The Mill Yard Women and the Counter-Cultural Witness of the Church

The church has always been a counter-cultural witness to the world. We normally think of the church’s witness in her preaching and good works, and rightly so. But sometimes, it’s her very structure and polity which bear witness to God’s kingdom here in this world.

We see this in the story of the Mill Yard Seventh Day Baptist Church in the 19th century.[1] Founded in the 1600s this church had dwindled just to seven women by the 1820s, and they were without a minister. This church was being supported by a trust which was established at its founding, but given the situation of the church, the trustees decided to dissolve the church and give the property to another congregation. Their reasoning was that the Mill Yard church no longer existed.

At this, the women objected. Even though the women would be cared for by another church, they protested the idea that any external body could exercise authority over them:

How very painful it will be to me and my family to be compelled to become hearers of Mr. Shenston, whose preaching would, we feel, be unprofitable for us all. It is, I submit to you, clearly contrary to all Dissenting principles to force any minister upon a congregation; for, although small in numbers, a congregation and church we still form. (15)

As a result of this deadlock, the parties agreed to take the case for arbitration to the General Body of Protestant Dissenting Ministers, a ministerial society made up of Congregationalist, Baptist, and Presbyterian ministers in the greater London area. For them, the case turned not simply on the size and viability of the church, but “whether or not the male gender was essential to the nature of a true church.” (15) As one Baptist minister asked, “How many sisters make a brotherhood?” (12)

One side of the debate argued that a congregation only of women would mean that they would not be competent to perform the functions which they believed were only available to men (i.e. judging disputes or serving as deacons). However, the Body also recognized that “[such] officers are not necessary to the existence of a church. The church is before them; appoints them; and can dismiss them.” (16) Even if these women could not serve in these functions, they still constituted a church.

The crux of the debate came down to congregational authority. Congregational ecclesiology holds that the final authority in the church resides with the membership. Nobody denied that women could be members of a church, but what does that mean when it comes to exercising authority? Could women be allowed to vote? This was a difficult question during a time when women had not yet been granted the right to vote in their society. This would not take place for another generation. But even before this case, some Baptist and Congregational churches had begun granting their women a vote in church matters. Some pastors defended this, in part, because the men were in the majority and they thought it highly improbable for it to be otherwise. But here was a congregation made up entirely of women! Would these Dissenting ministers hold to their ecclesiological convictions even in such a case? During a time when Dissenting churches were already looked down on as disorderly and radical, would they be willing to go against the norms of English society, risking further disrepute?

Even as some Dissenting ministers objected, in the end, the Body recognized that they must hold to their convictions. These women constituted a local church and therefore held congregational authority. Far from this being a source of shame, this was their distinctive glory:

Every member has a right to vote in what concerns the whole body, sisters as well as brethren. It is a distinguishing feature of Congregational church-government, that in this respect no difference is made between the sexes. (18)

In the end, the Mill Yard women won their case, with a 19-11 vote by the ministers. To the riddle, “How many sisters make a brotherhood?” this body of Dissenting ministers answered, “exactly the same number as it would take of brothers, because the nature of the church is not dependent on the gender of its members.” (20)

Throughout church history, there have been many such cases where congregational polity has shown the counter-cultural nature of the church: Slaves voting alongside their masters in Baptist churches in the antebellum South; Chinese Christians voting and exercising church authority under a totalitarian government. That’s not to say that these congregations weren’t marked by cultural blind spots, even terrible ones. In this fallen world, there will never be a golden era of perfection for the church. Churches always face the temptation of becoming like the society around them, rather than being distinct. And yet, insofar as they hold to the counter-cultural teaching of Scripture, even when it comes to their church governance, churches can be a distinct witness of God’s kingdom here in this world.

[1] All references taken from Timothy Larsen, Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2004).

One thought on “The Mill Yard Women and the Counter-Cultural Witness of the Church

  1. Hi Janice
    As a Seventh Day Baptist, & yet one that had not read of the “Mill Yard Women,” thank you so much for posting this historical article! Best wishes!

    Like

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