Not long ago, I overhead a female ministry leader noting with some enthusiasm that we are seeing the first generation in Christendom in which women have received theological higher education. But her statement, while well intentioned, was completely untrue.
Some of our lack of knowledge about women’s history, particularly in the Protestant tradition, stems from post-Reformation amnesia about women in monastic spaces. About all we know—maybe—is that about 500 years ago a German nun, Katerina, married a former monk, Martin Luther, and religious living spaces were emptied of their occupants, partly in response to the Protestant Reformation.
Here’s what we need to know, though: A similar phenomenon happened about that same time in Switzerland. And then in the 1530’s, the emptying-monasteries phenomenon hit England. In his article for History on “The Dissolution of the Monasteries,” G. W. Bernard reminds readers that in the late 1530s, England alone had about 900 religious houses—of which more than 140 were occupied by two thousand nuns. And one of the functions served by these communities was scholarship and education—in addition to hospitality, medical care, the arts, and music (390). But then, in addition to the reformers, along came King Henry VIII, who, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, consolidated and then dissolved England’s monasteries, sold the real estate, and soon had an uprising on his hands.
But the conflict is not my point. And Europe was not the only continent to have Christian nuns… But don’t miss the detail here about women. Many were in full-time vocational ministry. And they were educated and educating. Where do you think we got that stereotype of nuns rapping on the knuckles of schoolchildren? Nuns have a long history of teaching.
In his presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society in November of 2016, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace talked about “Medieval Manuscripts and Modern Evangelicals: Lessons from the Past, Guidance for the Future.” And he argued, among other things, that we can learn much from medieval manuscripts—including a reminder that the church owes women a huge debt for work done on textual preservation.
Consider Hilda of Whitby (AD 614–680). In their book Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church Maas and O’Donnell write, “Along with the copying of manuscripts and teaching, women became scholars of theology and learned their Latin, sometimes to a high degree of erudition. Hilda…is a case in point; a nun from the age of thirty-three, she became abbess of Whitby at forty-three and educated future monks and clerics of the English Church. [Women helping to train men for vocational ministry is nothing new.] She was also, according to Bede, a counselor to the royalty and nobility of England” (401). Additionally, Bede in his AD 731 work titled Ecclesiastical History of the English People noted that Hilda was actually the founding abbess of the monastery at Whitby—a double monastery—which was the venue for the Synod of Whitby. Indeed, she was abbess of several monasteries.
Before her, there were women like Marcella (325–410). She corresponded with Jerome, who wrote this about her at her death: “As in those days my name was held in some renown as that of a student of the Scriptures, she never came to see me without asking me some questions about them, nor would she rest content at once, but on the contrary would dispute them; this, however, was not for the sake of argument, but to learn by questioning the answers to such objections might, as she saw, be raised. How much virtue and intellect, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say, both lest I may exceed the bounds of men’s belief …. This only will I say, that whatever I had gathered together by long study, and by constant meditation made part of my nature, she tasted, she learned and made her own.”
Marcella mentored Paula, who, while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, settled in Bethlehem and established a monastery for men and a convent for women.
There are thousands of women's stories like these. Thousands. Descriptions filled with words like study. Education. Learning. Transmission. Manuscripts. Questions and answers. Intellect.
For hundreds and hundreds of years, a woman wishing to follow Jesus had two options (sometimes decided for her, depending on the money for a dowry or her family’s need—or greed): the monastic life, which involved education; or married life, which involved no education. Both were considered holy callings, though the former was often elevated as more spiritual (until we flipped that script and elevated family life. Eventually, we will hopefully see them both as equally holy callings).
When the Protestant Reformers read their Koine Greek New Testaments, they noted that the human biblical authors referred to all believers as “saints.” So they nixed the whole saints-as-elevated-Christians thing, including the feast days that went with remembering the biographies of the male and female cloud of witnesses. We don’t acknowledge these saints or saints’ days (though we do eat chocolate on St. Valentine’s Day, try to avoid being pinched on St. Patrick’s Day, and sing with jollity about the Feast of Stephen). Consequently, we lost the daily biographies. But in the past, people learned the stories of men and women of faith every day.
All this does not even include more recent theological education. Many Black colleges and seminaries had male and female professors and students from their beginnings. Moody Bible Institute at one time proudly trained women for pastoral ministry and featured them as such in their alumni publication (see Janette Hassey, No Time for Silence, Appendix 12). Christabel Pankhurst shared the stage with D. L. Moody at Bible Conferences. Henrietta Mears mentored Bill Bright (Cru founder) and Jim Rayburn (Young Life founder) and a relatively unknown guy named Billy Graham via a Bible class she taught in California. And John Walvoord (second president of Dallas Theological Seminary) had a Bible teacher at Wheaton named Edith Torrey, whom the school hired in 1917.
Ours is not the first generation of theologically educated women. So while some may suggest that women learning and teaching theology is evidence that radical feminism has infiltrated the church, women's presence in learning and teaching spaces actually has a long, long history—a celebrated one!—starting with a woman in an ancient Near Eastern town called Bethany sitting at the feet of the first rabbi ever to formally teach a woman…and that awesome rabbi's name was Jesus.