The 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg is coming this October, and you can be sure dozens of books commemorating the Reformation and its significance will be published. It certainly is a good time to reflect on what the Reformation is all about.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard has written a book in this vein that highlights the often forgotten impact that women made in the key events of that tumultuous period. Her book Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth is a fascinating read and will be an encouragement and inspiration to many who read it.
Her book borrows from a series of articles written in the 1800s and compiled into one volume by James Isaac Good in 1901 under the title Famous Women of the Reformed Church. In VanDoodewaard’s book, the content from Good is “revised, expanded, and corrected to make the stories of these remarkable women accessible for today’s church” (p. xiv). Many of the original chapters were removed and a chapter on Katherine Willoughby was added to adapt the work to its author’s purpose of highlighting lesser known Reformation-era women. Indeed, the stories of more recognizable figures, such as Katharina von Bora (Martin Luther’s wife) and Lady Jane Grey (the nine-day Protestant queen of England) are readily available elsewhere. The women included in this volume are largely forgotten, and that is part of the appeal of this short work.
Twelve women are detailed in this book, and their stories interweave with the progress of the Reformation in France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, England and beyond. Since many readers will be ignorant of the historical background, a brief introduction is provided to orient us to the major historical developments of the era. A “pastoral” conclusion aims to draw life lessons for Christian women today from the history contained in this volume. A timeline, and some family trees, round out the volume, which concludes with a detailed bibliography. In all, the book is less than 130 pages, so the treatment of any one character is by necessity not fully developed.
Reading through the stories of these women transports the reader into a very different age. Daring escapes, harrowing journeys, heartbreak and sorrows abound. Many of these ladies lost husband (or husbands) and children to religious war, or violent persecution. Some had children removed and placed in Roman Catholic families. Some saw family members betray them or deny the faith. The plague, “sweating sickness” and other maladies devastated some, and others faced deprivation. In the midst of these trying circumstances, these women served their Lord and His church faithfully. They provided for the needy, sheltered the homeless, visited those in prison, secured the release of their friends and family sometimes, and one even led a Protestant army in the defense of their freedom. Many of these women were of noble birth, and some became queens, a few were scholars in their own right and kept up correspondence with leading Reformers.
From the descriptions above you can imagine how interesting this book is to read. And yet the stories are sad too: we don’t know enough about these women to truly appreciate their worth, and many died far too young. But what we do know is cause for reflection: we can thank God for those who worked so hard to preserve religious freedom and to keep the newly recovered faith intact. We can learn from their example of faithfulness under fire (which some endured quite literally) and be cautioned by those whose testimony was marred or confused through doctrinal laxity or temporary weakness. The examples provided do much to teach Christian women that timidity and quietness do not necessarily equate with godliness. These women were often bold and determined, yet they knew their place and served often alongside their husbands. The stories of these women is a compelling case in point that a complementarian position on women’s roles in the church need not mean that women have no meaningful contributions to make to the church and its ministry!
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and plan to encourage my girls to read it. This makes me want to read more of this period of church history, and I hope it has the same effect on others. I highly recommend this book.
“Reformation Women is a book of rare quality and interest as Rebecca VanDoodewaard opens up a whole new dimension in the ongoing story of Christ’s church. We learn of the enormous contribution made by twelve women to the progress of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Here we have women from diverse backgrounds—some of whose names we can hardly pronounce—whom God raised up and used in a remarkable way. You will be humbled and inspired by these pages and long to serve God better in whatever sphere you have been placed.” ~ Faith Cook, author of Lady Jane Grey: Nine Day Queen of England and several other Christian biographies and historical books
“Few accessible works exist on the heroines of the Reformation, so I read these biographies with the desire to learn. But I walked away with more than learning; I was challenged and inspired. I have new heroes of the faith, and so will every Christian who reads this wonderful collection.” ~ Jason Helopoulos, associate pastor, University Reformed Church, Lansing, Michigan
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This book was provided by the publisher. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.