The Cherokee Female Seminary
In 1851 the Cherokees at Park Hill began a seminary for women, with rigorous curriculum, patterned after that of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. The seminary offered no instruction in Cherokee language or culture, but was open only to full- and mixed-blood Cherokee girls. The school was in operation until 1909 and approximately 3,000 girls attended. These women and their educational experiences greatly influenced the Cherokee Nation and the lives of their descendants. Students at the Cherokee Female Seminary took courses in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, political economy, literary criticism, theology, philosophy and other advanced academic courses. Pupils staged dramatic productions, held music recitals and published their own newsletter. The seminary building was eventually destroyed by fire, but three original columns from the building mark the entrance into the modern Cherokee Heritage Center.
The first woman to receive her Ph.D. in the United States of America, Miss Sarah Worcester, was a descendent of the founder of the Cherokee Female Seminary. Wilma Mankiller, the female Chief of the Cherokee Nation in the 1980's said this about the Cherokee Female Seminary . . .
"The Cherokee Female Seminary was among the first educational systems built west of the Mississippi - Indian or non-Indian. In fact, for a period of time during the mid-nineteenth century, the Cherokee population was more literate than the neighboring non-Indian population”
The Cherokees were so successful in educating Cherokee women through the Cherokee Female Seminary that some of the more traditional Cherokee men began to complain that the women were no longer suited for domestic chores. Eventually, the traditionalists were overruled and the Cherokee Female Seminary was folded into the Cherokee Men's Seminary which had been established in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and the combined schools became what we know today as Northeastern State University, one of oldest institutions of higher learning west of the Mississippi, and still the university with the highest concentration of Indian students in the United States.
Highly educated and theologically minded women in the United States is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is interesting to compare the manner in which Southern Baptist women are treated in one of our seminaries today versus the vigorous rigors of academic training of Cherokee Indian women in 1851. Paul Littleton directed my attention to the following recent testimonial of a Southwestern Seminary student's wife.
“We have been out of Southwestern Seminary for a little over two years now. While we were there we saw many good things happen and met many good people. One of the things that I attempted while we were their, was to be a part of their Seminary Wives “club”. I was immediately turned off when I sat on the first night of the meetings and heard all that would happen in the upcoming semester. First, Dorothy Patterson wanted us seminary wives to pay and enroll as students in order to come to these meetings. Why you ask??? Because the more “students” that are enrolled, the better they (SWBTS) look to the Southern Baptist Convention. So here we all sat in this large room listening to Mrs. Patterson talk about how expensive it was to turn on lights in a building and how we should all be ashamed of ourselves if we decided to “audit” this “class” and not register for it because THAT wouldn’t help this seminary. The meeting went on to talk about topics that would be discussed over the next semester. They ranged from 'Taking Care of Your Home,' to 'Taking Care of Your Husband.' Both could be valuable things to hear someone speak on. Except 'Taking Care of Your Home' was about making your house perfect “looking” and being able to pour tea correctly, and 'Taking Care of Your Husband' was about ironing his handkerchief and packing his suit case correctly. Needless to say I was shocked.
In a day when some Southern Baptists seem to believe it is wrong to educate women in the classics, the languages, or Biblical theology - not to mention to employ women in teaching these subjects - it might be well for us all to remember the example of those evangelical, conservative Christian Indians who have gone before us.
No doubt there will be opposition by some when there they see an increasing number of theologically minded women in the Southern Baptist Convention or female Hebrew, Greek and theology professors given positions at Southern Baptist seminaries. A few might even wish to destroy the ministerial reputatation and careers of those Southern Baptists who affirm women in the highest of academic roles within the SBC. But, the negative reaction of some should never negate the positive results of what is accomplished through an intellectual and theologically minded populace of Southern Baptist females.
Davy Crockett was severely persecuted for standing up for the Cherokee people before Congress in the 1830's at Washington, D.C. Crockett's own political career was destroyed because he supported the Cherokees when everyone else wanted them out of sight and out of mind. Davy Crockett left Washington D. C. and eventually made his way west to Texas where he became a frontier hero and died at the Alamo. But before Crockett left the nation's capital he made a statement regarding his strong stand for the oppressed Cherokee Indians - a statement that is as appropriate today regarding women in Southern Baptist academia as it was in Crockett's day regarding the Cherokee people:
"I would sooner be honestly damned than hypocritically immortalized"
This Sooner couldn't agree more.
In His Grace,