The (Less Well-Known) Women of the Reformation

Sarah White
Thursday, November 1st 2018

The 2017 celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation rightly focused on the achievements of the reformers and how the modern church should build on their labors. While it’s good to remember the faithful work of our fathers in the faith, we shouldn’t neglect the labors of the women who worked alongside them. Throughout the sixteenth century, countless women across Europe worked to spread the gospel in their families, towns, and territories, often at great personal risk. While most of these women’s names will only be revealed in eternity, some have been passed down to us. Here are a few of their stories.

Argula von Grumbach (1492-1563/68?)

Argula was born into a Bavarian noble family. She grew up in a home where education was valued, and was an avid student of the Bible from the age of ten. As a teenager, she spent time in the Emperor’s court at Munich, where she was first exposed to Luther’s ideas. She corresponded with Luther and other reformers throughout her life, and, by 1523 (at a time when the reading and discussion of Luther’s works was prohibited in Bavaria), she claimed to have studied all of Luther’s existing works in German. Argula was moved to write publicly when Arsacius Seehofer, a student at the University of Ingolstadt, was threatened with execution and ultimately forced to recant his Lutheran views. In response , she wrote several widely circulated pamphlets condemning Seehofer’s treatment as an unbiblical abuse of power. In her first letter she stated boldly, “What I have written to you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and [I write] as a member of the Christian Church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.”[1] Though she received no formal response to her writings, her first pamphlet in particular was a bestseller, and Luther spoke approvingly of Argula’s “boldness of speech” and hoped that “Christ through this infirm vessel may confound the mighty and those who glory in their strength.”[2]

Katharina Schütz Zell (1498-1562)

Though she had no surviving biological children, Katharina saw her primary calling as that of a Kirchenmutter—a mother of the church. Katharina converted in the 1520s after reading Luther and hearing Protestant sermons. She was also among the earliest Protestant wives, marrying Matthew Zell even before Luther married his own Katie. The Zells’ parsonage in the free city of Strasbourg—a haven for dissidents and the persecuted—provided fertile ground for ministry. It was a shelter for refugees, a center for healthy theological debate, and a home base for Katharina’s regular visitation of the sick and imprisoned.

Concerned about the scarcity of devotional material, she compiled Some Christian and Comforting Songs of Praise about Jesus Christ Our Savior, adapted from an earlier Bohemian Brethren hymnbook, and wrote a commentary on select Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. She also sent a letter of consolation to the wives of 150 exiled Protestants, and corresponded with a roster of reformers. After Matthew’s death, she wrote a letter to his successor as cathedral pastor, Ludwig Rabus, who called her a “disturber of the peace of the church.”[3] Defending Matthew’s pulpit as well as her own right to speak on theological matters, she asserted, “I am writing all this because I must show how in my younger days I was so dear to the fine old learned men and architects of the church of Christ . . . They never withheld from me their conversation about holy matters and they gladly (from the heart) heard mine.”[4] Her later years were somewhat shadowed by controversy, due to her association with members of the heterodox Schwenkfelder sect.

Marie Dentière (1495-1561)

“Even though we are not permitted to preach in public in congregations and churches,” wrote Marie Dentière, “we are not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all charity.”[5]

Marie spent several years in an Augustinian convent in Tournai, but in 1524, she encountered Luther’s writings and left the Catholic Church. She married a former priest and newly Reformed pastor, Simon Robert, though he died leaving her a widow with five children. She married again, to another reformer named Antoine Froment, and they moved to Geneva in 1535.

Her most famous work is her “Defense of Women,” a letter addressed to Marguerite of Navarre, which mounted a scriptural argument for women’s right to interpret and teach Scripture for themselves. She was a member of a group of Protestant noblewomen who liked to discuss Hebrew language and grammar, and even mentions that her daughter, Jeanne, had created a Hebrew grammar book for girls! She also promoted the joys of marriage, thereby tangling with a resistant nun named Jeanne de Jussie. (“Ah, poor creatures,” Marie enjoined the Poor Clares, a Franciscan order, “if only you knew how good it was to be next to a handsome husband, and how God thinks it pleasing!”[6]) Calvin regarded Marie as unruly, yet that didn’t stop him from inviting her to write the preface to his sermon on female apparel. In the preface, Marie argued against extravagant clothing and the use of makeup, drawing on patristic writings for support!

Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549) and Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572)

Though she never openly aligned herself with Lutheranism or Calvinism, Marguerite, a sister of the king of France, was a protector of the Reformation, thereby paving the way for her avowedly Calvinist daughter, Jeanne. She intervened on behalf of persecuted reformers and was patroness of a circle of reform-minded intellectuals, corresponded with reformers, wrote extensively, and became the first published Protestant female poet with her Mirror of the Sinful Soul, a commentary on the words “Create in me a clean heart, O Lord.”[7] To the dismay of her regular correspondent, Calvin, Marguerite continued to practice Catholic rites in public. The mystical tone of many of her writings makes her theological views tricky to discern, but her reverence for the Word shines through.[8]

Her daughter Jeanne was queen of the small, strategic kingdom of Navarre. While still a teenager, she fervently resisted an undesired marriage, which may have contributed to her lifelong abhorrence of the use of force in political and religious matters.[9] Jeanne was exposed to Reformed thought from an early age, and, after years of study, she declared herself a Protestant in 1560 by participating in public worship, making her “the highest-ranking Frenchwoman ever to become a Calvinist.”[10] For the rest of her life, she was a champion of the embattled Huguenots. From 1555 until her death in 1572, she sought to establish a Protestant homeland in Navarre. Through an edict in 1564, she issued the first official proclamation of religious toleration within a single kingdom in European history, permitting both Catholic and Reformed worship within her lands. She wrote to a threatening Cardinal, “I do nothing by compulsion: I condemn no one to death, or to imprisonment, which penalties are the nerves and sinews of a system of terror.”[11] She sought to instill Reformation principles through legislation and sponsorship of theological work, such as the founding of a seminary at La Rochelle and the translation of a Basque New Testament. During the last five years of her life, when armed resistance seemed inevitable, she did everything possible to boost the morale of the Huguenot army—including accompanying it into battle. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred mere months after her death. Though she would have been further grieved when her son, Henri IV of France, embraced Catholicism, Henri did issue the Edict of Nantes in 1598, perhaps influenced by his mother’s religious tolerance.

Renée of France (1510-1575)

Like Jeanne d’Albret, Renée was a protector of the Huguenots, though like Marguerite de Navarre, she never made an open profession of Reformed faith.

A daughter of King Louis XII of France, Renée was well educated. She married Ercole, the duke of Ferrara, Italy, and a staunch Catholic. Renée’s desire to provide a haven for Protestants soon created tension between them. Ercole ultimately sent her to a remote castle, where she was isolated from family and French connections. She used her time to study, educate her children, and write to John Calvin (a correspondence they maintained for 20 years), to whom she often complained of her lack of Protestant female companions.

The Inquisition kept Renée under close surveillance. Ercole sent a French theologian to her court in an effort to persuade her, and she was pressured to publicly attend Mass. In 1554 she was interrogated twice and condemned to imprisonment as a heretic, and was even separated from her children while under house arrest. A few weeks later, her daughters were returned to her on the condition that she go to confession. Renée continued to adhere to Catholic rites publicly while advocating for Huguenots from afar. She was able to support them materially when, after her husband’s death, she returned to France for the first time in 30 years. Her ancestral castle in Montargris became known as the Hotel Dieu as she gave asylum to crowds of Huguenots and other refugees. When many were forced to flee, she outfitted them with food and wagons. Though Renée remained reticent about her affiliation until her death, her last will includes a confession of Protestant faith and an exhortation to others to read and listen to the Word.

As we consider the lives of the women who facilitated one of the greatest advancements of the gospel in history, some common traits emerge. We see that theological discernment was highly prized by most of them. Many of these women struggled through periods of questioning and went to great lengths to resolve the issues that mattered to them, even corresponding with the most learned pastors of their day—exchanges that even the busiest eeformers valued as important parts of their ministry. They hungered for regular Christian fellowship, sound pastoral oversight, and right worship, cherishing these things as vital for their own souls as well as those they cared for. While many enjoyed unusual privileges of education and position, they were frequently mindful of the needs of those without them, seeking to bridge the gap through various means: legislation, hospitality (particularly for the persecuted), letters of consolation, and the writing and circulation of books. Most importantly, each of these women was fired by a passion for God’s Word and genuine piety; a true love of God and his people that compelled them to speak of what they heard through whatever means were available to them in their respective context, gifting, and season of life. May the same be true of each of us this Reformation Day.

This article was originally published at MR on Oct. 31, 2018.

Sarah White is a writer and editor living in western Pennsylvania.

[1] Stjerna, 76.

[2] Stjerna, 79.

[3] Rebecca VanDoodewaard, Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 22.

[4] Stjerna, 123.

[5] Stjerna, 134.

[6] Stjerna, 143.

[7] VanDoodewaard, 34.

[8] VanDoodewaard, 35.

[9] Stjerna, 162.

[10] Stjerna, 150.

[11] Stjerna, 169.

Photo of Sarah White
Sarah White
Sarah White (M.Div., Yale Divinity School), lives in western Pennsylvania with her family.
Thursday, November 1st 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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