Perhaps the most famous opening sentence of a novel is Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” But a close second is Austen’s in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
My latest novel The Good That We Would begins: “The Reverend Dr. Horace Bonewald, B.A., M.A., Th.D., D.D. stood in front of a full-length mirror affixed to the backside of the bathroom door.” Okay, it’s not Dickens or Austen. Here, the reader soon learns that Bonewald is about to have a conversation with a promising young pastor who has no future until he gets a wife.
Prior to the 1970s, this was a big deal. Conventional wisdom had it that a pastor in search of a parish must not be in want of a wife, but have at his side a wife. And not just any wife. The ideal pastor’s wife played the piano or organ, conducted choir practice, led the Sunday school as the superintendent, taught Sunday School for children or adults, led Bible studies that explored subjects as far-ranging as sanctification and the premillennial return of Jesus Christ, led the Women’s Missionary Prayer Fellowship, organized the Ladies Aid Society, planned funeral dinners, raised model, compliant children in the parsonage, did the grocery shopping (with the pittance of an allowance her husband gave her), had supper ready, and helped the children with their homework and the pastor with his sermons. And she did all of this in a nice print dress with a floral pattern, wearing high heels and white gloves—but was not adorned by jewelry or lipstick. And she had to be ready for sex at the drop of the Bible.
Of course, things are different now. The parsonage, or manse, has all but disappeared. The pastor’s wife may very well be the pastor’s husband. According to a recent study The State of Clergywomen in the U.S.: A Statistical Update conducted by Eileen R. Campbell-Reed, Visiting Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Care at Union Theological Seminary in New York, 50 years ago “there were virtually no women leading congregations as pastors in America except in a few Pentecostal and a handful of mainline churches.”
Today, a female minister is not unusual, especially in the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist denominations where women almost outnumber male pastors. In the broader denominational picture, “women now make up 32 percent of total clergy.”
The spouse of a pastor is no longer expected necessarily to play an important role in the life of the congregation. Most spouses today, male or female, work outside of a home that they own. They might be bankers, accountants, professors, beauticians, mechanics or teachers. But they do not see themselves as having a special role as the spouse of the pastor.
The social norm of the pastor who has a “partner in ministry” who also lives in a parsonage and sleeps in the same bedroom has all but vanished from the American ecclesiastical landscape.
But the ideal was very much alive in the 1950s.
The pastor was a male, and if he wanted to go places, he had to have a wife, and a good one. She couldn’t be a gossip and she had to have good people skills in addition to the toolset described above. Church boards knew they were not only hiring the pastor but his wife. And if she had the looks of Gina Lollobrigida, the parenting skills of June Cleaver, the voice of Lily Pons and the spirituality of Amy Carmichael, she was a lock and her husband was hired.
The “promising young pastor” of my novel mentioned above is the Rev. Archibald Woodrow Cushing. Fortunately, in the small town of Bathington, Iowa, there is no shortage of women volunteering for the open position of “pastor’s wife.” But Cushing has a problem which dates back to his pre-conversion past when he studied in London. His “problem” there was the spirited Evanelle Graham, and she is a complication which leads to other complications in his present situation in Bathington, and that complication’s name is Samantha Stone.
After Cushing’s search for a suitable candidate comes to a conclusion, he insists that she attend a seminar for pastor’s wives. To that end, he and his candidate head to Los Angeles where not one, but three, perhaps four, “Mrs. Cushing’s” show up, and it’s a humiliating disaster for the reverend.
In the end, Cushing gets his wife, but not — well, I will not give it away.
The importance of the pastor’s wife in these bygone years cannot be overstated. I know from first-hand experience. My mother was a pastor’s wife. And she did indeed run the Women’s Missionary Prayer Fellowship, teach Sunday school, lead Bible studies and play the piano. She didn’t have the voice of Lily Pons, but she sang a good alto, and had a regular spot in a women’s trio that sang on most Sunday mornings. Her firstborn — me — was not the compliant child that she hoped for (although she loved me dearly) and more than once I was reminded that I needed to be an example for the other children.
Her skill as a pastor’s wife was part of my father’s success. She supported him earnestly and certainly worked as hard as he did, and managed the household in addition to all of her other responsibilities. She got the Monday laundry done, and administered Saturday night baths to the children. God gave her a good, long life. She died in 2019 at the age of 101.
So, Rev. Cushing back in 1952 needed a wife and didn’t have one. This is where The Good That We Would begins and you can find it as an ebook on Amazon (search Timothy Merrill and scroll down a little). If you want to order the paperback, go to the bookstore at Lulu.com.