03 Apr

Elizabeth Reis, “Immortal Messengers: Angels, Gender, and Power in Early America” (2003)

“Immortal Messengers” examines how American Christians have seen visions of angels and written about angels, and how these visions were authorized (or not) through gender. Puritans had visions of angels. Cotton Mather wrote about his visions as signs from God and argued that angels guided his hand in writing. Mather, however, warned women to ignore the angels who came to them. Angelic visitations bordered on revelations from God. Authorizing women’s visions would authorize their religious authority and ability to commune with God. Mather told women the angels they saw were devils. By the early 1700s, colonial Americans saw visions of angels before their deaths or on their deathbeds. They worked as signs and confirmations of one’s salvation. Shakers had visions of angels as conformation of Mother Ann Lee’s authority. Most of these visions were of male angels. Angelic visions became more popular in the 1800s. Ministers wrote about angels and Americans republished Swedenborg’s writings about angels. Spiritualism focused on angels as loved ones in heaven. Reis suggests that during the 1800s angels in writing were mostly men, while angels in images were female. By the 1850s female angels appeared on greeting cards, stereocards, and in ladies’ magazines. Reis argues that “Angels had become metaphors for feminine sensibility, and the angels themselves were by now primarily female….The feminization of angles was a piecemeal process, and by no means completely consistent, through it had developed in unison with a kinder and gentler religious sensibility” (175).

Thoughts

  • Were angels only metaphors by the 1850s?
  • How did angels work in 19th century evangelicalism?
  • What did (or did not) angels authorize in the 1800s?
  • What more can we say about angels, religion, and gender?

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