Laura VANCE. Women in New Religions. New York: New York University Press, 2015. pp. 160. $17.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-4798-1602-6. Reviewed by Shannon SCHREIN, Lourdes University. Sylvania, OH 43560
Laura Vance’s Women in New Religions is the second volume in the Women in Religion series edited by Catherine Wessinger. This text offers and examination of two very important and often neglected concerns, the first is the development of new religions and the second is women’s influence on their progress and expansion. Vance highlights the central role that religion and gender play in the development of culture and society. New religions, according to Vance, provide a key opportunity to explore the “processes of religious emergence,” To that end, Vance considers four new religions in the United States: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called Mormonism, Seventh-Day Adventism, Family International and Wicca. Focus is placed on women’s place in the birth and development of new religions.
Vance begins with a close examination of the foundation and historical evolution of the Church of Latter Day Saints. As with each new religion considered, she reviews the traditions in light of the contributions of women and their influence on its development. She notes that in the case of Mormonism, women have consistently held a lesser role to their male counterparts. This is evident in the practice of polygamy and in the refusal to ordain women in the church. The values of home and family predominate where women are concerned. While polygamy has been abandoned by the church, there has been little change in the role of women. They are relegated to the Women’s Relief Organization and refused admittance in the General Conference of Priesthood. Church leadership remains firmly rooted in the hands of Mormon men.
Unlike Mormonism, the Seventh-day Adventist tradition was initiated by a woman, Ellen Harmon White. Vance notes that initially this helped in establishing a gender inclusive approach to the faith. Though patriarchy is not as strong in the tradition it eventually establishes itself in the everyday practice.
Vance’s examination of The Family International exposes a “religious perversion” that while initially focused on family and loving support ultimately became abusive and exploitative especially of women and children. Its more contemporary expression, she notes, demonstrates signs of reform especially as it relates to sexual exploitation.
Finally, a look at the Wiccan tradition, which is a neo-pagan movement, presents a religious orientation that is bio-gendered, that is, offering reverence toward both goddess and god. Women and men are active participants in the practices, noting that feminist spirituality appears to take precedence in worship.
The value of this study is evident in the ability to examine religious traditions in their nativity and to note the influences that appear in ritual expression and teachings. Vance concludes that there is in fact a more gender inclusive ideology expressed in new religions, which is hopeful. This text also provides a well written history of practice and belief for each of the four religions that are considered. Vance provides a list of discussion questions that could be helpful in the undergraduate classroom or in small group study. This is an important volume in the series on Women in Religion. It is both engaging and insightful and offers critical information about new religions and the role and influence women have had in their development.