The following passage was published in 1961 in “Sects and Society,” written by sociologist Bryan Wilson. It was part of a detailed study of the Elim Tabernacle, Christian Science, and Christistadelphians. The chapter it was taken from (chapter 15) was on “The Social Composition of Christadelphianism.”
Christadelphianism, following as it does the prescriptions of Judaism, tends to be patriarchal in most things, except where the ancient Hebrew patriarchalism has been explicitly set aside by the teachings of the New Testament. The ecclesias are dominated by men: it is they who preside, speak, exhort, and offer prayers. It is they who arrange and organise, who lead divisions and negotiate reunions. Only very recently have women been admitted to any organisational or evangelistic work at all, and this of a very subsidiary character. It is not therefore surprising that there tends to be a relatively high proportion of men in the ranks of Christadelphianism, as there appears to be among other denominations which give special emphasis to the man’s role, for example, the Plymouth Brethren.
Over a period of nine months in 1882, of 114 conversions recorded in The Christadelphian sixty-three were men and fifty-one were women. Over the year 1919 the proportion had altered. Of new conversions (that is, not second generation), 150 were women and 106 were men. In 1934, of new conversions the proportion was even more, 140 women to 131 men. In a six month period in 1950 the proportion of women remained higher, forty-one women converts to thirty men. In the recruitment of the second generation the Christadelphians appear, in more recent times, to have been more successful in retaining the allegiance of their daughters than of their sons. This was particularly marked in 1919, when ninety-four daughters and fifty-one sons were immersed into the faith; in 1934 the proportions were almost even with seventy-nine daughters and eighty-five sons; in a six-month period in 1950 there were twenty-eight daughters and eighteen sons. The figures for 1919 may show discrepancy because of the incidence of the Great War which may have persuaded young men to be immersed at an earlier age than usual during the two or three preceding years.
These figures are the total of almost all recruits entering the movement in the respective periods.1 Although they reflect some differences, in general they illustrate very fully the fact that there is a fairly even balance of the two sexes in the movement, and certainly a very much larger proportion of men than in most nonconformist churches. In one local ecclesia over several weeks, attendance at the evening lecture (to which strangers were admitted, but at which, in practice, the audience was almost entirely of Christadelphians), showed a proportion of about fifty-six per cent women, forty-four per cent men. The surplus of women would be accounted for almost entirely by spinsters and widows, rather than by married women whose husbands were outside the faith, or who had not attended. This proportion would appear to be more or less general for Christadelphians across the country.
Considering that almost all religious denominations attract a larger proportion of women than men - and usually the preponderance of women is considerably greater than it is here among the Christadelphians - the fact requiring explanation here is not the disproportion between the sexes in the movement, but rather the relatively close ratio. It is clear from the outset that Christadelphianism has no distinctive appeal to women. It offers them no important roles in the movement, and in general favours no form of feminism. Even in the sisterhood there was, in the early days, a restriction of the leadership of women, and when a sister wrote a paper to be delivered to the sisters it was the rule that she herself should not read it, but have it read for her by a kinsman or her husband. This practice has changed. The dominance of men in Christadelphianism was well summarised by a sister writing in 1883:
I pity . . . women of the Christadelphian sisterhood, for those who wield the sword of truth cut her off from the aim in life of those about here, losing against her the broad gateway of the world . . . with its openings to the women of the age. To go with the world she can follow almost any intellectual pursuit - law, medicine, speaking, writing, ah! literature. What is especially hard to bear is that after the truth has cut her away from us the world and its work, still we may not understand how to turn whatever of talent we possess to the Lord’s account.2
Although the rigour of early attitudes has declined somewhat, Christadelphianism still leaves to women a subordinate role.
Christadelphianism was not a faith to appeal to those women who were interested in the feminist movements. They were, in the early days, largely from the poorest sections of the population, whereas the movements for women’s emancipation were predominantly middle and upper class.3
Again, much that the emancipationists sought to achieve was entirely outside the interest of Christadelphians - the electoral franchise for human government did not interest them; admission to the professions was hardly relevant to them; eligibility for higher education was merely an entanglement with the world.
Nor was Christadelphianism a religion which offered a woman opportunity for emotional release, as for example was the case with the Pentecostalist sects. Christadelphianism had no great overt emotional appeal. It was not specifically Jesucentric. Christ as the bridegroom was not part of its frequently employed imagery. It gave no opportunity for ecstasy, and, in its early days in particular, paid more attention to evangelism and prophecy than to the devotional aspect of its message. Its preoccupations were essentially those likely to be of interest to men. It concerned itself with a forthcoming revolution. International politics were the field of which an understanding had to be gained if the prophetic utterances were to be understood in their modern application. The concern was with governments, wars, power politics, and subjects generally of more interest to men than to women. The world which was coming was to be administered by the saints, but these again would be the men in the Christadelphian movement, there was little for the women. The methods of conversion of the movement were by appeals to reason, by exposition of historical and contemporary politics in terms of prophecy, and by contemplation of the future, very masculine, world to come. There was no attempt to produce an emotional feeling in converts; no please for remorse or guilt; salvation could be obtained only by knowledge and study. There is good reason to suppose that intense emotionalism operates as a better conversion agency than does rationalism, especially with women. The class of women to whom Christadelphianism was presented was probably in the main not very well informed on political matters, and the immediate appeal of the sect can have been very small. A great many of the early conversions of women were of the wives and sisters of men who had previously taken up Christadelphianism, and even as late as 1919 of the spouses, siblings and parents of Christadelphians who were themselves converted, forty-six were women and ten were men. It seems clear form this that the appeal of the movement was principally to men and that quite a considerable proportion of the female converts came into the movement under the pressure of their husbands or other relatives.
Such is the allegiance of women to religious organisations, and such the general appeal of religious values to women, however, that even in so predominately masculine a religious expression as Christadelphianism women do in fact outnumber men. Men have brought their own female dependants into the sect, and it appears to have been easier to bring in the girls of the second generation than the boys. It may be easier for a boy to strike out independently in religious matters than for a girl. Women tend to follow their husbands, fathers or sons when schisms occur. The exclusiveness of the sect, the insistence that only Christadelphians have possibility of salvation, is itself a great pressure on each member to attempt to convert his own kinsfolk. The rules of endogamy tend to ensure some sort of balance between the sexes. The small surplus of women in the movement would appear to be a reflection of the two facts that girls of the second generation are more readily retained in the faith of their parents than are boys, and that old age tends to create a slightly higher proportion of surviving females.