Thursday, March 3, 2016

Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife

One of the legacies of the story of Eve banished from Garden is the curse of the man ruling over her (a result of their eating the forbidden fruit). That portion of Genesis is frequently quoted glee by male headship proponents today. My latest book touches on the Daughters of Eve and focuses directly on often-hidden crime of domestic violence. Check out my latest book on ruthtucker.com

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

See below the College-Gril Evangelist

Mary Agnes Vichestain in full preaching pose! 

Friday, December 1, 2006

Feisty Women!

The label "daughter of Eve" is a term of derision--given to women who dared to challenge the male establishment. I wear the label as a badge of honor.

Many of these daughters of Eve are featured in my book Daughters of the Church, co-authored with Walter L. Liefeld. But in the years since we wrote that book I've discovered many more daughters of Eve who have inspired and challenged me.

Mary Agnes Vichestain

I found this photo online, taken in the summer of 1926 when the news media was abuzz with the alleged kidnapping of North America's most famous evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson. Here is the photo description:

Date: 07-09-1926
Young evangelist Mary Agnes Vichestain on 1926 visit to Tacoma in full preaching pose. Described as a modern girl preaching the old-fashioned gospel, Pittsburgh's Mary Agnes Vichestain, age 18, preached to a full house at the Gospel Tabernacle on July 8, 1926. Accompanied by her newspaper publisher father, V.H. Vichestain, Miss Vichestain stopped in Tacoma on her way to the West Coast. Her father reminisced that her favorite occupation as a child was to corner a family member and vigorously preach. Her first public appearance as a preacher came at age 9; she has since then spoken to audiences as large as 25,000. Miss Vichestain devotes most of her efforts to work in missions in order to help the less fortunate find salvation. (TNT 7-9-26, p. 14)

Elizabeth Packard

All the makings of a TV docudrama in an unlikely source: the story of feisty Elizabeth Packard, little-known 19th-century advocate of the rights of mental patients, by journalist (Newsweek, The New York Times, etc.) and TV-writer Sapinsley. Packard's troubles began when her vocal deviation from the Calvinist thinking of her aptly named preacher-husband Theophilus became a decided embarrassment to him. Announcing that since she ``persistently refused my will or wishes...it must be that she is insane,'' he took advantage of the law that allowed a husband to have a wife committed to a lunatic asylum simply on his say-so- -plus the ever-ready consent of the admitting doctor.

Released three years later through the efforts of her eldest son and subsequently declared sane in a sensational jury trial, Packard spent the rest of her life working to change the laws so that no other wives could be subjected to the same treatment. Gifted with a keen intelligence, determination, and great physical stamina, she managed to support herself through her writings, regain custody of her children, and persuade numerous state legislatures to rewrite the laws regarding commitment and treatment of mental patients. Sapinsley's experience in writing TV documentaries (The Twentieth Century, etc.) is evident in her selection of scenes that dramatize the story. Hampered by the destruction of court and legislative records, she has nevertheless created a vital portrait of a remarkable woman, ingeniously piecing it together from family records, contemporary newspaper clippings, and Packard's own writings. An eye-opener. (Photographs--not seen.) -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.


The Adventures of Kate Bushnell and Elizabeth Andrew


Katharine Bushnell and her traveling partner Elizabeth Andrew did not lead dull lives. Their adventures investigating the brothels that served English troops in India are documented in their book, The Queen's Daughter's in India. What they found is much like the sexual slavery that is a problem today. Their work brought to light the tacit support of the government for practices that would never have been condoned by the British people.

The Legacy of Katherine Bushnell

by Ruth Hoppin

Katharine C. Bushnell was the author of God's Word to Women, a groundbreaking study of what the Bible really says about women. Behind that remarkable book, which has been reprinted twice in recent years, I see a remarkable woman.

How do we measure greatness? If by loftiness of purpose, we see Katharine Bushnell going to China as a medical missionary. We follow her across America and beyond its borders to several continents as she worked to reform conditions of human degradation. We read her closely reasoned exposition of Scripture as she tried to establish women in their rightful place in church and society.

When God's Word to Women was first published in book form in 1921, its author was 65 years old. Her writings on the Bible were the product of her later years, the culmination of impressions and concerns of her earlier life. God's word to her personally was no doubt the inception of her book on the subject.

Katharine Caroline Sophia Bushnell was born February 5, 1856, in Peru (LaSalle County) Illinois. She attended public school there; and in 1979 after pre-med. studies at Northwestern University (Evanston), Katharine went to the Chicago Women's Medical College where she specialized in nerve disorders.

At that point in her life, in light of her own call to missionary work, she pondered what seemed to be the Biblical injunctions against women preaching. Her studies led her to China where she established a pediatric hospital in Shanghai. . . .



WOMEN REFORMERS

I have taught courses and studied and written about women in Church History for more than two decades. The ones that challenge me the most are the so-called "daughters of Eve" and some of them are Protestant women.

I find many fascinating women who came before them in the early centuries of the Church and among the Catholic women of the Middle Ages. But these women often testified to miracles and visions and revelations of all sorts to authenticate their ministry. Protestant women of the Reformation, on the other hand, tended more often to claim their authority on biblical grounds. Challenge me, someone out there, if you think I'm wrong on this.

Here is some of the text that I wrote in an article: “The changing Role of Women in Ministry: The Early Church Through the Eighteenth Century,” in Discovering Biblical Equality ed. by Rebecca Groothuis, InterVarsity Press, 2005. I've included references in brackets.

THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY

The sixteenth century is a watershed in the history of the church—and no less so regarding women in church history. In less than a generation, the Protestant Reformers introduced radical changes not only in clerical life but everyday life as well, and there were significant changes in the very tone of the faith. Amidst these changes, it is fair to ask how women were affected and whether they gained or lost opportunities for ministry? Eleanor McLaughlin suggests that the medieval Christianity was characterized by what is often perceived as a more “feminine” notion of spirituality, which was exemplified in an “image of God, who was Mother as well as Father” and one that emphasized “Love more than Intellect.” [McLaughlin, “Women, Power and the Pursuit of Holiness,” 102]

FEMININE SPIRITUALITY

This “feminine” spirituality was in many ways turned on its head with the Reformation with its emphasis on the biblical text and its discrediting of mystical and visionary experiences. Likewise, most of the Reformers discredited the monastic system which allowed women opportunities for “professional” ministry. There was, however, continuity between medieval and Reformation times as well. Like their Catholic predecessors, Reformers often made disparaging references to women. Thomas Aquinas spoke of women being weaker than men “both of mind and of body,” and Luther was known for his impetuous slurs against womanhood.

Yet, women’s voices were hardly silenced within Protestantism. Luther and Calvin and other leading reformers sought out women for advice and assistance. And women were Reformers in their own right—often challenging the words and actions of their male counterparts. But, like their Roman Catholic sisters before them, they rarely overstepped their bounds. For instance, they often couched their strong words in with terms of deprecation, frequently referring to themselves as weak, lowly, unworthy, and “only a woman”—or as in the case of Katherine Zell, “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.” [Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1971), 66-67]

KATIE VON BORA

Katie Von Bora Luther is recognized as the “first lady” of the Reformation, though her ministry was not nearly so encompassing as that of other Protestant women who would follow her. With her marriage to Martin Luther, however, the stage was set for an important role for the minister’s wife and for the family. The story of this feisty nun’s escape from the monastery is well known, as is her subsequent marriage to Luther. She cared for a large household and managed a farm on the side, all while serving as a partner to the great Reformer.

ARGULA VON STAUFFER

Argula von Stauffer (1492-1554) was Luther’s most outspoken defender in the public arena, gaining her the label of “insolent daughter of Eve” by her Catholic opponents. For more than forty years she risked her life and the well-being of her family for the cause of the Protestant Reformation. In a letter to Catholic authorities, she asked, “What have Luther and Melanchthon taught save the Word of God?” She taunted them for condemning him but not refuting him. In 1523, as a young mother, she boldly defended her views in a debate before the diet of the Empire Nurnberg. [Ibid., 97-98]

Stauffer (also known by her husband’s last name, von Grumbach) was persecuted not only by state officials but also by her husband whose very livelihood was in jeopardy because of her activities. Luther recognized her sacrificial work in a letter to a friend:

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, though, she admits not without inner trembling. She is a singular instrument of Christ. [Quoted in Ibid., 106]

Stauffer’s boldness was rooted in her conviction that she was following in a long line of ordinary people uniquely designated to serve God. “The extraordinarily militant roles of Deborah, Jael, Esther, Judith become archetypal,” writes Peter Matheson. “Womanly ‘shamefacedness,’ like all human shame, is thus overcome by the imperative of grace which makes them leaders and thinkers. . . . This perception then unlocks for Argula the reluctance of all true prophets to speak . . .All normal categories have been turned upside down.” [Peter Matheson, “Introduction” in Argula Von Grumback: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation, ed by Peter Matheson (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), 38-39]

She was twice imprisoned, the last time when she was seventy, shortly before her death. Her crimes amounted to far more than verbal protest and circulating books and tracts against Catholic “heresies.” She had conducted religious meetings in her home and officiated at secret funerals in cemeteries. [Ibid., 108]

KATHERINE ZELL

Katherine Zell was another Reformer who boldly challenged the religious establishment, including her fellow Reformers. From her childhood she was, by her own testimony, “a student and sort of church mother” always eager to engage “learned men” in theological conversations. Her marriage to Matthew Zell, a priest turned Protestant preacher, set the stage for her wide-ranging, life-long ministry. She headed a vast refugee ministry that helped families fleeing the Peasants’ War; she wrote tracts, edited a hymnbook, and served as a full partner in her husband’s ministry. Following his death she continued on in the ministry, boldly defending Anabaptists and others who were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike. “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.” She lamented that the Anabaptists—Christians “who accept Christ in all the essentials as we do”—were “pursued as by a hunter with dogs chasing wild boars” [Quoted in Ibid., 65, 73]

Zell was accused of seeking to become “Doctor Katrina” and “usurping the office of preacher” following her husband’s death. She responded to the charges by citing Mary Magdelene, “who with no thought of being an apostle, came to tell the disciples that she had encountered the risen Lord.” [Quoted in Ibid., 66-67]

Zell was a prolific writer, and today she is known largely through her writings. “She stands out from other lay pamphleteers and writers in several ways,” writes Elsie McKee:

The most important is the length of time during which she published, from 1524 until 1558. . . . The amount and especially the diversity of her writings are another surprise. . . . Her literary legacy includes a wide range of genres, from devotional meditations and pastoral counsel and religious instruction to polemical theology, from autobiographical and historical apologetics to a sermon and petitions to Strasbourg’s city council for civic reform, as well as personal correspondence. [Elsie Anne McKee, Katharina Schultz Zell: The Life and Thought of A Sixteenth-Century Reformer, vol 1 (Boston: Brill, 1999, xii.]

TERESA OF AVILA

Religion was very politicized during the Reformation era, and where Protestants ruled Catholics were persecuted and convents were closed. But in Catholic lands, convents flourished and renewal movements took root. One of the most celebrated of the Catholic monastic reformers was Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), a Carmelite nun, who was known for her visionary mysticism with the goal of bringing God inside oneself—“perfect union of the soul with God.” Her best known mystical trance was the experience of her heart being pierced by a spear of diving love. But her ministry involved far more than mystical ecstasy. She brought renewal to Carmelite convents and established fifteen new houses in less than two decades. For this ministry, she was both revered and despised. One leading cleric accused her of being a “restless gadabout, disobedient, contumacious woman who promulgates pernicious doctrines under pretense of devotion . . . and teaches theology as if she were a doctor of the Church.” [Quoted in Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation From Spain to Scandinavia (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977), 56]

REBELS WITH A CAUSE

In the centuries following the Reformation, women continued to make their mark in the ministry—though most often in the sectarian movements that emerged outside the established churches. Indeed, throughout Christian history, women readily found opportunities to serve in the developing stages of religious movements, but faced opposition as these groups moved into the mainstream of institutionalized Christianity.

ANNE HUTCHINSON

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) is an example of such a woman. She found a place of prominence among the English Puritans, but found that her rebel mentality was not appreciated when the Puritans became the “established church” of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It is true that she had been a controversial figure before she immigrated to New England, but in old England the Puritan divines were often so consumed with their own rebel cause that they had less time for rebels in their midst, especially someone of her standing in the community. She was the wife of the well-respected William Hutchinson and the mother of fifteen children.

In the Bay colony, Anne Hutchinson found a welcome acceptance of women and she quickly established herself as a leader of the women—especially through her expertise in midwifery and child care. But her greatest influence was in the spiritual arena. She was a student of the Bible and began holding weekly meetings in her home for the express purpose of elucidating—and often challenging—the Sunday sermons. John Cotton, her minister, initially praised her ministry for encouraging “many of the woman (and their husbands) . . . to inquire more seriously after the Lord Jesus Christ.” [John Cotton, “The Way of the Congregational Churches Cleared” (1648), in David D. Hall, ed., The Antinomian Controversy (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 1968), 412]

That Hutchinson was gaining a large following among both women and men was alone enough to make her suspect in the eyes of many of the church leaders, but that her exposition of Scripture seriously challenged the theological framework of Puritan preaching was intolerable. According to Selma Williams,
“She offered her own version of the . . . Covenant of Grace: each person’s actions to be guided by his or her own conscience and inner morality; each person to communicate directly with God, without need of outside supervision.” [Selma Williams, Divine Rebel: The Life of Anne Marbury Hutchinson (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981), 121] And not only were women brought into her circle, but the “Hutchinsonians,” as they were called, included many men as well. The women, “as by an Eve,” railed a colonial minister, “catch their husbands also.” For such heresy, she was brought to trial, convicted, and banished from the Bay Colony. [John Winthrop, Winthrop’s Journal: History of New England, 1630-1649, 2 vols., ed. James K. Hosmer (New York: Scribner, 1908), 1:240]

In the decades following Hutchinson’s banishment, there would be other women who would test the tolerance of the officials of the Bay Colony. One was Mary Dyer, a follower of Hutchinson who later, while visiting England, became a Quaker (Society of Friends). Despite laws against the entry of Quakers into the colony, Dyer returned to Boston to testify of her new faith. She was twice banished, but each time she returned, only to be sentenced to hang. She was reprieved the last moment and sent away again, but she returned and was hanged in Boston in the spring of 1660. [Horatio Rogers, Mary Dyer of Rhode Island (Providence: Preston and Rounds, 1896), quoted in Jessamyn West, ed., The Quaker Reader (New York: Viking, 1962), 175] Her death caused an outcry against the “wicked law” among many of the colonists, but not sufficient enough to prevent the “witch” executions in Salem only three decades later.

MARGARET FELL FOX

So prominent were women among the Quakers that in the early years they were rumored to be a cult of women. The most noted Quaker woman was Margaret Fell Fox (1614-1702). She did not join the Society of Friends until her late thirties, then the mother of nine children and the wife of the wealthy Judge Thomas Fell. After her husband died, she assumed a very active and more aggressive leadership role and was twice imprisoned for conducting illegal meetings, one term extending for four years amid deplorable conditions. In 1669, at the age of fifty-five, she married George Fox, the founder and leader of the Quakers, ten years her junior. Their active ministries often kept them apart, and after he died she continued to give direction to the movement for more than a decade. [Ruth A. Tucker and Walter Liefeld, Daughters of the Church: Women and Miistry from New Testament Times to the Present (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 229-232]

Margaret served as a role model and an outspoken advocate of equality for women in society and among the Quakers. She did not mince words in challenging the male establishment. In her booklet Womens Speaking Justified . . . by the Scriptures, she wrote: “But all this opposing of women’s speaking, hath arisen out of the bottomless pit.” [Margaret Fell, Womens Speaking Justified, Proved and Allowed of. by the Scriptures (London, 1967), 10] She also spoke out strongly for pacifism and laid the groundwork for that Quaker principle in 1660 through her writing entitled, “Declaration and an Information.” [Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, 230]

Like the Quakers, the early Methodists were perceived as an extremist movement outside the mainstream of the religious establishment. And like the Quakers, women had very prominent roles in the early years—though John Wesley was sensitive about that fact and about being labeled a Quaker because of the large number of women preachers in his ranks.

SUSANNA WESLEY

Susanna Wesley, the mother of John and Charles (and seventeen other children) is perhaps rightly regarded the “mother” of Methodism—not because she was an active Methodist herself but because of her enormous influence over her two sons. A strong and spirited woman, she challenged her husband’s efforts to control her political views, and when he later abandoned her and the children, she preached sermons to his Anglican parishioners. Indeed, she preached so well that there was standing room only for those who came to hear her expound on Scripture. When her husband returned, she stepped down from the pulpit but her influence in the home continued. She was far more a pragmatist than any sort of modern-day feminist—as were her sons. Their agenda was not equal rights for women but the preaching of the Gospel, and women’s voices were needed as much as were men’s. [Ibid., 236-238]

John later referred to his mother as a “preacher of righteousness,” a description that aptly fits many of the early Methodist women. Margaret Davidson, Sarah Crosby, Sarah Mallet and others all preached in front of large crowds—though sometimes stepping down from the pulpit or breaking their sermons into short exhortations with hymns interspersed, or being careful not to speak in a high shrill voice. [Tucker and Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, 240-241] For most of these women, their closest connections were with the working-class poorer elements of society. Others, like Lady Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, easily mixed with royalty and the upper classes of society. She donated large sums for the training of Methodist ministers and she became actively involved in theological issues and ministry placement—showing favor to those who supported George Whitefield’s Calvinism as opposed to Wesley’s Arminian stance. For decades, the “Huntingdon Connection” was a power to be reckoned with. [Earl Kent Brown, Women of Mr. Wesley’s Methodism (New York: Mellen, 1983), 105, 185-98]

"Mother Wesley's Epitaph"


This is an interesting story that I am including in my book tentatively titled "Your Legacy Foodprint."

One of the most misleading epitaphs I have ever encountered in my studies is the one written by Charles Wesley for his mother Susanna Wesley. Charles is the lesser known of the Wesley brothers—except among church musicians. John is considered the founder of the Methodist church. Charles was the much-heralded hymn-writer whose lyrics are sung in every denomination and around the world today. And, the Christmas season isn’t complete without his “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

When Mother Wesley died in the summer of 1742, at age seventy-two, she was buried at Bunhill Fields. Son John preached the funeral sermon and son Charles served as poet, penning the lines for her epitaph. The first stanza that speaks of her crown and mansion in the skies appears to be no more than a son’s sentimentality. But suddenly in the second stanza, the sentimentality veers into a serious allegation of a legal night of seventy years. The third stanza catches her in free-fall, when the Father revealed his Son and she felt her sins forgiven:

In sure and steadfast hope to rise,
And claim her mansion in the skies,
A Christian here her flesh laid down,
The cross exchanging for a crown.

True daughter of affliction, she,
Inured to pain and misery,
Mourn'd a long night of griefs and fears,
A legal night of seventy years.

The Father then revealed his Son;
Him in the broken bread made known;
She knew and felt her sins forgiven,
And found the earnest of her heaven.

Meet for the fellowship above,
She heard the call, "Arise, my love!"
"I come!" her dying looks replied,
And, lamb-like as her Lord, she died.

Having studied and written about the life of Susanna Wesley, I find this poem of Charles more than just insulting. With these words (apparently approved by his brother), he sought to erase the extraordinary legacy of his mother. Fortunately, his assessment is today forgotten, and his epitaph is now but a footnote summed up by a nineteenth-century Wesley biographer says it best:

When she died in 1742, her sons had four verses inscribed on her tombstone, teaching, if they teach anything, that she was not received into the divine favor until she attained the age of seventy. This is a monstrous perversion of facts, and can only be accounted for on the ground that John and Charles Wesley were so enamored of their blessed and newly discovered doctrines, that as yet they felt it difficult to think any one to be scripturally converted except those who . . . had experienced an instantaneous changed of heart, under circumstances similar to their own. . . . Having read her letters and her other literary productions, we are satisfied that, if there ever was a sincere and earnest Christian, she was one. [L. Tyerman, The Life and Times of Rev. Samuel Wesley (London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1866), 125.]

Susanna’s legacy has long been dear to my heart—so much so that I spent a sunny September afternoon meandering through her house and gardens in Epworth, England. As ministers’ wives and mothers we have commonality—though as children go, she trumps me 19:1. I can’t imagine how she managed to conduct an organized household and even do a little preaching on the side when her husband was away. But most of all, I find in her a model of a feisty woman—strong, independent, and opinionated. She stood up to her husband when he tried to silence her—holding fast to her “little liberty of conscience.”


MARY FLETCHER

Of all the early Methodist women, the one who stands out the most for faithful service is Mary Bosanquet Fletcher (1739-1815), who actively served in the ministry from age eighteen until her death at seventy-six. Born into wealth, she used her inheritance to found an orphanage, where she served for two decades while preaching and leading societies on the side. In 1781, at the age of forty-two, she married John Fletcher, one of the most respected Weselyan theologians and a close associate of John Wesley. Four years later he died, and Mary continued on in the ministry as a widow for thirty years. She was a powerful preacher and sometimes spoke to crowds as large as three thousand. She regularly spoke at the “tythe barn,” a facility that drew large numbers of itinerant ministers who looked to her as a pastor to pastors. Even after the age of seventy, she continued to preach at as many as six meetings a week. [Ruth A. Tucker, Private Lives of Pastors’ Wives (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 62-70]

For John Wesley, like other churchmen over the centuries, coming to terms with women preachers was not an easy matter. He was convinced that the Apostle Paul did not permit women to preach under ordinary circumstances. But, he was also convinced that “the whole world of God termed Methodism is an extraordinary dispensation” and thus did “not fall under the ordinary rules of discipline.” To Mary Fletcher, whose ministry was often criticized, Wesley had written: “I think the strength of the cause rests there—on you having an extraordinary call.” [Quoted in Brown, Women of Mr. Wesley’s Methodism, 27-28]

Mary Fletcher stood in a long line of women who had served faithfully from the time of Mary Magdelene and Pheobe and Lydia—a line that includes Perpetua and Marcella and Paula and Lioba Hildegard and Katherine Zell and Teresa of Avila and Margaret Fell Fox—women who were convinced of their extraordinary call to preach the gospel.

A GREAT ONLINE SOURCE ON WOMEN IN THE CHURCH

The Project Gutenberg EBook of Excellent Women, by Various Authors

This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with
almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or
re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included
with this eBook or online at www.gutenberg.net

Title: Excellent Women

Release Date: November 19, 2003 [EBook #10129]

Produced by Joel Erickson, Charlie Kirschner and the Online Distributed
Proofreading Team.

CONTENTS.

ELIZABETH FRY. BY JAMES MACAULAY, M.A., M.D.
SELINA, COUNTESS OF HUNTINGDON. BY REV. R. LOVETT, M.A.
RACHEL, LADY RUSSELL. BY JAMES MACAULAY, M.A., M.D.
FRANCES RIDLEY HAVERGAL. BY REV. J.P. HOBSON, M.A.
HANNAH MORE. BY HENRY JOHNSON.
SUSANNA WESLEY. BY REV. J. CUNNINGHAM, M.A.
MRS. HEMANS. BY REV. S.F. HARRIS, M.A., B.C.L.
MADAME GUYON. BY WILLIAM NICHOLS.
ANN JUDSON. BY FRED. A. MCKENZIE.
MARY LOUISA WHATELY. BY REV. W.R. BOWMAN.
AGNES JONES. BY ELLEN L. COURTENAY.
ELIZABETH, DUCHESS OF GORDON. BY REV. S.F. HARRIS, M.A., B.C.L.


Church Mothers

Dr. Philip G. Ryken • Window on the World

Tenth Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia • May 12, 2002

Copyright reserved · Internet access via www.tenth.org

Everyone knows about the Church Fathers. They were men like Jerome, Athanasius, and Augustine. These were the great theologians who helped organize the church’s thinking on central Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. But what about the Church Mothers? How come no one ever talks about them? The truth is that there were some great women in the early church, and that they too have left us their legacy.

A striking testimony to the character of Christian women in those days comes from the famous preacher John Chrysostom, whose father died while he was an infant, and who thus was raised by his mother Anthousa. Through the years this godly widow made many sacrifices to educate her children. Eventually Chrysostom was able to study with Libanios, the famous rhetoric teacher at Antioch. When Libanios learned of the costly and courageous way Anthousa had raised her family, he looked around at his pupils and said: “Great heavens, what remarkable women are to be found among the Christians!” [quoted in J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom-Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop, Baker, 1995, p. 7].

There were many women like Anthousa in the early church. They were not great theologians, if by that we mean someone whose thinking and writing helped to shape Christian theology for generations to come. But many of the Church Mothers were good theologians who carefully studied the Scriptures so they could live for the glory of God.

One of these women was the Roman widow Marcella. Marcella was a friend of the great Bible scholar Jerome, who praised her passion to know what the Bible really said. She was like the Bereans whom the apostle Paul commended for “examining the Scriptures every day” to make sure that what he said was true (Acts 17:11). According to Jerome,

[Marcella] never came without asking something about Scripture, nor did she immediately accept my explanation as satisfactory, but she proposed questions from the opposite viewpoint, not for the sake of being contentious, but so that by asking, she might learn . . . . What virtue I found in her, what cleverness, what holiness, what purity. . . . I will say only this, that whatever in us was gathered by long study and by lengthy meditation . . . this she tasted, this she learned, this she possessed. Thus after my departure, if an argument arose about some evidence from Scripture, the question was pursued with her as the judge [Jerome, “Epistle 127,” quoted in Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, InterVarsity, 1998, p. 44].

Another of Jerome’s close female friends was a wealthy woman named Paula. Paula did many good things for the sake of the gospel. But in a letter written shortly after her death, Jerome especially praised her intellect, and her thirst for biblical knowledge:

She had memorized the Scripture. . . . [S]he urged me that she, along with her daughter, might read through the Old and New Testaments. . . . If at any passage I was at a loss and frankly confessed that I was ignorant, she by no means wanted to rest content with my reply, but by fresh questions would force me to say which of the many possible meanings seemed to me the most likely [Jerome, “Epistle 108,” quoted in Hall, 44].

Some of the Church Mothers were, in fact, mothers. Probably the most famous was Augustine's mother, Monica. The great joy of Monica’s life was to see both her pagan husband and her rebellious son receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Although she had catechized Augustine in his youth, for many years he turned his back on the Christian faith. But Monica did not despair. She kept praying for her son’s salvation, and eventually Augustine came back to Christ. Monica’s motherly intercession was the great work of her life, and the legacy that her son left the church was also her legacy.

Not all the Church Mothers had children of their own. Some of them were single. Earlier I mentioned John Chrysostom. One of the significant women in his life was Olympias, the famous deaconess of Constantinople. Olympias had a personal fortune that she willingly dedicated to the needs of the poor. She also took an active role in church life. In the words of one ancient historian, “She contended eagerly in no minor contests for the name of the truth, taught many women, held solemn conversations with priests, honored the bishops, and was deemed worthy to be a confessor on behalf of truth” [Palladius, quoted in Hall, 45]. Everything she did was adorned with personal godliness. An ancient biographical work entitled The Life of Olympias, Deaconess, describes as having “an appearance without pretense, character without affectation . . . a mind without vainglory, intelligence without conceit . . . character without limits, immeasurable self-control . . . the ornament of all the humble” [quoted in Hall, p. 46].

These are only a few of the Church Mothers mentioned by the Church Fathers. There was Melania, Proba, and Macrina, the sister of two famous theologians: Gregory of Nyssa and Basil the Great. And of course, there were many other women whose names have been forgotten. They studied the Bible, prayed for their children, and cared for the sick and the poor. The Church Mothers set a high standard for all the Christian women—and all the Christian men—who follow.

The way to claim the inheritance these women left behind is to live in close communion with Christ, being devoted to his teaching. Be like Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet to learn theology, and of whom it was said: “Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42b). If you have children, teach them to follow Christ and pray for their salvation. Be like Eunice, whose faith came to life in the ministry of her son Timothy (2 Tim. 1:5). And remain active in service and mercy. Be like Dorcas, “who was always doing good and helping the poor” (Acts 9:36). The church needs mothers like these in every generation.

[For more information about the Church Mothers, consult Elizabeth A. Clark, Women in the Early Church, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1983]