Book Write-Up: Reformation Women

Rebecca VanDoodewaard.  Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth.  Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

As the title indicates, this book is about sixteenth century Protestant women who contributed to the Protestant Reformation.  It includes chapters on Anna Reinhard, Anna Adlischweiler, Katharina Schutz, Margarethe Blauer, Maguerite de Navarre, Jeanne d’ Albret, Charlotte Arbaleste, Charlotte de Bourbon, Louise de Coligny, Katherine Willoughby, Renee of Ferrara, and Olympia Morata.

The women profiled in this book were from different countries, including France, England, and the Netherlands.  They had different backgrounds.  Some were from royalty and used their status and influence to protect persecuted Protestants.  One led armies into battle.  Some were ex-nuns.  Some were in Protestants in Catholic families, experiencing pressure to conform.  Some were wives of Protestant Reformers and provided support for their husbands, while helping others in need.  Some were writers, either in a public capacity, or in a private capacity, writing letters of encouragement.

The book has a distinct ideology.  It is sympathetic towards the Protestants, particularly the Huguenots (though the first chapter is about Zwingli’s wife).  Consequently, the Catholics in this book are usually the villains, either as persecutors or as hypocritical philanderers.  The fact that there were Protestants who persecuted people is rarely mentioned, though there is an occasional acknowledgement that some Protestants were more righteous than others.

The book also has a complementarian stance.  One of its goals is to reclaim these women from feminists, such that the Reformation women can be examples of biblical womanhood for Christian women.  This is not entirely bad.  As the author says about feminist treatments of these women, “Marriages in which husbands respected their wives’ intellectual abilities and churches that appreciated female gifts are presented as exceptions to the Reformed rule, when they are simply sample expressions of a widespread biblical complementarianism during the Reformation, as many of the marriages in this book show” (page x).  Treating the males of the past solely as male-chauvinist boors is a limited perspective, and the author does well to assert that there is more nuance than that.

That said, there are aspects of this book that many feminists may like, and there are aspects that they may not like.  The women in this book are strong women, who influence people and use their intelligence and talents.  Many of them were not defined by their roles as wives and mothers, for they had a sense of purpose and mission outside of the home, and they continued using their gifts after they ceased being wives and mothers.  They stood up to men when men were behaving in a manner that they considered unjust.  On the other hand, the author upholds women who stayed with their philandering husbands as examples for Christian women.  She also tells a story about a woman who stopped speaking at ecclesiastical meetings after John Calvin rebuked her; whether the author approves of that is not entirely clear.

The book provided a balance between large-scale historical narrative (i.e., wars, politics, persecutions, etc.) and anecdotes that humanized the women Reformers.  It painted a compelling picture of their struggles, their piety, and their deeds of charity and love towards others.  It was a little thin in describing the differences between Protestant and Catholic doctrine and what drew the women to Protestant doctrine, as well as political motivations behind the Protestant Reformation.  There were interesting side-discussions: the one about the woman who appealed to Calvin’s commentaries to justify curling her hair, against those who opposed such a practice on the basis of I Peter 3:3-4, comes to mind.  On one occasion, I wished that the author would have elaborated: John Calvin encouraged Renee of Ferrara when she was concerned that her Catholic son-in-law was in hell, but we are not told what he told her.  (How much information is available about that discussion, I do not know.)

The conclusion of the book was especially strong, as it eloquently discussed lessons that we can learn from the women’s lives.  The most powerful lessons included the importance of deriving one’s identity and mission from one’s faith rather than one’s role, how people have different gifts and should diligently use them where they are, and how people should have a cause beyond themselves.

Searching on the Internet, I found an article by Ruth Tucker on Renee of Ferrara, entitled “John Calvin and the Princess.”  It appeared in the September 2009 Christianity Today, and it presents a rather different picture than what Rebecca VanDoodewaard does.   The Renee in this article had a more contentious relationship with Calvin, criticized Protestant persecution of Catholics, and could have had more influence, if not for the societal limitations on women at the time.  VanDoodewaard’s book is more homiletical, and sometimes hagiographical, and yet it provides a different perspective, which should be considered; it is not the only perspective, though.  Perhaps her book can inspire people to learn more about the Reformation women.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews.  My review is honest!

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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