On the Right of Females to Vote in the Election of Ministers and Elders

by Thomas M’Crie (the elder), 1772-1835


Original Editorial Note, 1841, by his son Thomas M’Crie (the younger):

[The following remarks on this subject occur in a letter written by our author in January 1822, to one of his brethren who consulted him on the occasion of a dissension in his congregation, arising from some females insisting on their right of voting; and they are added here from their having some connection with the subject of the foregoing pamphlet, as well as from the interest which the subject is exciting at this present time. – Ed.]


Everything which relates to rights, real or supposed, is calculated to excite a lively feeling of interest, and the passions eagerly enlist on the rumour of the least invasion of them. The feeling is peculiarly strong against encroachments alleged to be made in societies founded for the express purpose of vindicating injured rights, and asserting Christian privileges and liberty. And perhaps it is the more intense, when felt by those who are conscious of being placed, in other respects, in circumstances of inferiority and restraint, against which they dare not (if they were disposed) to complain.

In such cases, persons think they do well to be angry, and that they might expostulate even with a higher than man, in language somewhat similar to that of the grieved patriarch,—”Joseph is not, Simeon is not; and will ye take away Benjamin also!” Amidst the apathy prevailing in the land about religious rights, and the tameness with which the privilege of popular election has been surrendered by the great body of our countrymen, is there not a respect due to those who discover a different spirit, even when they may be wrong as to the particular instance in which they complain of being denuded of their rights, and when their jealousy may be unreasonable or extravagant?

It will easily occur to you, that the plea on the present occasion is plausible; and to those who have lived in societies in which it was recognised, and uniformly acted upon, I may say that it will appear to be a plea both incontrovertible and irresistible. You and your people who are of an opposite opinion, have only to conceive yourselves in their situation, and I have no doubt you will feel disposed to act towards them in that spirit of lenity and allowance to which their feelings are entitled. But I am taking up your time in telling what you already know very well—which is easier than to tell you what you want to know.

When the question respecting the female right of vote was started at the meeting of the joint-committee, I recollect of saying that, although my opinion was opposed to the claim, yet, if all other points of union were agreeably adjusted, I for one would have no objection to provision being made that females should be allowed to vote for office-bearers, in those congregations where they had hitherto enjoyed this privilege; and that if sent to moderate in any such congregation, I would not scruple to intimate that all the members were allowed to hold up their hands for or against the candidates.

Nor can I say that I have yet seen any reason for altering that opinion. But I consider that there is a wide difference between the case of a congregation or society in which the right had been recognised, at least tacitly and by practice, and the case of another congregation or society which had never recognised it, but had uniformly acted on a different principle. In the latter case, I would think it my duty to continue the common practice, not only because it had been the custom, but also because I looked on it as well-founded. And if any individuals should complain that they were denied their rights, I would say to them, “You are not denied any rights which were ever recognised in the body of which you are members; and provided you think that the right of election is too much circumscribed by its laws or usages, the least thing that is incumbent on you is, to wait until you can obtain a rectification of the supposed evil in a regular way, and, in the meantime, to show me and those whose province it is to authorise the alteration, that our present practice and mode of management is faulty and unscriptural.”

Provided such an address were in any degree effectual, and your complainants were disposed coolly to listen to it (which I think they ought to do), in that case there might be a propriety in your waving the merits of the question, in conversations with them, at least for a season, until any heat which may have been produced has evaporated. But I am much afraid this may be found impracticable, and that it will be necessary for you to examine the grounds of the claim, and bring forward the reasons for resisting it. There are some persons who are incapable of estimating forbearance, and if you decline engaging in argument with them, they straightway conclude you have nothing to say for yourself, and that your opinions are groundless, and your conduct indefensible. It is well if they do not conclude at once that you are conscious of this being the fact.

It will be felt as one difficulty on this subject, that you cannot assign the grounds of your procedure, in reference to the real merits of the question, without bringing forward topics which must be ungrateful to the ears and feelings of those who are already offended. How, for example, would they feel at hearing the translation of the following extract from a foreign writer, who has adverted to the subject, which he introduces thus:—”Quaest. An et quomodo Foeminae constituent ecclesiam visibilem et institutam? Resp. Diminute, et cum quadam limitatione.” Nor would they probably relish much better the conclusion to which that writer comes. After granting that they constitute the invisible Church equally as men, and also the visible Church in respect of common confederation, and all the common privileges and exercises of religion, public or private, so that in respect of grace, and all the means of grace, “there is neither male nor female, but all one in Christ;” he comes to say, “Sed quod ad statum et integritatem ecclesiae organicam, non ita constituunt eam Foeminae ut penes illas sit potestas regiminis et jurisdictionis, quod ad executionem sive communem per suffragia et publicas sententiarum collationes, Acts 14:23; 2 Cor 8:19; et 1 Cor 5:4; sive per scrutinium, sive per {GK}, sive per vocalem et externam acclamationem: sive specialem, quae solis ministris, et Presbyterio competit, non populo ecclesiastico.” (Voetii Politica Ecclesiast., vol. i. p. 32.)

This author, as you will see, regards the calling or electing of church-officers as a part of ecclesiastical jurisdiction, which he distinguishes by the name of common; others, however, view the matter in a different light, although it is probable the difference lies chiefly in words. In choosing office-bearers, the people seem necessarily to exercise a species of power, and their call seems, in so far, to have an authority over the individuals who are its objects, and to constitute in part what goes in ordinary cases to determine the call of God. The whole appointment denominated in our older standard books, election, vocatio ministrorum, is, you know, a general term used by divines; and I believe it is generally allowed that the choice and call of the people, in certain extraordinary cases, forms a valid and sufficient warrant for exercising the pastoral office.

In my opinion, and so far as I have attended to the subject, the exclusion of women from an explicit choice or formal vote (for their consent or dissent must always be supposed, and there are many ways in which it may be ascertained or declared) rests on the apostolical prohibition, 1 Cor 14:34-35; 1 Tim 2:11-12; taken in connection with the grounds and reasons of it, which are laid down in these places, and in 1 Cor 11:3-16. It is true that the apostle does not speak directly of voting, and that public teaching is something different from it, but I think the considerations which he adduces are applicable to both.

I need not go over the particulars; you will easily perceive, by looking at them, how they strike me, at least, as applicable, whether my application of them be just or not. I may be wrong, but I confess 1 Cor 11:3-16 appears to me to suggest ideas which it would be difficult to reconcile with women’s taking an active part in the public management of ecclesiastical affairs, giving their voices, and influencing the determinations of the society, equally with the men, including their own husbands—and, indeed, in most instances taking the determination into their own hands; for, I suppose, in all our congregations, and even in all Dissenting congregations (with perhaps a few exceptions), they form the decided majority in respect of numbers. How does this accord with their being under obedience, as saith the law—asking their husbands at home—not usurping authority over the man—remembering that the woman was deceived—that the head of the woman is the man, even as the head of every man is Christ—that she is the glory or image of the man, and that even nature itself teaches that she should have her head veiled, in token of modesty, and in point of decorum, in the public assemblies of the Church?

The exclusion of women from teaching or exercising authority in the Church, does not solely rest on apostolical prohibition,—the practice was an irregularity before he prohibited it, and he assigned reasons for the restraint, and reasons founded on nature. It is generally allowed that when he refers to “nature itself,” he means to include custom, which is in many cases the best expounder of those principles and feelings which are natural to man, and recognised by those who are unenlightened by divine revelation; and by the manner in which he appeals to it, the apostle teaches us that there is a regard due to such dictates even in what relates to the Church; as we are taught by several places of the New Testament, that, from inadvertence or from other causes, Christians and Christian Churches may fall into opinions and practices, which those who had only nature’s dim lamp to guide them avoided.

Now, among all nations (unless any would name the Amazons), and even among those who carried the principles of liberty to the greatest extent, both ancient and modern, women have been excluded, or rather have excluded themselves, from taking part in public managements, and particularly in voting for public officers and functionaries. Did the part which women took, or rather were instigated to take, during the heat of the Revolution in France, or more lately among the radicals in England and Scotland, contribute either to the honour of the female character, or the credit of the cause in which they embarked? Is there not a danger of a similar evil from their interference in ecclesiastical elections, and of the cause of popular election suffering odium and being exposed to disrepute, although no great disturbance or excess should take place among us?

The silence of Scripture, and of ecclesiastical history, respecting the exercise of any such right in primitive times, is, in my opinion, of considerable weight. The author quoted above says,—”Ut mulier vocet aut eligat verbi ministros, etc., nec verbum Dei, nec ordo reformatarum ecclesiarum permittit.” Another writer now before me expressly states, that women were not allowed to vote in Holland, even in those parishes where election was most popular and free. It is stated in the disputes between the Orthodox and Arminians, in that country, previous to their coming to an open breach, that the Arminians, with the view of getting ministers planted who were of their views, had recourse to the unprecedented practice of procuring the subscriptions and votes of women.

Even among the sober part of the Independents, Brownists, and Anabaptists in the 17th century, women were not admitted to vote; as you may see stated in “Gillespie’s Misc. Questions,” p. 24. Dr. Owen, when speaking on this subject, very frequently, and evidently in the way of restriction, employs the word “fraternity.” It will not be pleaded, I suppose, that it was a practice for women to vote in the best times of the Church of Scotland. And I am satisfied it was not the practice in the Secession at the beginning. I thought I could refer you to a passage decisive of this in “Wilson’s Defence,” but on turning to the book, I cannot find it at present; it seems, however, to be implied in the expression of “calling every one of the congregation, man by man,” which occurs p. 313 of my edition.

The fact, however, may be considered as authenticated sufficiently by another publication of that period, referred to by Mr. Wilson with approbation, from which I shall copy an extract, as you may not have the book. “They say, that Mr. Erskine and his adherents have not to this day come to any agreement about it, viz., about who shall be the electors. But if, by his adherents, they mean such as stand up for the people’s right, then this is refused: for we and these reverend brethren are all of the same mind with the English Dissenters, who declared in that known Syncretism or Agreement, which they, to wit, the Presbyterians and Independents, entered into in 1690, where they give the right of election to the brotherhood of that particular church over which the candidate is to be set; or, which is the same, we are of the mind that this is the right of such men in the congregation as in the judgment of charity are meet for a communion-table.” (The Search, p. 220.) This book was written by Mr. Currie in 1734, and before he had any thought of writing against the Seceders.

I am sensible that several of the topics to which I have alluded, even if you should approve them, are not of that kind which would be likely to make an impression on your complainants; but at your request I have put down what occurred to me.



Taken from:

Miscellaneous writings, Chiefly Historical, 1841, 688 pages