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Roadside scene:South Hadley, MA. Mount Holyoke Library and Seminary (roughly, ca.1880) (6). Courtesy of MHC Archives.

Roadside scene: India (ca.1920) (7). Courtesy of MHC Archives.

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 influence (8).

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.


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This page was created by Margaret O'Neal '08 in History 283, Spring Semester 2006 -