by Al Maxey

Issue #371 ------- October 28, 2008
There is in every true woman's heart a spark of
heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad
daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up and
beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.

Washington Irving {1783-1859}

Silena Moore Holman
A Courageous Sister-in-Christ


What is the place of a woman within society? Within the home? Within the church? May women ever assume positions of leadership outside the home (both secularly and spiritually)? Do they have any leadership function within the family? May they proclaim God's Truth to others in a public forum? May they teach a man? A group of men? The brotherhood periodicals are filled with voices of concern on the matter; debate fills the air; emotions are running high. The time? It is the late 1800's in Post-Civil War America. Yes, brethren, "Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before" [Eccl. 3:15]. There really is nothing new under the sun! In the late 1800's, far too many men in this nation had a rather low estimation of the worth of women. They were largely denied a voice and a vote in most of life's arenas, and the women who dared to speak out for greater rights for themselves were viewed quite unfavorably. They were seen as little more than godless rebels determined to destroy the sanctity of the home, the purity of the church, and even the stability of the nation as a whole.

There was a "vision of the ideal woman" that was rampant in our great nation during the 1800's that was known by the historians of that period as the "Cult of True Womanhood." It was also characterized by some historians as the "Cult of Domesticity." "This ideal permeated much of the women's magazines, the popular books, and the religious literature of the period" [C. Leonard Allen, Distant Voices: Discovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church, p. 130]. There were certain personal attributes of women that were considered to be quite desirable, the four most prominent of which were -- purity, piety, submissiveness and domesticity. "The ideal woman was passive, dependent, deferential and childlike" [ibid]. One woman, in the year 1870, phrased it this way, "God has so made the sexes that women, like children, cling to men; lean upon them as though they were superior in mind and body" [ibid].

Since the "ideal woman" was perceived to be very little more than a child, clearly inferior to her "man," it was unthinkable that she would have the mental capacity to possess rational thought in matters of national and religious import. Thus, women were denied the vote. And women were denied the right to "speak in church" when men were present. What man, after all, wants to be distracted from his "holy thoughts" by some woman's "mindless religious rantings and ramblings"?! This is an attitude, by the way, that persists even among some within the church today, sadly. David Lipscomb and E. G. Sewell, who were co-editors of the publication Gospel Advocate, both condemned, in the boldest language possible, those "strong-minded women" who had begun seeking the right to vote. Women seeking to vote, declared Sewell in the Gospel Advocate, would "break the 'bond of subjection' divinely laid upon them and assert their independence" [ibid, p. 131]. Giving women the right to vote, he went on to warn, would utterly "destroy the most sacred of all institutions and make America a homeless nation." Sewell was absolutely convinced that if a woman ever left the house to interact with the world about her, then home and family would be destroyed. Lipscomb went even farther, declaring that if women "entered the public sphere, loose marriage, easy divorce, indisposition to bear children, and ... attendant social impurity" would ensue [ibid]. And this was just their view regarding women in the secular realm. Their position was even more restrictive when it came to the spiritual realm. Thus, in essence, the "ideal woman" would keep her mouth shut and stay out of the way! "Barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen was where God intended her to be!"

In the midst of this maelstrom of misguided and muddled thinking there arose a few brave souls, both men and women, who dared to speak out against this great injustice and departure from God's Truth. One such courageous Christian lady was Silena Moore Holman (1850-1915), and before her life ended at the age of 65, she had taken on the religious and secular establishments and forced them to take a good, long look at themselves. And yet, she did so with a gentle, respectful spirit (something she was rarely shown in return). She is a true heroine of faith and a woman of conviction who should not soon be forgotten by the people of God today. She is an inspiration to those sickened by the excesses and injustices of society today, inspiring both men and women to take a stand for what is right, even when it is unpopular to do so.

Silena Moore was born July 9, 1850 in the state of Tennessee. She was the oldest of five children. Her father, J. L. Moore, was a Captain in the Confederate Army and was killed in combat. This left the family in near poverty. When the mother was forced to sell the family home, Silena, who was only fourteen at the time, chose to become a teacher in a nearby country school so as to help the family survive financially. Over the next few years, due to a lot of hard work and a very good head for finances, she saved some of her earnings and was eventually able to buy back the family's home. After a decade of being a school teacher, and at the age of 24, she married Dr. T. P. Holman, a local physician, to whom she had previously gone for treatment when ill. They would remain faithfully joined together in a covenant of marriage for the next 41 years, separated only by her death. At her funeral, the preacher referred to Dr. Holman in the text of the message, identifying him as "the husband who is today lonely and broken-hearted because of her departure." She was the mother of eight children by Dr. Holman -- seven sons and a daughter, all of whom (according to the text of the funeral sermon) were raised up in "the nurture and admonition of the Lord." She was a woman who took her faith in the Lord very seriously and never wavered from it, and was not afraid to share it with others (both male and female).

When Dr. T. P. Holman, Silena and the family moved to Fayetteville, Tennessee, where they would remain the rest of their lives, they placed their membership with the Washington Street Church of Christ (established in 1835), which today is the largest of some twenty congregations of the Churches of Christ in that city. Dr. Holman would go on to serve as one of the elders of that congregation for many years. Shortly after moving to Fayetteville, TN, Silena decided to join the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. This would become one of the major passions of her life, and her tremendous zeal for this movement soon came to the attention of its leaders, who began advancing her in the ranks of the organization. She became Tennessee's reporter for The Union Signal, the official publication of the national WCTU, and her writing skills increased dramatically through this experience. In 1899 she was appointed the Tennessee WCTU President. Through her efforts she was able, on January 19, 1909, to get Tennessee to pass a law mandating statewide prohibition. During her long tenure as state President, the Tennessee branch of the WCTU grew from only 200 members to over 4000. She was a powerful and inspiring leader.

Although the fame of Silena Moore Holman, in secular circles, was generated by her work as a leader of the temperance movement, her fame in spiritual circles was from a different source ... and it was not always of a very positive nature. She was a vocal advocate of equality for women in the Family of God. Her "voice" was heard far and wide via her writings! "In the Stone-Campbell Movement, her recognition came from published articles and letters in response to those in the church who wanted to keep women from positions of leadership" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 402]. Her work in this area began in 1888, when she responded to an article in the Gospel Advocate written by editor David Lipscomb. For the next quarter of a century Silena would tirelessly debate David Lipscomb within the pages of his own publication on the place of women in the church. Sister Holman believed Lipscomb's interpretations of some of Paul's passages pertaining to the "silence" of women in the church were misguided, and she presented some very scholarly arguments for her position.

Although Silena Moore Holman was an advocate for greater freedom of expression for women in the assembly, she was not a radical feminist. "Holman maintained the traditional view that the husband was the head of the family and that a woman's primary obligation is to her family" [ibid]. Although she was indeed very active in the temperance movement, it was attested by all who knew her that her family always came first, and she never neglected her husband, children or home. Like the "worthy woman" of Proverbs 31, she was able to balance the secular, the spiritual and the familial. "In her writings she lifted up biblical women who were placed in positions of power, not by humans but by God. She argued that there was no reason for anyone to believe that women's brains were inferior to men's and that any knowledgeable woman was free to teach women and men about the Bible and faith" [ibid]. She wrote over 100 articles, a good many of which were published in the Gospel Advocate. Although she treated Lipscomb, and others, with great respect in her own writings, they would often attack her without mercy. "In numerous articles, Holman developed her views with considerable skill and verve. She dealt extensively with biblical passages, and often affirmed her commitment to biblical authority. Lipscomb's responses were usually sharp, sometimes patronizing, and occasionally marked by exasperation. Her responses to him -- and to other male critics -- were firm, carefully reasoned, and respectful" [Distant Voices, p. 129].


The position of Silena Moore Holman, and others like her, came to be referred to in the late 1800's as the "new woman" model for the church. "Proponents of the 'new woman' supported women's suffrage, involvement in reform organizations (e.g., WCTU), better education for women, and more leadership positions held by women in the churches" [The Encyclopedia of the Stone-Campbell Movement, p. 402]. "The proponents of the 'new woman' accepted neither the passivity of the 'true woman' nor the militancy of the emerging 'women's rights' movement. They stressed loyalty to home and family and did not reject male headship. They did not promote a feminist rejection of the domestic sphere, but rather believed that more opportunities for women would make for better wives and mothers" [Distant Voices, p. 132]. David Lipscomb strongly attacked this "new woman" concept, to which Silena replied within the pages of the Gospel Advocate, "The days of the 'clinging vine woman' are gone forever. In her place a husband will find walking by his side the bright, wide-awake companion, ... a helpmeet in the best possible sense of the term" [ibid]. The "new woman," she wrote, is well-educated, and her education "has not impaired her feminine grace or lovable qualities in the slightest degree. ... When the 'new woman' ... comes into her kingdom, wide-awake, alert, thoughtful, and up to date, she will not depreciate, but ... magnify and glorify the profession of motherhood" [ibid]. David Lipscomb was never convinced, however, and he even once lamented, "It gives a body the blues to read Sister Holman's articles" [ibid, p. 133].

"In 1913, two years before her death, Silena was still addressing 'The Woman Question' in the Gospel Advocate, still arguing for a woman's right to teach publicly before 'mixed audiences.' 'Men may change with the changing conditions of modern life,' she wrote, 'but when women find themselves trying to keep step with their fathers, brothers, and husbands in the new order of things, the brethren stand in front of them with a drawn sword and demand a halt, because, they say, the Bible forbids, when it does nothing of the kind'" [ibid]. NOTE: For those readers who would like to read several of the more important articles written by Silena Moore Holman, and which appeared in the Gospel Advocate over the years, they may be found online at I think you will find these to be fascinating reading.

Sister Silena Moore Holman passed from this life on September 18, 1915 in Fayetteville, TN. Her cause of death was due to complications from an appendectomy. Just three weeks before her death, as she sat visiting with the well-known and highly respected evangelist T. B. Larimore, and as if she knew what was to come in some special way, she requested of him that he perform her funeral [Reflections #352: Theophilus Brown Larimore -- A Champion of Unity and Harmony within the Stone-Campbell Movement]. Her reason for this very special request? -- "I want no man to apologize for my work, and I know that he will never do that." Brother T. B. Larimore, within the text of his funeral sermon (which may be read at the above mentioned web site), stated, "It is difficult for me to understand my own emotions upon this solemn and important occasion. We are here to perform a sad service. Our Savior, in Mark 14:6-8, said to His disciples of the woman who loved Him and showed it by her services to Him: 'She hath wrought a good work ... She hath done what she could.' That is the sum and substance of all I may with propriety say today." He concluded, "In her death, her family, her friends, her co-workers, the church of Christ, and the brotherhood of man have sustained a great loss. 'She hath wrought a good work. She hath done what she could.'" It is reported that close to 2000 people showed up for her funeral, paying tribute to the life of this great servant of the Lord and her fellowman. She was buried in the Holman family plot in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Fayetteville, Tennessee. A mere two years following her death, the WCTU commissioned a painting of Silena Moore Holman, which was then placed in the Tennessee State Capitol. This was an honor that has been granted to only one other woman in the history of the state of Tennessee. Thank God for women like Silena Moore Holman. May God raise up many more like her!!