Women of the Reformation

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The role of women in the Protestant Reformation has often been ignored or treated as little more than a footnote in history. Consequently, while most Christians have heard of Martin Luther and John Calvin, it is rare to find Christians who can identify women who made a difference during the Reformation. Yet many women, emboldened by the concept of a priesthood of all believers, moved beyond the roles assigned by society at large to support the Reformation and did so at great risk to themselves. Some were well-educated women who were avid students of both Scripture and the writings of the reformers. Others held leadership positions in society and used their authority to support the Reformation. Most, however, were ordinary women who grasped the principles of the Reformation and influenced individuals in their own social circles.

Katharina Schutz Zell (1498-1562) was a German woman from an artisan family who acted in a pastoral role at the side of her husband. She considered that God had called her to be a “fisher of people” alongside the clergy. Attracted to Lutheranism, she married Matthew Zell, an ex-priest who was the first reformer in Strasbourg on the French/German border. Katharina and Matthew ministered together until Matthew’s death 24 years later. During this time, Katharina was active in both preaching and teaching. In addition, she nurtured women and children, ran a hospitality ministry for refugees and did intense pastoral visitation.1 She considered it important to serve others and willingly served anyone in need, no matter how unimportant they might be.2 Katharina also began a writing ministry, which included letters of spiritual encouragement to those who needed it and published materials that included sermons, public speeches and theological treatises.3 Her writings contain articulate defences of the gospel and its meaning for everyday life, reflections on the role of clerical marriage, refutations against specific attacks on faith, explorations of the value of Christian suffering, devotional material and even a hymnal.

While Luther was the primary reformer in their thinking, the Zells did not restrict their reading and discussions to the views of Luther. They welcomed discussions with any reformers, considering they shared a common bond of faith in the gospel. Katharina was actively included in the discussions, studied Scripture for herself and was willing to make independent decisions about its contents. She also engaged in written theological discussions with many of the German and Swiss reformers.4

Fellow German, Argula von Grumbach (c1490–c1564), was born into a noble family. Argula was well educated and well versed in Scripture. She had also read most of the available writings from the reformers at Wittenberg and had corresponded directly with Luther.5 Her primary contribution to the Reformation occurred over a two-year period from 1523–1524. In a move that was unprecedented for a woman of her time, she challenged the faculty of the University of Ingolstadt to a debate after the university attempted to force a student, Arsacius Seehofer, to renounce his Lutheran beliefs and sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Her bold challenge occurred when no Protestant males spoke about the injustice of the situation. While Argula received no response from the university, her letter was published by friends in Nuremberg. The letter was republished 14 times, with an estimated 29,000 copies circulated. In its wake, Argula published another seven pamphlets that dealt with an array of topics, including the authority of the Church, the impact of reform on society, the need for clergy to focus on the spiritual wellbeing of their subjects and her vision for a new church.6 Her writings reflect the views of an ardent female Christian who had studied and internalised Scripture. Though not a theologian, she believed that her baptism into Christ removed traditional gender distinctions and came with a responsibility to confess Christ. Hence she willingly responded regardless of the possible consequences for her and her family. [pullquote]

In contrast to both Katharina and Argula, Olympia Morata (1526-1555) was a true scholar. She was a child prodigy who was educated by her father in both the classics and the Protestant faith. Such was her progress that Olympia had begun lecturing on Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by the age of 13!7 But it was her impressive Greek and Latin skills, along with her talent as a poet, that earned her respect and enabled her to take up a role in the northern Italian court of Ferrara, which was sympathetic to Reformation ideas. There she served as a companion to the daughter of Duke Ecole II and was able to continue her studies.8

After she left the court to care for her father, Olympia chose to dedicate her considerable talents to biblical scholarship instead of the classics. She translated a number of Psalms into elegant Greek poetry and composed dialogues, which outlined her ideas on Christian hope, salvation and the role of women in the church. In addition, she established correspondence with a number of Protestant leaders, including Melanchthon. Her letters, frequently written in Latin, contained not only personal correspondence but theological discussions.9

Sadly, many of Olympia’s writings were lost to history when she and her husband had to flee Schweinfurt, Bavaria, with little more than the clothing on their backs. However, after Olympia died prematurely at the age of 29, friends collated and published her remaining writings.10

Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572) was the Queen of Navarre (France). Both she and her husband Antoine de Bourbon supported the Reformation, with Jeanne converting to Calvinism on Christmas Day 1560.11 Two years later, however, her husband reverted to Catholicism as a result of political pressure. Jeanne refused to capitulate although she took a more neutral political stance and tried to maintain peace. After her husband’s death later that same year, she had the freedom to actively support the reformers again. Between 1563 and 1566 she established Calvinism as a legitimate religion in the city of Béarn, legalised Huguenot marriages and explored ways to unite the Calvinistic Church. In 1566 she attempted to purge all idolatry from the churches.12 During the subsequent third war of religion she used her crown jewels as security against a loan for the Huguenot army13 and left her kingdom to join the leaders of the Huguenots at La Rochelle. There she functioned as an administrator and advisor, and supported the first Protestant synod. On return to her kingdom in 1571 she called her subjects to subscribe to the Huguenot confession of faith. However, wanting to maintain freedom of conscience, she did not prosecute those who failed to do so.14

These four women are a small selection of those who chose to be active participants in the Reformation. They readily embraced both the concepts of sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers. Their acceptance of these principles led them to recognise a personal responsibility to confess their faith, live out their convictions and advance the kingdom of God in their own spheres of life. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation these women serve as a reminder of our own responsibility to be more than mere observers of the faith we hold dear.

Dr Wendy Jackson lectures in Theology and Christian History at Avondale College of Higher Education.

  1. Elise McKee, “Katharina Schütz Zell (1498-1562)” in The Reformation Theologians, edited by Carter Lindberg (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 225-227.
  2. Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation (Malden, MA:Blackwell, 2009), 114.
  3. Stjerna, 117.
  4. McKee, 226-230.
  5. Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971), 101, 106.
  6. Peter Matheson, “Argula von Grumbach (c. 1490–1564)” in The Reformation Theologians, edited by Carter Lindberg (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), 95.
  7. Holt Parker, “Morata, Fulvia Olympia (1526/1527-1555)” in Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England, edited by Diana Robins, Anne R, Larsen, and Carole Levin (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC_CLIO, 2007), 269.
  8. Bainton, 253.
  9. Olympia outlined her spiritual journey to this position in a dialogue, which still survives. Parker, 270.
  10. Bainton, 263, 266.
  11. Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973), 45.
  12. Corinne Wilson, “Albret, Jeanne d’ (1528-1572)” in Encyclopedia of Women in the Renaissance: Italy, France, and England, edited by Diana Robins, Anne R, Larsen, and Carole Levin (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC_CLIO, 2007), 3.
  13. Robert Knecht, The French Civil Wars 1562-1598. Harlow, Essex: Longman, 2000, 151.
  14. Bainton, Women of the Reformation in France and England, 67-68.
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