The Climate for Women in Early Anabaptism

Written for seminary course “The Role and Image of Women in the Reformations.” This paper appears in Decades of Feminist Writing, DYN self-published, 2020

Being a Mennonite with life-long connection to Anabaptist history, I chose, when living for one year (1976-77) in Cambridge, MA, to take a Reformation course with an Episcopalian woman professor at Andover Newton seminary. The course was titled “The Role and Image of Women in the Reformations,” that plural alerting students to expect more than a Protestant perspective.

At the same time, I hoped to research more intentionally into women’s experience within Anabaptism. My bias sensed that Mennonites and our historians could benefit from more direct attention to women’s experience and views. For such exposure, I expected to learn from reading into The Martyr’s Mirror, a major resource of personal testimony from early Anabaptists. I wished to be more familiar with names of women for whom being faithful to Christ truly mattered. How did potential for martyrdom ‘drive’ them? Since the course would give special attention to Reformation piety (the affective), how did Anabaptist women shape or express that? Was their commitment to reform valued and in what distinct ways was it expressed?

To examine radical Anabaptist women in the sixteenth century calls attention first to the Medieval context that preceded Reformation years. What may have been true in one century could be in a state of flux or disengaging by the next. Major innovations of the thirteenth century—beginning of universities, flourishing of religious orders, and the Inquisition—all affected life for women, but differently. Compare, for example, aristocratic women and common or peasant women; more Anabaptist women were of the latter social class. More Medieval aristocratic families found a place for daughters in religious orders. Church Father Thomas Aquinas stated: “Virginity, ‘directed to the good of the soul,’ is superior to marriage, ‘directed to the good of the body (procreation).’”1 A question persists: To what extent did having both women and men in religious orders, both potentially virtuous, upgrade women as a whole or influence the church toward more balanced expectations for both?

Episcopalian professor Eleanor McLaughlin credits examples from Medieval piety that referred to God or Jesus Christ as Father and Mother as a more wholistic perception of divinity and therefore humanity. For example, Julian of Norwich in her Revelations of Divine Love expresses the following:

God rejoiceth that he is our Father.
God rejoiceth that he is our Mother.
God rejoiceth that he is our true Spouse, and our soul his beloved wife.
Jesus Christ . . . is our very Mother. We have our being of him, there, where the ground of Motherhood begins . . . As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother.
And then shall the bliss of our Motherhood in Christ be begun anew in the joys of our Father, God.2

McLaughlin contends that such experiences of God had further results. Women and men then saw themselves and people generally as more androgynous, crediting rather than limiting a range of human qualities within each. She also notes an ambivalence toward women: early Christian views of human equality conflicted with “Medieval society’s belief that man belongs to self, that woman belongs to man.”3 So, a question surfaces about what degree of influence truly reshaped the majority of peoples’ views? Further, male clerics were retained as “the superior” for most women’s orders. Historian Elise Boulding suggests that “for every move toward independence of women, there is a new movement toward control by men.”4

Contributing significantly to Medieval awareness of woman was the role and inclusion of Mary, Jesus’ mother. Might a parallel exist between ancient Israel’s insistence on monotheism and Reformer’s negation of Mary? As Israel’s leadership countered plural deity, Reformers countered plural sources for divine belief. With each case the active thinkers, therefore persuaders, were male; that which they rejected was female. In contrast to cultural norms of god-goddess pairs, Israel struggled to endorse that a non-sexual God alone is God. Within patriarchy, male Israelite leadership cast monotheism to support male dominance. Through new freedom to read Scripture themselves, enhanced by the printing press, Reformers found nothing in Scripture to validate the worship of or the meditative powers of Mary.

No one denies that Reformers removed female imagery, and therefore a modeling function, from worshiper’s consciousness. They could not credit a person (in this case, Mary) with qualities or powers not accorded her in scripture. Such tradition countered the emerging focal point that they brought to belief and action—the Bible. Even so, history, recorded and silent, convinces one of ties between religious people’s perception of God and their assumptions about or crediting of people. Qualities and functions credited to Mary could be identified as female, those of God the Father as male. Anabaptists more often transferred what Roman Catholics credited to Mary’s roles or sayings directly to Jesus. Noted theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether suggests that the Roman position about Christ saw him primarily as judge, crediting the mercy aspect to Mary. “As Christ becomes more to be feared, trust is transferred to Mary.”5 Anabaptists made efforts to restore the biblical picture of Jesus as personal, compassionate and model for life and death.

While Anabaptists did not negate Hebrew Scripture, the Second (New) testament definitely became more prominent, in references made and in general framework for formulating belief, suggests Walter Klaassen.6 While they referred more to Old Testament male characters than female, they shifted from reliance on Church Fathers. That fact fit with “obeying God rather than men.” Intent to continue as common people, little incentive emerged to emulate a few Fathers. Another point of difference for Reformation women to the Medieval scene involved the confessor. For a woman to relate directly with God or with the “priesthood of all believers” differs from assurance for salvation through an intermediary (usually male). While Anabaptists claim the “priesthood of all,” practice can hardly be described as consistent with that ideal. More follows on that idea.

Adult baptism at the occasion of salvation called each to live resurrection. Any woman or man among the believers could credit the basic belief of another. Divine forgiveness could be assured by another. This capacity or affirmation of each other mattered, especially for women who formerly looked to a male priest or the hierarchical symbolism of a Mother Superior. “What a patriarch most resents in woman is self-assertion.”7 But some Roman Catholic women’s groups, as The Third Order and the Sisters of the Common Life, did. Further, the Beguines, first begun in 1223, followed no Rule of Life, had no male head, and continued with ordinary work in the world. Known as “passive members of the Modern Devotion,” Beguines did not preach or exert religious influence except through lived example; they “sought their own spiritual salvation.”8

Friction engaged with change, in most time periods. Both women and men supported, countered, and engaged in conflict regarding change. Both gained and suffered through the process. Historian Elise Boulding minces little in declaring the Reformation to have been no help for women. “Luther and Calvin set back at least a hundred years the progress of the Middle Ages in education for women, largely in convents, by their ideology of destroying convents, abolishing monk and nun. What they substituted for convent education . . . was narrow vocational education to fit women for the household.”9 The Reformation basically removed choice for women between marriage and convent or religious life. Due to the household emphasis, Protestants encouraged less contemplative experience for women, in that process denying full development of woman’s spirituality.

Whereas mainline Reformation moved toward the universal—church being an institution open to all, inclusive—Anabaptists functioned as “neither Catholic or Protestant.” They insisted that the true church existed of believers in whom the experience of conversion was real.10 While that stance could be seen as judgmental, early Anabaptists also called for religious liberty.11 Might whether that goal held true for women as well as men deserve attention? Historian Miriam Chrisman notes details about several women from court hearings and official records: Ursula Ryse (daughter of a civil servant who was brought to trial), Margarette Pruss (strong-minded, able woman influential in assisting Anabaptists to get literature printed), Ursula Jost and Barbara Robstock (prophets, the latter “made no attempt to deny her gifts”), and Catherine Seiden (“knew of no preachers who taught better doctrine than the Anabaptists.”)12

Jarold Zeman13 discusses fundamental marks of Anabaptism through twentieth century terms: personalism, pluralism and egalitarianism. He fails to make clear how women fit into them. Personalism gives highest value to “human beings as persons” through scripture, God as personal, Jesus’ priority with persons, and the New Testament concept of new birth and nature in Christ. Pluralism marked theology via: rejection of hierarchy and creedal control as individual members freely interpreted scripture; moral and socio-ethical views through non-resistance, community, and sensitivity about taxes; and religious tolerance based in multiple religious and social backgrounds. Egalitarianism revealed itself through not being restricted to one social class, democratic functioning (local church groups chose leaders hierarchy-free), a sense of belonging and identity, and equality through birth and baptism.

The Schleitheim Confession of February 1527, printed in German by 1533, is titled “Brotherly Union (agreement) of Some (a Number) Children of God Concerning Seven Articles.” It was likely written by Michael Sattler, a former monastery official who led Swiss Anabaptists prior to his being martyred three months later. The Confession encourages observance of the Lord’s Supper “as often as the brethren come together.” Their gathering usually included a simple, common meal to suggest community. Through reading the Lord’s Supper scripture, believers remembered the suffering and death of Christ; group discussion of its meaning preceded partaking of the elements. Believers pledged themselves to obedient living—even unto death, imitating Christ.14

Through this Confession, Anabaptists countered the religious world of 1527. It served two functions: a summary of major issues—baptism, ban, Lord’s Supper, separation from evil, pastors, sword, oath—and a call to bring together diversity while negating false teaching among believers.15 Details of language inform: children – 3 occurrences; brethren and sisters/sons and daughters – 10; people – 1. While the word sisters does not appear, brethren occurs 7 times. The impact, within a male-oriented world, points toward early Anabaptist intentional freedom to make clear that men and women were addressed. Not only were the faithful of both sexes; false ones—those intent to mislead—were both also. Male Bible characters appear—Paul/6 times, Abraham/4, Peter/3, Timothy and Simeon/1 each. Aside from Simeon’s speaking to Mary, the only other female character named is negatively stereotyped—“the heathenish woman taken in adultery.” Regarding God-language: while no “divinity language” names Mary16, God appears/43 times, Christ/32, Christ Jesus/6, Lord/16, Father/10, Spirit/7. Only one term, true Shepherd for Christ, suggests a more affective role. That instance hardly balances the power imagery of Lord 16 times! While letters of soon-to-be martyred men and women express clear confidence in a very personal, comforting friend and guide in God or Christ, this more formal Confession writing conjures little of emotion or contemplative piety.

We next look more directly at the piety of early Anabaptists. Piety includes the affective. A question raised about Reformation materials and experience, compared to medieval understandings and expressions, is what happens to the affective? How are emotions revealed? To what extent is feeling in balance with reason? Does piety limit, alter, find new channels for conveying or receiving inner yearnings? Is joy balanced with fear? Mysterious utterance and “cold logic”? What ranges of intensity emerge?

Language and image are tools used to analyze the affective, to describe piety somewhat concretely. Significant interrelationship between role and image is implied. Which “comes first” or influences more the other remains unknown. Since most historical material has been recorded by men, a further unknown exists—the impact of male perception of women in roles or as imaged. One personal hunch is that models contribute to role expectation and realization. Implication: Reformer’s de-emphasis on female religious figures, Mary and women saints, did affect people’s understanding about humanity (femaleness and maleness) and divinity. Piety changes as a result.

To give expression to the emotive is not synonymous alone with being female. Not intended to be sex-linked, emotive response results from being humanly created after Divine likeness. Nor is piety, and the affective expression of it, limited to feelings or set in opposition to reason. Devotion can be active or acted upon. Religion expresses the soul. Piety, limited by language, is one way to actively respond to and initiate communion with the Ultimate Being beyond and within a person.

Robert Friedmann, in Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries,17 discusses central themes of piety. 1. Love and cross remain foundational. 2. Believers follow Christ in suffering; writing both exhorts and comforts it. 3. Fear and love of God interweave along with complete, voluntary obedience. 4. Not emotional, love is a frame of mind expressed in the concrete. 5. Believers avoid being like “the world.” 6. God’s pure word commissions to action, not merely being symbolic interpretation. 7. Inner experience and imitation of Christ pattern a range of expression. 8. Salvation, an obedient way of life, does not only prompt enjoyment for the immediate. 9. While emotion comforts the sufferer, it does not prove salvation. 10. “Brotherly” reciprocity overcomes selfishness. 11. Not primarily mystical, inwardly pure, or rational, piety conveys direct, active discipleship. 12. Religious spontaneity matures through extemporaneous prayer, not as minimal catechism or prescribed worship order.

Emphases like these resulted from study of scripture. All believers were expected to study and interpret it. The Spirit engaged actively within individuals as a result of personal faith. Not only did sermons expound scripture, daily conversations reflected continuous biblical thought. “Last testaments” and exhortations of women and men prior to being martyred are full of complete verses collected into paragraphs. One third of Anabaptists martyred were women. For example, Anna of Rotterdam (Anneken Jans)18 wrote to her son Isaiah prior to her death in 1539. She intersperses direct address with ideas: “My son, hear the instruction of my mouth.” “See, my son,” “read also,” “Paul further says,” “Therefore my child.” Then, but for brief sections of interpreting, she expresses her thoughts—45 scripture verses—an abundance of New Testament material (33 references) with John’s gospel and Revelation the most often quoted (7 and 6 respectively). Only once does Apocryphal material appear.

Anneken repeats the call to “sanctify” five times and exhorts frequently—”become, write, take, observe, be not, do not, give, strive, remember.” Her ideas recur in other accounts: “Fear Him (God) alone; keep His commandments . . . Be not afraid to confess Him (Lord) before men; do not fear men: rather give up your life than depart from truth. . . for He (Lord) accepts or receives no son, whom he does not chasten . . . When the world prays, they call upon their father, the devil.” A parenthetical comment proves of interest for our subject: “In this way walked those who were marked by the Lord . . . who were chosen . . . who were not defiled with women (understand this) . . .”

Another testament from a mother, Soetgen van den Houte,19 to her three children in 1560 includes 65 scriptures. Half of these texts appear in the New Testament with half of them from the gospels, primarily Matthew. Two-thirds of the 24 Old Testament references appear in Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah. Nine references come from Apocryphal materials, half from Tobit.

At the beginning of most paragraphs, Soetgen addresses her little ones affectionately (“Dear children,” “most beloved,” “my lambs”). She wrote from prison, “I should like to write a jewel into your heart . . . the word of truth.” “Fear the Lord, obey good admonition, hope in His mercy.” Within one paragraph she combined “your Father’s kingdom” with mention of the human father of Esau; the children’s father had died for the same cause that she anticipated for herself. The boy is to “set his sisters a good example.” To the girls she says: “Be not quarrelsome, or loquacious, or light minded, or proud, or surly of speech, but kind, honorable and quiet, as behooves young girls.” All are advised to diligently learn to read and write. Scripture characters Daniel, Joseph, and Moses are commended; Judith and Esther are noted as “virgins.”

Another illustrative (though longer) letter was written by Walter of Stoelwijh.20 He includes 185 references (often noting the text rather than writing it into content). Nearly half of the 135 New Testament verses appear in the gospels; half of the Old Testament quotes come from Psalms and Isaiah with 17 from Apocrypha.

As Mennonite history professor C. J. Dyck suggests: “Anabaptists were out to change the world through love and the cross.” Obedience conveyed their response (piety) based on their love for and identification with Jesus, the One whom they discovered in scripture.21 Another significant dimension of Anabaptist piety stressed that all of life is holy, everything being permeated by the Spirit. “ . . . every pot which a housewife uses shall be as sacred ‘as the bowls before the altar.’”22 No particular place, time, or visible objects were set apart.23 In fact, persecution made a mockery of permanence or stability. Refusing to meet with or in the state church, Anabaptists often worshipped corporately in secret—in homes, caves, forests, hardly settings to focus on formal liturgy!

One Bernese Confession suggests that both women and men actively participated in worship. Initially, all remained silent during prayer. Kneeling together at the beginning and end of each service, they literally “followed the leader” on rising.

The brethren and sisters should meet at least three or four times each week to study the teachings of Christ and His apostles and admonish one another in the Lord. When the brethren and sisters come together, they should read something that they understand which God has laid upon their hearts. The others should remain quiet and listen so that not two or three are speaking at the same time and hinder the others from hearing. The Psalter should be read daily by all.24

Hymns in early Anabaptist use were not collected until 1565. The Swiss Ausbund proved to be important for centuries. Two hymns from this collection appear in the 1969 Mennonite Hymnal: “Nun wend ihr Horen sagen” (I Sing with Exultation”) by Felix Manz, 1526 (#40) and “Warum Betrubst du dich, mein Herz” (He who would follow Christ”) by Jorg Wagner, 1527 (# 344). Different geographic groups produced their own collections. Common to all were martyr songs. In fact, half of the 750 Anabaptist hymns written between 1527-70 are martyr/historical. Two samples of these genuine people’s expressions follow:

Scattered are we like flocks of sheep; Without a shepherd near us;
Abandoned stand our home and hearth, And like the owl or birds of night
Seek shelter we in caverns, In clefts, on crags, in rocky wilds
We make our home—still they pursue; Like birds or fowl we’re hunted.25

The Two Maids of Beckum
. . .
Two maids that lived in Beckum/Were prisoned in a cell,
Because of Christ’s pure Gospel/For they had learned it well.
. . .
The tyrants stern demanded/If they were twice baptized;Nay, only once, they answered/As we have learned of Christ.
. . . The tyrants further asked them/About the sacrament:
We keep the feast according/To Jesus Christ’s intent.
The bread by Him was broken/And He the wine did pour,
That we might all remember/The sufferings he bore.
. . . God’s Spirit gave her courage/As deep her anguish grew
O Lord, wilt thou forgive them/They know not what they do.
The other then was taken/And Ursel was her name;
That she might yield for seeing/Her sister (Maria) in the flame.
. . .
She prayed for all the rulers/Till her last breath she drew:
O Lord, wilt thou forgive them/They know not what they do.
. . .
He who this song has written/Has done it for our sake,
That thus he might prepare us/With joy to meet the stake.26

Initially Anabaptists prayed in silence. Their first prayer collection, of Hans de Ries likely from 1610, followed 85 years after the group’s formation. It contained a meditation on Christ, two general prayers for before and after a sermon, five prayers for every day (morning and evening plus before/after meals), prayer for a sick person, two for tribulation/temptation, prayer for the one who is sick to pray. A 1618 collection stressed that “prayers are mere suggestions without binding anyone to them.” A 1625 collection by Leonhard Klock first introduced prayers for ordinances and marriage. Amish in the U.S. use a German collection, but as Mennonites moved from the German language for worship, they returned to the original Anabaptist devotion practice of free, extemporaneous expressions.

The first (1702) printed devotional book of Swiss Brethren, with abbreviated title of “Golden Apples,” has four hundred pages, Part I of testimony about five outstanding martyrs. Suzanne vol Holtz (Soetgen van der Houte referred to earlier) is one of the five. Writer Friedmann speaks of Michael Sattler and Thomas von Inbroich’s writings and laments that not more is known of the two other men. But seemingly, he cares little that Suzanne is left a near-unknown to current women and men. Another more recent source27 adds the following about Soetgen:

She wrote hundreds of poems and devotional hymns. We have very little record of her life, but we know that a hymnal of 102 of her songs was published in 1592. The hymnal was commonly known as the “Soetgen Gerrits Hymnal.” . . . It was used in early Anabaptist worship services . . . Soetgen has been called “the Fanny Crosby of the Reformation” and rightly so.

This quote testifies to our need to know about Soetgen. Why could earlier Anabaptists credit women, include them more directly as models? How can more androcentric telling (or ignoring women’s experience) of history be redeemed? Were aspects of the medieval religious scene, with women and men together involved in monastic life, continuing to influence early Anabaptists? Or did they simply find reciprocity called for in the scripture they so diligently studied? Does, in fact, the church need to experience active obedience, and therefore persecution, to comprehend Jesus’ ethic for human relationships?

More about piety and theology can be deduced from the Martyrs Mirror. Varied details about martyrs appears: social background, age, geographic origin, and intellectual capacity. But consistency in motivation and intent—faith boldly confessed—remains. The very process of writing thoughts—of encouragement, realities of prison existence, repeated interrogations, praise to God the sustainer, and hope—both occupied their minds and gave them an outlet. Of the hundreds of accounts to choose from several follow. Estimates of the number martyred range from 845 (in Claus-Peter Clasen) to 4,000 (Hans Hillerbrand) between 1525 and the beginning of the Thirty Years War.

Four friends offered up in Maestricht: Arent van Essen; Ursel his wife; Neeltgen, an old woman; and Trijntget, her daughter in the year 1570.
They each freely confessed their faith . . . both being joyful and of good courage. . . She exhorted her husband not a little, to the strengthening of his heart. . . Through the help of God, she was able to endure torturing and scourging. . . they greatly rejoiced, because they were to be counted worthy to die for the name of Christ.28

Orley Swartzendruber relates the account of Claesken and her husband (name not identified) imprisoned with Jacques d’Auchy. Claesken overheard and understood the Dutch conversation of the latter’s debates with the intelligent Inquisitor. Listening encouraged her for her own interrogation. Not able to dispute, however, as was true of her “poor husband, who cannot read a word,” she only confessed.

Letters between Adrianenken and her husband:

My cordially beloved husband and dearest brother in the Lord, I your specially, cordially beloved wife, Adriaenken Jans, your dearest sister in the Lord, who have married each other before the Lord and His church, I will herewith bid your love adieu, and await you there with your and our dearest Bridegroom, Christ Jesus . . .
My beloved wife and sister in the Lord, as an affectionate salutation, to the praise of the Lord. . . My dear Lamb. . . fair one. . . dear rib . . . The Lord is our captain . . . Caleb and Joshua, Samaritan woman, Peter, Solomon. . . have courage. . . the Lord keep you in a godly life.29

Much has been written about Michael Sattler, an early, learned Swiss leader. His letter to the congregation at Horb encouraging them to excommunicate, in love, the Spiritualists who caused disunity has been repeatedly examined. Yet writer Swartzentruber suggests that Anneken Jan’s (Anna of Rotterdam, referred to earlier) letter 1529 “may be considered as somewhat equivalent to Sattler’s.” In great demand through early decades, it appeared with Sattler’s in Sacrifice of the Lord where the proportion of noted women is striking. Why might later Mennonite historians be less willing to “portray” and recommend those models? Anneken’s theology, though not formal, expresses “warm and authoritative language of one who knows through deep spiritual experience.30 As Christians have suffered ‘crosses’ like their Example, this disciple modeled her Lord. Not as often congregation leaders, women and their accounts were shared more with family and friends.

Menno Simons was called by Anabaptists a decade after its beginning to give leadership and bring a clearer sense of unity to the diverse, dispersed groups. His Complete Writings define and defend doctrine, often disputing errors posed by opponents, without much indication of feeling or emotion. His theme “For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (I Cor. 3:11) appears with each writing. No doubt first-decade Anabaptists did intend to recover aspects of early church experience that had lost meaning. When persecution proved most intense through conflict with Roman and major Reformers, when authentic beliefs expressed firm conviction, Anabaptist women along with men were radical, “going to the root.” Did Menno’s piety note women in any distinct way?

Two prayers of Menno appear in print.31 My observations from them reveal: 1. As with Anabaptist sermons, conversations, martyr exhortations, the first prayer primarily expresses continuous scripture verses. 2. Bible characters include: David, Elijah, widow of Zarephath, Jezebel, Daniel, Habakkuk, Elisha, Woman of Samaria, Solomon, prodigal son, Mary Magdalene, woman of Canaan, the centurion, thief on the cross, and Zacchaeus. 3. A tranquil family setting suggests the father to be “head” while “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine in the innermost part of thy house; thy children like olive plants round about thy table. Behold thus shall the man be blest that feareth the Lord.” (reflecting a Psalm) 4. Although Christ appears prominently in Anabaptist theology, Lord, God, and Father terminology appears more in prayer.

Group leadership deserves more attention. Within Roman Catholicism hierarchical distinction between clergy and laity mattered. Reformation groups attempted to make more visible the “priesthood of all believers.” Data from Wolfgang Schaufele’s doctoral dissertation explains that both lay women and men actively promoted Anabaptism. But a group that stressed “obedience to God rather than men” as did Anabaptists had to guard against selective application. Did “men” refer to broad church and state officials only, not those in the “mini monastery” (family) or believer’s church settings? Can hierarchy be justified within priesthood of all?

Schaufele notes the vigor with which ordinary Anabaptists contacted neighbors, due to their call to “make disciples of others” through having received adult baptism. One Easter morning a servant girl persuaded a resident met on the street to join her at an Anabaptist meeting. A farmer’s wife Elizabeth Sedelmair persuaded non-Anabaptists to accept the faith and be baptized. To limit their influence, some women who had children to care for were chained at home by Wurttenberg government officials. Other authorities decreed that Anabaptist men and women were not to be employed by citizens. A German source further informs about Anabaptist women who:

Being certain of their faith on the ground of a personal decision and acceptance of baptism, not only defended their faith tenaciously over against their husbands but courageously confessed their faith and spread it in the circles of their relatives and neighbors. The woman emerges in Anabaptism as a fully emancipated person in religious matters and as the independent bearer of Christian convictions.32

Convinced wives won husbands; husbands persuaded wives; together they influenced children. Some people called the “persuasion” force.

Ordinary members did not baptize; the Vorsteher (missioner) carried out that task. Gathered believers chose leaders and replaced the same as soon as necessary, which was fairly frequent due to being expelled, imprisoned, or death. Claus-Peter Clasen’s data (at times inaccurate) lists 260 leaders from 1525-1529. Only 22 of these continued to preach after 1529.33 Social background of 63 percent of these is known. At first, intellectuals played powerful roles among believers, but craftsmen numbered more. After 1530 uneducated leaders became more evident causing other Reformation leadership to look down on such simple folk.

Numerically insignificant, that several women are identified as leader/apostle/preacher matters. Four appear in Clasen’s list (pp. 144, 145, 146, 159):

Anna Egger (1528) from Tirol – “maybe leader” (same category given with men)
Wife of Mathis Waldner (1528) from Tirol – “maybe leader”
No name – wife of a smith (1530) from Tirol
Katherine Valebs (1527-28) from Hesse

More information about these women needs to be obtained. Record-keeping proved risky for potential martyrs. At times “authorized” leaders baptized members without revealing their name—to make interrogations less helpful. Ernest Crous names two noteworthy women apostles among preachers: Bernhartz Marie of Niederrollesbroich and Maria who was drowned in 1552 (Martyrs’ Mirror, 525). “To her is dedicated the oldest Lower Rhine martyr hymn, # 25 in the Ausbund.34

When leaders needed to be absent, regular members freely read and discussed scriptures. Fear of persecution, and mutual support that resulted, helped to bond people together. People commonly looked to each other for encouragement and admonition. Considerable knowledge and practice of using scripture in itself expresses piety. Although each member could interpret scripture, differences resulted. In that process, splinter groups and factions followed.

Another area that affected women’s experience involves marriage and family. Not many of their social class had been engaged in medieval monastic life. No doubt aware of the Roman church’s understanding of the ascetic life as holier and preferred to marriage, they also knew of some clergy’s “irregular” relations with women, of societal assumptions about women and men. Since for early Anabaptists all of life was considered sacred, marriage did not deserve distinct sacramental blessing. A strong sense of “marrying in the Lord” evolved. Separation from the world encouraged that spouses be chosen from within the group of believers. If already “unequally yoked” with a nonbeliever, a period of examination preceded full membership. Imprisonment caused extended periods of absence for one parent or spouse. So also, missioner’s family life could be disrupted; they were to “keep moving” among believers for reasons of security, to bring new followers.

Marriage primarily expressed a religious covenant. Obedience to God rather than men led to cases of marital avoidance with a non-believer, prompting misunderstanding and differences of opinion among believers. If hope for an unbeliever to come to belief seemed impossible, avoidance could be the remedy. Rather than promote the Roman assumption about marriage finding purpose in procreation, Anabaptism focused less on the sexual relationship. Marriage expressed a way to live: commitment to another person along with obedience to God and duty to the group of believers. Family became the setting for “passing on” such loyalty. Martyr accounts reflect caring bonds of “husband/wife in the Lord,” of both spiritually dedicated to “the cause.”

Little writing reports from Anabaptist women about marriage and divorce. Compared to Martin Luther’s enthusiastic affection for his wife Katie, little reference to Gertrude appears in Menno’s writing. While one of his letters ends: “My wife greets you,” several other references mention her illness, that she died. Earlier trained as a Roman priest, Menno sharply criticized celibate clergy misdeeds or adultery to which he had been exposed during eleven years as a priest. Biographical information states: “He was married to a certain Gertrude in 1536 or 1537.” From a letter, I wonder if her last name might have been Edes.35 No doubt Menno thought of husbands as “head” of the household. But steady persecution affected that term since purposeful living gave focus elsewhere. Widows, literally or wives of prisoners, had to manage households. As disruptive living lessened, the pattern of headship became more entrenched.

Three of Menno Simon’s letters are written to women, none of whom is named. Circumstances vary. The only extant letter in Menno’s handwriting is titled “Comforting Letter to a Widow.” Of the three sent to women, one had recently become a widow. One, who struggled with fear for her missioner husband, wished that Menno could release him from that risky activity. And one reflects dissatisfaction with her level of spiritual growth. His genuine expressions of affection recur: “Beloved sister in the Lord,” “Your brother who sincerely loves you in Christ,” “My inmost soul is grieved on your behalf.” The widow’s ability is confirmed. She is encouraged to become a deacon (now that she qualifies), to pattern Anna and Sarepta. As she follows the admonition given, she will do o.k.; he ends “in true paternal faithfulness.” To Leonard Bouwen’s wife he encourages her to accept “for the cause of God and the brethren, the need for Leonard to travel and risk danger.” Such is her part of the ministry. To “strengthen her husband” reflects her vital “call of the Lord.” While most letters admonish groups of believers, one rebuts an on-going hassle with an opponent David Joris.

Menno’s “Ten Studies in Persons of True Christian Faith” include two women. After Noah, Abraham (some reference to Sarah), Moses (Miriam not mentioned), Joshua and Caleb, Josiah (Huldah identified), the Centurion of Capernaum, Zacchaus, and the Malefactor on the Cross comes lengthy discussion of “The Woman who was a Sinner” and the Syrophenician Woman. The former text teaches against misusing marriage and women; the latter calls for Christian parents primarily to care for their children’s salvation, “lest you also lose your own salvation on their account.”36

While interpreters today may draw different concerns from these texts, purpose here has been to convey details, admittedly scattered, about a time period centuries ago. This writing combines with other attempts of mine to dip into personal religious history. Not a duly-qualified Anabaptist historian like acquaintance Canadian Linda A. Huebert Hecht, I also wrote: “Are Anabaptists Motherless?” for Which Way Women?37 To respond through disciplined research to thirty questions for a final exam in a seminary course titled “Anabaptist History and Theology” also proved to be most satisfying.


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