T. Hagan, S. Harden, G. Pearson, with I. Padalecki
The history of Davidson College is inextricably intertwined with the Presbyterian church and the work of religious women. In the nineteenth-century South, doctrine, worship, and social circles centered around the church played a large role both in public life and the socialization of individuals. Though women of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church faced uniquely gendered expectations of their religious involvement, these women were by no means idle or powerless. Popular nineteenth-century conceptions of gender idealized social arrangements in which men and women occupied “separate spheres:” men would work for wages in trades and professions, while women would serve their families as pious and domestic moral guardians who managed the home. Religious institutions provided a unique middle-ground between public and private spheres. This is exemplified by the formation and work of the Ladies Missionary Society (formerly known as the Ladies Benevolent Society). This group of white Davidson women used their high status and membership in the local church and missionary society to leverage power in social, spiritual, and financial arenas.
In 1837, Robert Hall Morrison, a Presbyterian minister and the founding president of Davidson College, established the Davidson College Presbyterian Church. The small congregation gathered in the dining hall until the official chapel building was ready for use. In its first decades, the congregation consisted primarily of college students (who were required to attend), faculty members and their families, and some local residents. The activities of Davidson College Presbyterian Church structured life in this small town. These included Sunday morning service, Sunday school, daily morning chapel services, and Wednesday prayer meetings. Women possessed informal authority in several church-related activities; for example, they were Sunday school teachers with disciplinary powers. 1Lucy Phillips Russell, A Rare Pattern, (Chapel Hill, The University of North Carolina Press, 1957), 57.
Ladies Missionary Society
In 1876, Lillie Helper and Mary Lafferty, the then-single daughters of prominent local families, organized a religious service organization for women called the Ladies Benevolent Society. Later, when the new church was built, the members renamed themselves as the Ladies Missionary Society. Women of the Presbyterian Church have a rich history of missionary work, and Davidson women were not unique. This tradition began as a way for American Presbyterian women to exert power outside of the domestic sphere without defying the separate spheres ideology that confined them to household labor. Missionization also served as a vehicle for the spread of Anglo-American social and economic norms. The same beliefs correlating whiteness, civilization, and Protestant Christianity that normalized Jim Crow in the South also inspired the so-called uplift of other non-white, non-Christian people in other regions of the world. 2Frederick J.Heuser, “Presbyterian Women and the Missionary Call, 1870–1923,” American Presbyterians 73, no. 1 (1995): 23-34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23333277.
The constitution of the Ladies Missionary Society includes a preamble, a statement of purpose, and articles detailing how the society was to be funded, when and where to meet, and what meetings would entail. The society met monthly to read articles selected by members. Their women’s study focused on current mission work undertaken by Presbyterians. At each meeting, the president appointed a person to research a missionary field in America, Asia, and Europe or Africa. At the next meeting, the selected members presented their findings to the group. This collaborative form of self-education is notable considering that the college denied admission to female students at this time based on widely-held beliefs that higher education was not suitable for girls. It is logical to assume that these women would have utilized the small college library and sought out information from faculty, particularly because some of these men were their fathers and husbands. This tension between the college’s formal exclusion of female students and the presence of women as active learners existed until the transition to formal co-education in 1972 3 Constitution. Ladies Missionary Society. 1885. DC023. Women of the Church. Davidson College Archives, Davidson College, NC.
As an organization focused on moral reform, the society Helper and Lafferty established was emblematic of other women’s missionary societies in the South. The women raised and donated money to aid missions in other countries even while many of their non-white neighbors lacked resources. To address local needs would have required these women, who were white and comparatively privileged, to acknowledge the dire economic outcomes of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South and challenge the patriarchal authority of white men in their community. They instead normalized charitable efforts directed at communities elsewhere across the globe rather than people in need in the town of Davidson and the region directly impacted by the college.4 Acknowledging the broader context is imperative to fully understanding the Ladies Missionary Society, and looking closely at specific documents from the Davidson College Church and Archives enables us to understand how white women used missionary work as a social outlet and to demonstrate their status. 4Peggy Pascoe, Relations of Rescue: The Search for Female Moral Authority in the American West, 1874-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), 3-111.
The Davidson College Archives holds a minute book that provides extensive detail on society meetings, including financial records and specific tasks done by individual members. In the 1885 minutes, four women emerge as prominent leaders: Helper and Lafferty, Mrs. Dupuy, and Mrs. Knox. It is telling that Mrs. Dupuy and Mrs. Knox are not referred to within archival materials by their first names; even in spaces of relative empowerment for women, they were defined by their legal submission to their husbands.
Helper and Lafferty established the Ladies Missionary Society, and Mrs. Dupuy and Mrs. Knox became president and vice president.5Women of the Church, Minutes, 1885-1889, DC-023, Davidson College Archives Special Collections, Davidson College Library. All four of these women came from prominent families and married well-respected men. Lillie Helper was the daughter of Hanson P. Helper, a general store and hotel owner, and Mary Lafferty was the daughter of a deceased Presbyterian minister and Davidson College trustee. Mrs. Dupuy’s husband acted as one of the six elders in the church, and Mrs. Knox’s husband served as one of the four Deacons. 6Mary D. Beaty, A History of the Davidson College Presbyterian Church (Davidson: Davidson College Presbyterian Church, 1987), 4. these women played an important role in the production and documentation of some church records and suggests, again their advanced literacy, familiarity with norms of shared governance, and deep engagement with Presbyterian theology.
These women became leaders, in part, because they enjoyed high socioeconomic standing that enabled them to devote time to concerns beyond their homes. Before and after the Civil War, white families benefited from Black labor. While slave schedules document this before emancipation, Jim Crow era censuses suggest the prevalence of domestic work as an occupation among Black women in predominantly white communities like Davidson. While we can’t know who worked in which home, we can logically infer that Black women performed domestic labor for their white neighbors here as they did elsewhere throughout the South. Notably, historians of Black women have emphasized that the lack of live-in Black servants in the post-war South reflects, in part, Black families’ preferences to have their own homes, families, private lives, and spaces apart from white people.7Nancy Griffith, “H.P. Helper, and the Carolina Inn,” News of Davidson, Davidson Archives, Aug 1, 2018. https://newsofdavidson.org/2018/08/01/7289/h-p-helper-and-the-carolina-inn/.
While white women were barred from formal power in sacred and professional settings, the unique role religion played in the lives of nineteenth-century Davidsonians enabled white women to take on leadership positions in the church while leaving the gendered and racialized hierarchies of power in their communities untouched. Through missionary societies in the Presbyterian church community, they were able to claim agency even within the marginalization they faced under the system of separate spheres; we must remember, however, that this is not the story of all women in Davidson. There are still immense gaps in the documentary record surrounding the activities and lives of women, specifically poor and Black women barred from whites-only organizations like the Ladies Missionary Society.