Women in the Protestant Reformation

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The status of women in the Protestant Reformation was the role of wife and mother, just as the men's role was that of husband, father, or son.

Gender roles[edit]


A wife was expected to be a companion to her husband, but she was always his subordinate. Obedience was demanded by husbands, and women were restricted in their actions. There were some women during the Reformation who were not as restricted as other women. Katharina von Bora who married the well known reformer Martin Luther set the standard of more roles given to a pastor's wife. She was also considered to be a perfect role model for those women who, like herself, had also married into the clergy.

Education and domestic work[edit]

Women were to be silent, obedient, and to perform household tasks. The purpose of women's education was the development of an accepted concept of marriage and training in domestic skills. Women were taught how to look after children, care for their homes, make clothing for her family, and tend livestock. The change was that women were now encouraged to study the Bible in vernacular language, to be a biblical influence for children and with their husband. By allowing women to become educated and read the bible, they found passages suggesting women were equal to men in the presence of God.

Ecclesiastical status[edit]

Women not allowed to preach or publish[edit]

Women's preaching or publishing material stood in direct opposition to the words ascribed to St. Paul (1 Timothy 2: 11-15) which ordered women not to teach or preach, so that all women who published felt it necessary to justify their actions.[1] Even the sole alternative role for women which had existed outside of marriage, to join a convent, was no longer available in Protestant areas. The only exception was the Anabaptist religion, where women could preach in church. The only evident of works or writings that are written by women are from their letters or through the testimonials of the woman who were being questioned about their faith. It is also important to note that these testimonials, based on the women of the Reformation, were written by men.[2] This lack of written work by women may have something to do with the fact that society was a male dominated one and women were meant to complete their household duties and nothing else.

No more female convents[edit]

The Protestant Reformation, by shutting down female convents within the movement, effectively closed off the option of a full-time religious role for Protestant women.[3] Martin Luther himself taught that "the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and concern the state…."[4] John Calvin agreed that "the woman's place is in the home."[5]

Social attitudes[edit]

The clergy could now be married, reducing illegitimate births although there is little if any evidence illegitimacy was mainly fueled by unmarried clergy. Women's voices in the Reformation were mostly suppressed with their writings destroyed because of the edict in the Bible for women to be silent. Many women tried to become involved in the Reformation all throughout Europe and some of their voices were heard while others were not. Another famous reformer John Calvin was known for contacting several noblewomen to ascertain their opinions on certain religious topics.[6] This indicates that even the most well known of reformers were contacting women to hear what they may have to say on certain topics.

Denominational positions[edit]


Baptist theologian Dr. John Gill (1690–1771) comments on 1 Corinthians 14:34,35, stating

In Gen_3:16, "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee". By this the apostle would signify, that the reason why women are not to speak in the church, or to preach and teach publicly, or be concerned in the ministerial function, is, because this is an act of power, and authority; of rule and government, and so contrary to that subjection which God in his law requires of women unto men. The extraordinary instances of Deborah, Huldah, and Anna, must not be drawn into a rule or example in such cases.[7]


Methodist founder John Wesley (1703–1791) and Methodist theologian Adam Clarke (1762–1832) both upheld male headship, but allowed that spiritual Christian women could publicly speak in church meetings if they "are under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit" (Wesley),[8] and that such were to obey that influence, and that "the apostle lays down directions in chap. 11 for regulating her personal appearance when thus employed.” (Clarke)[9] Puritan theologian Matthew Poole (1624–1679) concurred with Wesley, adding,

But setting aside that extraordinary case of a special afflatus, [strong Divine influence] it was, doubtless, unlawful for a woman to speak in the church.[10]

Matthew Henry (1662–1714) in his commentary, entertains allowing “praying, and uttering hymns inspired” by women, as such “were not teaching”.[11]


Nineteenth century Congregationalist A. Hastings Boss, D.D., writing in 1870 in the Bibliotheca sacra and theological review, found no sanctioned “instance in the Bible of a woman's speaking in public”, in that of Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna, and stated that

If these prophetesses had each been called to public speaking, they would have been exceptions to the general rule, in striking contrast with the conduct of all other women under the law. Certainly no rule could have been or can now be founded upon these exceptional cases.
Joel predicts [Joel 2:28-32] and Peter quotes [Acts 2:17-21] that "in the last days" God's Spirit should lead "daughters" and hand-maidens," as well as men, to "prophesy"; but neither prophet nor apostle specifies any particular place, as the church, in which it should be done. Now Paul nowhere forbids women to prophesy, except " in the churches." They could have exercised their gift in private, or in a congregation of women, as did the four virgin daughters of Philip...A prophetess would have had enough to do among her own sex, without speaking in the assemblies.

Boss also concluded that Gal. 3:28 is not applicable to the issue of women speaking in the assemblies, due to it having to do with salvation, not positions in service, “that salvation by faith is the same to all mankind, whatever be their race, condition, or sex, though natural distinctions still exist in full force.” He did not, however, see any restrictions on women singing, and also allowed for women teaching out of necessity, if competent men were not to be had. Boss, The silence of women in the churches —objections considered,[12]


The Presbyterian quarterly, April, 1889, in examining both 1 Cor. 14:34,35 and 1 Tim. 11-15, stated,

As early as the year 1832, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in this country, in a pastoral letter to the churches in reference to dangers to be avoided in revivals, calls attention to a tendency then just beginning to appear, and uses this strong language (Baird, Digest, p. 220), "Meetings of pious women by themselves for conversation and prayer, whenever they can conveniently be held, we entirely approve. But let not the inspired prohibitions of the great apostle of the Gentiles, as found in his Epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy, be violated. To teach and exhort, or to lead in prayer in public and promiscuous assemblies, is clearly forbidden to women in the holy oracles.".[13]

Commenting on the same passage, Presbyterian theologian and Bible commentator Albert Barnes (1798–1870) stated (in part) :

No rule in the New Testament is more positive than this; and however plausible may be the reasons which may be urged for disregarding it, and for suffering women to take part in conducting public worship, yet the authority of the apostle Paul is positive, and his meaning cannot be mistaken; compare 1Ti_2:11-12...
This evidently and obviously refers to the church assembled for public worship, in the ordinary and regular acts of devotion. There the assembly is made up of males and females, of old and young, and there it is improper for them to take part in conducting the exercises. But this cannot be interpreted as meaning that it is improper for females to speak or to pray in meetings of their own sex, assembled for prayer or for benevolence; nor that it is improper for a female to speak or to pray in a Sunday School.[14]


  1. ^ Wiesner, Merry E., "The Reformation of the Women," 148-149
  2. ^ Grijp, Louis and Jolderma, Hermina (editors and translators), "Elisabeth’s Manly Courage: Testimonials and Songs of Martyred Anabaptist Women in the Low Countries,"
  3. ^ Allen, Charlotte. "The Holy Feminine." Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, 1999. Online: http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3241
  4. ^ Luther, Martin. Lectures on Genesis 3:11.
  5. ^ Calvin, John. "A Sermon of M. Iohn Caluine upon the Epistle of Saint Paul, to Titus. Online: http://www.covenanter.org/JCalvin/titussermons/srmtts11.htm.
  6. ^ Lindberg, Carter. “Legacies of the Reformation,” in The European Reformation Sourcebook. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2000. 261.
  7. ^ Gill, 1 Corinthians 14:34
  8. ^ [1], John Wesley's notes on the Bible, 1 Cor. 14:34,35
  9. ^ Adam Clarke's commentary on the whole Bible, 1 Cor. 14:34,35
  10. ^ Poole, Annotations upon the Holy Bible (1852)
  11. ^ http://www.searchgodsword.org/com/mhc-com/view.cgi?book=1co&chapter=014
  12. ^ [2] Article viii; Bibliotheca sacra and theological review, Volume 27, pp. 739-763
  13. ^ “Women in the church,” The Presbyterian quarterly, Volume 3, NO. 8.- April, 1889. pp. 166-179
  14. ^ Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible, 1 Cor. 14:34,35
  • Lehman, Godfrey D (1997). We The Jury. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books. ISBN 1-57392-144-0. 
  • Hause, Steven C. (2005). Western Civilization: A History of European Society. 2. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing. ISBN 0-534-62122-8.