Christian Ethics Today

Living in a Changing World

by Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler

[Editor’s note: Carolyn Crumpler is a member of the board of Christian Ethics Today and is one of the dearest friends I have. Her experiences in Baptist life have spanned the seismic shifts in American society and in the Southern Baptist Convention, first in the area of Race Relations and then regarding the Role of Women in the church. Finally, she confronted the shift within the SBC toward rigid, authoritarian, male-dominated rule and became an early leader of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Her grace and courage are inspirations to many of us. The following was written just before she was hospitalized in June, 2013.]

“Hope is the ability to hear the music of tomorrow; faith is the courage to dance to it today.” That quote has been very helpful to me in my life.

was raised in a small citrus and cattle farming community in Central Florida named Frostproof. When I graduated from the high school, I took what for me was a courageous step when I got on a bus and traveled the long distance to Tallahassee to attend Florida State University.

Soon after making this major move, I faced another challenge when the Baptist campus minister and the state WMU youth worker asked me and other students to sponsor a meeting with students at the all-black Florida A&M University on the other side of Tallahassee. At that time in the 1940s, such an inter-racial event was unheard of in North Florida, and there was considerable opposition. But, we did it! At that time Florida was perhaps the most racially violent state in the South, with a great amount of lynching, bombings, and other KKK activity. Where I came from in the late 1940s, integration was definitely a “no-no.”

   I had a life-long dream of becoming a missionary, but it seemed an unobtainable goal. I took my college degree in Library Science and became a school librarian in Eustis, Florida and followed that by becoming high school librarian in Tampa. But I still felt called to be a missionary and enrolled at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, choosing that seminary over Southern because I had heard a missionary from there speak and wanted to work with her during my “off hours.”

   I tried to enroll in the School of Theology, but at that time women could not enroll in theology. I was not a musician and did not want to enroll in church music, so religious education was the only option left for me, although I did not feel that was what I needed. I took all of my electives in theology, everything except homiletics which I really would have helped me a great deal since as it turned out I spent most of the rest of my life preaching.

   Upon graduation I accepted a position with the Alabama WMU as their first Young Woman’s Association director. After three years, I accepted the challenge to move to Florida as the Girl’s Auxiliary director with responsibility for directing the summer camp programs. It was during that time I discovered I had a physical problem, hypertension, which would limit my dream of becoming a missionary. So, for me, the Woman’sMissionary Union (WMU) was my way to be involved in missions. I later became director of the Alabama WMU, and then director of the Florida WMU.

   I did not receive much opposition during the 1950s and 1960s in all of those WMU positions because I was a woman doing women’s work. My challenges related mostly to inter-racial relations. I led “mixed women’s meetings” with WMU and black women’s organizations, and faced gigantic opposition each time I participated in a mixed-race meeting.

   As statewide director of Florida Baptist WMU, I first began to face challenges regarding women’s rights and feminism. Young women were beginning to react against the limitations placed on them in Baptist life, especially in ministry. Ordination was denied to them. I had not really confronted that barrier before, but during a coffee break one day in the Florida Baptist Building in Jacksonville, several younger women discussed this with me. I said, “I am not too concerned about all of this. I do not need ordination since I have no fear of a man wanting to take my job!” One of the young women looked me in the eye and said, “But we are deeply concerned, Miss Weatherford, and you are our leader. You have to care!”

   In 1974 I was elected to succeed Alma Hunt as executive director of the national WMU. When I was introduced to the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, the questions from the press were largely related to my stand on the issue of women in ministry. In an effort to emphasize that I was for all individuals, male and female, I blurted out, “Oh, I’m not a feminist; I’m a humanist!”

Later, in a warm and friendly meeting with home missions personnel, someone again questioned me about job security for women in church-related and missions jobs. As in any Baptist gathering in those days, the audience was mostly men, so I replied “I’m not worried about my job as WMU director. No man wants my job!” The audience laughed and applauded, but that answer was not satisfactory and would not satisfy opponents of women’s ministry for long.

  Not long after becoming head of WMU, I was invited to speak in South Carolina to an interdenominational conference on the role of women in the church. At that time a book by Marabel Morgan, The Total Woman, was very popular and much discussed. Morgan’s book was evangelical Christians’ response to women’s liberation. Morgan encouraged women to surrender to, worship, and revere their husbands, and among other things, to wrap their naked bodies in saran-wrap and greet their husbands that way at the door when they returned home from work. During my speech I made a brief but disparaging comment about the book. A few days later I received a call from a friend of mine at the news organization, Baptist Press, and was asked, “Carolyn, did you really say that?” My response was, “Oh yes! But let me tell you about all the other things I said. I made a really good speech!” But he replied, “But Carolyn, that is not newsworthy….this is!” So the article was published in all the state Baptist papers, “WMU Leader Smacks Total Woman.”

   The negative responses really hurt. I had never been the subject of such a barrage of anger. I sought counsel from my pastor, but what I learned was that I would be criticized if I continued to speak boldly. And I knew that I would continue to speak boldly. I would continue to be a target.

As national WMU director, I was a member of the Inter-Agency Council of the SBC which consisted of the chief executive of each SBC institution. Of course, I was the only woman in the group. I loved being with the men in planning sessions and visioning conversations. In 1978 that group decided to sponsor a “Consultation on Women in Church-Related Vocations.” I recommended the event be called a “Consultation on Women in Ministry,” but only one or two of the men agreed, and we were outvoted. But the event turned out to be a great success, with the staff of WMU taking major responsibilities.

   In 1982, the year of the 75th anniversary of the WMU Training School at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, two of the speakers were Anne Davis and Sarah Frances Anders. Davis was a professor of social work at the school, which had become known as the Carver School of Missions and Social Work. Anders was a professor of a Baptist college, Louisiana College, and had just competed research on Southern Baptist women in ministry. During that meeting, it was evident that something needed to be done to provide support for women. Several women gave their testimonies and inspired the people in attendance. The next year a group of women met in Louisville to discuss what kind of organization needed to be created, and the result was the birth of Southern Baptist Women in Ministry. “Southern” was removed from the name in 1993, and the organization became Baptist Women in Ministry, or BWIM.

   Another important development for women in Baptist life occurred when the officers of the Baptist Medical/Dental Fellowship asked WMU to set up an organization for nurses.

But throughout the 1980s the role of women became more and more contentious in the SBC. Resolutions on the role of women became a regular component at the annual meeting of the SBC, and criticism of vocal women more strident. Unmarried women leaders of WMU were falsely labeled as lesbians. On two occasions, I was contacted by wives of big church pastors who later became presidents of the SBC. The first call came following the Total Woman speech. The wife told me, “I have no problem bowing to my husband. I’ve loved him since high school and I have no problem being submissive to him.” I responded, “But I have no husband. Must I be submissive to yours?”

   The second pastor’s wife visited me at the WMU office in Birmingham, Alabama and offered to host a meeting of other pastors’ wives during which they could personally discuss my stance on women with me. I assured her that I would be happy to host such a meeting in the WMU building so that the pastors’ wives could see what WMU was all about. That meeting never happened. But during that conversation the wife told me that during Bible study she had come to realize that it was alright for me to head the WMU, since I did not have a husband. The pastor’s wife said that scripturally she herself could not be in such a job because it would place her in a position higher than her husband’s.

   I was a frequent guest in church pulpits throughout my 22 years as WMU executive, first in Florida for seven years and then in the national post for 15. The church bulletin or order of worship often listed me as “speaker,” sometimes my topic would be stated as “message,” but seldom was I referred to as “preacher” or my presentation as “sermon.” My motto became, “Call it anything you want to; just let me do it!”

   I often encountered opposition and criticism. On one such occasion, I was approached by a young man after I had preached in a church service. With his Bible open he stated his objection to me being in the pulpit, “usurping the place of the pastor.” I just kindly assured him that I had been invited by the pastor and was not taking his place.

   I was once the keynote speaker at a Baptist state evangelism meeting. The presiding pastor introduced me to the crowd that included many women by saying, “Brethren, my Bible says ‘Let the women keep silent in church. If they have questions, let them ask their husbands.’ Our next speaker is Carolyn Weatherford.” I stood and went to the podium, looked at him and said, “Brother, my Bible says the same thing, but I don’t have a husband!” The congregation laughed and applauded, and I preached!

   On another occasion at a Baptist state convention where I was the final speaker, the state executive whispered to me, “Carolyn, I hate to tell you this, but a lot of folks don’t like it that I’ve invited you to speak to the Convention.” I assured him that I understood. The speaker/preacher before me read from Matthew 28:1, “After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.” His entire message focused on “those foolish women” who only went to look at the tomb. When my time came I referred to the rest of the chapter and told how Jesus spoke first to the women, that they were among the first witnesses to the Resurrection and were alone among the followers of Jesus at the tomb early that morning.

  It is difficult to say which actions I took in Southern Baptist life brought the greatest negative response. Perhaps it was when the Pope visited the United States and I, along with one other SBC leader as well as many other leaders of various denominations, was invited to meet with him in South Carolina. I accepted the invitation while the other Southern Baptist leader who was invited was forbidden by his board to accept the invitation. Among the letters written and public statements made against me was one from a pastor who said, “What does she think she can do, convert him? There are a lot of men who could do a better job of that.”

   Ironically, I discovered that women throughout the world were performing pastoral duties of preaching, baptizing, and otherwise leading churches. I discovered both women missionaries and national Christian women serving in my travels to visit missionaries throughout America and in almost 100 countries. I heard lots of women preaching, everywhere except in Southern Baptist churches in America.

   In 1989, I received invitations from two very important men in my life. The first was from Joe Crumpler who asked me to be his wife. The second was from Daniel Vestal who asked me to run for the position of First Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention. I said “yes” to both invitations, and my life took a new turn in both roles. But those stories will have to wait for another telling.