An Older View of Men and Women Regarding Religion

Havelock Ellis in 1894

(Note that this is written before Theosophy and Annie Bessant)

Even within the philosophical field it appears that women have certain rather restricted tastes. Ladies' philosophers, according to the experience of a well-known West End bookseller, are Schopenhauer, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Renan.1 That is to say, that women are attracted to the most concrete of all abstract thinkers, to the most poetic, to the most intimatelypersonal, and above all to the most reli-[221 to 222; originally 189 to 190]gious, for every one of these thinkers was saturated through and through with religious emotion.
1 Westminster Gazette, 13th May 1893. [189]
[222; 190] Religion - This leads us to inquire what part women have had in the creation of religions. No one will question women's aptitude for religion, whatever the organic basis of that aptitude may be: what part have women had within historical times in the making of religions?
In order to answer this question I have searched A Dictionary of all Religions published in the early part of the present century. It constitutes a fascinating but painful page in the history of humanity. Some record is here given of about 600 religious sects, and I find that of these only seven were founded by women. That is to say, that of all the great religious movements of the world nearly 99 in every 100 have received their primary impulse from men, however willing women may have been to follow. The seven sects in question are the Bourignonists, the Buchanists, the Philadelphians, the Southcottians, the Victims, the Universal Friends, and the Wilhelminians. (Some others could be added from more recent times, but it is not probable that the percentage would be greatly changed.) It is of some interest to determine the character of these sects, which are all of a more or less Christian character, and mostly arose within the last few centuries. Madame Bourignon was a native of Flanders, and so deformed that at birth there was some question of stifling her as a monster. She combined great intellectual power with a broad and tolerant mysticism - a combination by no means uncommon - inculcating reliance on inward impulses, the rejection of outward forms of worship, and acquiescence in the divine will. She was equally opposed to Catholicism and Protestantism, and her personality was greater than any movement she initiated. Mrs. Buchan, of Glasgow, belonged to a different type. She believed she was the woman spoken of in the Apocalypse (Rev.xii.), and that she [222 to 223; 190 to 191] could conduct her followers to heaven without dying, but she soon died and her sect with her. She was probably insane. The Philadelphians were a sect of mystics and universalists founded by Jane Leadley in the latter part of the seventeenth century. Her views in many respects resembled Madame Bourignon's, and the Philadelphian Society was a body of considerable importance, including many men of learning. Joanna Southcott and her delusions produced so great an impression at about the beginning of the present century that she is still well remembered. She was scarcely sane. The Society of Victims was a curious body of ascetics founded by Madame Brehan in the eighteenth century; it was of somewhat crazy character, and appears to have had no elements of vitality. The Universal Friends were established by Jemima Wilkinson in America in the last century. She had a trance in early life, became inspired and able to work miracles, seceded from the Quakers, and founded a town called Jerusalem. She was an eloquent preacher, and is said to have been an ambitious and selfish woman who died very wealthy from the donations of her followers. The Wilhelminians were the disciples of Wilhelmina, a Bohemian woman of the thirteenth century. She believed that the Holy Ghost was incarnated in her anew, and she had the somewhat beautiful thought that while the blood of Jesus only saved devout Christians, through her there was salvation for Jews, Saracens, and unworthy Christians. On the whole, it can scarcely be said that this group of sects shows badly, bearing in mind the general character of religious sects; they were mostly tolerant, with a strong tendency to mysticism and disregard of ritual and method, and with a very pronounced element of human charity. Still the curious fact emerges that while women usually form the larger body of followers in a religious movement, as well as the most reckless and devoted, they have initiated but few religious sects, and these have had [223 to 224; 191 to to 192] little or no stability. Women have usually been content to accept whatever religion came to hand, and in their fervour they have lost the capacity for cold, clear-sighted organisation and attention to details. They can supply much of the living spiritual substance, if a man will supply the mould for it to flow into. The study of the Salvation Army, the most remarkable religious movement of recent times, is instructive from this point of view.
Women have played a very large part in Christianity from the very first, though in early times it was an undistinguished part. As a rule women take but a small part in revolutions (although a large part in revolts which are of more hasty and temporary character), but an analysis of the mortuary epigraphs from the Catacombs of Rome, contained in De Rossi's work, La Roma Soiterranea, showed that 40 per cent, of them were of women. (Lombroso and Laschi, Le Crime Politique, 1892, tome ii. p. 10.) If we ask what definite and permanent contributions to the structure of the Catholic Church have been made by its vast army of women followers, we may find a brief but authoritative answer by Cardinal Manning in his Preface to the translation of St. Catherine of Genoa's very beautiful little devotional work, the Treatise on Purgatory: - "Two of the greatest festivals of the Catholic Church had their origin in the illumination of humble and unlearned women. The Feast of Corpus Christi was the offspring of the devotion of the Blessed Juliana of Retinne; the Feast of the Sacred Heart of that of the Blessed Margaret Mary: to St. Catherine of Sienna our Lord vouchsafed the honour of calling back again the Sovereign Pontiff from the splendid banishment of Avignon to the throne of the Apostolic See; to St. Teresa the special gift of illumination, to teach the ways of union with Himself in prayer ; to Blessed Angela of Foligno the eighteen degrees of compunction, and His own five poverties; and to St Catherine of Genoa an insight and preception of the state of Purgatory, which seem like the utterances of one immersed in its expiation of love."
[224 in .PDF, originally 192]

Ellis, Havelock. (2013), Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters, London: Forgotten Books. (Original work: Ellis, Havelock (1894), Man and Woman: A Study of Human Secondary Sexual Characters, The Contemporary Science Series. Edited By Havelock Ellis, London: Walter Scott, Ltd., New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, [Online], downloaded 4 February 2015.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful