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The feminists of the Reformation


Pastor gives voice to 16th century Reformers long silenced

By Paul Seebeck and Donna Frischknecht Jackson | Presbyterians Today

Huldrych Zwingli, father of the Swiss Reformation, reads to his wife. In 1519, Zwingli became the pastor of Zurich’s main church. Many women who heard the sermons and read the writings of male Reformers were inspired to do likewise — publishing their views. Their writings are now being discovered by a new generation of women. “Ladies of the Reformation” by James Anderson. Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Built into the old city walls of Geneva, Switzerland, is a monument where the key players of a movement that challenged and changed the religious landscape of the 16th century — and centuries to come — stand larger than life.

Front and center of this monument, known as the Reformation Wall, are the stoic stone figures of John Calvin, William Farel, Theodore Beza and John Knox. Flanking them are the likes of Roger Williams, Oliver Cromwell, Stephen Bocskay and William the Silent. The names of Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli are featured as well — a testimony to the mark these men left on the religious world.

While impressive, the monument is incomplete. Missing from it are the carved stone faces and etched names of the many women Reformers like Argula von Grumbach and Ursula Weyda, who lifted their voices alongside their male counterparts, calling for a change in church policies. History, though, is being rewritten as 21st century women like the Rev. Catherine McMillan bring to life the timeless — and timely — words of these 16th century women.

The Swiss played a part

The Rev. Catherine McMillan has included the voices of many Reformers in her lectures throughout Europe — voices not heard before in stories of the Reformation. Courtesy of Catherine McMillan

McMillan, minister of the Reformed Church of Zurich, Switzerland, has Reformation in her blood. Born in Scotland, McMillan was raised in the U.S. While attending college at Davidson, she spent her junior year in France, where she returned after graduating to study theology in Strasbourg and then in Heidelberg and Tübingen. Eventually she got her Master of Divinity at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and was ordained as a PC(USA) minister.

In 2016, she was appointed by the Reformed Church of the Canton of  Zurich to be an ambassador for the Reformation’s 500th anniversary celebration. The anniversary was recognized worldwide in 2017, commemorating the October day in 1517 when Martin Luther, then a professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, posted his 95 Theses (articles) for church reform on a door of the castle church.

While for many U.S. churches, the Reformation anniversary celebrations have come and gone, McMillan’s ambassadorship ends this year with a final worship service commemorating the Reformation in Zurich that occurred  on Nov. 3. The focus of that service will be on the father of the Swiss Reformation, Huldrych Zwingli, whose first name is sometimes spelled Ulrich. In 1519 Zwingli became the pastor of Zurich’s main church — known as the Grossmünster — and began preaching ideas on reform of the Catholic Church.

“Most Presbyterians don’t realize that it was Zwingli [whom] John Calvin got a lot of his theological ideas from,” McMillan said.

‘Liberated’ women

At first in her role as Reformation ambassador, which included giving lectures and media interviews, McMillan spoke about how much more insightful, humble, humorous and heartfelt Zwingli was, compared with what she’d imagined.

“He was a real humanist and social justice prophet, much more so than Luther,” she said, noting that he accompanied the young men of his village to battle in Italy as a chaplain. There the young men fought as mercenary foot soldiers for the pope.

“He witnessed the corruption of the mercenary system and began to preach against it,” McMillan said. “He was quite modern in his thinking.”

But then, in her research, McMillan began uncovering the voices of the women of the Reformation who have long been silenced.

“They were actually theologians and authors, who had felt liberated by being able to read the Bible for themselves,” McMillan said.

And, with the growing popularity of the printing press created by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1400s, the women participated in theological discussion by publishing pamphlets, or “flying papers” as they were called in Germany, she says.

Soon, McMillan began including seven female Reformers in her lectures, including the first female Reformer in Germany, Argula von Grumbach (1492–1540).

An early advocate

Von Grumbach, who had received a Bible from her father when she was 10, found great comfort from it seven years later when both of her parents died from the plague, within five days of each other.

Armed with the knowledge of Scripture, she was mesmerized by what was happening in Wittenberg after Luther published his 95 Theses calling attention to the indulgences and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church of that time. Reading everything she could about the theses, she entered into a lively conversation with Luther through letters.

But discussing his ideas soon became illegal. When no one — including Luther — came to the defense of a young lecturer at the University of Ingolstadt who was imprisoned for teaching ideas he learned at Wittenberg, von Grumbach came to his defense. Writing an open letter to the university, she challenged Luther’s most vehement opponent, Johann Eck, who was on the faculty. She argued that since Jesus talked with women, they should do so as well, in a public debate. She also said that the young theologian should be released from prison because she couldn’t find anything in the Bible where Christ or his disciples imprisoned, murdered or exiled anyone.

“And she closed her letter with these words: ‘I have written you not women’s gossip, but the word of God, as a member of the Christian church,’” McMillan said.

The pamphlet was an overnight sensation. It was reprinted 12 times in two months. But its popularity also triggered a backlash. The Ingolstadt faculty didn’t respond to her letter, but her husband, who was the governor for the duke of Bavaria, was fired from his job because he hadn’t prevented his wife from publishing her thoughts.

Despite being thrown into poverty, von Grumbach continued to write. In a letter to the city council she said, “If I die, a hundred women will take my place. For many are better read and smarter than I am.”

And take von Grumbach’s place the women did.

Attacking courageous voices

Two years after that open letter, 20-year-old Ursula Weyda (1504–1570) followed von Grumbach’s example, publishing a tract in which she argued against the abbot of Pegau, a Benedictine monk in Saxony, who had called everyone who agreed with Luther heretics.

Citing numerous Bible passages, Weyda took a stance on the Bible, the Church, marriage and celibacy, calling out abuses of the Church and corruption in the abbeys.

In response, an anonymous person wrote a published tract implying, McMillan said, that the women speaking up must be “sexually frustrated.”

“You could compare it to what you see on social media today,” said McMillan. “If a woman journalist or politician says something courageous or writes something controversial, they are likely to be attacked in a sexist, misogynous way.”

As reactions like these became more commonplace, the women’s voices heard in the first decade of the Reformation gradually disappeared. Their writings began to be censured. And since their writings were not treated with the same respect as those by men, people tended not to see their value.

Renewed interest

As the 500th anniversary of Luther’s famous nailing of the 95 Theses approached, seminaries and universities that had not been willing to put money into researching women’s voices began to listen to female professors and ministers who said they wanted those voices to be heard.

As a result, in the last couple of decades, additional sources on women in the Reformation have been found. More letters and pamphlets written by these Reformers have been translated. Articles and books have been published, and research continues at the University of Zurich.

One of those books is a two-volume set written by Princeton Theological Seminary’s Elsie Anne McKee: “Katharina Schutz Zell,” which McMillan often cites in her lectures.

As McMillan describes the challenges of freedom of conscience and freedom of faith that came out of the Reformation, she says, “Too many Reformers didn’t have the grace to give the same freedom of conscience to other people,” but female Reformers, like Zell, “were better at that.”

Katharina married the priest Matthäus Zell in 1523. Citizens shocked at seeing a priest marry hurled insults at the young couple. Zell responded, saying in a publication they had married to further the cause of the gospel — and to build up the church. She called the celibacy of priests a hypocritical farce, writing that she knew priests who had gotten seven women pregnant.

“She became one the first minister’s wives in history,” said McMillan. “But because both of them believed that women, too, were called to ministry, Matthäus called her his assistant minister.” Katharina drew up plans for an official diaconate ministry for women, but the council of Strasbourg rejected her idea.

When Anabaptists were imprisoned in Strasbourg because of their faith, she wrote that it was not right to persecute them.

Zell also preached at the funeral of a woman who had followed the teaching of an Anabaptist, and Zell buried her too. No other minister would do the service without proclaiming that the woman had fallen away from the true church.

When her husband died in 1548, Zell preached at his graveside funeral. Lutheran hardliners wanted her charged for breaking the law — for preaching as a woman — but Zell responded by writing a public defense of her sermon. She died in 1562.

McMillan wonders whether the Reformation led to more equality between the sexes or simply cemented patriarchal power.

“One of the ironies of the Reformation,” she said, “is that the newfound freedom didn’t apply to women. Now their only God-given role was to be wife and mother. They no longer had the option to be nuns. Interestingly, the only woman Reformer who was also a princess and ruled over the principality that became Hanover, Elisabeth von Calenberg-Göttingen, realized that. She protected the convents in her territory and allowed women to live as Protestant nuns.”

After 30 years in ministry, spending these past three years as a Reformation ambassador has made McMillan eager to reread the Bible as a book of liberation.

“These women have shown me how to say things that aren’t popular but that are grounded in faith. It’s been wonderful to go back to the source, to the basics of grace and faith alone,” she said. “It’s kind of a spirituality, you know, that gives you courage.”

McMillan says, too, that no matter where she is in the world, people are surprised and tell her they thought there was nothing new to learn about the Reformation. One of her favorite memories came at the University of Pretoria, in South Africa. As she finished speaking to young theology students, a group of women approached her.

“It was electrifying,” they told her. “We never heard this. There were actual feminists among the Reformers!”

Yes, there were. And if one looks closely on the Reformation Wall in Geneva, the name of a lone woman Reformer can be seen etched in stone — Marie Dentière. It is said that she encouraged women to study the Bible themselves, and to use what means were available to women for spreading the Word. It is said, too, that Dentière was a nuisance to John Calvin.

Paul Seebeck is a communications strategist with the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Donna Frischknecht Jackson is editor of Presbyterians Today.

Video series expands Reformation story

Women talk impact of women Reformers

By Donna Frischknecht Jackson

A conversation on the impact women Reformers have had on history, and their influence that continues to shape women in ministry today, is taking place here in the United States.

A group of Presbyterians, led by the Rev. Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty and the Rev. Landon Whitsitt, are working on a video series called “Expanding the Narrative.”

Hinson-Hasty, a professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, has taught on the topic of women Reformers. Whitsitt, executive of the Synod of Mid-America, is part of the synod’s Theocademy project, which produces videos for Presbyterians, ranging from “Training Leaders” to “Theology 101.”

“The video series is being produced because of the need for updated resources including women and the historical Reformation, as well as resources related to feminist, womanist, mujerista and other liberationist theologies,” Hinson-Hasty said, adding that the idea emerged from the 2016 Gender and Leadership Survey of the PC(USA).

This past fall, two of the planned six videos were filmed at Louisville Seminary. Hinson-Hasty opened the discussion by reflecting on the role of women in the Reformation, specifically in Switzerland and Germany. The conversation then expanded to include voices of reform not often heard. Among them were the Rev. Enikö Ferenczy, pastoral assistant at Southminster Presbyterian Church near Richmond, Virginia, and a former religious leader in the Hungarian Reformed Church, who talked about women as Reformers in the Central European context. The Rev. Carmen Rosario, interim pastor at First Spanish Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn, New York, talked about women in Spain during the time of the Reformation. The Rev. Jieun Kim Han, associate for partnerships and mission formation in World Mission, spoke about the context of Korean Presbyterian women. And the Rev. Angela Johnson, pastor of Grace Hope Presbyterian Church in Louisville, explored the contributions of African American women and the need for reform.

In a social media post, Whitsitt said it was “impactful” to hear the women share stories, past and present.

“The first question asked was ‘Why is it important to you to participate in a project like this?’ Each woman answered with a variation of ‘because if we don’t tell our stories, who will?’ ”

Study guides are being created to accompany the videos, Hinson-Hasty says. The video project is being supported by Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, and Hinson-Hasty expects the videos to be shared on YouTube in the coming year.

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