Today in the Mission Yearbook

Nearly six centuries after being burned at the stake, Joan of Arc reaches forward with lessons for Synod School students


Dr. Scott Stanfield: ‘She’s a figure who provokes our imagination and causes a lot of wonderment’

October 12, 2023

Photo by Morgan Petroski via Unsplash

Born more than 600 years ago and burned at the stake for heresy at age 19, Joan of Arc still had a lot to teach a roomful of Synod School students this year — especially with guidance from Dr. Scott Stanfield, Emeritus Professor of English at Nebraska Wesleyan University and a longtime Synod School participant.

During the course, Stanfield laid the historical foundation of Joan’s life, which occurred during the Hundred Years’ War, the intermittent struggle between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries.

At nearly 13 years of age, Joan began hearing voices telling her to get an army and go to war to defeat the English and ensure the crowning of Charles VII of France, whom she calls the dauphin. He’s eventually crowned after granting her a private audience, when Joan tells him something she couldn’t possibly have known. Charles is “convinced she has special insight,” Stanfield said.

After Charles was crowned in 1429, Joan “is looking for something to do, and so she tries to conquer Paris, but fails,” Stanfield noted. The next year she was taken prisoner, and on Jan. 3, 1431, Joan was delivered to the Inquisition and her trial began less than a week later.

The man in charge of her trial is Pierre Cauchon, a bishop with a name that in French is a homophone for “pig.”

“He has a real grudge for Joan,” Stanfield said.

Stanfield recalled his own ordeal defending his dissertation before “three guys seeing if they could trip me up. Imagine 30 people, and you are 19 and illiterate,” he said of Joan’s trial. “No one is on your side. The way Joan’s presence of mind stays with her is a remarkable part of the story.”

As a prisoner held in a tower nearly 60 feet tall, Joan at one point slipped through the bars and dropped all the way to the ground. She was injured but survived. “That came up during the trial as an attempted suicide,” he said.

Dr. Scott Stanfield

On May 24, 1431, Joan recanted hearing the voices and asked to take the Eucharist. A few days later she took back her recantation, and six days after that she was burned at the stake by the civil authorities in Rouen. “Nothing goes right for the English after this,” Stanfield said. Eventually there is a rehabilitation trial and Joan’s conviction is overturned. She became St. Joan upon her canonization in 1920.

“Joan lived in a time when faith was much more part of civil life,” Stanfield said. “At least a few people found her persuasive.”

Even today, Stanfield said, “It’s not that unusual to claim to be hearing the voice of God.” According to faith and scriptural tradition, “God does talk to some people sometimes,” people including Moses, Muhammad, Jesus and Isaiah. “This is accepted as true and valid and reliable. This puts us in an awkward situation of saying, ‘At some point God stopped doing that.’”

“What might be a nudge for most of us,” Stanfield said, “is a voice for a few.”

Joan “is excluded by her sex, lack of education, lack of training and her class, and yet she found a way,” Stanfield said. “She had a complicated path to get there.”

On the final day of class, Stanfield answered a question that had been stumping him all week: Which contemporary figure is comparable to Joan?

Stanfield thought of the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who’s “very young and articulate and speaks with no particular credentials. She showed up at Swedish Parliament without invitation and said, ‘You need to listen to me.’”

“There’s something about the radiant clarity of [Thunberg’s] moral vision,” Stanfield said. “She seems much more impressive than adults.”

Adding to Joan’s continuing influence is this very practical example, which Stanfield offered near the end of the week-long course: “Without Joan,” he said with a grin, “the French would cook like the English. How sad would that be?”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: Dr. Scott Stanfield shares lessons on Joan of Arc at Synod School

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Roberto Morales, Research Analyst, Research Services, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)
Gad Mpoyo, Associate, Southeast Region, 1001 New Worshiping Communities, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray

Holy God, Hope of the World, by your Spirit draw us together in unity and strength. Help us to thrive in both the good times and the bad, and to continue to put our trust in you. Pour out the gifts of your Spirit that we may mature in our faith, grow in our ministry, and find ourselves looking for new opportunities to serve you and others. Amen.