The year is 1510, a tormented monk pays pilgrimage to Rome. [1] What he witnesses leaves him aghast; the licentious lifestyles of the monk clergy who openly engage in perversion along with the exploitation of the common parishioners by means of indulgences, aids the extravagant construction of Saint Peter’s Basilica. The pilgrimage meant to invoke a greater sense of peace, only leaves him distraught and indignant. After returning to Germany, he later becomes a professor at Wittenberg University, where he pours over the scriptures studying them in earnest. He is held captive by Romans 1:17 particularly the portion which reads “the righteous shall live by faith.” [2] God releases him from this burden of sin, and this monk finds life in Christ. He is clothed with Christ’s perfect righteousness, something that penance, confession and the papacy could never give to him. With his newfound zeal; he proceeds to make a formal articulation of his disagreements with the teachings of the Catholic church and on October 31,1517 this monk who goes by the name of Martin Luther, nails his 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg, igniting a firestorm that will sweep across the known world. [4]

The story of the Protestant Reformation is one of both great victory and great sacrifice that begins much earlier than Martin Luther, and continues on well past his influence in antiquity. However, history always favors a hero and Luther in many ways has become that figure. We do a disservice to the church when we neglect to remember the many men and women that valiantly fought for the recovery of gospel truth. Today, we will look at seven formidable women of the reformation whose testimonies and gallant hearts are sure to inspire and challenge women in the church today. 

1. Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549)

Marguerite de Navarre is most notably known as the sister of Francis I, the King of France. Incredibly exceptional for the time period she lived in, she received an educational experience that corresponded to her brother whom she had a very close relationship and bond with. After several failed military expeditions, King Francis was taken prisoner by the Holy Roman Emperor, and in a bold act, Marguerite traveled to enemy lines to negotiate his release. [3]

Marguerite was an active noble figure and is known today for her many writings inspired by the teachings of the reformation. Her artistic portrayal of theological truths both documented her conversion but also served as allegorical pieces which when translated to English went on to inspire Queen Catherine Parr. [7] It was no surprise then that Marguerite would go on to use her role economically and politically to put her faith to practice by sponsoring protestant refugees fleeing persecution, with the most notable of these being John Calvin. 

2. Argula von Grumbach (1492-1554)

Argula von Grumbach was born to a noble family in Bavaria. In 1522 Luther dedicated a book to her for her zealous efforts in defending the Christian faith. What led Martin Luther to esteem Argula so highly? 

In years previous, she publicly rebuked the University of Ingolstadt for forcing a student to recant Lutheran beliefs; this rebuke was then published and disseminated to the public. [8] In her rebuke, she made her case with 80 references to scripture and challenged the faculty to a debate. She used her gift of apologetics to lobby nobility to accept Reformation ideals. [6] Her zeal and confidence in God’s word is one that women today can learn from and strive to emulate.

3. Marie Dentière(1495-1561)

Marie Dentière’s story begins very similarly to that of Luther and is the only woman that appears on Geneva’s Reformation Wall. As an abbess in a Belgian convent, she held a position of esteem as the overseer of the nuns. When she encountered the teachings of Luther in 1524, she subsequently left the abbey. [3] 

As if her renunciation were not controversial enough, she later went on to marry a former priest and become a vocal proponent for the closure of convents in Geneva, encouraging nuns to find husbands and embrace Protestant beliefs. Together she and her husband opened schools for girls across Geneva, and often corresponded with her contemporary, Marguerite de Navarre. She is also famously known for her disagreements with Calvin due to her audacious assessments and critiques of many of the reformers. Their differences in opinion however were mended and Calvin invited Marie to write the foreword to his published sermon on modesty. [3]

4. Katharina Zell (1497-1562)

Katherina Zell is also known as “The Mother of the Reformation.” In 1518 she was present in the audience when Matthew Zell, a former priest, preached a sermon. It was at this moment where Katherina came to a saving faith and in an interesting providential occurrence, Katherina went on to later marry Matthew in 1525. Their marriage was one of great discussion, being that it was one of the first marriages of the clergy that resulted from the Reformation. [5]

Her marriage to a former priest was what ignited an apologetic zeal to defend clerical marriage and make a case for the unbiblical and hypocritical stance of the Catholic church who forbade clerical marriage while also engaging in public immorality. Katherina also sought to make peace between Luther and Zwingli for their differences of conviction regarding the Lord’s Supper. Her compassionate heart led her to steward her resources for the good of the saints, housing as many as 80 protestant refugees in her home at one time. [5] She served and cared for the needs of the saints long after she became a widow, her incredible acts of mercy alongside her firm convictions make her a notable figure in the Reformation. 

5. Olympia Morata (1526-1555)

Olympia Morata was greatly influenced by her father, who was an Italian scholar and instructed her on the teachings of the reformers including those of John Calvin. At the young age of 12 she impressively served as a tutor in the ducal court of Ferrar instructing both Latin and Greek. [8] 

Olympia used her scholarly gifts to compose poems, letters, and a Greek psaltry whom her German husband composed to music. Having lived in Germany with her husband due to the political instability for Protestants in Italy. However, her life in Germany was not without great suffering, both Olympia and her husband were imprisoned and eventually were forced to flee Germany. She died at the age of 29 of tuberculosis while fleeing persecution. Her husband and brother died soon after. [7]

6. Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572)

The daughter of Marguerite Navarre, Jeanne D’Albret similarly to converted from Catholicism to Protestantism. However, she did so in a very public manner which greatly differed from her mother’s diplomatic conversion. 

Jeanne was a force to be reckoned with. Her public support of Protestants is what lead her to become a leader of the French Huguenots, the protestant resistance to the Catholic regime. The Hugenots were violently persecuted and eventually driven out of France. Jeanne supported policies informed by the Reformation by banning Catholic rituals, priests, and nuns. [7] Her longest lasting impact was sponsoring the translation of the Basque New Testament. [8] 

7. Jane Grey (1537-1554)

Perhaps the most tragic and short lived of all the female reformers, Lady Jane Grey was also known as “The Nine Days Queen.” A brilliant young woman, she read the New Testament in its original language and was well versed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. At the age of 14 she held a strong conviction of Protestant beliefs and regularly corresponded with notable reformers. [8] 

At the young age of 16 she was forced into marriage to Lord Guildford Dudley despite almost marrying King Edward VI of England in 1549. When Edward tragically died, Jane was declared Queen, but she was hastily deposed and locked in the Tower of London. Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary, sent Catholic chaplains to the tower to convert her but Jane stood firm making a strong apologetical stance by referencing her thorough scriptural knowledge. Jane was executed several months later and served as a martyr and inspiration for the English protestants. [8]

If one thing is evident in the stories of these women, it is the great impact that scripture had on forming their strong convictions. Romans 10:17 says “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Access to the holy word of God, that was previously kept captive by the Catholic clergy, led to the great revival that was the Protestant Reformation. This was a return to the original teachings of Christ and the Apostles. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit active through the Word of God that these women were able to valiantly stand against the forces of the Holy Roman Empire and defy the authority of the Pope. May we likewise be encouraged to stand against error. 

Leave your thoughts, questions, and suggested followups in the comments below.


References:

[1] BBC – History – Historic Figures: Martin Luther (1483–1546). (2014). BBC. 

[2] Bibles, E. (2008). ESV Study Bible (Illustrated ed.). Crossway.

[3] Five Important Women of the Reformation You Should Know About. (2015, October 16). Roman Roads Press. https://romanroadsmedia.com/2015/10/5-women-of-reformation/

[4] Martin Luther. (2008, August 8). Christian History | Learn the History of Christianity & the Church. https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/theologians/martin-luther.html

[5] Reformation Women: Katharina Schutz Zell. (2020, October 30). Tabletalk. https://tabletalkmagazine.com/posts/reformation-women-katharina-schutz-zell/

[6] Severance, D., PhD. (2010, May 3). You Wouldn’t Want to Argue with Argula. Christianity.Com. https://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/1201-1500/you-wouldnt-want-to-argue-with-argula-11629897.html

[7] Women of the Reformation. (2017, October 31). The Master’s University. https://www.masters.edu/news/women-of-the-reformation.html

[8] Women of the Reformation: Queens and scholars, poets and diplomats. (2017). Focus on the Family. https://www.focusonthefamily.ca/content/women-of-the-reformation-queens-and-scholars-poets-and-diplomats


2 Responses

  1. Great article! I have never heard of Marie or Olympia- so cool! I also didn’t know that Lady Jane Grey was married to King Edward. I’ve only heard of her marriage to Guildford Dudley. You learn something new everyday- thank you!

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article! That was actually a mistake regarding Jane Grey! The article has been revised since someone pointed it out.

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