Editor’s Note: Letha Dawson Scanzoni passed away peacefully in her sleep on Tuesday, January 9, 2024. The following excerpt is set to appear in the March/April 2024 issue of Nurturing Faith Journal.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1935, Letha Dawson Scanzoni grew up believing that girls could do anything that boys could. A prodigiously talented trombonist by the time she was in middle school, in 1951 the sixteen-year-old Scanzoni earned admission to the prestigious Eastman School of Music. During her first year at the Rochester, New York, school, she learned more than just music, however.
While at Eastman, Scanzoni also started attending local Youth for Christ meetings, began learning what it meant to live a separated life, and soon discovered that there was a place called Moody Bible Institute, which had a sacred music program. Having grown up in a Lutheran church, in her own later telling, this period in her life represented Scanzoni’s first involvement with real fundamentalism.
Scanzoni had already begun wrestling with deep questions about how her faith should impact her life prior to her move to Rochester. As a teenager, she had been struck by one of the main characters in Charles M. Sheldon’s novel In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do, a woman who sang in rescue missions as a way of using her musical talents to serve God.
Unable to shake the conviction that she should do the same, during her first year and a half at Eastman, Scanzoni played trombone for numerous religious rallies and church gatherings. Somewhere along the way, she also began developing a different set of skills. In some of the churches where she played, Scanzoni occasionally led adult Sunday school classes as well. In some of those classes in certain churches, some of the members occasionally suggested that she should consider becoming a minister. Other times and in other venues, Scanzoni received a decidedly different message.
When she played trombone for a local Billy Graham rally, for instance, she was told that women should not teach classes with men in them. When a local minister later invited her to give her testimony before a trombone performance for an all-male group of prison inmates, Scanzoni dutifully pointed out that this would seem to violate prohibitions against women teaching men. Assuring her that in certain cases it was perfectly all right, the minister clarified. Women could not teach or preach to men, he told her, but giving a testimony was fine.
After three semesters at Eastman, in 1954 Scanzoni matriculated at Moody Bible Institute’s Sacred Music Department. As she later recounted, however, “like so many women following the societal expectations and prescriptions of the 1950s,” Scanzoni married young, eventually cutting her degree short to focus on being a wife and mother. But even that didn’t slow her down.
During the late 1950s, she worked for a time with a rural missionary organization, and in the early 1960s, she continued teaching Sunday school classes, leading Bible studies for college students, and eventually began a career as a prolific freelance writer. All the while, Scanzoni was simultaneously studying, researching, and rethinking what had become the unofficial orthodoxy among evangelicals on the question of biblical teaching about “women’s and men’s roles in home, church, and society.”
In Christian organizations that kept telling her things like, “If you have a new idea, let the man think it’s his idea,” and in evangelical circles where she was constantly reminded that “a woman’s role and goal was to get married, have children, and make a lovely home for her family,” Scanzoni later explained, she simply could not help but wonder, “Is that all there is in terms of God’s will for our lives? What about our gifts, our talents?”
The tipping point came in the form of the November 1963 edition of her favorite evangelical periodical, Eternity, which featured a pair of point-counterpoint articles discussing “women in the church.” In the first article, Canadian minister H. H. Kent argued that the Bible was rife with precedents of women exercising their considerable gifts for leadership. In the second article, Dallas Theological Seminary professor Charles C. Ryrie stressed that “a woman may not do a man’s job in the church any more than a man can do a woman’s job in the home.”
Scanzoni was thrilled by Kent’s emphasis on some of the biblical passages that she had long treasured and appalled at Ryrie’s bombastic misogyny. After reading the reactions to both articles in the following month’s Letters to the Editor section, she immediately sat down to compose one of her own, detailing what she believed were the many biases and inconsistencies in Ryrie’s argument. When the letter became far too long, she decided to shelve the draft for the time being, however, filing it in a folder labeled “The Woman Issue” as potential material for a longer- form article later on.
By the time Scanzoni was finally ready to revisit the draft, she had already published her first book and finished a second. But neither of those books would cause nearly as much controversy as the finalized version of the article she had been waiting years to write. In mid-1965, Scanzoni submitted a finished draft of her article, “Women’s Place, Silence or Service?” to the editors of Eternity. With a bit of editorial revision, it first appeared in the magazine’s February 1966 issue.
Citing historical examples ranging from Tertullian to Augustine of Christian men demonizing women, highlighting the various textual debates over what the apostle Paul really meant in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, and pointing to the many practical implications that would result if women were truly silenced in churches, Scanzoni’s article challenged the magazine’s evangelical readership to openly reckon with some of the troubling inconsistencies associated with the idea that women were spiritually inferior to men.
Recognizing that many male pastors believed the question was already settled, Scanzoni nonetheless pressed the matter. “If it’s permissible to teach children,” she queried, “how does one determine at what point a teen-age boy ceases to be a child? May a woman lead youth groups? Serve as Christian education director? . . . And what about writing? Is it all right for a woman to write Bible study materials, yet not permissible to teach them in the local church? . . . In all of this, aren’t we overlooking the sovereign distribution of gifts by the Holy Spirit?”
Even though the editors had actually excised some of her potentially most controversial statements, reactions to the article were swift and fierce. “Mrs. Scanzoni’s article,” one letter to the editor judged, “is a perfect example of why a woman is admonished to be silent in the church.”
Whether in spite or because of the controversy the first article inspired, Eternity invited Scanzoni to submit another article on “some aspect of ‘the woman problem’” the following year. Having already outlined her next book, which was slated to consider the role of women in the home, the church, and the world, Scanzoni was happy to oblige.
In mid-1967, she submitted an article titled “Christian Marriage: Patriarchy or Partnership?” to the magazine’s editors. That October, she received a response from the editors thanking her for the draft, paying her the fifty dollars they owed her, and asking her to add a section on “male headship” so that the article might “communicate more clearly” with Eternity’s readers.
Scanzoni was torn. On the one hand, such an addition might dilute the article’s argument that “egalitarian marriage could be biblical,” and its suggestion that Christian marriages need not succumb to the inevitable master-slave dynamic associated with the idea of “wifely submission.” On the other hand, if she could at least show evangelicals that when the Bible spoke of “the husband’s leadership,” it was not thereby mandating a “‘caste system’ with vested privileges for the male sex,” then it might be worth including a caveat about instances of “marginal disagreement” in which the husband might serve as “the final court of appeals.”
Ultimately deciding that the caveat was not too large a price, Scanzoni revised the article accordingly. In May 1968, she finally received word on the status of her revisions when a letter from Eternity’s newly hired assistant editor, Nancy Hardesty, arrived in her mailbox. Assuring Scanzoni that her article would run in the July issue, Hardesty explained that “some members of the staff” nonetheless had one additional request: could she send them “a picture of you and your husband” to run along with the article?
“I guess to show that he approves of your writing such ‘radical’ stuff,” Hardesty added parenthetically, before closing the letter with a personal admission. “I’ve just finished editing your article and I’m really impressed by it—and I don’t think it’s radical or provocative at all. It’s just right and true and like it should be,” she noted. “But then I’m only a woman!”
Excerpted from The Other Evangelicals: A Story of Liberal, Black, Progressive, Feminist, and Gay Christians—and the Movement That Pushed Them Out by Isaac B. Sharp ©2023 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.
Director of online and part-time programs and visiting assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. Isaac is the co-editor of Evangelical Ethics: A Reader in the Library of Theological Ethics series and Christian Ethics in Conversation.