What are your experiences with gender-neutral pronouns? Are you a big advocate for them, and why? Do you question the discussions about them? To be honest, I have been in the disinterested camp until recently. My interest changed recently. Let me tell you about it.
I read Stephen E. Ambrose’s book Upton and the Army. Emory Upton, who became a Union general in the Civil War, is the subject of the book. He was born near Batavia, New York in 1839. Several religious movements sweep through the northwestern region of the state in the early 19th century. Two people of the leaders of one movement, Mother Ann Lee and Jemima Wilkerson, founded “Universal Friend” communities (p. 4). Wilkerson (1752-1819) was a preacher in the Quaker/Friends tradition, but eventually was disowned by the Society of Friends. Jemima rejected gendered pronouns after claiming to have died and reanimated to life as a genderless evangelist named Public Universal Friend or simply Friend. She claimed to be neither male nor female though masculine pronouns were used to refer to him.
More recently, I read about the gospel song What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Joseph M. Scriven immigrated from Ireland to Canada in the 1840s. He authored a poem “Pray without Ceasing” in 1855 to comfort his mother who lived in Ireland. Charles C. Converse, an American attorney and accomplished composer, wrote the tune for the lyrics in 1868 and renamed them with the well-known title.
What does this gospel song have to do with gender-neutral pronouns? Nothing. Charles Converse, however, does. He proposed ‘thon’ as a gender-neutral third-person pronoun in an article in 1884. Thon is a contraction of ‘that one.’ He listed three criteria for a gender-neutral pronoun. It communicates our thoughts, communicates them accurately, and communicates “with dispatch,” quickly and efficiently. Editors included thon in textbooks and dictionaries at various times since Converse introduced it.
Efforts to find acceptable gender-neutral pronouns are not new. Samuel Taylor Coleridge suggested ‘it’ in 1808. The singular ‘they’ goes back to the 14th century. Merriam-Webster declared singular ‘they’ the Word of the Year in December 2019. The American Dialect Society called it the Word of the Decade.
I learned three things from my research. First, I am biased against certain kinds of change, in spite of a rebellious streak. Second, efforts to find gender-neutral pronouns are not a new kid on the block, but they are much more popular to combat sexism and show respect to members of the LGBQT+ population. The new popularity may lead to the discovery of pronouns that take hold in our culture. The third lesson learned is that people connected to the Bible and Christianity have been in pursuit of such pronouns. One reason for this is the original equality of male and female in Genesis 1:26 and 27: “So God created man in his own image…male and female he created them.” After sin entered human hearts, the equality suffered corruption. How can this corruption be eradicated?
Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection begin God’s restoration of creation equality without denying biological and physiological differences. The ultimate restoration awaits the new heaven and new earth wherein righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13). Jesus affirmed equality in various ways. An important one is his invitation, “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my words and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned …” (John 5:24). He demonstrated respect and love for children, men and women, and saints and sinners. Everyone needs love and respect. They are important goals of our pronoun debates.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:26-28). Paul used a Greek masculine noun translated ‘sons’ that includes females. N.T Wright translates it ‘children.’ Paul gave the clear affirmation of God’s equality in salvation for males and females. Both receive and enjoy equal status as heirs in Christ Jesus: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).
Contemporary debates about gender-neutral pronouns strive to uphold or obtain equality and avoid sexism. People enter the debates opinions based on the Biblical view of humankind, a portion of it, or without regard for it. I see these three viewpoints in the literature and media motivating calls for respecting individual choices for pronouns or resisting agreement with such calls. I’m still learning. Please let me know what you are learning in the gender-neutral pronouns debates.
 Jemima Wilkerson. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jemima-Wilkerson. Accessed 01/31/2023. The article uses ‘she’ and ‘him’ to refer to Wilkerson, showing the confusion that she/he created. A more extensive article is found at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Universal_Friend.
 Dennis Baron, Thon was Word of the Year in 1884. January 5, 2018. https://blogs.illinois.edu/view/25/597154. Accessed 01/31/2023. See also The History of ‘Thon,’ the Forgotten Gender-Neutral Pronoun. https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/third-person-gender-neutral-pronoun-thon. Accessed 01/31/2023.
Paul for Everyone: Galatians and Thessalonians. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press (2004), p. 39.