Sermon on the Duties of a Christian Woman, 1851
The Market Revolution brought a hardening of gender roles in both the North and the South, but the South tended to hold more tightly to the expectation of “separate spheres.” In this sermon, Rev. Aldert Smedes of Raleigh, North Carolina, praises the virtues of women and explains the duties of a Christian woman.
I purpose, then, to consider the duties and responsibilities of a woman,–thus showing, not only what she can do, but what she must do, if she would be entitled to the commendation, “She hath done what she could.”
…The young man is very early apprenticed to the business or profession he is to pursue for a maintenance; and the studies or labors exacted by this preparation, he finds wholesome and constant occupation. But how often has the young woman many hours of every day at her command–hours not seldom lost through indolence, frittered away in dress, and vanity or gossip, or, worse than all, consumed in the perusal of works of fiction, generally of a light and enervating, sometimes even of a corrupt and debasing character.
How much in these hours might one, seriously disposed to do what she could, accomplish for her own mental improvement by such reading and studies, as will fit her, not only to sustain well her part in general society, but to discharge, with grace and intelligence, the engrossing duties of her after life, which leave so little time for the pursuits of taste and literature…
One of the first conditions of the married state is, that the desire of the wife shall be to her husband, and that he shall rule over her? “Wives,” says St. Peter, “be in subjection to your own husbands, even as Sarah obeyed Abraham calling him Lord.” “The Husband,” says St. Paul, “is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the Church.” How important then, nay how imperative, is it, that, in taking the step which links her “for better, for worse, till death do them part,” to one who is henceforward to be “the disposer of her destiny,” she should be influenced more by a regard to the moral and intellectual qualities, which, in her guide and head, she can honor and reverence, than to his possession of personal attractions, or incidental advantages, however great and desirable….
And here, it seems to me is indicated the most important duty of the Christian wife. From natural temperament, and the circumstances of her daily life, she is more sensitive than her husband to the appeals of religion, and less exposed to the dangers and temptations of the world. While, then, it should be her endeavor to render the home of her husband a place of rest from the toils of business–of comforts amid the disappointments of life–of cheerful recreation amid its cares–it should be especially her effort to make it the residence of purity and piety. Against anger, clamor, wrath, bitterness, evil-speaking, murmurs discontent, reproaches, and complainings, the door should be effectually shut; while for meekness gentleness, resignation, forbearance, hope, peace and joy, there should be an abundant entrance, and a perpetual welcome!
In this way, may the Christian wife often become the minister to her husband’s salvation. She may be to him, at all times, a preacher of righteousness, improving every event of sorrow or of joy, into some delightful lesson of Christian patience, or gratitude, or moderation. Not that she will seize every opportunity of inculcating in language the truths and precepts of the gospel, or ever obtrude in an offensive manner her remonstrances and appeals. The preaching of the wife to be effectual, and “to win the husband,” must be simply her faithful exhibition in all her conduct of the beauty and heavenly influence of religion. It should appear in her subjection to her husbands authority, in her affectionate attachment to him, and her evident wish to make him happy. It should be seen in the cheerful discharge of her domestic duties, in her maternal solicitude, especially for the spiritual welfare of her offspring; in her mild and Christian, but watchful and careful control of her household, consulting by a wise economy the interests of her husband, and by a just distribution the comfort and happiness of her dependents and servants; in her forbearance towards the involuntary faults of the latter, her pains and patience in teaching them their duties, and the anxiety she manifests for their moral and religious improvement; in her performance of the gentle offices of charity towards her neighbors; in her assiduous endeavors to avail herself of all the public services of the sanctuary; in her evident, though unobtrusive attention to the private and most sacred duties of religion, and in the sacrifices she is willing to make of personal or domestic display, that she may have to give, and may enable and persuade her husband to give bountifully of his means, towards the labors of Christian benevolence, and especially towards the extension of the Redeemer’s Kingdom.
It is well known, that many, who in their matrimonial arrangements have thought only for their present happiness, have thus found in their believing wives the ministers to their everlasting bliss. What responsibility is thus thrown upon the Christian woman? If she does what she can in this most interesting relation, she may be the light, the joy, the salvation, of her husband and household; but if she is recreant to her obligations—if the wife is a deserter of her faith and its duties, the last hope, I had almost said, of husband and family, is gone forever!
Aldert Smedes, “She Hath Done What She Could:” A Sermon (Raleigh: 1851), 3, 5, 8-11.
Available through Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill