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How Women Helped Bring Us the Reformation

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At this time of year articles about the Reformation are popping up all over the place. Especially this year with the celebration of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, many people are dusting off their favorite Reformation stories.

This year my curiosity took me deeper into Reformation history than ever before. I wanted to know the obscure stories: the hidden reformers no one ever talks about and the stories they had to tell of their part in making the Reformation a widespread phenomenon. So, I turned to look at women Reformers, asking the questions “how did the Reformation impact them?” and “how did they help the Reformation efforts in their own ways?” Here’s what I found.

The Reformation Influenced Women to Leave Convent Life

Luther’s criticism of the monastic life didn’t just influence monks, but it reached nuns, as well. The Reformation flattened the social and religious hierarchy that put monastic life at the top, most pleasing to God, thereby freeing monks and nuns to leave their vows behind. Most notably, Katharina von Bora left her life as a nun and eventually became Luther’s wife. However, Katharina was not alone. When she escaped the convent, she did so with several other women. In fact, as the Reformation grew and spread, many other nuns from many other convents left to pursue a life outside the convent walls. Another notable example is Marie Dentiere who, after leaving her monastic vows behind, traveled to other nunneries to encourage women to leave the convent and follow the Reformation.

The spread of the Reformation among women resulted in many women marrying Reformers or men who supported the Reformation. Their children were then raised Protestant and taught the core doctrines of the Reformation. Luther and Katharina themselves had several children.

Women Across Europe Supported the Reformers

Women soon joined the Reformation efforts as the writings, teachings, and preaching of the Reformers spread. Women of high political and social class were often able to directly support the Reformers, corresponding with them and promoting the Reform efforts both personally and publicly. This wasn’t limited to Germany, but in France and England, as well, women converted from Catholicism to Protestantism and supported the reform efforts. Such political leaders and influencers such as Marguerite de Navarre, Jeane d’Albret, Queen Elizabeth I, and others used their political positions to benefit the growing Reformed churches.

Other women who held political power harbored persecuted reformers and Protestants, like Marguerite de Navarre, who protected John Calvin. Other women worked alongside their pastor husbands to care for churches that were becoming reformed or were struggling to survive as reformed.

Reformation Women Became Writers of Reformation Theology

The male Reformers were not alone in their writings. Many women also took up the pen and wrote on the issues of the Reformation, calling for a change in the church and corresponding with one another to encourage each other. The Reformation inspired women, too, to call for change in other ways, such as ending abuse of women by priests and clergy. Many women were influenced by the Reformer’s doctrines, taking up writing and teaching, proposing new reforms, and passing laws in favor of Protestant ideas.

Few women had the boldness or the opportunity and ability to call themselves theologians, but one such woman was Katharina Schutz Zell, whose writings revealed her dedication to sola scriptura. Many women who were able to meet the reformers in person would correspond with them, providing support and encouragement while also seeking guidance on matters of theology and Christian life.

Overall, women played a significant part in the Reformation. Not only did the Reformation impact their lives and their beliefs, but they took it upon themselves to support the Reform efforts as best they could, often fighting against the social rules and hierarchy of their time to do so. Kirsi Stjerna, in her book Women and the Reformation, writes,

The movement(s) flourished and endured from roots that were both male and female: the product not just of the male theologians but of women, who as daughters, sisters, spouses, mothers, widows and as believers espoused the new faith and “taught” it and “preached” it in their own domains, so participating concretely in the Protestant mission. (214)

For further reading on this subject see the following resources:

Women and the Reformation by Kirsi Stjerna

Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation: An Unconventional Life of Katharina von Bora by Ruth A. Tucker

Leah B.

Leah B. received a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry before turning to theology and receiving a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies and a Master of Arts in Theological Studies. She writes and lives in California.