If men sit in the “amen corner,” then do women sit in the “awomen corner”?
Brothers and sisters, welcome. Or should I say “brethren and sistren”? Christianese terms whose meanings touch on the distinction between men and women are always tricky. Easy examples are Proverbs 31 woman and unclaimed blessing. Today’s definitions are awomen corner and sistren.
Awomen corner is a play on another Christianese phrase “amen corner” which referred to the part of a church where people sat who would always say “amen” to anything the preacher said. The amen corner was up near the front, and usually on the right-hand side of the pulpit. It was the preacher’s cheering section, if you will. Back in the 19th century when the term amen corner became popular, unmarried men and women would sit on opposite sides of the church. And so the “amen corner” really was populated by men. However, in some churches the women on the other side were also pretty vocal during worship and the sermon, so some punster invented the term “awomen corner” to refer to the cheering section where the women were. Pretty clever, eh?
The story of sistern is a little simpler. It comes from the Middle English plural form of sister. In Middle English, many nouns were turned into plurals by adding an “n” to the end. We still have a few of these words (children, oxen) but for the most part it’s an obsolete part of English grammar. Sistren has managed to stick around partly because people who go to church tend to like traditional ways of saying and doing things, and partly because it has a nice fancy “King James Bible” sound to it. (Although, if you read the definition of sistren below, you’ll see that sistren doesn’t come from any of the old Bible translations.)
In closing, someone might perhaps argue that Christians shouldn’t use any terms that distinguish between men and women. After all, Galatians 3:28 says “there is no more male and female, for we are all one in Jesus Christ.” There’s a lot of truth to that. Jesus’s ministry was to both men and women, and some of the most touching and miraculous events of his ministry took place either to directly benefit women or when only women were around, so there’s not much merit to the idea that God thinks women are second-class believers.
Despite that argument, I think there isn’t much value in trying to eradicate most of the words and phrases that happens to focus on men only or women only. We are men and women, and for a variety of reasons it’s useful to think of ourselves as being two “kinds” of people—male and female. Maybe the fact that God made two “kinds” of humans makes it that much more special when a man and a women decide to come together in marriage.
Without further ado, here are the definitions!
awomen corner n. A seating area of the church where women churchgoers are more vocal and enthusiastic in their worship and during the sermon.
The term was coined by humorously interpreting the “men” element of the word amen in *amen corner to mean “males” and therefore crafting a parallel term “awomen” to mean “females.”
See also *sistern.
• 1960 Wilson Coll. : Awomen corner … A humorous creation to match the amen corner in the church; men and women, except courting couples, sat on opposite sides of the church. 1965 Kentucky Folklore Rec. XI. 53 : The side in the church-house to the left of the preacher where sat the older men of the congregation, who often “amened” what the preacher had said. The opposite corner, where the older women sat, was, humorously, called the “awomen-corner.” 1993 Montell Upper Cumberland Country 94 : In some churches, including my childhood church, certain women sat on the other side of the pulpit opposite the men. This section was jokingly referred to as the “awomen corner.” 2009 McClure Reverend John Thompson Price, 1866–1951 74 : Each night, the crowds were increasing in size, and the house was about as full as it could be. As was custom, the men sat in the “amen” corner on the right side of the pulpit, and the women in the “awomen” corner on the left-hand side.
sistren n. pl. Also: sistern; sisteren; sisturn. [Archaic Eng. plural of sister.]
1. Christian women, especially those of one’s own congregation or church; commonly found in the set phrase brethren and sistren used to address a mixed group of Christian men and women (as a congregation) in an inclusive way (see citations for 1843, 1871, 1890, 1908, 1911, 1943, 1950, 1974, 1994).
When used unironically (see sense 2 below for the ironic use), the term is a dialectal form of the plural of *sister ‘a Christian woman.’ OED says that the plural form sistren became generally obsolete in English around 1550 in favor of sisters. However, the old form sistren has persisted in Christian use in some places, such as southern and rural areas of the United States, and within some denominations.
Though the antiquated-sounding sistren sounds like it would be found in the kjv Bible, it isn’t: the kjv (published in 1611) always says sisters. In fact, all the major English translations of the New Testament—from Wycliffe (1390) up through the kjv (1611)—say sisters.
See also *awomen corner; *kjv talk.
• 1843 Hall The New Purchase: Seven and a Half Years in the Far West I. 203 : “Brethurn and sisturn, it’s a powerful great work, this here preaching of the gospul.” 1871 Eggleston Hoosier Schoolmaster 106 : “My brethering-ah and sistering-ah, the ox knoweth his owner-ah, and the ass-ah his master’s crib-ah.” 1890 DN I. 67 : Bretheren: for brethren. Sometimes pronounced britherin and brutherin and breetherin. “I tell you, breetherin and sisterin.” 1892 DN I. 333 : Plural of sister. Used in Baptist and Methodist churches. 1893 Shands Some Peculiarities of Speech in Mississippi 56 : Negro for sisters (in a church), formed upon analogy with brethren. 1908 DN III. 294 s.v. bretherin : The phrase “bretherin and sisterin,” referring to members of the church. 1909 DN III. 370 : sistrin or sisterin: Sisters. 1911 DN III. 540 : Sisters, chiefly heard in the phrase, “brethren and sistren.” 1943 Powell I Can Go Home Again 98 : He turned to the visiting preacher and said, “Will you please conclude the service?” thinking that he would give a short prayer and dismiss the congregation with the doxology. But the visitor had more in mind. He wanted to preach a little himself. He arose and began, “Brethren and Sistren, …” 1950 PADS XIII. 23 : Sisters. Among uneducated but rare. “Brethern and sistern, our text for today is …” ([Spoken by an] illiterate minister). 1974 Wright Barefoot in Arcadia: Memories of a More Innocent Era 41 : I remember an evening when a strange preacher came to the kitchen to meet with what he called his brethren and sistren and to call them to repentance. 1994 Morgan The Hinterlands: A Mountain Tale in Three Parts 22 : The preacher stood up at the front of the room. “Brethren and sistren, …” he said. 2005 Abrahamson Urban Enclaves 60 : A typical example was the Holiness Church of Living God, founded by “Bishop” J.B.C. Cummings. He began organizing his “brethren and sistern” in the near east side.
2. A deliberately ironic, self-conscious, humorous, or sarcastic use of *sistren 1. The term is used in humorous allusion to the similar-sounding term *brethren.
• 1913 Combs The Kentucky Highlanders from a Native Mountaineer’s Viewpoint 38 : Preaching lasts sometimes as long as two days—Saturday and Sunday. From two to six or eight preachers participate, and the one that preaches the longest and loudest, and who succeeds in making the most of the “sistren” shout, is the “big gun.” 1979 Hearn Our Struggle to Serve: The Stories of 15 Evangelical Women 15 : I went with a girlfriend … to a house church in Columbus, Ohio, a tiny group of the breed called Plymouth Brethren. The “sistern” wore hats, had long hair, and sat in silence through two long services. 1990 Am. Presbyterians vols. 68–69 253 : Towner recalled an incident from her first meeting of the Lehigh Presbytery as an ordained minister. One man acknowledged her presence by asking “What do we do now, address everyone as brethren and sistren?” If spoken only in jest, the query symbolized the struggle ahead and the ingrained reluctance to accept change. 2005 Durso Courage and Hope: The Stories of Ten Baptist Women Ministers 51 : The presiding pastor said, “Brethren” (to a mixed crowd containing “sistren”).