It is the 3rd of December 2020. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
The year was 1852.
The location was the state of Kentucky. Consider what life would be like if you were born in this state this year. In 1852, the 15th state to join the Union had become the 8th most populous state with just over 100,000 inhabitants. Kentucky was a critical frontier state and a gateway to the West, such that 10s of thousands had made their way through the state over the century.
The Second Great Awakening began in this state at the beginning of the 19th century. The Cane Ridge Revivals helped spark the sequel to the original Great Awakening. Unfortunately, the biggest forest can burn the brightest and leave the most damage. Kentucky was part of a southern “Burned-over District,” that term was used to denote those places where revival ran hot and then fizzled out. While the church was present, many counties lacked churches and services usually designed to help the poor.
If you were born in Kentucky in 1852, you would have been 9 when the war came. Kentucky was a peculiar state during the Civil War. It was a border state in both location and ideology. Kentucky officially declared allegiance with the North, but a provisional Confederate government was set up in Bowling Green. While a small number of vocal evangelicals were abolitionists, they were drowned out by those arguing for more “gradual” change. And despite allegiance to the North or at least neutrality, most were arguing for the Status quo antebellum (that is, they wanted things to stay the same, as they were before the war).
The second half of the 19th century in Kentucky was the story of war and poverty. The story was one of reconstruction, both in the state and in the church. During the war, a border state continued to exist in that tension between the politics, culture, and theology of the establishment North and the independent South.
In this context, in Madison County, Kentucky, Isabel “Belle” Harris Bennett was born on this day. Belle Harris Bennett was the 8th of 8 children born to a devout Methodist family. Her Grandfather had been a Methodist circuit rider in the region, and her parents built the first Methodist church in the county.
Belle received an education not common for young girls. She attended a boarding school and a girl’s college in Ohio. By the age of 23, she became an official church member and set up a Sunday school in an abandoned building to minister to the area’s poor. In 1888 Belle became a founding member of the Richmond Equal Rights Association.
Belle then joined the Central Committee of the Woman’s Home Mission Society. Inspired by her older sisters’ ministry and the British Deaconess program, Belle argued for the expansion of Christian schools for the training of men and women for church work. And she also fought for the rights of African Americans in post-Civil War Kentucky. She invited W.E.B. Dubois, George Washington Carver, and others to speak in various capacities. She was named to the Commission on Interracial Cooperation and lived the rest of her life traveling, speaking, and writing. Her work on reconciliation and equal rights was notable, but she explained why an emphasis on the “new woman” was ultimately significant:
“In this world-wide movement of women, for women, by women, the significant part is the new woman, new because schoolroom and college doors have been thrown wide open to her; new, because the law has made it possible for her to receive, obtain, and hold property; new, because the world has been opened to her; new, because, above all, a trained mind and the open Word of God have made the will of God a real and personal thing to her.”
Isabel “Belle” Harris Bennett lived to the age of 69, dying in July of 1922. We remember the suffragette and Sunday school teacher, born on this, the 3rd of December in 1852.
The reading for today comes from the final stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.” Check out the longer poem online.
The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 3rd of December 2020 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org. The show is produced by Christopher Gillespie, whose favorite bridges include: The Bridges of Madison County, Brooklyn, Golden Gate, Phoebe, Jeff, and Lloyd. The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis. You can catch us here every day, and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.