International Women’s Day: Thank you, Dr. B.J. Seymour

In case you did not know, March 8 of each year is designated as International Women’s Day. The purpose is not to denigrate men but to honor women and promote gender equality. As the website says,

International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Significant activity is witnessed worldwide as groups come together to celebrate women’s achievements or rally for women’s equality.

About page

Studies have shown countries that do best on women’s rights and equality do best on human rights. It seems a good thing for me to do for IWD is to honor a woman who had a profound impact on my life. Of course, there are several I could name. Since I dedicated my book Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain to Dr. Betty Jean “B.J.” Seymour, my favorite professor in college, this is my International Women’s Day tribute.

Book on display with candle behind
My book, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain

Trailblazer

Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, is a small college with a long history. When I attended, there were just a few more than 1,000 students, and it was about 60% male, 40% female (I didn’t like those odds). It used to be men’s only college, but it went co-ed in 1971. In the same year, Dr. Seymour became the first female faculty member as a professor of religion. She is still known for that and a few more firsts: First female professor to receive tenure, first female department head (Religious Studies), and first female to attain the rank of full professor. Needless to say, she played a significant role not only for the Religion department, but for paving the way for full inclusion of women as students and faculty.

Dr. Betty Jean "B. J." Seymour, at her office in Randolph-Macon College, 1973

Women at R-MC :: Randolph-Macon College

She was also an ordained Baptist minister at a time when most denominations (including Baptists) forbade ordaining women to pastoral ministry. How could that be? The Baptist church was more of a congregationalist church than, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Even though there was a national governing body that made rules technically for everyone, in practice each congregation mostly governed itself. She found a congregation that was open to ordaining her, even though she was a woman.

In my sophomore year, I took two courses from her: Survey of the Old Testament, and Survey of the New Testament. It wasn’t like studying the Bible in Sunday School, and not like the Word of Faith preachers I listened to. At that time, I started getting disillusioned with the Word of Faith. It wasn’t working the way those preachers said it would, but I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I still thought it wasn’t working because I needed to get “more faith.” By the end of the year, I changed my major to Religious Studies. Not the best financial decision I ever made.

Revelation

But I learned things from her that neither my church nor my favorite televangelists taught. She taught us the historical background behind the Bible, which changed the way I read it. It’s called reading in context, by the way. That whole thing about man being made in God’s image, and woman was made to serve man, or the Bible forbids women from serving in ministry, she totally debunked—get this—by using the Bible. I was like, “The Bible says God made man in his image, and then made woman to serve him. The Bible says women should keep silent in church for they are not permitted to speak. Show me in the Bible how that’s wrong.”

And it was like she opened up the Bible and said, “Here. Here. Here. Here. Shall I go on?”

And I was like, “Damn, we were wrong!”

If she couldn’t have shown me from the Bible, I never would have listened to her. But she did, so I did. If we were wrong about that, could we have been wrong about other things?

I know some of you are terrified of going there, but if your standard is to do what the Bible says, and what we’ve been taught about the Bible is wrong, don’t we need to know that? She gave me the tools to discover what the Bible meant in its original languages and its original context, something neither church nor my televangelists did. “Just read the Bible and do what it says.” If that is how you approach the Bible, I guarantee you are reading it out of context, just like I was. I had heard people say you have to read the Bible in context to understand it, but she was the first person, along with the college chaplain, to teach me how to do just that.

Faithful doubt

My church did not talk about doubt much. The Word of Faith preachers taught doubt was something to crush with the Word of God and faith. But Dr. Seymour pointed out places in the Bible where the authors openly expressed doubt. Some of the Psalms address that doubt directly to God. Job had no problem telling God what was wrong with the way God ran the universe. And God included all that in the Bible. This is going to sound funny, but learning to accept doubt was crucial to saving my faith.

And I learned from her that critical thinking is not the enemy of faith. John Wesley had a slogan, “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.” Dr. Seymour embodied both those disjoined qualities. Without her example as a woman of faith who refused to compromise her honesty and integrity for any God or religious doctrine, I don’t think I would have any faith to speak of today. By dedicating my book to her, and writing this tribute, I wanted to do what I could to keep that legacy she passed on to me alive.

And I’m happy to say her legacy does live on at my alma mater with the B.J. Seymour Award, which is given each year to “an alumna of Randolph-Macon College who has consistently worked on behalf of issues important to women and/ or girls, and who demonstrates vitality, integrity and leadership.”

Dedication

When I got my book ready to publish, and I decided to dedicate it to Dr. Seymour, I knew she had died in 2010, but I did not know when she was born. Through the site Legacy.com, I was able to find her obituary. It gave the date of her baptism, but not her birth date. And since she was a Baptist, her baptism probably was not even the same year she was born. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard of an obituary that did not include the person’s birth date, or even the year of her birth. The obit listed the name and address of the executor of her estate. I called and explained my situation. They told me they knew her birth date. She had to tell them for legal purposes. But she did not want it to be made public. So only a select few know the year she was born. That was why it was not published in the obit. The year of her birth is not even on her headstone.

Most women don’t like to tell their age, but I had never heard of any other woman going to these lengths to hide it. It had been about twenty-five years since I last saw her, and she was still full of surprises. They told me they could tell me if I really needed to know. My first impulse was to say, “Yeah, of course I want to know.” My next impulse was to say, “Shame on you for offering to go against her last wishes.”

So I told them not to tell me, and I would figure out how to work with it. The dedication reads

To Dr. B.J. Seymour, d. 2010

That was what The Chicago Manual of Style said to do in a situation like this. It does not include the year she was born, and even if I knew it, I would not tell you. Maybe in heaven, I will be able to ask her. Dr. B.J. Seymour is now among that great cloud of witnesses described in Hebrews 12:1, the faithful ones who have gone before me and on whose shoulders I stand. And so B.J., if you are listening, happy International Women’s Day.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,

 (Heb 12:1 NRS)

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