Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton reserved her harshest criticism for religion.
Her religious skepticism began early in her life. As a young girl she chafed against the Presbyterianism of her family, but the critical turning point came in 1831, when she was a student at Troy Female Seminary
Religious revivalism spread throughout the U.S. during the first half of the 19th century. The Second Great Awakening reached a fever pitch during the 1830s, especially in New England. Charles Grandison Finney was one of the most prominent revivalist preachers during this period. In 1831 Elizabeth Cady attended a six-week revival conducted by Finney. His preaching about sin, the devil and damnation frightened her so much that she became ill and left school for a brief time to recuperate at home. Even there she found it difficult to shake off a feeling of terror that dogged her.
Her brother-in-law Edward Bayard encouraged her to read books and articles on science. She took his advice, and as she recalled years later, "religious superstition gave place to rational ideas based on scientific facts."
Elizabeth did not wish to discard religious faith altogether. She felt a great affinity for the teachings of Jesus Christ and respected the people whose religious beliefs drew them to many reform causes. Instead she regarded the emancipation of women to be a step toward bringing a corrupt, superstitious church back to its true origins. In "The Elevation of Womanhood" she wrote:
To change the position of woman in dogmatic theology, where she is represented as the central figure in Paradise Lost...is to revolutionize the system; hence all who believe in progress within the Church should hail the present movement for woman's emancipation, as that brings us to the next onward step in the new religion."
Throughout her life Elizabeth Cady Stanton searched unsuccesfully for a religion in which men and women were seen as equals. She grew more radical in her opposition to organized religion as she grew older. As she neared her 80th birthday she launched a project to reinterpret and critique biblical texts and recruited a small committee of women to work on it. The first volume of The Woman's Bible was published in 1895 to a mostly hostile reception. Many people in the woman suffrage movement reacted negatively to the book out of fear it would diminish the ranks of their supporters. All the controversy made the book a best-seller.
Today The Woman's Bible would not provoke such an intense response because many of its critiques now are widely accepted. More than a century ago Elizabeth Cady Stanton bore a striking resemblance to an Old Testament prophet crying in the wilderness, an irony she would undoubtedly appreciate.