The earliest record I have of one of my ancestors converting to Christianity comes from two centuries ago near the French town of Strasbourg. “Papa” Oberlin—as my father’s people called their pastor—brought the gospel to hungry villagers subsisting on milk-soaked grass. Along with the gospel came instruction on agricultural practices such that today the same valley is one of the world’s richest foodie destinations.
Several centuries before the arrival of Pastor Oberlin—for whom Oberlin College is named—Strasbourg (which France and Germany passed back and forth) was home to another wonderful Protestant, Katherine Zell. A sixteenth-century German, Zell promoted the Reformation and supported gender equality. She also published a collection of congregational hymns, cared for the sick and imprisoned, and reached out to refugees displaced by religious warfare.
Katherine’s husband, Matthew, was among Strasbourg’s reforming pastors. When the Church excommunicated him for marrying Katherine, she published a letter to the bishop in defense of clerical marriage. Considering literacy rates along with women’s lack of social power, her actions were no small demonstration of skill and courage.
Katherine also published tracts. One she wrote for the consolation of wives whose husbands were exiled for their faith. In it she cited Isaiah 49:15 in which the prophet describes God as a mother who cannot forget a nursing child. She wrote another consolation tract for the quarantined city magistrate. A meditation on the Lord’s Prayer, it included these thoughts: “Our Father, who art in heaven—He is called not Lord or Judge, but Father. And since through his Son we are born again we may call him Grandfather, too. He may be likened also to a Mother who has known the pangs of birth and the joy of giving suck…”
In making allusion to God’s mothering qualities, Katherine was no radical writing about God as the sacred feminine. Rather, she was a godly, theologically sound woman living long before Second Wave feminism. She, like many before her—such as Lady Julian of Norwich—found comfort in the biblical mothering metaphors used to reveal God. In visiting prisoners, caring for the sick, and arranging care for floods of refugees, Katherine encouraged many in the faith by pointing them to these metaphors at a time when Protestants faced severe persecution.
March is Women’s History Month. And Katherine Zell is one of the many women who have inspired me. What women have inspired you and why? (They don’t have to be famous!)