Our world’s problems are overwhelming and we can feel helpless to make a difference. Yet, each one of us can make an impact on these problems with conscious, daily actions. From human trafficking to global warming to endless wars to the world’s refugee crisis, you can help to bring about positive change! As a leader, others are following your example. In this first of a four-part series for Women’s History Month, we will explore ways we can “do justice” as required by God by looking back at some inspiring women’s stories whose personal acts of righteous defiance changed the world.
Shiphrah and Puah
Two names that may be new to you. They are tucked into the first chapter of Exodus right before Moses is born. You’ll find their story in Exodus 1:8-22. Shiphrah and Puah were midwives who were ordered by Pharaoh to kill all Hebrew baby boys as they were born, yet they could let the baby girls live.
You see, Pharaoh and the Egyptians were beginning to fear the strength in the number of Hebrew slaves, assuming they would side with an enemy if Egypt were ever attacked. However, Shiphrah and Puah answered to a higher authority than Pharaoh:
“But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, ‘Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?’ The midwives said to Pharaoh, ‘Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.’ So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families.” (Exodus 1:17-21, NRSV, emphasis added).
Shiphrah and Puah were willing to defy the king’s ruling in order to be faithful to their God’s righteousness. I am sure they did it at the risk of their own lives. Their fear of God was much more motivating for them than their fear of the law of their land. And this is still how it should be. Whenever reigning authorities are going against what you know to be right in the eyes of God, then that’s when your faith must go into action. Historian David Daube declared that this story is “the oldest record in world literature of the spurning of a governmental decree” and involved no violence (p. 5).
Your responsibility is to make decisions about your actions based on what your God expects of you. You cannot change others’ actions, that’s their choice. God will deal with each accordingly. God blessed the midwives with families. Our God is so personal and powerful that the desires of our individual hearts can be fulfilled as God’s blessing for our acts of righteous defiance. Those blessings may not come in the time or shape that we are expecting, but you can be assured God always takes note of those who act justly.
Shiphrah and Puah’s Advice for Being Righteously Defiant Today
- Do what you know is right by God’s standard in each task you’ve been given.
- Seek to acknowledge the greater Power at work.
- Expect God’s blessing instead of human recognition.
Fast Forward to 19th-century America
You would think that the biblical example of God freeing the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery would have been enough information to prevent the development of slavery in the “civilized” West among God-fearing, so-called Christian people. Unfortunately, humans are slow to learn some of the most important lessons!
The darkest chapter in American history is the story of slavery. In the early to mid-1800s, a growing number of people began to form societies that promoted the abolition of slavery. Newspapers, discussion groups, orators, letter-writing campaigns, books published, appeals to government, and personal life-risking actions of helping slaves to escape were all employed before the Civil War broke out in 1861.
One of the “sheroes” of that abolition movement was Lucretia Coffin Mott (1793-1880). She was raised on Nantucket Island off the coast of Massachusetts among a Quaker community of very strong women whose husbands were gone for months at a time as seafarers. She began her fight against injustice when she discovered that female teachers were paid less than male teachers at her Quaker Seminary where she was educated and later taught. She married her fellow teacher James Mott in 1811 and they would eventually have six children, yet one son would not survive. Her willingness to speak up in her Quaker meetings about how she was dealing with this loss was what inaugurated her preaching ministry. She was a deep thinker, a well-read authority and debater on Quaker beliefs, and an advocate for human rights. She and her husband would make decisions about what they wore, what they ate, and how they made their money based on whether slaves were involved. They gave up the use of slave-dependent cotton and sugar and their personal income suffered as a result. When anti-slavery societies would not allow women to be members, she started the Philadelphia Female Anti-slavery Society in 1833. In 1840 she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London where both women were appalled at the refusal of the convention to recognize women as delegates. This new friendship would soon affect the rest of American history. (Burnett, 1968)
In 1848, the world’s first woman’s rights convention was planned by Coffin Mott and Cady Stanton and the “Declaration of Sentiments” was first presented in Seneca Falls, NY. Over the next few years, Coffin Mott became a well known Quaker minister whose sermons were preserved by reporters who heard her speak at the Quaker Cherry Street Meeting House. One of Coffin Mott’s biographers (Bacon, 1999), described Coffin Mott’s themes in her preaching this way:
“[She believed that] becoming vessels of the Holy Spirit in works of reform, modern men and women might become like Christ, messiahs sent from the Lord.
“Christ was the Spirit of God made manifest to human beings. He had been available to men and women long before the Bible was written or Jesus lived. He was available today to people who lived in other cultures and other religions. He was the Light, the Truth that stirred within her and each person she addressed. . . . To be like Jesus was to meet human need, both physical and spiritual.” (p. 121)
Both Lucretia and her husband James were lifelong abolitionists and pacifists. They participated in numerous acts of slave protection and rescue. She became such a well-known preacher and abolitionist that she was recognizable on the city streets she traveled. She and James helped to start Swarthmore College and insisted that it be coeducational–still unusual in 1864.
Her sermons and public speeches were filled with biblical quotes and she was a diligent student of the Bible. Her mantra throughout her speeches and sermons was based on Micah 6:8, “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” She encouraged her listeners to read and understand the Bible for themselves. In an 1850 sermon, Coffin Mott made this plea to her audience:
“There must be our faith and it must be an operative one, a faith acted out in life one unto another, in an effort to remove the mighty evils which are crushing humanity. Let our creed be that faith in God which shall inspire us with love one unto another, and having this love let us show our devotion and our worship by our every day duties. Let our daily life be a prayer and our every day actions be worship.” (as cited in Greene, 1980, pp. 177-178).
This amazing woman was an activist on behalf of others throughout her life. Even after her husband of 56 years died of pneumonia, she was elected president of the Pennsylvania Peace Society at the age of 77, which she held for 10 years until her death. At the age of 85 she was still able to attend and speak at the 30th anniversary of the first woman’s rights convention in Seneca Falls, NY. She died in her home just north of Philadelphia in 1880.
Today, Coffin Mott’s image of her stoic face and simple Quaker bonnet is immortalized in stone alongside Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in a massive marble sculpture which stands (again!) in our nation’s capitol rotunda. (Even that statue has a storied past!)
Lucretia Coffin Mott’s Advice for Being Righteously Defiant Today
- Know where the items you consume come from and don’t support industry that uses slaves.
- Be careful who and what you choose to support with your time and money.
- Be willing to speak up for the voiceless at your own personal risk.
- Talk about the atrocities you are aware of and seek to garner support to end them.
- Work to be remembered for what you did for others.
To sum up the message of righteous defiance I believe we see from these examples of Shiphrah and Puah and Lucretia Coffin Mott, I will use one of my favorite Coffin Mott quotes:
“The likeness we bear to Jesus is more essential than our notions of him” (as cited in Greene, 1980).
Join the conversation below by clicking on Comments and tell us your reaction to these women and their acts of righteous defiance.
If you’d like to learn more about Lucretia Coffin Mott and how she used the Bible to promote gender equality and the abolition of slavery, come to my lecture, “Faith Gives Birth to Feminism,” on Monday, March 27, 2017, at 2 pm at the Lake Travis Community Library in Lakeway.
For Further Reading
Robin Cohn’s blog post on Shiphrah and Puah on her website. It provides some extensive research on Shiphrah and Puah from a variety of religious viewpoints.
David Daube’s book, Civil Disobedience in Antiquity, 2011, Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Margaret Hope Bacon’s book, Valiant Friend: The Life of Lucretia Mott, 1999, Friends General Conference.
Constance Buel Burnett’s book, Five for Freedom, 1968, Praeger.
Dana Greene’s book, Lucretia Mott: Her Complete Sermons and Speeches, 1980, Edwin Mellen Press.