Today we are celebrating the 500th anniversary of the monk with a mallet who hammered his 95 Theses onto the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. And while Martin Luther was tremendously significant in the Protestant movement, it is a common misconception that the Reformation started with his public statement. The anniversary is Martin Luther’s, but the voices of the Reformation included a multitude of individuals centuries before and after Luther, in Britain and on the Continent, men and women, monks and nuns, professors and writers. In this article, I wish to introduce a few of those voices, specifically the female voices, who contributed to the advancement of Protestant doctrine.
Before we look at some of these women, however, we must have a clear understanding of the status of the Roman Catholic Church in Luther’s time. During the Apostolic Era, the church was in a constant state of both growth and persecution. The millennium following Constantine saw the establishment of monasteries, the rise of Islam, the tragic Crusades and power struggles within the church over land, money and rule.
By the end of the 14th century, the ecclesiastical landscape was ready for refurbishment. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his legendary Canterbury Tales between 1387 and 1400, and in the tales included a description of a church official:
I only preach of avarice and the like, And in this way, induce them to be free In giving cash—especially to me. Because my only interest is gain; I’ve none whatever in rebuking sin. No, none! When they are pushing up the daisys, Their souls, for all I care, can go to the blazes. (The Pardoner’s Prologue)
Contrasting that corruption was John Wycliffe, an Oxford professor and contemporary of Chaucer who drafted by hand the first English Bible. He opposed the ecclesiastical structure of the church, condemned the church’s sale of indulgences and critiqued how the popes had taken up the sword to wield power around the world. Wycliffe and his Bible were so influential and damaging to the Roman Catholic Church that more than four decades after his death, the pope ordered Wycliffe’s bones to be dug up, crushed and scattered in the river.
In 1415, Jan Hus, a former professor from Charles University in Prague, was burned at the stake. For a decade he had promoted the teachings of Wycliffe and had preached sermons from the Scriptures in the common vernacular of the people—Czech, not Latin. Hus had also disputed the Catholic Church’s ongoing sale indulgences.
Martin Luther was born in 1483, and just nine years later, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. At the same time, the War of the Roses was being waged in England, ending with the ascension of King Henry VII to the throne as the first Tudor monarch. In 1509, King Henry VIII succeeded him.
With political and ecclesiastical vernacular structures in transition, the stage was set on both the continent and the British Isles for the faith once preached by the apostles to go forth again from the pulpits of preachers, the quills of writers and the catechizing of devout parents. Some of those writers and catechizers were women who recognized the biblical faith and clearly communicated it within their spheres of influence—in the royal courts, in publications and in lectures. Here are few of these significant contributors to the Protestant Reformation.
Margarete de Navarre 1492-1549
Margarete was the sister of King Frances of France, and was born in 1492. She received the same education as her brother, and at the age of 10, was offered in marriage to the Prince of Wales, who later became known as Henry VIII. Refusing this marriage undoubtedly prolonged her life.
The Princess authored many theological plays and poems. Her work caused such an uproar among the priests and bishops in France that they recommended she be sewed into a sack and thrown into the river. One of her poems, entitled “Mirror of the Sinful Soul,” emotively described a personal relationship with Jesus as a father-brother. Her work was translated into English and passed along to England’s Queen Catherine Parr. Queen Catherine passed her works around the royal court of England. In addition to her literary pursuits, Margarete was also an avid correspondent with England’s protestant-sympathetic royalty, discussing conflicts in the church.
Marie Dentiere 1495-1561
Marie was a nun who was influenced by Luther’s preaching against monasticism. In 1524, she left the abbey, married a priest, and advocated for the closure of Geneva’s convents. She was heavily involved in education, starting a girl’s school and writing a French grammar book. She also was an avid correspondent, and in 1539 wrote to Margarete de Navarre advocating for the expulsion of Catholic clergy from France. She encouraged Protestants to recognize a greater role for women in the church. Marie criticized Calvin on occasion, and he returned the favor, yet they found a way to work together for the sake of the gospel and the church. Marie wrote the forward to a published sermon that Calvin had written on modesty for women. Marie Dentiere is the only woman who appears on Geneva’s Reformation Wall.
Argula von Grumbach 1492-1554
Argula was a Bavarian noble woman who was well versed in the Scriptures. At the age of 10, she received a German Bible from her father. At the age of 16, she became a lady-in-waiting in the German court; however, following her parents’ death from the plague, she was forced to leave court and married a man who remained loyal to the Roman Catholic Church.
Argula read all of Luther’s works and maintained correspondence with him. In 1522, Luther wrote the dedication of his book of prayers to “the noblewoman Hargula von Stauff at Grumback.”
Tapping into the vast amount of scripture that she had memorized, Argula wrote a letter pleading with the faculty at the University of Ingolstadt, warning them not to persecute the young Lutheran students. Using over 80 scripture references in her letter, she promoted the Word of God above the word of the pope, the Kaiser and Aristotle. This letter was published as a booklet and became a bestseller. She was described by her detractors as “a silly bag, a female desperado, arrogant devil, a shameless whore.” And yet, she faced down nobles, kings and princes, was shunned by her in-laws and faced a husband who had been advised to either strangle her or at least disable her so she couldn’t write.
Olympia Maratha 1526-1555
This Italian woman was the daughter of a tutor who introduced his students to the writings of John Calvin and other Reformers. By the time she was 12 years old, Olympia was fluent in Greek and Latin and served as a companion in a duke’s court frequented by people of Protestant leanings, including John Calvin himself. She was known as a “girl gifted beyond her sex.” In the middle of her teen years, Olympia wrote a critique of the virtues often paraded by nuns, accusing these women of godlessness. She focused primarily on academic pursuits. After the death of her father and her removal from the royal court, she reflected on her scholastic pursuits, writing, “I am glad for all that happened to me, for if I had lingered any longer in the court, it would have been the end for me and my salvation.” (reformationitaly.org).
Olympia frequently visited a young noble woman named Lavinia della Rovere. The two discussed Scripture, and Olympia wrote a text of their dialogues. Together, these two young women also campaigned for the release of an imprisoned reformer who was under the shadow of execution for his biblical preaching.
Olympia married a medical student from Bavaria and because Germany was safer than Italy for Protestants, they moved to his native land. Using her skill in languages, Olympia wrote a Greek psaltery of Hebrew Psalms that her husband set to music.
Being away from home was difficult, especially as news of mistreatment of Protestants reached the young couple. Saddened by the news of the execution of reformers in Italy, she wrote, “Although I am held by the deepest desire for my family, I would rather go to the ends of the earth than return to where that man, Pope Julius III, has such power to be cruel.”
Life was not easy in Germany for the couple though, and eventually Olympia was forced to flee persecution, barefoot, in rags and feverish. She died at age 29, probably of tuberculosis. As she was languishing at the end of her life, she would say that “God had measured out a certain course of life for her, brief, but full of work and woe, and she did not want to turn ‘from the finish line back to the starting gate.’” Unfortunately, most of her work was lost as they fled persecution. What remained of her published letters, poems and psalms was entirely banned in Italy.
Jeanne de Abrect 1528-1572
The last of these continental women was a daughter of Margarete de Navarre. Jeanne de Abrect served as a prime spiritual and political leader of the French Huguenots. Strongly influenced by her mother’s piety, Jeanne officially converted to Protestantism on Christmas Day 1560. Under her leadership, Catholic priests and nuns were banned from the kingdom, as were Catholic rituals. One of the most fascinating elements of Jeanne’s work was her sponsorship of a translation of the Basque New Testament.
This brief article hardly scratches the surface of the impact these women had on the reforming church of the 16th and 17th centuries.
These women were scholars and theologians—they studied the Scripture with their whole mind.
They were writers of plays, poems and music. They corresponded with those who were sympathetic to the protestant cause, and with those who were completely opposed to the recovery of the true gospel. They were encouragers, expending their resources, hospitality and relationships to demonstrate the greatness of God through His Word.
Above all, these women were courageous. They were steadfast in the truth, even obstinate, and they changed the world.