Conceiving Christianity: Anglican women and lived religion in mid-20th century Conception Bay, Newfoundland

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University of New Brunswick


Employing previously unexamined primary documents, nominal census data, official Anglican publications, oral history and material culture methodologies, this study explores lived religious beliefs and practices among Anglican women who lived on the south shore of Conception Bay, Newfoundland, in the middle decades of the 20th century. It demonstrates the making of a female theological culture informed by the material and social circumstances of ordinary women's lives as well as by the doctrines and discipline of official Anglicanism. While domestic matters influenced women's religiosity, this influence is not rooted in Anglican women's acceptance of prescribed roles related to "motherhood" or middle-class notions of women being the safe keepers of religious practice within the home. Instead, women's Christian belief and practice were shaped by the household labour they performed within the family economy. Women's popular theology was not a response to prescribed notions of what they should be domestically, but a reflection of what they were: labourers within a domestic workplace. The study considers especially connections between Christian belief and traditional female work in childbirth and mortuary services, caring for the sick, textile production, and feeding the household. Women's lived religious practices demonstrated a commitment to benevolent mutuality, the negotiation of gender roles, and resistance to male authority, suggesting a theological culture more informed by feminist consciousness than "patriarchal piety." This changed somewhat in the 1960s, as the study area transitioned from a rural, household economy to a wage-based economy largely dependent on male breadwinning. Anglican women's theological culture began to reflect their acceptance of middle-class gender expectations, as well as their emerging commitment to domesticity as an appropriate female identity within households, church and community.