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Entries in Women in Church History (6)


Women, evangelicalism, and the Great War

This is a quick, not well-processed post. My parents are in town visiting, and tomorrow is our family reunion. But I have been reading Neither Complementarian Nor Egalitarian this morning, and something occurred to me. And to clarify, in reading this book I am not coming out as an egalitarian. It's a book to inform and challenge my thinking.


The author, Michelle Lee-Barnwell, spends the first part examining the development of evangelical attitudes toward womanhood. The first chapter deals with the development of women in social reform such as missions and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. It's an informative chapter, and I can recognize the trends in the reading I have done about the WCTU here in Canada. 

The next chapter moves to the end of World War II to discuss the next phase of development. I was a little surprised that the author moves from the Victorian era to World War II. The years following the first World War seem to me to be ripe for evaluation with regard to changes in culture that would have affected women and evangelicalism. Lee-Barnwell has shown already the reality that the surrounding culture has a huge impact on the evangelical understanding of female roles and identity. So, why the big jump? 

Then it occurred to me: this is a book by an American about America. In Canada, our history, while always linked to our southerly neighbour, follows a different path because of our extended links to the motherland, Great Britain. World War I marked a huge change in Canada as our national identity began to assert itself, even as Britain's world influence began to wane. Our involvement in World War I was far more intimate than that of the United States. The changes to our culture would clearly be different. While this book is proving to be very thought provoking (and wonderfully researched), I do have to remember that while the influence on evangelicalism in Canada will be obvious, there will be differences. I have read extensively about Nellie McClung, who lived through World War I, and whose son fought in France. The war had a huge impact on her understanding of humanity, rights, duty, and womanhood.

Someone out there needs to write a history of how evangelicalism unfolded in Canada. I'm hopeful there is a Canadian in school somewhere who is getting ready for that. I'll buy the book.


"Never did the same things please the hearts of all"

Olimpia Fulvia Morata was an Italian noblewoman who was actively involved in the Reformation. Unlike most women of her time, she was highly educated. She was also a poet. Here is a snippet of her poetry, where she describes herself, and likely, many women today:

Never did the same thing please the heart of all,
And never did Zeus grant the same mind to all . . .
And I, though born female, have left feminine things,
yarn, shuttle, loom-threads, and work-baskets,
I admire the flowery meadow of the Muses,
and the pleasant choruses of twin-peaked Parnassus.
Other women perhaps delight in other things.
These are my glory, these my delight.

Fortunately, we can be partakers of the both the "yarn, shuttle, loom-threads," and the "Muses." I know I like both, and I believe it enriches my life to pursue both even if at times I study more than I get out the yarn and shuttle.

Preferring one over the other doesn't make me more or less womanly.


My kind of woman

Katharina Schütz Zell was my kind of woman. A Reformation woman from Strasbourg, she was devoted to learning as well as service. As was typical, she had no formal education, but she did not let that stop her:

Her lack of formal higher education did not hold her back, quite the contrary: she continued her independent learning throughout her life. She studied the lectionary and Luther's 1522 New Testament translation (which replaced the earlier German Bible dating from 1485) and other of Luther's works. Her correspondence with major reformers, such as Bucer, Capito, Hedio, Calvin, and Luther, served as an important form of "distance learning." Her marital years would become the essential period for her theological formation and the time in which she found her own voice as a theologian. In that regard, her husband's role would be vital in welcoming and supporting Katharina's ambitions and initiatives with apparently no "ifs and buts."

Women today can follow in Katharina's footsteps. We can study from a distance with great ease. There is so much at our fingertips. Books are much cheaper and easier to get than they would have been for Katharina, and formal education is available. However, if a woman cannot attend formal education, she has so much at her disposal to learn from, beginning with many resources to help her understand Scripture. And unlike Katharina, we have modern conveniences to help us with domestic chores. There is time. It's up to us to use it well.


Sixteenth Century Female Blogger?

Argula von Grumbach was a female Reformer, who lived from 1492-1563. She was a woman of noble birth, and writer of pamphlets. Pamphlet writing reminds me of blogging. It was a way to disseminate information with ease. It was really the only way for the common people, including women, to speak forth their views in any public way.

Unlike her contemporary, Martin Luther's wife, Katharina, Argula's activities went far beyond the domestic sphere. By virtue of her father giving her a Bible as a child, she was very knowledgeable of the Scriptures, something not common among women at this time. Those who participated in theological discussions of the day were generally learned male scholars. Women did not attend universities, so if a woman wanted to engage in a theological discussion, she did so as an outsider. Pamphlets were really Argula's only way to speak forth.

Argula emphasized two principles: the priesthood of all believers and the primacy of the Scriptures. She believed her authority to interpret Scripture and speak publicly was founded on the first principle. Of course, not everyone saw things that way. With the Reformation came an attention to the sacredness of the home and family. This gave meaning and value to domesticity. The emphasis on domesticity tended to direct women to work out their vocations primarily in the home.

Despite having no formal education, Argula was determined to speak out:

Ah, but what a joy it is when the spirit of God teaches us and gives us understanding . . . I don't intend to bury my talent, if the Lord give me grace.

That comment is not unlike how many women feel today. And even though we are 500 years past the Reformation, I suspect this tension between the desire to speak and the impediments faced is still something women experience. 

What I found quite interesting is that in order to be heard, Argula faced similar reality women face today: the need for education and to know the right people. Argula, by virtue of her noble birth was in a position far above the majority of women. Not only did she have access to education, she knew the right people and she had the means to publish her pamphlets. It is indeed easier today to spread our own views, but knowing the right people does help. I had an email conversation four years ago with a published Christian writer, and he told me quite honestly that he believed he never would have been published had he not known someone in the industry. I wonder if that is true true generally speaking. 

Argula, by virtue of knowing male nobility had patrons who would support her. Is that still true today? Do Christian women married to or associated with pastors, university presidents, and popular speakers have an advantage over other women? Just like Argula had the means to publish and knew a publisher, what kind of advantages do some women have today? It's an interesting question.

Not everyone liked Argula's insistence. She was labelled as "heretical," and a "hag" for trying to insert herself in the dialogue among male leaders and scholars. Yet she persisted. What I find most notable is her dedication to the Scriptures. And that is a lesson women today can learn from: to know the Scriptures well. We have so much more freedom to speak out than did Argula. Perhaps there are men who would roll their eyes when a woman theologian speaks forth, but there are people who support women in such roles. I think there is still a lack of women in strictly theological discussion, with the majority of the content of their writing focusing on Christian living and cultural themes, but there are a few female theologians out there, and there are some women bloggers out there who write about more theological topics. I'm thankful for both kinds of writing.

If we want to speak forth as women, we do have to be like Argula in two respects: be students of the Scriptures, and be persistent. I don't think it's enough to have a bone to pick and a space online to write. We need to be as grounded in the Scriptures as we can be, and we need to be dedicated to the truth.


Did all women welcome the Reformation?

I've started reading Women and the Reformation. Unlike other books on women of the Reformation, it does not focus primarily on the Reformation in England, but in Europe and France. Of the eight women discussed, I was only familiar with Renée of France and Katharina von Bora.

When we think of the Reformation, we naturally think of freedom; freedom from the strictures of the Church, freedom to read the Scriptures in one's own language. It was not all beneficial for everyone. For men, the Reformation allowed men to marry and be in church office. For women, it was not exactly the same, and I had never really stopped to think about that much.

In the medieval church, women could join convents and have a role in religious life. For women who didn't want to marry, the convent gave them a place to pursue not only religious life, but education. Once the convents and monasteries started to disband, those opportunities became fewer. 

Convents had fostered women's intellectual pursuits and writing more than any other institution at the time and (especially in urban centers) had provided and "intellectual space" and opportunities unavailable to women elsewhere. In other words, nuns had made many sacrifices for their calling, but gained in return opportunities to develop in areas beyond the reach of married women whose time and energy were consumed by their family and household tasks. It was not at all self-evident that the majority of convent women would eagerly give up what they had for, in their eyes, questionable pleasures of marriage with all its dangers, including childbirth, mortality, and abusive husbands -- and that was for all practical purposes the only alternative offered by the Protestent reformers.

That was something I had not thought much about, and likely because I take for granted the ability of women to seek education. We often forget that not every woman was able to pursue education. I wonder what it would be like to really want to pursue education, to watch the men around me attain it, but to be prevented from it myself. Women throughout history have been in such positions.

It makes me even more thankful for the opportunities I have.