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Canadian Methodist Women, 1766-1925

Interview with Marilyn Färdig Whiteley

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You’ve taught, but you also worked at the United Church Archives. What is your background and how did you get into the study of Methodist women?

My academic training is in church history, but it was early church history. After I came to Canada when I married a Canadian, I knew I wanted to write about Canadian church history. I went to the archives partly to be doing something useful (they set me to work indexing the Canadian Methodist weekly newspaper, the Christian Guardian), but also to learn Canadian religious history and to find an area for research. During this time I discovered womens history! (Nothing like that was taught when I was a student.) Things clicked into place.

How did you go about researching the book?

First I worked with records in the central church archives in Toronto, which has denominational periodicals and also church records for Methodist churches in Ontario. But of course theres lots more to Canada than Ontario, so I ended up travelling to the archives of all the United Church conferences, from St. Johns to Vancouver. I studied minute books, biographies and autobiographies, and lots of other thingsincluding all 95 years of the Christian Guardian!

That sounds like a long process. Did your ideas change as you went along?

Well, they developed. At first I just aimed to get as complete a picture as I could. Gradually I realized how this related to the book Id co-edited, Changing Roles of Women within the Christian Church in Canada. Its usual for women to express their religious faith, but the particular ways in which they do so are related to their particular faith tradition. I saw that I could relate the areas of Methodist womens activity to the distinctive things about the Methodist Churchhow it originated and how it developed in Canada.

What were some of these distinctive things?

First of all, Methodists were one of the groups for whom religious experience was important; they believed that true Christians had a direct relationship with God. That had a really important implication: people were recognized as having religious authority on the basis of what they understood to be Gods will for them, not just because they were ordained to a religious office. So Methodist women gave religious testimony in public, led the peculiar Methodist groups called classes, and did all manner of things that women in many other groups did not do.

Another, quite different example: for many years, Methodism was spread by itinerant preachers who travelled along circuits and didnt have their own homes. This system was possible only because they received hospitality, and women, of course took responsibility for providing most of this hospitality. Without womens hospitality, Methodism would never have spread so successfully. Thats something that hardly anybody has appreciated. Of course there are many more examples of how Methodist women contributed in distinctive ways to the development of their denomination; this is just a small sample.

So does your book contribute mostly to denominational history?

No, although it does make a contribution to that. I look forward to a day when histories of religious groups will regularly include womens experience and activity, but of course that cant happen until theres been enough study of the women to give the resources for making it a significant component of the larger histories. I believe Im helping to make that possible.

Methodism was important in Canada both numerically and in terms of influence, and Methodists were part of a larger group of evangelicals who played an important role shaping Canada in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Therefore the way Methodist womens faith played out in their lives gives insights into Canadian society. And analysis of the broad spectrum of ways in which Methodist women lived out their faith adds to our understanding of womens history, both the history of Canadian women, and the history of women and religion. So I believe the book makes a contribution well beyond the history of one particular denominational group.