Mary Lyon was representative of two prevailing
modes of thought in nineteenth-century America:
New Divinity theology and the ideology of Republican
Motherhood. Studying under New Divinity leader Joseph Emerson
for six months in 1821, she joined the Congregational
Church in 1822.
Emerson considered self-sacrificial benevolence
to be the quintessential element of Christian
virtue. This became the guiding principle of
Mary’s life. She and her mentor believed
education was the means of facilitating women’s
role in the process of global redemption (8).
The dichotomy: New Divinity promoted a commitment
to people of other cultures while at the same
time fueling hostility to non-Protestant religions
and fostering self-righteousness. Followers of New Divinity believed that all people were equal in the eyes of God, but this equality was born of a shared sinfulness rather than an innate goodness. This provided support for female education and carried over into missionary work, fostering a degree of equality between men and women in India.
Republican Motherhood was the belief
that women could best contribute to the virtue
and vitality of the new nation by rearing future
citizens and statesmen. Believing
in the compatibility of religious faith and higher
learning, Republican Motherhood could be used
quite effectively to sanction the expansion
of women’s religious, moral and intellectual
This way of thinking was directly opposed
to the “belle-ideal” of the times which considered
womanhood to be delicate and inadequate. The public
sphere of political life belonged to men, as
well as all claims of political equality.
Advocates of women’s education justified advances in female literacy and higher learning
by invoking women’s maternal responsibilities
to the nation (8).
Both theories were conducive to women’s
active role in foreign missionary service.