Twelve Extraordinary Women: Reformation to the Present
Ruth A. Tucker
Please do not quote from or cite these notes.
The story is chilling. The setting, a mission compound in a Congo jungle. The year 1964, long after sundown on October 29. Americans would celebrate their scariest holiday two days later, but what happened that pitch-black night was far worse than any imagined Halloween horrors. Helen was an unmarried missionary medical doctor who had turned her back on a bright future in England to bring health care to some of the world’s most needy people.
The Congo was in the midst of a violent civil war, and for some months the compound had been occupied by Simba Rebels. Helen had been strongly counseled to evacuate the country, but she insisted that the people needed her medical services now more than ever. She heard gunfire but that had become the norm. She was sleeping in her small bungalow, doors and windows bolted shut. Then without warning, her door was kicked down. In barely a nanosecond, terror shot through her like high-voltage electric current. She had to run, to get out, to escape, to flee to the tangled jungle.
They found me, dragged me to my feet, struck me over head and shoulders, flung me on the ground, kicked me, dragged me to my feet only to strike me again—the sickening, searing pain of a broken tooth, a mouth full of sticky blood, my glasses gone. Beyond sense, numb with horror and unknown fear, driven, dragged, pushed back to my own house—yelled at, insulted, cursed. . . . My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why study women in Christian History? Responding to that question is my purpose.
Twelve Extraordinary Women: Reformation to the Present
Katharina von Bora: Wife of Martin Luther (1499-1552): runaway nun, businesswoman, disliked by contemporaries; turned Black Cloister into money-making boarding house; no-nonsense wife and mother; no real evidence she actually embraced the tenets of the Reformation; a secular Catholic bribed to read Bible; Luther adored her—and needed her: “My lord Katie greets you. She plants our fields, pastures and sells cows, et cetera.”
Argula von Stauffer (Grumbach): Reformation Apologist (1492-1568): born into wealth and nobility; from childhood studied Bible; supported reform, risking husband’s wealth and status.
Defended young teacher at University of Ingolstadt, exiled for Lutheran beliefs; accused faculty publicly of “pull[ing] God, the prophets and the apostles out of heaven with papal decrees drawn from Aristotle, who was no Christian at all.”
She appeared before the Diet of Nurnberg; presented strong biblical defense of Reformed tenets but “the princes take the Word of God no more seriously than a cow does a game of chess.” The princes weighed in, calling her a daughter of Eve, a shameless whore.
Luther weighed in:
“The Duke of Bavaria rages above measure, killing, crushing and persecuting the gospel with all his might. That most noble woman, Argula von Stauffer, is there making a valiant fight with great spirit, boldness of speech and knowledge of Christ. . . . Her husband, who treats her tyrannically, has been deposed from his prefecture. . . . She alone, among these monsters, carries on with firm faith, [but] not without inner trembling. She is a singular instrument of Christ.”
Katherine Schütz Zell: Strasburg Reformer (1497-1562): married to popular preacher Matthew Zell; coordinated outreach during Peasants’ War; wrote letters, compiled hymns; accused of taking pulpit as Dr. Katrina after husband’s death. She shot back:
“I am not usurping the office of preacher or apostle. I am like the dear Mary Magdalene, who with no thought of being an apostle, came to tell the disciples that she had encountered the risen Lord.”
“You remind me that the Apostle Paul told women to be silent in the church. I would remind you of the word of this same apostle that in Christ there is no longer male nor female and of the prophecy of Joel: ‘I will pour my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.’ I do not pretend to be John the Baptist rebuking the Pharisees. I do not claim to be Nathan upbraiding David. I aspire only to be Balaam’s ass, castigating his master.”
She defended Christians persecuted by Magisterial Reformers:
“Why do you rail at Schwenckfeld?,” she demanded of a Lutheran leader. “You talk as if you would have him burned like the poor Servetus at Geneva”—a jab at John Calvin. Anabaptists were Christians “who accept Christ in all the essentials as we do;” yet they are “pursued as by a hunter with dogs chasing wild boars.”
Last act of selfless service, conducting funeral for wife of outlawed “radical” Reformer.
Renée of Ferrara: John Calvin’s Princess 1510-1575): daughter of Louis XII of France:
Had I had a beard I would have been the king of France. I have been defrauded by that confounded Salic Law [which denied women succession to the throne].
Though not becoming king, a valuable political bride; at 17 married off to the Ercole, Italian prince; court in Ferrara, center of the Italian Renaissance, she secretly brought Reformed beliefs with her; Calvin, under assumed name, fled there for safety; later wrote from Geneva, of his “pure and true affection” for her of “princely rank” who can “advance the kingdom of Christ;” when Catholic husband finds out she is placed in house arrest, her two daughters sent to a convent, until she agreed to go to Mass; Calvin is livid.
“I cannot suffer a wolf in sheep’s clothing. . . . The Mass is . . . an intolerable blasphemy. . . . The devil has so entirely triumphed that we . . . groan, and bow our heads in sorrow”—Calvin who cowered in hiding with an assumed name.”
She later stood up to Calvin’s chaplain sent to Italy who wrote:
“Renee wants to attend meetings of the synod . . . but if Paul thought that women should be silent in the church, how much more should they not participate in the making of decisions. How will the Papists . . . scoff to see us run by women!”
Another critical matter for her, religious persecution:
Monsieur Calvin . . . I am distressed that you do not know how the half in this realm behave. They even exhort simple women to kill and strangle. This is not the rule of Christ. I say this out of the great affection I hold for the Reformed religion.
Margaret Fell Fox: Quaker Strategist (1614-1702); rich, widowed, high-born widow, marries George Fox, a smelly itinerant preacher, considered a buffoon, walking into churches and shouting down ministers; Swarthmore becomes Quaker headquarters.
Suffered long imprisonments, filthy dungeons; gives her time to write classic booklet:
Women's Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of by the Scriptures, arguing that:
Banning women comes from “the bottomless pit, and the spirit of darkness that hath spoken for these many hundred years together in this night of apostasy.” God to Abraham: “In all that Sarah hath said to thee, hearken to her voice.
Outlived Fox by some dozen years; makes women’s rights and pacifism central tenets, works to very end (at 88), 3 years earlier having journeyed to London to deliver a letter to the new King, refusing to return home “until I have cleared myself unto this government”—a letter summarizing 4 decades of persecution and imprisonment.
The crime: following their “consciences toward God,” resulting in the death of hundreds by dungeon imprisonments.
Susanna Wesley: Anglican Mother of Methodism (1669-1742); strong girl who returned to Church of England; married Samuel, Anglican priest, unpopular, later sent to debtor’s prison; she home-schooled 19 children, including John and Charles; when Samuel was away, leaving an empty pulpit, she began Sunday services; he objected; she wrote back:
This was the beginning of my present practice. Other people's coming and joining with us was merely accidental. [One] lad told his parents: they first desired to be admitted; then others that heard of it begged leave also: so our company increased to about thirty, and it seldom exceeded forty last winter. . . . Since then, our company increased every night; for I dare deny none that ask admittance. . . . Last Sunday I believe we had above two hundred. And yet many went away for want of room to stand.
Samuel, threatened by her success, was upset; again she responded:
I cannot conceive, why any should reflect upon you because of your wife endeavors to draw people to church and to restrain them from profaning the Lord's day by reading to them, and other persuasions. For my part, I value no censure upon this account.. . . . As to its looking [peculiar], I grant it does. And so [does anything that] advance the glory of God or the salvation of souls.
John Wesley: she was a “preacher of righteousness.” Her manse at Epworth is open today, as is the nearby Anglican church, both of which we have visited.
Mary Bosanquet Fletcher: Mega-barn preacher. (1739-1815); a Wesleyan women preacher—actually Society leader of a para-church movement. She married John Fletcher, theologian, (she, 42, he, 52), not threatened by her; careful not to offend:
“For some years I was often led to speak from a text . . . in what we call expounding, taking a part or whole of a chapter and speaking on it.” Thus she was only offering spontaneous commentary on the reading of the Scripture, rather than reading a prepared sermon; also stood on the steps in front of the pulpit.
Deep grief over her John’s death nearly derailed her; she carried on, seeking unity with Anglicans and drawing crowds in the thousands, her venue, a nearby “tythe barn,” preaching twice on Sunday and weekday evening—fully aware of opposition:
I know the power of God which I have felt when standing on the horseblock in the street at Huddersfield; but at the same time I am conscious how ridiculous I must appear in the eyes of many for so doing. Therefore, if some persons consider me as an impudent woman, and represent me as such, I cannot blame them.
Catherine Mumford Booth: Co-founder of the Salvation Army (1829-1890); when courting William Booth, he wrote to her that she had “a fibre more in her heart and a cell less in her brain” than he, not a good pick-up line; she was equal; he backed down.
Too timid to preach, she fell under such deep conviction that she stood up and added to his sermon; became a popular preacher among middle-class, while he preached to the lower classes, together founding the SA, he focusing on addicts, she on prostitutes.
Like Margaret Fell some two centuries earlier she published a booklet justifying women’s public ministry, Female Ministry: Or, Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel:
Judging from the blessed results [that follow the ministry] of women . . . we fear it will be found, in the great day of account, that an unjustifiable application of ‘Let you women keep silence in the Churches,’ has resulted in more loss to the Church, evil to the world, and dishonor to God, than any [other errors].
Women (and girls) preaching were crucial to the new movement; “Hallelujah Lassies” were sent out by the hundreds—eventually all over the world—facing persecution and ridicule, including her 4 daughters (and 4 sons), a heart-wrenching ordeal:
Mothers will understand . . . a side of life to which my child is yet a stranger. Having experienced the weight of public work for twenty-six years, also the weight of a large family continually hanging on my heart, having striven very hard to fulfill the obligation on both sides, and having realized what a very hard struggle it has been, the mother's heart in me has shrunk in some measure from offering her up to the same kind of warfare.
At 60, died a painful death after breast cancer surgery (1890); children all in ministry.
Amanda Berry Smith: African-American worldwide evangelist (1837-1915): her father a slave who was allowed to work nights on other plantations, toiling long hours to purchase himself, his wife and 5 children.
After 2 failed marriages, working as a maid, sickly infant dies; life is hopeless until she felt God calling her to preach, first traveling to tiny churches; reputation slowly grows.
Methodist Bishop James Thoburn wrote of her visit to India:
“During the 17 years that I have lived in Calcutta, I have known many famous strangers to visit, some of whom attracted large audiences, but I have never known anyone who could draw and hold so large an audience as Mrs. Smith.”
But she often faced fierce opposition, not because of color but because she was a woman.
I remember one afternoon [when in England] it was with great difficulty that I got into the church [because] the crowds were simply enormous. . . . blessed of God. But the good Plymouth brethren did not see it at all, because I was a woman; not that I was a black woman, but a woman [because] Paul said: “Let your women keep silence in the churches.” They would try to get me into an argument; but I always avoided anything of the kind.”
They physically blocked the way for others and trying to convince them not to attend.
For 10 years she traveled the world as an evangelist, returning to America in 1890, then moving to Illinois to establish an orphanage for destitute black children, retiring in 1912 at 75, having carried on this arduous ministry for some 2 decades. She died 3 years later, and sadly the orphanage burned to the ground 3 years after that.
Charlotte (Lottie) Moon: Patron Saint of Southern Baptists (1840-1912): grew up on Viewmont, a Virginia plantation—opposite of Amanda; envied boys going off to War; taught for a time at a girls’ school but wanted a larger life; sailed as a missionary for China in 1873, hoping to be an evangelist, but assigned to teach dull girls.
Loneliness and lost love engulfed her, especially after breaking her engagement with Crawford Toy, having learned he held to Darwinian evolution; she “plodded along” while he finished his graduate studies and became a professor at Harvard; consumed with a sense of failure, she wanted to preach in the villages, but she had no say in the matter.
“If that be freedom, give me slavery!”
“What women want who come to China is free opportunity to do the largest possible work. . . . What women have a right to demand is perfect equality.”
“Simple justice demands that women should have equal rights with men in mission meetings and in the conduct of their work.”
Finally to get rid of her, she was sent away from the mission station to a village; there she thrived; a church was established and in 2 decades the region became the success story of SBC ministry in China, more than a thousand converts. She wrote home:
“Surely there can be no deeper joy than that of saving souls.”
She chided men for staying in America in comfortable churches while the need was so great in China, calling for women to come and do the work.
During the great famine she gave away all her food. By the time she was discovered by missionaries, she had starved herself beyond saving, dying on Christmas Eve, 1912.
Her death stirred up women across the denomination who rallied to her cause, set up fund for China missions, called the “Lottie Moon Christmas Offering,” collecting millions each year. Today women’s roles have been severely cut back by SBC.
Pandita Ramabai: Indian Humanitarian and Evangelist (1858-1922): father a Sanskrit scholar, a reformer championing girls’ education and an open-minded search for truth; after he died, she vowed to carry on his mission for girls:
“I am a child of a man who had to suffer a great deal on account of advocating female education. I consider it my duty, to the very end of my life, to maintain this cause and to advocate the proper position of women in this land.”
Her mission expanded on meeting sister Geraldine, an Anglican nun who invited her to study in England, leading to her conversion—and strained relationship with Geraldine:
“I am, it is true, a member of the Church of Christ, but I am not bound to accept every word that falls down from the lips of priests or bishops. . . . I have just with great efforts freed myself from the yoke of the Indian priestly tribe, so I am not willing to place myself under another similar yoke by accepting everything which comes from the priests as authorized command of the Most High.”
Geraldine responds, regretting her part in her conversion. Ramabai will have none of it:
“I regret that I have been the cause of making you feel yourself wrong for the part you acted in my baptism. I wish I knew that your Church required a person to be quite perfect in faith, doubting nothing in the Athanasian Creed.”
Geraldine accuses Pandita of “clinging to caste prejudice” because she won’t eat such things as pudding made from eggs—prejudice that ought to be “thrown to the winds.”
Pandita saw right through Geraldine’s cultural superiority:
“I confess I am not free from all my caste prejudices, as you are pleased to call them. How would an Englishwoman like being called proud and prejudiced if she were to go and live among the Hindus but did not think it necessary to alter her customs when they were not hurtful?”
Geraldine’s criticism launched Pandita into her own independent ministry and the founding of the Mukti mission—an orphanage and evangelistic training center for girls that was true to Indian culture—drawing criticism from both Hindus and Christians.
“I am having a right good time in the storm of public indignation that is raging over my head.”
What could she do? Solution: take home-leave to find a husband; she permed her hair, bought new clothes, snagged a surgeon; discovering her ploy, he broke up with her. She “mucked up her life,” returned amid the violent independence uprising; was viciously raped, rescued, returned to England, her work in the Congo over.
But medical needs were overwhelming and her trained male nurses pleaded for her help; she returned and stayed on for seven years. The ending, however, was perhaps in some ways almost as painful as the brutality she endured at the hands of rebel soldiers.
When I knew I was coming home from the field and a young medical couple were taking my place at the college and an African colleague was taking over the directorship of the hospital, I organized a big day. It was to be a welcome to the two new doctors, a handover to my colleague, graduation day for the students in the college, and my farewell. A big choir had been practicing for five months. I got lots of cassettes to record everything and films to snap everything. Then at the last moment the whole thing fell to bits. The student body went on strike. I ended up having to resign the college where I’d been the director twenty years.
It’s a terribly sad ending, leading to serious depression until she realized she had a story to tell—an honest story of pain and failure.
What can we learn from these 12 stories? Are there any generalizations we can make?
1. One can serve the Kingdom in “secular” work (as with Katharina von Bora).
2. The biblical case for women’s equality emerged long before the modern feminist movement, thus defeating the claim that women’s equality is caving into cultural norms..
3. Feminism is self-serving; these women demonstrate the opposite, self-denial.
4. They rose above physical suffering from imprisonment, disease, rape, etc.
5. They endured ridicule, sometimes worse than physical pain.
6. Heavily involved in humanitarian reaching out to the Least of these.
7. Called for unity and religious tolerance—no persecution of so called “heretics.”
8. None are super-saints; we dig deeper and find serious fault lines.
9. None “retired” (to Florida to play golf), served until the end.
10. They inspire us, both men and women, set a high bar for true discipleship.