Evensong Commemorating Elizabeth Cady Stanton – 24 October, 2021
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“When, in the course of human events,” we all know that, right…
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary etc. etc.[…]
We all know this so say it with me: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men … and women…that all men and women…are created equal” This is not the 1776 Jeffersonian Declaration of Independence. It is the 1848 Declaration of Rights and Sentiments adopted at the Senaca Falls Convention and written by Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Sorry Lin-Manuel Miranda, it was Elizabeth Cady Stanton who “put women in the sequel.”
In many ways, Elizabeth Cady Stanton is an unlikely saint. Her father was one of the richest landowners in the state of New York [source]. She was born in 1815 into a life of wealth and privilege—the Cady’s lived in a mansion with 12 servants, at least three of whom were Black, and at least one, Peter Teabout, was enslaved until 1827 when New York state freed all enslaved people. Stanton attended the Episcopal Church in Johnstown NY with Teabout, and would (according to her memoir) sit with him in the back of the church rather than in front with the white families.
Because of her privilege she received an education. She attended the Johnstown Academy and received private tutoring Greek, math, philosophy…her father bought her law books to study. Eventually she went to the Troy Female Seminary (now known as the Emma Willard School).
She also grew up during a period of religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening. The fervor of these disturbed her, and many scholars feel gave her a critical view of religion.
Her father was deeply conservative, but she was related to rabble-rousers. Her cousin, Gerrit Smith was one of the “Secret Six” who funded John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Her husband Henry Brewster Stanton was a prominent abolitionist, but a lukewarm supporter of women’s rights. Elizabeth convinced him to remove the word “obey” from their marriage vows. They lived in Boston for a time before settling in Seneca Falls, New York.
She gave birth to seven children, spaced out in a way that historians have concluded that some form of birth control must have been used. Stanton called it “voluntary motherhood” and insisted that a marriage should be an equal relationship, and that “a healthy woman has as much passion as a man” [source]; she would hoist a flag outside her home to announce births to the world…red if it was a boy, white if it was a girl.
She was involved with the temperance and abolitionist movements. She worked to reform property laws; sought to ensure women had the right to sign contracts, operate a business, to retain custody of children after a divorce. She advocated for dress reform, divorce reform, and of course, the right to vote.
We’ve all probably learned that the Seneca Fall Convention, in 1848, was where the campaign for women’s right to vote started, but of all the demands in her Declaration of Rights, the suffrage clause was the only one not adopted unanimously. It was only after Frederick Douglass rose to speak in favor of it, that it passed.
Twenty years later, in the aftermath of the Civil War, the friendship between Douglass and Stanton would be strained as the question of universal suffrage came to a head in the debates around the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Fourteenth defined citizenship, but for the first time added the word “male” to the constitution as part of that definition. Stanton said, “if the word ‘male’ be inserted, it will take us a century to get it out.” The Fifteenth sought to expand the right to vote to men regardless of race (we all know that’s not exactly how it has played out), but denied the vote to women. Stanton argued for universal suffrage for all women and men, Frederick Douglass argued that suffrage for Black men was more pressing, and thought it was “not generous” for Stanton to insist that Black men should not get the vote unless women also got it. Their friendship was strained but survived, and we continue to live with the echoes of their debate.
Perhaps her most controversial act was in taking on the institution of religion. I want to quote her at length, she wrote: “The Bible teaches that woman brought sin and death into the world, that she precipitated the fall of the race, that she was arraigned before the judgment seat of Heaven, tried, condemned and sentenced. Marriage for her was to be a condition of bondage, maternity a period of suffering and anguish, and in silence and subjection, she was to play the role of a dependent on man’s bounty for all her material wants, and for all the information she might desire on the vital questions of the hour, she was commanded to ask her husband at home. […] The canon law, church ordinances and Scriptures, are homogeneous, and all reflect the same spirit and sentiments.
“These familiar texts are quoted by clergymen in their pulpits, by statesmen in the halls of legislation, by lawyers in the courts, and are echoed by the press of all civilized nations, and accepted by woman herself as “The Word of God.” […] When, in the early part of the Nineteenth Century, women began to protest against their civil and political degradation, they were referred to the Bible for an answer. When they protested against their unequal position in the church, they were referred to the Bible for an answer.”
That’s from the introduction to The Woman’s Bible a commentary written by and for women (mostly Stanton) that challenged this position. The Woman’s Bible was not well received. Clergy railed against it, and even her closest allies sought to distance themselves from her. It effectively brought to an end Stanton’s relationship with the Women’s Suffrage Association.
Women got the vote in 1920. But it wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that feminist scholarship finally began to emerge in biblical studies. And we are still struggling to find images and metaphors for God that uplift and celebrate women and men and all of creation, struggling to find equitable places for women in the church and elsewhere; the worldview that Stanton critiqued in the Woman’s Bible, has still not relinquished its hold.
What do we make of her? Is she a saint? A holy woman?
I think we do a disservice to saints by carving them in stone, and encasing them in stained glass—forever trapped in their most radiant guise to gaze beatifically upon us lowly mortals.
Dorothy Day once said, “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily” [source]. Something tells me Elizabeth Cady Stanton might have felt the same.
Saints are icons of aspirational faith—to be sure. But they are also people who challenge us, and who have been agents of radical transformation. We sometimes wish we could be more like them…sometimes—except for the actual dying for our beliefs part…or the part where everyone hates and ridicules us and thinks we are dead wrong…
The beatific images we paint of saints allows us to gloss over those parts. To forget that they were rarely the popular figures in their lives that they become after their death. Saints say and do really unpopular things…challenging things…controversial things…they sometimes even alienate their friends and closest supporters.
But somehow God works through them, and because of them the world is a little less oppressive, and our vision is a little more expansive. Maybe we should try to be more like them. More like her. Frankly, I’m glad to celebrate a saint like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a flawed, deeply human, fearless pursuer of truth…a mother, a wife, a scholar, a woman…someone who did not hid her light under a bushel, someone who planted seeds so that we might bear the fruit.
Yes. I think we should aspire to that.