In 1903, Katharine C. Bushnell published a specialized study in the literal translation and interpretation of Genesis along with its theological and societal implications for women. The foreword, written by Amy Francis in 2016, describes Bushnell as “an intellectual and cultural colossus of the twentieth century”.
Indeed, a brief account of Bushnell’s life reveals her as a juggernaut for women’s rights, health, and social issues. I fangirl pretty hard over her achievements, which include studying medicine with a special interest in neurology, speaking over five languages, establishing Chicago’s Anchorage Mission for homeless and destitute women, working to end women’s sexual slavery in lumber yards against the state-sanctioned practices in Wisconsin at the time, and fighting against the sexual abuse of women in India at the hands of the British colonial government. My communications geek ears perked up as I read Francis describe how Bushnell developed one of the world’s first “infographics” as she maps the history of the word teshuqa and its translations over time.
I suppose, she must not have been married with children. Not that her position as a feminist would dictate a hatred of men or a predilection against marriage – but how would she have had the time? Her focus in life appears singularly bent on pursuing knowledge, along with the wisdom and courage to apply it spectacularly.
Francis goes on to say, “She was a pioneer of feminist theology, a lifelong promoter of equality of status for women, based not on modern day secular reasoning but on the core fibres of divinely inspired literature.” Despite some outdated social references, Bushnell’s work holds what is sure to be revolutionary exposition for women even 100+ years later.
In the author’s note at the beginning of the book, I was delighted to perceive Bushnell’s sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and stance against the idolatry of the Bible. She writes, “Dost thou desire to study to advantage? Consult God more than books, and ask Him humbly to make thee understand what thou readest.” Her next sentences also echo the tradition of Benedictine and other Christian mystic sects, to utilize retreat to set aside time to commune with God to set the stage for receiving divine insight. She says, “Go from time to time to be refreshed at the feet of Christ, under His cross. Some moments of repose there give fresh vigor and new light: interrupt thy study by short but fervent supplications.”
I do not underestimate the gravity of her exhortation and imagine how women in 1907 may have received it with the same dismissive incredulity women would today. How can women leave family and work obligations to retreat? It’s almost laughable. And yet, to discover God’s Word for ourselves, in the way only made possible by personal relationship, how can women not retreat? Through the quotidian mystery God is certainly discoverable every day. But I think to leave one’s post of duty is too often the privilege of either assertive men or fanatical women. It should be normalized for women to retreat. It should be normalized for women to self-actualize, I would contend Bushnell would likely support, but that’s a rabbit trail I’ll point out, but not travel down at the moment.
With startling succinctness, Bushnell proceeds to illumine in the first few lessons the way the Bible was written, from humans verbal story-telling (both history and fable) to first and ancient languages, to Hebrew and to Greek by men through cultural influence. She does this all with a stark conviction of Biblical “truth” and “inerrancy”. If you read only the first few lessons, and walk away influenced in you read or approach your understanding of the Bible henceforth, you’ll have mined nuggets of solid gold.
Another tactic Bushnell uses is to cite well-known male theologians, expositors, and Biblical commentaries (which had recently become popular to read alongside one’s Bible at the time), to show how their work either supports her argument or is pointedly flawed compared to her logic. She repeatedly cushions these citations with the notable accomplishments of the theologians or commentary writers, not in any way showing contempt, but to accurately represent their positions with due respect. In this way, the lessons often have a feel of “courtroom argument” to them, similar to how legal council would represent the opposite view to contrast and compare, and ultimately show their position as being simply more estimable. The writing style can become laborious if reading many lessons straight through, one after another, but ultimately I did find it easy to follow logically and quite satisfying.
How do more Christian women not know about this book? I’m not saying that every Christian woman needs to read it. But it seems to have been hidden from us, and for that, we should take note. We should take note, but it is not surprising, because in every way Bushnell seems to threaten everything a male fundamentalist would stand for. Perhaps simply because Bushnell was a smart woman, her insight and solid arguments were likely both casually dismissed and vehemently condemned by most if not all men of the day. But Bushnell’s well-argued positions were threatening to the dominating social patriarchal power dynamic of the time – as they still are today.
In light of the systemic issues highlighted by the last two years, the imperative application of Bushnell’s teachings is staggering in its importance today as ever. Bushnell’s grassroots small group initiatives (her “ladies Bible studies”) are downright inspirational and, for progressives today, represent what can and should still be done to create opportunities for new thought and discussion for societal and religious revolution. In a digital age of communication dominated by social media (and its pitfalls), the small group should still be looked upon favourably as an environment to initiate authentic and influential conversation for the betterment of people’s lives.