Presbyterian Pastor Gives Voice to the Women of the Reformation

Huldrych Zwingli, father of the Swiss Reformation, reads to his wife. In 1519, Zwingli became the pastor of Zurich’s main church. Many women who heard the sermons and read the writings of male Reformers were inspired to do likewise — publishing their views. Their writings are now being discovered by a new generation of women. “Ladies of the Reformation” by James Anderson. Courtesy of the Presbyterian Historical Society.

Built into the old city walls of Geneva, Switzerland, is a monument where the key players of a movement that challenged and changed the religious landscape of the 16th century — and centuries to come — stand larger than life.

Front and center of this monument, known as the Reformation Wall, are the stoic stone figures of John Calvin, William Farel, Theodore Beza and John Knox. Flanking them are the likes of Roger Williams, Oliver Cromwell, Stephen Bocskay and William the Silent. The names of Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli are featured as well — a testimony to the mark these men left on the religious world.

The Rev. Catherine McMillan has included the voices of many Reformers in her lectures throughout Europe — voices not heard before in stories of the Reformation. Courtesy of Catherine McMillan

While impressive, the monument is incomplete. Missing from it are the carved stone faces and etched names of the many women Reformers like Argula von Grumbach and Ursula Weyda, who lifted their voices alongside their male counterparts, calling for a change in church policies. History, though, is being rewritten as 21st century women like the Rev. Catherine McMillan bring to life the timeless — and timely — words of these 16th century women.

The Swiss played a part

McMillan, minister of the Reformed Church of Zurich, Switzerland, has Reformation in her blood. Born in Scotland, McMillan was raised in the U.S. While attending college at Davidson, she spent her junior year in France, where she returned after graduating to study theology in Strasbourg and then in Heidelberg and Tübingen. Eventually she got her Master of Divinity at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia, and was ordained as a PC(USA) minister.

In 2016, she was appointed by the Reformed Church of the Canton of  Zurich to be an ambassador for the Reformation’s 500th anniversary celebration. The anniversary was recognized worldwide in 2017, commemorating the October day in 1517 when Martin Luther, then a professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany, posted his 95 Theses (articles) for church reform on a door of the castle church.

While for many U.S. churches, the Reformation anniversary celebrations have come and gone, McMillan’s ambassadorship ends this year with a final worship service commemorating the Reformation in Zurich that occurred  on Nov. 3. The focus of that service will be on the father of the Swiss Reformation, Huldrych Zwingli, whose first name is sometimes spelled Ulrich. In 1519 Zwingli became the pastor of Zurich’s main church — known as the Grossmünster — and began preaching ideas on reform of the Catholic Church.

“Most Presbyterians don’t realize that it was Zwingli [whom] John Calvin got a lot of his theological ideas from,” McMillan said.

‘Liberated’ women

At first in her role as Reformation ambassador, which included giving lectures and media interviews, McMillan spoke about how much more insightful, humble, humorous and heartfelt Zwingli was, compared with what she’d imagined.

“He was a real humanist and social justice prophet, much more so than Luther,” she said, noting that he accompanied the young men of his village to battle in Italy as a chaplain. There the young men fought as mercenary foot soldiers for the pope.

“He witnessed the corruption of the mercenary system and began to preach against it,” McMillan said. “He was quite modern in his thinking.”

But then, in her research, McMillan began uncovering the voices of the women of the Reformation who have long been silenced.

“They were actually theologians and authors, who had felt liberated by being able to read the Bible for themselves,” McMillan said.

And, with the growing popularity of the printing press created by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-1400s, the women participated in theological discussion by publishing pamphlets, or “flying papers” as they were called in Germany, she says.

Soon, McMillan began including seven female Reformers in her lectures, including the first female Reformer in Germany, Argula von Grumbach (1492–1540).

An early advocate

Von Grumbach, who had received a Bible from her father when she was 10, found great comfort from it seven years later when both of her parents died from the plague, within five days of each other.

Armed with the knowledge of Scripture, she was mesmerized by what was happening in Wittenberg after Luther published his 95 Theses calling attention to the indulgences and abuses of the Roman Catholic Church of that time. Reading everything she could about the theses, she entered into a lively conversation with Luther through letters.

But discussing his ideas soon became illegal. When no one — including Luther — came to the defense of a young lecturer at the University of Ingolstadt who was imprisoned for teaching ideas he learned at Wittenberg, von Grumbach came to his defense. Writing an open letter to the university, she challenged Luther’s most vehement opponent, Johann Eck, who was on the faculty. She argued that since Jesus talked with women, they should do so as well, in a public debate. She also said that the young theologian should be released from prison because she couldn’t find anything in the Bible where Christ or his disciples imprisoned, murdered or exiled anyone.

“And she closed her letter with these words: ‘I have written you not women’s gossip, but the word of God, as a member of the Christian church,’” McMillan said.

The pamphlet was an overnight sensation. It was reprinted 12 times in two months. But its popularity also triggered a backlash. The Ingolstadt faculty didn’t respond to her letter, but her husband, who was the governor for the duke of Bavaria, was fired from his job because he hadn’t prevented his wife from publishing her thoughts.

Despite being thrown into poverty, von Grumbach continued to write. In a letter to the city council she said, “If I die, a hundred women will take my place. For many are better read and smarter than I am.”

And take von Grumbach’s place the women did.

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Source: Presbyterian Mission