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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Gospel Of Humiliation

Title:     The Gospel Of Humiliation
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

"The silliest man who ever lived," wrote Fanny Fern once, "has always known enough, when he says his prayers, to thank God he was not born a woman." President ---- of ---- College is not a silly man at all, and he is devoting his life to the education of women; yet he seems to feel as vividly conscious of his superior position as even Fanny Fern could wish. If he had been born a Jew, he would have thanked God, in the appointed ritual, for not having made him a woman. If he had been a Mohammedan, he would have accepted the rule which forbids "a fool, a madman, or a woman" to summon the faithful to prayer. Being a Christian clergyman, with several hundred immortal souls, clothed in female bodies, under his charge, he thinks it his duty, at proper intervals, to notify his young ladies, that, though they may share with men the glory of being sophomores, they still are in a position, as regards the other sex, of hopeless subordination. This is the climax of his discourse, which in its earlier portions contains many good and truthful things:--

"And, as the woman is different from the man, so is she relative to him. This is true on the other side also. They are bound together by mutual relationship so intimate and vital that the existence of neither is absolutely complete except with reference to the other. But there is this difference, that the relation of woman is, characteristically, that of subordination and dependence. This does not imply inferiority of character, of capacity, of value, in the sight of God or man; and it has been the glory of woman to have accepted the position of formal inferiority assigned her by the Creator, with all its responsibilities, its trials, its possible outward humiliations and sufferings, in the proud consciousness that it is not incompatible with an essential superiority; that it does not prevent her from occupying, if she will, an inward elevation of character, from which she may look down with pitying and helpful love on him she calls her lord. Jesus said, 'Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you; but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; and whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant, even as the Son of man came, not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.' Surely woman need not hesitate to estimate her status by a criterion of dignity sustained by such authority. She need not shrink from a position which was sought by the Son of God, and in whose trials and griefs she will have his sympathy and companionship."

There is a comforting aspect to this discourse, after all. It holds out the hope, that a particularly noble woman may not be personally inferior to a remarkably bad husband, but "may look down with pitying and helpful love on him she calls her lord." The drawback is not only that it insults woman by a reassertion of a merely historical inferiority, which is steadily diminishing, but that it fortifies this by precisely the same talk about the dignity of subordination which has been used to buttress every oppression since the world began. Never yet was there a pious slaveholder who did not quote to his slaves, on Sunday, precisely the same texts with which President ---- favors his meek young pupils. Never yet was there a slaveholder who would not shoot through the head anybody who should attempt to place him in that beautiful position of subjection whose spiritual merits he had just been proclaiming. When it came to that, he was like Thoreau, who believed resignation to be a virtue, but preferred "not to practice it unless it was quite necessary."

Thus, when the Rev. Charles C. Jones of Savannah used to address the slaves on their condition, he proclaimed the beauty of obedience in a way to bring tears to their eyes. And this, he frankly assures the masters, is the way to check insurrection and advance their own "pecuniary interests." He says of the slave, that under proper religious instruction "his conscience is enlightened and his soul is awed;... to God he commits the ordering of his lot, and in his station renders to all their dues, obedience to whom obedience, and honor to whom honor. _He dares not wrest from God his own care and protection._ While he sees a preference in the various conditions of men, he remembers the words of the apostle: 'Art thou called being a servant? care not for it; but if thou mayest be free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord's freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ's servant.'"[1]

I must say that the Rev. Mr. Jones's preaching seems to me precisely as good as Dr.------'s, and that a sensible woman ought to be as much influenced by the one as was Frederick Douglass by the other--that is, not at all. Let the preacher try "subordination" himself, and see how he likes it. The beauty of service, such as Jesus praised, lay in the willingness of the service: a service that is serfdom loses all beauty, whether rendered by man or by woman. My objection to separate schools and colleges for women is that they are too apt to end in such instructions as this.

[Footnote 1: _Religious Instruction of the Negroes._ Savannah, 1842, pp. 208-211.]

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Gospel Of Humiliation