American Academy of Religion soon when we change over presidents, I think, that’s going to be an issue.
HODGES: It happens every time, doesn’t it? [laughs]
BUTLER: Yeah. I just think about this, it’s going to happen this year!
HODGES: This one will?
BUTLER: Oh yes, it’s going to happen!
HODGES: Is it the typical thing of, like, too theological versus strict religious studies?
BUTLER: Yes, and it’s already causing some problems. So, I think it’s going to be really interesting to see how that falls out in the end.
But I think it’s important that we try to think about how do we respect some other opinions. But in a place like Penn, I really cannot afford to sit in front of a classroom and talk about what I think every day when I have so many different kinds of students—from atheist to Muslims to Jews to Sikhs, to, you know, I’ve got everybody. I’ve got Buddhists, I’ve got everyone. I’ve got people in my classes who—You know, I had one kid ask me a couple years ago who was Chinese, “Who’s Jesus?” And I’m like, well, how do I approach this? Do I approach this from, “Let me tell you about our Savior, Jesus Christ!” or do I say “This is the historical Jesus.” You know, these are these questions that face you in the classroom that are very different, and you have to figure out how to talk about that. I mean most people would go “Are you joking?” And I’m like, “No, this is happening more and more.” And people have to realize that a classroom—even though we might teach about religion, there’s lots of people who don’t know a lot of things. And I need to be there for them. But I also need to be there for them in a way that they can learn and grow intellectually. The spiritual part I will leave to the Chaplain’s office.
HODGES: When you wrote Women in the Church of God in Christ—before we go, I wanted to know if there was anything about the process of doing that book that changed you as a scholar or as just a person?
BUTLER: [long pause] Yeah. I was broke! [laughs]
HODGES: [laughs] Yeah. A change in finances.
BUTLER: No, now, let’s put it like this. I think what changed about me as a person was that—The process of writing a book is always hard. And what this was as a dissertation and what it was as a book was really a lot different. It was profoundly different, actually. And it made me realize, first, I could write, and second, that writing is really a lonely process. And you have to—no matter how much you do your research or how much you engage with people, if you don’t know how to be alone, you can’t hack it. And some people can’t. But I can. And so this is something I really—You know, I’ve always known that about myself, but it really became very pronounced then. And so I think the best thing about this for me was that I could go and engage all of these women, and I could really have them be a part of my life. And I hope that I gave them something when I met with them. But at the end of the day, I knew I had to pull back and go do this thing. I couldn’t just be there. And sometimes—and I’ve seen this happen before—people get so involved with who they’re doing research on, they end up staying there and they don’t get the work done.
HODGES: It’s a really difficult balance. This idea that, finding out how to be lonely, but also taking advantage of being with other scholars and learning from other scholars. Like it can’t be done all alone, but there are parts of it that have to be done alone, and you kind of have to learn both of those things.
BUTLER: Yeah, yeah.
HODGES: Thea, this has been really fun. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us today.
BUTLER: Yeah, you’re welcome.
HODGES: That’s Anthea Butler. She’s a graduate chair and associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Butler’s research and writing spans all sorts of topics—religion and politics, religion and gender, African American religion, sexuality, media, pop culture. And you might have heard or seen her on MSNBC, CNN, she’s even been on Fox News one time. She’s been in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and today we talked about her book, Women in the Church of God in Christ: Making a Sanctified World. Thanks, Thea.
BUTLER: Thank you.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)