I recently sorted many accumulated papers that dated back to the 1980s, and one folder with some relevance to my current project, caught my attention. The contents are photocopies of various articles from a small, and dare I say, strange magazine the Biblical Recorder. Claimed as an Australasian journal, its aim was “in the Service of the Inspired Word, Evangelical Principles, and Missionary Enterprise”. Philadelphuis Bain Fraser, the ‘stormy petrel of New Zealand Presbyterianism’ as Allan Davidson describes him, was the Editor from 1914-1935. PB or Phil, as he was known, was an impetuous critic of many things. Browsing through Papers Past online you discover his prolific letter-writing regime to local newspapers, where he heavily criticises opinions and those who voice them, especially if he is in anyway involved. Fraser left a trail of controversy – an explosion with the North Otago Educational Institute over his School’s Inspectors’ Report, and the ‘modernism’ of Prof John Dickie and others at Knox Theological College, Dunedin, are two examples.
Fraser is a curious and complex chap! Born in Lerwick, Shetland and a son of the manse he arrived in New Zealand in 1885, and from 1888 settled as a teacher at Weston in North Otago. Quickly becoming involved in the community, we see him popping up as a ‘Brother’ in the IOOF, office-bearer in the Prohibition Society and a strong advocate for Bible in Schools. He, with Rev. J. H. McKenzie, introduced the Nelson System of Bible Instruction in New Zealand State Schools. In late 1892 Fraser was accepted into training for the Presbyterian Ministry. While still teaching, he undertook a local training programme under Rev. Dr James MacGregor and the Oamaru Presbytery. He also stood for the 1893 General Election coming second, 400 votes behind the then incumbent.
Judging by the electoral reports in the North Otago newspapers he gathered a following of women. Shrewdly, in his first speech, he welcomed women to their first election (they had won the right to vote in August 1893) noting, “they had not merely doubled the numbers on the rolls, but they had introduced quite a new element into the politics of the colony – the womanhood of the land”. He assured his audience that women would take into their vote “everything good God had given them”, acknowledging they wouldn’t bring about the ‘millennium’ but they could be depended upon to work towards it.
Fraser brought all his skill to the task of winning people over to his political point of view, especially women. Contrary to the picture I had formed from reading his aggressive confrontations with the Presbyterian Church, he reportedly ‘spoke gently’ especially to an audience of women, as well as his local school parents and children. Standing as a Liberal, the party Richard Seddon would lead, he pushed the temperance and prohibition platform and supported religious teaching in schools; policies that women reformers encouraged their supporters vote for. Fraser’s interest in politics remained. In 1931 and 1935 he supported Mrs R.S. Black as a Democratic Candidate, nominating her for the North Dunedin seat.
What took my attention, in the folder and even surprised me, was his obvious enthusiasm for the writings of Dr. Katharine Bushnell (Kate). Fraser’s discovery of her 1921 book, God’s Word to Women, excited him no end, “it is one of the most striking and worthy books that have come under my notice”, he wrote in a review in 1923.
Bushnell’s conservative writing reassured Fraser that she was no lover of theological modernism. Kate Bushnell, he told his readers, “is worthy of admiration and gratitude … for a powerful apologetic … in helping to vindicate the Biblical record where it is powerfully attacked in the present age”. Fraser’s deep mistrust of the increasing modernism trend among his Presbyterian colleagues resulted in his aggressive responses against the Presbyterian divines at the Theological Hall, Knox College. However, Fraser applied some caution to his complete acceptance of Bushnell’s new translations and interpretations.
For six years from his first review he presented reviews and opinions from well-known scholars, both supportive and critical, analysing them in detail to reassure his readers that Bushnell was on the right track. Fraser also introduces many other forgotten women theological writers who supported Bushnell’s reinterpretations, such as Dr Lee Anna Starr, Constance Maynard, Josephine Butler, Ethel Chilvers, and Dame Christabel Pankhurst. All these writers confirmed the need to resolve the “women’s question” as one of the major issues the Church had to face.
By the time Fraser concluded the editorship of the Biblical Recorder in 1935, he firmly believed that barring women from ordination was a contradiction of the Gospel. A letter to the Otago Daily Times in 1938, titled “Women – in New Zealand”, Fraser noted the equal rights of women was “the supreme problem of the ages” and required to be resolved, especially in churches; no response from readers to this claim reached the newspaper. His criticism was no longer heeded to as changes were occurring and even the Presbyterian Church was discussing women’s entry into eldership.
Well, who is Dr Katharine C. Bushnell (1855-1943) that Fraser so warmed too? A Holiness Methodist and one of the first women medical graduates, she served as a Missionary Doctor in Shanghai for a time and then worked with Francis Willard and the WTCU as a Social Purity Evangelist. This work brought her into close contact with prostitution, firstly in American lumber camps and then in the British brothels in India and China.
The behaviours of reputable British and American men who were considered upstanding Christian citizens deeply disturbed her. The root of the problem, she concluded “is indirectly the fruit of the theology”; it lay with the mistranslation of the “cursed” biblical woman Eve, as accepted by the Christian Church over centuries of patriarchal authority. Bushnell began to examine the original Hebrew and Greek biblical texts. “The Bible is all that it claims for itself. It is inspired…infallible…and inviolable,” she wrote, but its infallibility lay with the original Hebrew and Greek texts and not the many language translations which she heavily criticised. “Theology”, she firmly believed, “shaped society”, by reinterpreting and retranslating the scriptures a new society could emerge.
Researching in libraries in England and Europe she produced a series of Bible study leaflets and correspondence courses that analysed passages dealing with the status of women. In 1921 one hundred of these studies were published in one volume. God’s Word to Women is the result of her many years of retranslating sections of the bible relating to women. It aimed to provide a new lens for women of early 20th century to reinterpret women’s relationship to God, men and the Church. Bushnell’s greatest desire had been to provide a new foundation and vision for women to enable a new and more God given relationship within their churches and communities and in an equal interaction between women and men.
Kate Bushnell’s writings, and there are a number, seemed to disappear off the shelves of reviewers from the mid-1930s onwards. Fraser expressed a fear that her retranslations would be lost sight of amongst the noise of the humanist liberals whose modernist thought “while professing reverence for the Word, swagger through it with an air of omniscience and the dogmatism of human authority”. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her excellent biography, A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, reminds us that so often women “who wrestled with Christian Scriptures and penned intriguing and insightful commentaries”, have found their work forgotten, “leaving each generation to begin the task anew”.
It is difficult to ascertain the breadth of, if any, influence of Kate Bushnell’s writings within New Zealand. Obviously the subscribers and readers of the Biblical Record, had some awareness of this feminist theologian and her aims, and some may have purchased her books. I find no reference to her in Molly Whitelaw’s collection and Bushnell’s writing does not appear to have found favour in the Presbyterian Outlook. Some reference could well be in the PWMU or parish women’s collections, but somehow I doubt it.
In many ways Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women, was too late; the world had changed from when she first began to produce her studies at the turn of the twentieth century. World War I had turned everything upside down and the church saw itself in crisis, the old ways were no more. Women’s rights organisations were beginning to take a change of direction as many rejected the links with religion. There were new ideas influenced by science, psychology, sociology and anthropology bringing a new understanding to human nature and sexuality. Fraser’s prophetic concerns proved to be legitimate. Is it a coincident that his own journal, Biblical Recorder also closed? Had his own personal fundamentalist campaign also fallen by the wayside?
Interestingly, there has been a rediscovery of Bushnell writings in recent decades especially among women from the evangelical conservative wing of the church as they begin to insist on equal rights of leadership in their churches.
References: The Biblical Recorder (held in the Hewitson Library, New Zealand Collection, Knox College, Dunedin
Online New Zealand Newspapers: https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers
A New Gospel for Women: Katharine Bushnell and the Challenge of Christian Feminism, by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Oxford University Press, 2015.