Skip to Navigation | Skip to Content

H. Henry Meeter Center: Specializing in John Calvin, Calvinism, the Reformation, and Early Modern Studies

 

"Women and the Reformation"

Susan Felch of Calvin College

 

Given on November 18, 2004

The Henry H. Meeter Center for Reformation and Calvin studies recently welcomed Calvin College 's own Dr. Susan Felch from the English Department for her lecture titled “Women and the Reformation.” Focusing on women reformers in sixteenth-century England , Dr. Felch blended her historical and literary findings to support the notion that women played a prominent role in furthering the English Protestant Reformation. As evidenced by their patronage, devotion, teaching, publishing, and writing, many women acted faithfully and with determination, using what they had to support and maintain the Reformation. While Dr. Felch focused only on a selection of women from sixteenth-century England , she indicated that the entire story of womens' involvement in the Reformation would be an incredibly lengthy one to tell.

Beginning the lecture with a look into the life of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second queen, Dr. Felch pointed to the account given by John Foxe in his renowned Acts and Monuments published in 1583 and commonly referred to as the Book of Martyrs. From this political, religious, and historical document Dr. Felch noted that Anne Boleyn was diligent in charity and patronage to further the Protestant cause in England . She did so by encouraging translations of the Bible in the vernacular and giving money to Reformation scholars. William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer benefited from the Queen's generosity and zeal for the Reformation to take hold in England . She also urged her not so zealous husband, Henry VIII to read Protestant books, namely, The Obedience of a Christian Man.

Anne Boleyn was one of many women executed and praised as a Reformation martyr. Another fellow martyr, Anne Askew, risked her life defying the 1543 legislation titled Act for the Advancement of True Religion when she read the Bible aloud in Lincoln Cathedral in 1544. The legislation prohibited the lower class as well as upper class women from reading the Bible in public. From that point on Anne Askew brought momentum to the Reformation exemplified mainly by her diligence to doctrine and devotion.

Dr. Felch also discussed Katherine Parr, the one queen who survived Henry VIII's reign. Her influence in furthering the Reformation was in writing and among her evangelical circle of men and women. Her translation of Erasmus' Paraphrases of the New Testament became one of the two required texts in the Reformed churches along with an English Bible. Elizabeth Tyrwhit was part of Katherine Parr's social circle and made significant contributions of her own. She rendered the doctrine of the old prayer books and translated the Catholic Hours of the Cross from Latin, managing to convey them in a Protestant light, as well as compose a prayer book of her own. Themes like original sin, Christ's fully atoning death, and the doctrine of the Elect are some of those that were weaved into her rendition of the older prayer books.

Dr. Felch began her lecture illustrating the traumatic execution of Stephan Cobb, which was witnessed by eleven-year-old Anne Vaughan Lock, whom he tutored. Later in her lecture, Dr. Felch returned to Anne Lock, expounding on the incredible work and influence she had. Her impressive education combined with her zeal helped her further the Reformation. Anne's deep friendship with Scotland 's leading reformer, John Knox, led her to Geneva where she translated some of Calvin's sermons. Her literary contributions also included Meditation of the Penitent Sinner. Letters from Knox evidenced his high respect for Anne and confirmed her importance to the movement's success. Knox depended on her and her husband for safety and comfort, indicating that his success in spreading the Reformation in Scotland and elsewhere was largely enabled by Anne's efforts. Anne Vaughan Lock remains at the center stage for Protestant happenings in England . She was the first to introduce words like all knowing and all working to the English language to describe God, the first of which remains in common use today.

The Cooke sisters, Margaret Cunningham, Anne Russell Dudley, and Catherine Willoughby Brandon were among the other women Dr. Felch brought to light in her lecture. These women offered all they could, given their statuses and societal limitations. Dr. Felch quoted Margaret Cunningham saying, “It is little or nothing that I can do which I hope ye will consider in respect of my weak sex, but I pray God that every one of us according to that measure of grace the Lord hath given us may bring our poor basket of stones to the strengthening of the walls of Jerusalem whereof (by grace) we are all both citizens and members.” And so, as Dr. Felch argued, it was with their poor baskets of stones that these women and many others made significant contributions to furthering the Reformation.

Laurel Sands
Calvin College history major