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Rebecca Anna (Clopton) Phillips, 2nd wife/o Dr. John Henry Phillips
Rebecca Anna Clopton, b. 27 Mar 1833 GA; d. 30 Jan 1912 GA; d/o Pleasant Perrin Clopton and Nancy Phillips; md. Dr. John Henry Phillips, 11 Sep 1851, as his 2nd wife (He md. (1) her sister, Elizabeth Clopton, 26 Nov 1844; He, s/o Elijah Phillips and Tilitha Walker.
Rebecca Anna Phillips: Question of Authority and Gender among Primitive Baptist: Primitive Baptists in the Nineteenth Century Took New Testament Scriptures on the Role of Women as Mandate for Women to Be Silent During Worship.
Even today, Primitive Baptists follow nineteenth-century Victorian norms for the separation of male and female spheres. (1) Yet Rebecca Anna Phillips (Anna) wrote and published a spiritual autobiography and composed articles on biblical interpretation that appeared regularly in Primitive Baptist journals between 1880 and 1911. She was consulted by men and women, both laity and clergy, for advice on matters of doctrine and practice. As one of her biographers explained, she was known as "a deep, instructive and spiritual writer ... a teacher sent of the Lord." (2)
Why was Anna allowed to claim this kind of authority given the restrictions on women's public voice in the Primitive Baptist community? Some clues to this puzzle may be found in her writings and those of her male Primitive Baptist contemporaries.
Led by a Way I Knew Not
Rebecca Anna Phillips was born in Meriwether County, Georgia, in 1833, to Pleasant and Nancy Clopton. Her parents were Calvinist Baptists who brought their children up in the fear and admonition of the Lord. As a teenager, however, Anna was repelled by the Calvinist doctrine of election; it did not fit her "idea of justice and equity." (3)
Conversion, when it came, was dramatic. Anna came under conviction at a revival but struggled for weeks before finally giving her heart to Christ. The year was 1851; she was eighteen years old, and it was a time of profound changes for Anna and her family. Her older sister, Elizabeth, died of consumption in January. By September, Anna was married to her former brother-in-law, Dr. John A. Phillips, and mother to five-year-old niece Frances and two-year-old nephew Rufus. (4)
About 1853, Anna had another life-changing experience. Twenty years later, this is how she described the scene:
I was one day bending over the table, cutting out a garment, with mind entirely engaged with the work, when I was suddenly astounded by the sound as of a rushing, roaring wind that almost instantly enveloped me completely in its circling roar and rush; while from the first sound that filled me with terrible and chilling awe, my natural forces seemed to suspend and in some indefinable way my whole being seemed to concentrate to a centre within me; and there in the midst, as that presence, as of the wind, hovered this instant over me, I heard the words, "Write--write--write" spoken there within, and then passed away. When composed enough to think rationally, I seated myself and tried to find the cause--the source-of this wonderful phenomenon. I was in perfect health; no law of my being was disordered:-- ... I found no cause in nature; and yet there must be for this wonderful effect. And therefore, if not in nature, was it--could it--be in spirit?--could it be the power and voice of the Lord? (5)
Shaken, Anna wondered whether it was a "freak of the imagination." But deep in her "hidden secret soul," she knew that God had spoken, and she must obey, whatever the cost. She desperately searched the Bible for a "corresponding precept or example ... of the Lord requiring such a work of a woman." Finding none, she resisted the call, even as she asked God for validation of the experience. (6)
Why did Anna resist? For many women in her time and place, finding time to write would have been difficult, if not impossible. But this was not the case with Anna. Her duties as wife and mother were not onerous. In fact, she was surprised to find that after her marriage, she had more leisure to study the scriptures than ever before. But Southern conventions in this period dictated that for women, writing should be a private act, usually confined to diaries and letters written to friends and family. (7) Somehow, Anna knew that her writing was to be a public thing.
Anna also worried about her fitness for the task, admitting that while she might be willing to die for Christ, it was more painful to face the scorn and pity of the world. She imagined that men would say "there was not scriptural authority for a woman to write," and she feared that women "would denounce me as following false impression, or as trying to make myself conspicuous." Anna also worried that she might bring "reproach" and "shame" to her Baptist church. For, "of all things, for a woman thus to write seemed to hold and threaten the most dire consequences." (8)
Despite her doubts, Anna contemplated writing for a Baptist missionary publication, something other women had done. But that led to another complication. Anna and her husband belonged to a progressive Baptist church that advocated all the "institutions of the day"--mission boards, Sunday Schools, theological seminaries, and revivals. But for many years she had doubted whether they were biblical institutions. If she were to write in defense of missions, she must be assured that they were of God, not a man-made invention.
To her dismay, Anna failed to find a command from Christ to justify missions. She was not alone. Many American evangelicals charged that such innovations not only went beyond scripture, but actually corrupted the gospel, substituting human agency for God's work in salvation. Anna painfully concluded she could not write for any missionary cause.
With this outlet for exercising her gift closed, Anna's health deteriorated, and she was tormented by doubts about her salvation and her church membership. She knew she should follow her conscience and join the Primitive Baptists. They alone had stayed true to the gospel. Yet to her mortification, she was restrained by pride--and her reluctance to "exchange an honorable position in church and society for worse than nothing--shame and reproach." (9)
Missionary Baptists had on their side all the "great" and "wise men" of the day, the fashionable segment of Southern society. Their churches were supported by wealthy planters, merchants, and the professional class. Anna admitted that "to belong to a popular religious sect, or church ... was to gain not only social prestige and worldly favor, but ... was a first-class recommendation to all secular business." (10)
In contrast, Primitive Baptist churches attracted mostly yeoman farmers and the lower classes of Southern society. (11) Anna was embarrassed and ashamed to admit that she "regarded the dear people of God as beneath me." But she did, and her fear of ridicule silenced any impulse to defend the people she "secretly loved." (12)
Pride kept Anna coming back to the Missionary Baptist church, Sunday after Sunday, over the next few years, as did her dread of being cut off from her family, in what she called a "heart-home stroke." (13) Primitive Baptists excluded members of secret societies from fellowship. Anna's brothers and husband were Masons. How could she, a woman, ask them to drop an association that provided prestige and business contacts?
After much struggle, Anna concluded that her first loyalty was to Christ and Christ's church. She finally realized she had to stand alone. "I had rather all the world--husband, brothers, friends, all--should deny me and turn their faces from me forever, than Jesus Christ." (14)
Having faced and surmounted this hurdle, one last obstacle stood in the way of her joining the true church: re-baptism. The Primitive Baptists believed Anna's baptism was invalid. She understood the argument for rebaptism in judicial terms: "the administrator was not vested with the legal authority of the church; a necessary part is wanting, and so the whole is void; it is not gospel baptism." (15) Because the Primitive Baptist church was the only true church, the only valid baptism was one administered by a Primitive Baptist pastor.
Anna did eventually accept the necessity for re-baptism. Then she asked for a sign to show her which Primitive congregation to join. Once the sign was received, Anna presented herself for baptism and was accepted for membership. She made this choice alone. Then, three or four meetings later, her husband followed her in re-baptism and joined the Primitive Baptists. Anna remembered, "I now enjoyed that solid comfort and consolation in Christ abounding, as based upon a rock, a sure foundation that withstands beating storms and rains." (16)
The year was 1861. Anna and her family had great need of a sure foundation. Her autobiography offered no hint of how she was affected by the Civil War or Reconstruction. But then, she rarely discussed family issues in her writings, following the typical pattern of Southern women, keeping private matters away from the prying eyes of the public.
Anna's public writing career finally began in the mid-1870s, two decades after her initial call. She yielded to repeated pleas to tell her story in print, and hoped that it would "do no harm, if no good." (17) Her resistance was rooted in humility and her fear that the entire record of her signs and visions, not to mention her doubts about joining the Primitive Baptists, would offend her brothers and sisters. As she explained, "For about fifteen years I never had the moral courage and spiritual presumption to tell these peculiar troubles." When she answered the call, she expected persecution "from brethren," who would say she was presumptuous and proud. (18) Anna's willingness finally to commit her experience to writing also reflected a change in Southern gender roles. According to Jane Turner Censer, the writing of public memoirs, an activity frowned upon before the Civil War, became more acceptable in the Reconstruction era, particularly for older women. (19)
Yet, Anna said she depended upon another hope. Surely God's power would be glorified if a "weak, blind, ignorant woman" could "confound the wise and prudent things pertaining to God," especially if "exhibited by the pen of a woman too weak in herself to find and formulate ... jewels of truth." (20) So Anna wrote her stow, calling it the Experience and Reasons for Leaving the Missionary and Uniting with the Primitive Baptists. Her autobiography was published in pamphlet form by the pastor of her church, Elder P. D. Gold, and continued to be printed and circulated informally. Eventually about 3,000 copies were produced and distributed throughout the South.
During the next few years, Anna and her family suffered several tragedies. In 1882, the Phillips family moved to a farm near Butler, Georgia, apparently to be live close to their daughter Frances and her husband, but they soon lost everything they owned, probably in a fire. Even before this move, Anna's widowed mother, Nancy Clopton, had moved in with the Phillips family in 1877 and remained with them until 1891, during which time she became increasingly senile, blind, and confined to her room. Anna's husband, John, suffered a stroke in 1888 and required nursing until his death in 1893. Her stepson and nephew Rufus was murdered in 1891, after serving as mayor of Butler, Georgia.
Somehow, in the midst of these troubles, Anna followed her calling. She wrote essays on church governance, doctrine, and biblical interpretation for two Primitive Baptist journals, The Gospel Messenger and Zion's Landmark. The Gospel Messenger was edited for many years by Elder John Richard Respess, Anna's pastor and relative by marriage. Anna and Respess enjoyed a deep spiritual friendship. At his death in 1895, Anna said, "I loved him as Jonathan loved David." Respess, in turn, respected and admired Anna, a respect that led to at least one public disagreement. When he published her interpretation of Acts 18:1-5, on the difference between John's and Jesus' baptism, he included a postscript. "The reader will judge for himself as to the correctness of the views of the writer; to our mind they are questionable." (21)
Anna's writings also appeared in Zion's Landmark, one of whose editors was the same P. D. Gold who had encouraged her to write her autobiography. In 1891, she was designated "corresponding editress" of the journal, while continuing to write for The Gospel Messenger. In an announcement of her new position, Gold reminded readers that "Sister Phillips is well known, in her gift.... We trust [it] will be useful for the household of faith." Then he asked them to "encourage Sister Phillips in her labors." (22) This publishing relationship lasted until at least 1901, confirming a revelation Anna received shortly after her 1853 vision "that I would drag an aged and mortal body with me to my last and most important writing." (23)
After her husband's death in 1895, Anna began to live the peripatetic life of a boarder. In what appears to be a discreet plea for housing, the April 1895 issue of The Gospel Messenger showed a photo of a respectably dressed older woman, Mrs. R. Anna Phillips. Underneath the photograph was the recommendation: "ready writer and authoress--a spiritual-minded woman--with good conversational powers, excellent social qualifies, and fine business habits in domestic life." (24)
In 1901, Anna decided to publish a new edition of her autobiography. While she "hesitated, afraid of the flesh," a proposal from two men to advance the money for the printing costs was like "the wagons Joseph sent to Jacob; tangible proof' of her own and others' desire to find a wider audience for her work. She committed the revision to the Lord, and submitted it to "the brethren and the public." (25) Anna expanded upon her earlier work, incorporating material from her journal articles, and giving it a new title, Led by a Way I Knew Not.
Anna's output of letters and articles slowed considerably over the next decade. In August 1911, she wrote in the Gospel Messenger of a "long spell of sickness." She declared that "she had not the least fear or dread of death," and that "poor and afflicted ... still my faith abides ... my mind ever looking forward to a home in heaven." Anna begged one of the editors to attend the associational meeting that year, since the next year might be "too late" to see her again. She concluded, "This is the earnest prayer of your poor old no-account sister." (26) Within six months, Rebecca Anna Phillips was dead.
Anna Phillips as Primitive Baptist Authority Why was Anna able to function as a source of authority in a denomination that discouraged women from exercising their spiritual gifts in the public sphere? She claimed God as the source of authority for her actions, a God who spoke to her directly with signs and visions. These visions served two functions. First, they provided her with the assurance that her actions, though questioned by others, were blessed by God. Second, her church accepted them as a sign of the authoritativeness of her teachings. As her friend Walter Heard said in her obituary, "The Lord blessed her with wonderful revelations; and those of her kindred in Christ who knew her best had not a doubt but that she was a teacher sent from God." (27) Primitive Baptists may have opposed the emotional manipulations of revival services, but they did not reject manifestations of the Holy Spirit such as visions and revelations.
During her years of writing, Anna formed significant spiritual friendships with powerful male elders within the Primitive Baptist denomination. (28) Even though she sometimes challenged or threatened the authority of these men, she used the rhetoric of self-deprecation and deference to convince her readers that she was not attempting to subvert their leadership.
At the same time, Anna reserved some of her harshest judgments for ministers of the gospel. In her autobiography, she asked, "Why could not I, like other sisters, let the preachers look after our faith and practice and be at peace?" She answered, "they have more worldly wisdom [than I], but in these spiritual things I have the right to claim just so much as is revealed to me by the spirit ... and God is as apt to reveal these things to the weak and base, as to the great and strong." And so, she would not flinch "before the most learned D. D. of this age. Not that I am equal, but right." (29)
When Anna questioned a wealthy Presbyterian woman's blind acceptance of her pastor's teachings, the friend said, "You are always reading that Bible--I always find you reading it when alone--it will craze you--you will have to be sent to a lunatic asylum if you don't stop it." Anna in turn was horrified by her friends' docility. "These dainty, languid, sanctimonious, self-complacent ministers, how they do 'lord it over' them!" (30)
Anna never hesitated to give advice to ministers. In an 1887 edition of the Gospel Messenger, she admonished preachers who held up their own conversion experiences as models for their congregations. "That is a preacher's experience, and theirs are not." It might be that their telling of these "brighter manifestations" actually weakened the peoples' faith. Instead, they should "teach them the 'diversity of operations' and differing measures 'of the grace of life.'" (31) Without this kind of reassurance, they would continue to expect lights or voices that might never come.
Another explanation for Anna's ability to transcend gender expectations may be found in her literary style. As Susan Juster pointed out in Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England, women's conversion narratives made much of the "language of attachment," while in men's accounts, "legalistic terminology" predominated. (32) Anna employed both in her autobiography, but she often used judicial language when explaining her relationship with God, exegeting scripture, or expounding on doctrinal issues. When a male reader questioned her constant references to the Mosaic law, she defended herself by declaring that "all men ... are under the import of the law of God, whether found in Adam, Moses, or Christ, and shall be judged by his gospel law." (33) Anna's legalistic rhetoric may have made her writing more accessible to the rest of her male audience.
Most important of all, Anna believed that God gave her the authority to function as a writer, for the encouragement and edification of the church. Acting on this conviction, she stretched the boundaries of traditional Southern Protestant gender roles, while gaining the respect of male Primitive Baptist leaders. Though she was "naturally proud," one friend asserted, (34) her pride was tempered by meekness and humility. With this confidence born out of her experiences, Rebecca Anna Phillips created a unique place for herself in Primitive Baptist history.
(1.) See ethnographers Howard Dorgan, Giving Glory to God in Appalachia: Worship Practices of Six Baptist Subdenominations (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989); Beverly Bush Patterson, The Sound of the Dove: Singing in Appalachian Primitive Baptist Churches (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995); Melanie L. Sovine, "Traditionalism, Antimissionism, and the Primitive Baptist Religion: A Preliminary Analysis," in Reshaping the Image of Appalachia, ed. Loyal Jones (Berea, KY: Berea College Appalachian Center, n.d.). See also Janette Hassey, No Time for Silence: Evangelical Women in Public Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1986), 61.
(2.) "Rebecca Anna Phillips," Pittman's Biographies.
(3.) Rebecca Anna Phillips, Led by a Way I Knew Not, in The Writings (San Antonio, TX: Primitive Baptist Heritage Corporation, 2002), 7.
(4.) I am indebted to John R. Adams, Sr., for the biographical information lacking in Phillips's own accounts of her life.
(5.) Ibid., 50.
(6.) Ibid., 51.
(7.) For discussion of Southern gender roles in this time period, see Anne Firer Scott, The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, 1830-1930 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
(8.) Phillips, Writings, 53.
(9.) Ibid., 56.
(11.) Bertram Wyatt-Brown, The Shaping of Southern Culture: Honor, Grace, and War, 1760s 1880s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 107, 112, 134. As Brown explains, Primitive Baptists "defied the worldliness of the planter class." See also, Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Gender Relations of the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 160-69.
(12.) Ibid., 58.
(13.) Ibid., 102.
(14.) Ibid., 140.
(15.) Ibid., 150.
(16.) Ibid., 157.
(17.) Ibid., 6.
(19.) Jane Turner Censer, The Reconstruction of White Southern Womanhood, 1865-1895 (Baton Rouge, LA: University of Louisiana State University Press, 2003), 219, 228. As Phillips's autobiography begins with an extended conversion narrative, see also Virginia Brereton, From Sin to Salvation: Stories of Women's Conversion, 1800 to the Present (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
(20.) Ibid., 56.
(21.) R. Anna Phillips, "Letter to Brother Respess," The Gospel Messenger 12 (December 1889): 465.
(22.) R. Anna Phillips, "The One Right Way," Zion's Landmark (May, 1891)
(23.) Phillips, Led, 46.
(24.) "Mrs. R. Anna Phillips of Butler, Ga.," The Gospel Messenger, vol. 17, no. 3 (April 1895).
(25.) Phillips, "Preface," Led, 5.
(26.) R. Anna Phillips, "Letter to Eld. G. W. Stewart," The Gospel Messenger; vol. 33, no. 10 (October 1911), 300-02.
(27.) Walter J. Heard, "Obituary, Mrs. R. Anna Phillips," The Gospel Messenger, vol. 34, no. 4 (April 1912), 132-33.
(28.) For a discussion of the relationship between women and evangelical preachers in this time period, see Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: Beginnings of the Bible Belt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 163-73.
(29.) Phillips, Led, 87.
(30.) Ibid., 88.
(31.) R. Anna Phillips, "Letter to Brother Landers," The Gospel Messenger, vol. 9, no. 6 (June 1887): 275.
(32.) Susan Justin; Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 188.
(33.) Phillips, Led, 22.
(34.) Heard, Obituary, 133.
Source: The Free Library, Baptist History and Heritage Society, by Jana Mayfield Mullen, Instructor at Fuller Seminary Extension, Santa Barbara, California, 2006
NOTE: Attached photo is copied from cover of her book, "Led by a Way I Knew Not"