Silena Moore Holman served as president of the Tennessee chapter of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union during the period of its greatest influence on state politics. During her tenure as state president, the organization grew from 200 to over 4,000 members and was credited with the successful campaign for statewide prohibition in Tennessee.
Silena Moore was born in Franklin County on July 9, 1850. When the Civil War broke out, her father, Captain J. L. Moore, enlisted in the Confederate army and was killed. This left her mother with five children in poverty. When her mother was forced to sell the family home, Silena Moore, age fourteen, began to teach in a nearby country school to provide additional income for her family. During the years that followed, she was able to earn enough money to buy back her home. After teaching for more than ten years, she married Dr. T. P. Holman, a Lincoln County physician who had treated her during an illness. While living in Mulberry near the town of Lynchburg, Silena Holman joined the Band of Good Templars, a local temperance organization. The cause of temperance became her life work.
After the Holman family moved to Fayetteville, Tennessee, Silena Moore Holman joined the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. She quickly earned the attention of the state officers, who appointed her as a state department superintendent. Her participation in the WCTU allowed her to develop her writing skills. She began to write for the state organization and then became the state reporter for The Union Signal, the official publication of the national WCTU. The national organization had been founded in 1874. Under the national leadership of Frances Willard, who became president in 1879, the WCTU became the largest women’s organization in the United States. In 1899, Silena Holman, the mother of eight children ranging in age from seven to twenty-three years old, became the state WCTU president.
When Silena Moore Holman became state president, prohibition dominated the political debate in Tennessee. Former U.S. Senator Edward Ward Carmack took up the crusade for statewide prohibition and ran for governor in 1908 against Malcolm R. Patterson, the incumbent Democratic governor. After Carmack lost to Patterson in the Democratic party primary, Carmack became editor of the Nashville Tennessean, where he continued his campaign. After Carmack was killed in a shootout in downtown Nashville, Silena Holman rallied WCTU members to lobby for statewide prohibition. She opened a state headquarters in Nashville’s Maxwell House Hotel and mounted a statewide campaign in support of legislation. On January 19, 1909, just two months after Carmack’s death, the Tennessee General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to pass statewide prohibition. The work of the WCTU was considered an important factor in its passage. The WCTU then worked to raise funds for a memorial to Senator Carmack at the state capitol. Later that year, the WCTU held its national convention in Nashville at the Ryman Auditorium.
At the same time that Silena Moore Holman became active in the WCTU, she also began writing letters to the Gospel Advocate, a statewide publication of the Disciples of Christ that was edited by David Lipscomb. In her letters that were published over a twenty-five year period, she challenged Lipscomb’s position on the role of women in the church and society. As a member of her local Disciples of Christ congregation in Fayetteville, Holman was a regular reader of the Advocate. Her first letter published in 1888 challenged Lipscomb’s views that women should not teach in the church or pray in public.
During the years that followed, Holman and Lipscomb regularly debated the position of women on the pages of the Gospel Advocate. Holman challenged Lipscomb’s strict interpretation of the writings of the Apostle Paul in the New Testament. Holman believed that various verses commonly used to confine women to the private sphere could be interpreted in different ways. In her letters, she demonstrated a wide breath of study of scriptural commentaries and frequently quoted biblical scholars and multiple translations of the Bible. She also argued for greater educational opportunities for women, who, in her opinion, would become better wives and mothers with more education. Holman saw herself and other women like her as representatives of the “new woman” in Tennessee who had an expanded place in society.
Holman’s last letter to the Gospel Advocate was published in 1913, just two years before her death. Neither Lipscomb’s nor Holman’s views about women changed during the years of their public correspondence. When the Churches of Christ began to be identified in 1902 as a separate denomination, the subjection of women in church affairs was a key tenet of their church. By the time Holman died in 1915, Fayetteville’s Washington Street Church, which dated its founding to 1835, identified itself as a Church of Christ.
Silena Moore Holman died on September 18, 1915, as a result of complications from an appendectomy. She had requested that T. B. Larimore, a well-known evangelist, conduct her funeral. Family members quoted her as saying, “I want no man to apologize for my work.” At her funeral, more than two thousand people gathered on the lawn of her home to honor her life and work. She was buried in the Holman family plot in the Rose Hill Cemetery in Fayetteville. Two years after Holman’s death, the WCTU honored her by commissioning a portrait, which was placed in the state capitol.
Mattie Duncan Beard, The W.C.T.U. in the Volunteer State (1962); Paul Isaac, Prohibition and Politics: Turbulent Decades in Tennessee 1885-1920 (1965)