EDITOR’S NOTE: This year, Baptist Press is publishing a series of stories leading up to the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, Oct. 31, 1517.
NASHVILLE (BP) — For nearly the first century of its existence, the International Monument to the Reformation in Geneva did not include any women’s names among the Protestant Reformation personalities it honored.
But in 2002, the name Marie Dentiere was engraved on a stone marker, a notable though late acknowledgment that women played an important role in the church’s 16th-century return to biblical roots.
The Reformation “transformed the position of women,” said Diana Severance, a Houston Baptist University scholar and author of “Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History.”
“Under the medieval system, mystics and celibates were [considered] the highest order of saints” and “the most godly people,” Severance, director of HBU’s Dunham Bible Museum, told Baptist Press. “But under the Reformation, a wife, a mother or just a single person could live their life for the Lord without having to be in a monastery or having visions. Going back to the Scriptures was more important to them than mystical experiences.”
So with a newfound position of influence, wives, mothers and single women took up the Reformation cause alongside male leaders like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin.
Studying Luther’s writings led Dentiere to leave a Roman Catholic convent in her mid-20s, marry a Reformer and undertake a ministry of Bible translating and theological writing. Eventually, her husband died and Dentiere, along with her second husband, became an associate of Calvin in Geneva.
“If God has given grace to some good women,” Dentiere wrote in a letter to the King of France’s sister, “revealing to them by His Holy Scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write, speak and declare it to one another because of the defamers of the truth?”
While women did not serve as Reformation-era pastors, they wrote letters and hymns, sheltered refugees from Catholic authorities and became martyrs for the Protestant cause.
Of more than 930 Anabaptist martyrs chronicled in the 17th-centuy book “Martyrs Mirror,” half were women, Severance said. Additionally, women may have comprised 20 percent of all Protestant martyrs in England during the reign of the Catholic monarch Mary I.
Timothy George, a Reformation scholar and dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, said Reformation women were not “modern feminists.” But “some changes that came in the Reformation were aided by the participation of women,” a notable departure from women’s role in the Middle Ages.
For example, George told BP, when Bibles were published widely in the vernacular, “women who could read had tremendous power and ability to spread the message of the Gospel. And they did.”
Among Reformation women highlighted by Severance and George:
— Katharina von Bora, fled her previous life in a convent and married Luther in 1525. In addition to managing their farm and six children, Katie — as Luther called her — hosted a constant stream of Reformation-related guests, proofread Luther’s works and helped manage his bouts of depression.
On one occasion she dressed entirely in black. When Luther asked who died, Katie replied, “I thought God died, the way you were acting.” It was an effort, Severance said, “to kind of spark him into realizing he needed to trust the Lord and not be the despondent person he was at that time.”
— Argula von Grumbach was a German noblewoman who studied the writings of Luther and his associate Philip Melanchthon. She became noted for an open letter she sent the University of Ingolstadt decrying the university’s persecution of a Protestant student. Luther and Melanchthon, she wrote, “plainly write God’s Word, no more. Why then abuse such Christian men who’ve never done you any harm?” Her letter was reprinted 14 times in two months, George wrote in Beeson’s magazine.
— Anne Askew was an English noblewoman arrested, tortured and martyred during the years Henry VIII strongly advanced Roman Catholic doctrines. Askew claimed Scripture alone dictates Christian doctrine and denounced as unbiblical the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation — which claims the bread and wine of communion actually become the body and blood of Christ. She was burned at the stake in 1546.
— Katharina Shutz Zell became known as the “church mother of Strasbourg” in light of her care for Protestant women and children there. Zell also became the friend of Anabaptists and spoke at some of their funerals. She “married a number of Reformers, and they kept dying on her,” George said. Zell wrote a public defense of clerical marriages in 1523 that embroiled her in controversy.
— Catherine Parr was Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, who held a women’s Bible study in the palace and taught the Bible to Henry’s children, including the future English monarchs Edward I, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Parr, Severance said, “had a real calming influence on Henry VIII and helped spread the Reformation throughout the court in her day.”
George concluded, “I wouldn’t want to overstate” the role of Reformation women. Still, “women in positions of authority and power — especially the nobility — were able to use their influence to spread the Reformation.”