With this year celebrating the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation, there are many, many resources that are coming out about the Reformation. One of these new books takes a bit of a different approach to celebrating this monumental moment in church history by looking at 12 unknown women who were incredibly influential and instrumental in their own right.
A New Book
In her new book, Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth, Rebecca VanDoodewaard examines the lives of 12 women, all of whom you’ve probably never heard of, who were instrumental in their own way in Europe’s Reformation. The author says that “one of the goals of this book is to introduce today’s Christians to believing women who helped form our Reformed faith but are largely unknown now” (xi).
Some Common Characteristics
In order to introduce the reader to this eclectic list of women — with varied personalities, nationalities, abilities, and family backgrounds — the author picked 12 women who shared some common characteristics:
- They were devoted to the Protestant Church
- If they were married to believers, they were devoted to their husbands’ work
- They were given to hospitably
- They stewarded their intellectual abilities
- They were brave
None of these women are household names, nor are many of them going to become household names through this book. Instead, their lives remind us of the supreme example of God’s blessing in the midst of everyday faithfulness. The author says it this way:
“Their unusual deeds stand out to us: fleeing in disguise, preventing war, enduring persecution, and resisting arranged marriages. But it is often their everyday faithfulness that was most formative for the church — husbands supported, children taught, saints sheltered, Bibles read and distributed. Few women today have the opportunity to command an army, but all believing women can be faithful in the mundane, obeying in their own circumstances. Perhaps that is the more challenging and daunting call. It is the example of everyday faithfulness changing families, churches, and nations that makes these women’s stories so valuable for us today” (xiv).
The Twelve Women
So who are the women that are looked at, though in very brief biographical sketch form, in this book?
- Anna Reinhard
- Anna Adlischweiler
- Katharina Schütz
- Margarethe Blaurer
- Marguerite de Navarre
- Jeanne d’Albret
- Charlotte de Bourbon
- Louise de Coligny
- Katherine Willoughby
- Renee of Ferrara
- Olympia Morata
I told you you’ve probably never heard of any of them.
But what you will find as you read through the sketch of each woman’s life — each deserving its own book if there were enough historical material — is a group of women who are very different in many ways, but who have many similar common threads running through their stories. Though some are married, some widowed, and some single; though some are from France, Italy, Switzerland, or elsewhere in Europe; though some had fruitful public ministries while others cared for things at home and supported their husbands; though their stories are diverse, in each of them you find a story of generous hospitably and unwavering commitment to serve their Lord Jesus in whatever way and manner they were able to in their particular circumstance and situation.
My Favorite Story
Perhaps my favorite story was that of Anna Reinhard. Known as “The Reformation’s Weeping Mother,” Reinhard was the wife to Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Though her story was short (only six pages), I found myself almost moved to tears at the end of the chapter as she kissed her husband goodbye, with her children at her legs, knowing that it was likely the last time she would see her husband before he was killed. Anna had lived a life of humble obedience and service to Jesus, which was passed on to her children in subsequent generations. In the final paragraph of her chapter, the author says:
“Beyond her support of Zwingli and all that she enabled him to do, beyond her care for the poor and sick of the parish, Anna left a living legacy in her children, who continued her pattern of building up the church through kindness to the saints. Her faithful work outlived her body” (6).
7 Lessons Learned
Each of the women in this book exhibited extraordinary courage, bravery, humility, and obedience to their Lord. In the conclusion, the author offers 7 things that these women have in common that we, as the Church today, can learn from in order to strengthen us in our day and time
(1) A radical change in circumstances did not stop fruitfulness — Through husbands or children dying, homes ransacked, or fleeing their country, these changes in circumstance never prevented these women from using their gifts in some way.
(2) Each woman had a multifaceted identity — They were not tied to an identity such as “single working woman” or “homeschool mom” or “empty nester.” Rather, as the author says, “They were Christians. They were Christians who served as many things at once: wife, mother, queen, author, hostess, leader, teacher” (110).
(3) The women who were married to godly men knew that biblical headship and submission produce fruit — These women did not view their complementary roles as something that squashed their spiritual, intellectual, social, or relational abilities or opportunities. Rather, they saw that when their marriage was functioning biblically, they found encouragement, support, and freedom in their complementary calling.
(4) These women prove that good leadership is servanthood — Each of these women served many different people out of a love for God and a love for the church. Their model is one to be commended
(5) Everyone has gifts, and everyone needs to use them — This is perhaps one of the most urgent reminders that the church today needs to be reminded of. Whether these women were feeding refugees, writing treatises, or showing hospitably and care to the sick in their congregation, each of these women had gifts and used them where God had put her.
(6) God uses individuals’ faithfulness to bring about His Kingdom — None of these women were perfect, but each of them were influential in furthering the cause of the Reformation — indeed, the cause of the Kingdom of God — through their individual faithfulness.
(7) Death comes when our work is done, not before or after — Just like us today, the timing of death can be hard to understand. It might not make sense in the moment, but it will later. And as you read each of these women’s stories, you will see that God called them home at the exact right time — not before, and not after.
Why were they able to live this way?
As we think about these stories and the lessons learned, one final question is important for us to think about — Why were these women able to live in these ways? The author offers an excellent answer for us to consider:
“They thought in the long term; grace enabled them to see the big picture. Their goals were not a great weekend, or seeing kids through college, or even helping with grandchildren. Their goal, in different spheres, was the establishment and flourishing of a strong and faithful church that would be there long after they were gone. Because they were aiming for things beyond their spans, it gave perspective and purpose to their everyday actions. Thinking long term gives us the ability to act meaningfully in the short term … These women were not hanging out on social media or mommy blogs, waiting for spiritual maturity to happen. They actively pursued it: Bible reading, prayer, attendance at worship (often several times a week), fellowship with the saints, theological study and discussions, and conscious self-denial matured them into usefulness that God blessed. Personal projects, comfort, and plans were subservient to the mission of the Great Commission” (113).
I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone. This book is not just for women. This book is not just for lovers of history. This book is not just for Reformation gurus. Though the book will certainly appeal to those groups, the truths learned and modeled in this book extend much further — into each and every one of our lives as Christ followers. I found myself encouraged, humbled, convicted, and instructed through the godly lives and examples of these unknown women of the Reformation. I believe that the same will be true for you.
In accordance with FTC regulations, I would like to thank Reformation Heritage Books and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a review copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.