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Published Date: September 5, 2003


Published Date: September 5, 2003


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Unheralded and Unknown: Although Virtually Ignored, Women Played a Vital Role in Church History

Even as a young teenager, Catherine of Siena refused to marry so that she could serve Christ,” I started to tell my young friend Betsy. “Catherine was so respected in the 14th- century church that she was able to instruct Pope Gregory about the problems of the church and charge him to return to Rome to deal with them.” 

The stories I’d been reading about women in church history had gripped my heart, and I wanted to share them with someone. Betsy listened eagerly, her eyes growing big with wonder. “I didn’t know there were women like that in the church,” she said. “Why have we never heard about them?” 

Why indeed? From the time of the early church, women have been actively serving Christ and holding respected positions of leadership, but church historians have virtually ignored them. Take a look at just a few key women across history.

Early Church

Women played a vital role in the early church. Paul refers to 10 women in Romans 16, calling some “fellow workers,” a term he also uses to describe male workers in the church. He sends greetings to Junia, commenting that she is “outstanding among the apostles.” John Chrysostom, eloquent fourth-century bishop of Constantinople, wrote of her, “Oh, how great is the devotion of this woman that she should even be counted worthy of the appellation of apostle.”

As Paul traveled through Greece, he often preached to the educated and powerful, and the New Testament reports that “prominent women” accepted his message.

A picture in the Priscilla catacomb in Rome dating back to the first century shows a “deaconess” serving the Lord’s Supper to a group of women. Very early in the church an order of widows developed who were referred to as presbyteresses.

Women actively participated in the private domain as long as the church met in homes. After the third century, when the church became “public,” women’s roles became restricted through progressive church council decisions.

Martyrs — Perpetua (Martyred 203 A.D.)

The young church grew rapidly, and so did persecution by the Roman rulers who feared hostility to the state and failure to honor the emperor as supreme ruler. In John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, horrendous stories of persecution are told about many women who chose to suffer and die for Christ rather than renounce their faith.

One of the best-documented reports of martyrdom comes from the pen of Perpetua, a 22- year-old woman in Carthage (modern Tunisia) who recorded the story of her conversion and arrest until the time of her death in March 203 A.D.

Perpetua was the mother of a tiny infant. Her father pleaded with her on several occasions to renounce Christianity for the sake of her son and her family. Perpetua was eventually put to the sword by the gladiators for her faith. Her courage and commitment to Christ are evident in her writing, especially as she records the last meeting with her father as she appeared before Hilarianus the governor:

All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came to my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step and said, “Perform the sacrifice — have pity on your baby!”

“I will not,” I retorted. “Are you a Christian?” said Hilarianus. And I said, “Yes I am.” When my father persisted in trying to dissuade

me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten. Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us; we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits.

Wealthy Women — Marcella (325–410 A.D.)

In the early centuries after the spread of Christianity, immorality, frivolity and indecent luxury marked the life of Rome’s upper classes. Women spent literally hours painting their faces and plaiting golden tresses into their own dark hair. Their homes glittered with gold and lavish ornamentation. Wealthy Christian women who had access to Scripture began to denounce the opulent decadence of the Roman way of life. One of these was Marcella.

After her conversion, Marcella exchanged her luxurious clothing for a coarse brown dress and opened her palatial home for Bible studies. In 382 A.D. she invited Jerome, translator of the Latin translation of the Bible, to teach.

Jerome frequently discussed Scripture with Marcella and expressed amazement that she had learned on her own what he had discovered through long study and constant meditation. Jerome was so confident of Marcella’s understanding that he once asked her to settle a dispute between bishops and presbyters in Rome concerning the meaning of a certain Scripture.

The studies in Marcella’s home were soon called the “Church of the Household,” which became a center not only for Bible study and prayer but also for ministry to the poor. She established the first convent where women in the West came to devote themselves to prayer, study of the Scriptures and good works. She also established several religious houses and initiated the meticulous copying of Scriptures.

Mystics of the Middle Ages — Catherine of Siena (1347–1380)

During the Middle Ages the institutionalized church fell into avarice, political intrigue and spiritual apathy. Early reformers — some of whom were women — desired to purify the church and to lift the entire population of Christians to a higher level. While women had no official voice in church matters, mystics who received direct revelations from God were honored. Catherine of Siena was a mystic who labored for peace and reform throughout her short life.

As a young child, Catherine had a profound religious experience, seeing a vision of Christ above the steeple of the church. Her family was exasperated with her resulting zealousness. However, her father recognized her unique spiritual qualities and allowed her to live in silence and seclusion in an underground room of their home. As a girl of 12, she ate only bread and water, and slept on a straw pallet often no more than two hours a night. Prayer became the staff of her life. After three years of solitude, she heard a call from God to purify the church.

In 1363, Catherine chose the life of a religious laywoman, and served the poor on the streets of Siena. Her overriding burden was the conversion of sinners, and she entreated the rich and poor, sick and healthy to repent and be saved. When the Black Death struck the city in 1374, people fled to the country to escape the disease that would kill one-third of the city’s population. However, Catherine and her followers stayed in the city and worked indefatigably day and night to care for the sick and dying.

As Catherine’s fame and influence grew, she attempted to persuade church leaders to unify and reform the church. She exorted the Pope to leave Avignon where he was living in lavish luxury and return to Rome. After Gregory died, she moved to Rome to assist the new pope, Urban VI, still hoping to bring about reform in the church. After some years of failing health, she died at the age of 33 in Rome.

Women of the Reformation — Katherina von Bora (1499–1555)

When Martin Luther finally brought the growing Reformation sentiments to a head, life for men and women of the church in Europe changed forever. Zeal to reform the Roman Catholic Church spread like wildfire.

Luther’s teaching even slipped into Katherina von Bora’s convent, where strict silence was enforced and friendship between nuns discouraged. Yet, somehow, the teachings of the Reformation made their way in and stirred up new passions and convictions. One can only imagine how the silenced nuns slipped notes to each other and whispered surreptitiously when the abbess was out of hearing.

Katherina approached her parents and friends for help to leave the convent, but they refused. Then a daring plot evolved. One dark night a vendor appeared at the convent delivering barrels of herring. Eleven nuns rode out inside the barrels to an uncertain future.

Martin Luther was faced with the problem of what to do with these nuns. Eventually all but Katherina were married. She refused the man he recommended, but she sent word to Luther that she would be willing to consider Luther himself.

Luther had not thought of marriage for himself, expecting to be burned at the stake as a heretic at any time. He wrote to his friends, “While I was thinking of other things, God has suddenly brought me to marriage … God likes to work miracles.” They were married and enjoyed more than 20 years of a tumultuous but happy union.

Katherina Bora Luther became the revered matriarch of the Protestant parsonage. She looked after orchards and gardens and served hundreds of people who came through the Luther home during the hectic Reformation days. She turned part of her home into a hospital. Katherina’s eldest son, who became a physician, testified that she treated the sick as well as any doctor.

New Opportunities for Women — Hannah More (1745–1833)

The humanistic awakenings of the Renaissance opened some doors for upper-class women to gain an education and follow less conforming roles. During the next three centuries, tremendous changes in society as a whole brought new opportunities for women to gain education and to become involved in social reforms. The Industrial Revolution led to pressing social needs, and women began to take more public roles in issues such as abolition, prohibition and suffrage.

Vivacious and intellectual, Hannah More spent the first part of her life moving in the social circles of London. A gifted playwright, she became friends with such renowned writers as Dr. Samuel Johnson, who encouraged her to publish her writing.

At the age of 35, she joined a small group of Christian activists known as the Clapham Sect, who believed that Christians must make a social impact and work for change in society. They had much to do with abolishing the slave trade in the British empire, ending child labor, and even helping to protect England from the French Revolution.

In 1789 Hannah visited a mining area, and she was appalled by the poverty and ignorance she saw. She began teaching Scriptures to the children, which grew into one of the first Sunday Schools in England. Incredibly, she was condemned and persecuted by the church curates for this action because of the prevailing belief that education of the poor would destroy their interest in farming and other menial tasks.

Hannah also wrote many tracts for the Clapham Sect. When she died, she left her estate of about 30,000 pounds to 70 Christian organizations.

Women in Missions — Mary Slessor (1848–1950) and Sarah Platt Doremus (1802–1877)

British mission agencies, such as the London Missionary Society, pioneered in many parts of the world — India, the South Seas and West Africa. Wives were considered indispensable to the work, but nevertheless many agencies simply listed the man’s name followed by a small m. to indicate he was married. Doors opened slowly for single women, and only the most courageous and visionary would venture into the uncharted heathen regions.

Perhaps the best known of these early pioneers is Mary Slessor, who responded to God’s call after the death of her brother who had long felt he should be a missionary. Born in Scotland, Mary went to Nigeria. She was disappointed to find the missionary community emulating the British lifestyle with high teas, fancy hats and gloves, and social occasions that were as foreign to this lower-class mill worker as village life in Africa.

Because she wanted to live with and like the Africans, Mary moved inland. “She discarded the Victorian missionary’s hat, gloves, boots, bustle, long curls, and sometimes even her outer dress,” wrote Miriam Adeney in Missiology. “She spent time in African houses, sleeping beside big sweating bodies, eating native food, going barefoot, suffering local diseases — but awake, aware, curious, asking questions, categorizing information, applying it.”

Mary Slessor spent 40 years in Africa, moving ever farther into the interior among warring people immersed in witchcraft. She rescued twins who would have been killed by the community, and raised seven adopted children. She opened up the interior of Nigeria to the gospel and served as an intermediary between tribal factions.

Sarah Doremus

By the middle of the 19th century, the women of the church could no longer wait for the existing boards to send single missionaries and to focus on the needs of women and children.

In 1861, the first of 41 women’s missionary societies was formed in the United States: the Woman’s Union Missionary Society of America. Sarah Doremus became the first president and served until her death in 1877.

R. Pierce Beaver describes her as “one of the most remarkable laywomen in the whole history of American Protestantism.” She organized a society for the relief of Greek women then suffering under the Turks, started services in the New York prison, and encouraged the organization of the Women’s Prison Association. She served on the board of the New York Bible Society, founded the House and School of Industry and helped found a children’s and women’s hospital. She was also one of the founders of the Presbyterian Home for Aged Women.

With such obvious gifts and commitment, it is no wonder that the Woman’s Union became an effective ministry, supporting more than 100 women missionaries in Burma, India, China, Syria, Greece and Japan in its first 20 years. Doremus’s leadership became an inspiration to women around the country, and denominational women’s missions emerged in ensuing years. By 1929, 67 percent of all North American missionaries were women.

We have barely touched upon the courageous women risk-takers who through history have lifted high the cross unheralded and unknown, but they urge us on to add to their numbers.

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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