Sunday, November 18, 2007

Marie Dentiere

I have not written about Marie Dentiere before but she is a woman who preached on the street corners and in taverns in 16th century Geneva. She wrote the first history of the Reformation in 1536. As a former nun and abbess, she was accustomed to leadership and didn't think much of distinct roles for women.

Marie Dentière was a former nun and abbess who married a Protestant minister and went to Geneva with her husband and children during the period just before the Reformation when the attempt was being made to convert the inhabitants of the city to the evangelical faith. We know from the chronicle of a nun in Geneva that Marie went to the convent to preach to the nuns and to attempt to persuade them to convert to Protestantism and leave the convent.

She wrote and published at least two books. One is the first Protestant history of the Geneva reformation, published in 1536,7 a small booklet describing how God was at work liberating the city from the tyranny of the Pope and of the Duke of Savoy. It is more a theology of history, an account of the victory of the Gospel, than a chronicle, though it follows the principal events. Her theology is very much in the tradition which came to be known as Reformed, marked by emphasis on the authority of the Scriptures and on God's work to save humanity because of God's grace alone, without any merit on the part of those saved. It is striking that she is very conscious of the women in biblical history, speaking of Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and very much aware of violence against women in her own day.

Three years later, also in Geneva, she published another small book,8 addressed to Marguerite, the Queen of Navarre, a Renaissance woman who was also writing on topics concerning women. Marie's book contained among other things a "Defense of Women." In defense of women's right to interpret the Scriptures, she discussed the bold roles God gave to women whose stories are recorded in the Bible: for example, the mother of Moses who defied the law to protect her son; the Samaritan woman at the well who became a preacher after her encounter with Jesus; the women at the empty tomb who were instructed by Christ to go and preach.

She concludes, "If God has given graces to some good women, revealing to them something holy and good through his Holy Scripture, should they, for the sake of the defamers of the truth, refrain from writing down, speaking, or declaring it to each other? Ah! It would be too impudent to hide the talent which God has given to us, who ought to have the grace to persevere to the end."9

Marie argues powerfully for one Gospel of the undivided Christ: "I ask, didn't Jesus die just as much for the poor illiterates and the idiots as for the shaven, tonsured and mitred lords? Did he only say, 'Go, preach my Gospel to the wise lords and grand doctors?' Did he not say, 'to all'? Do we have two Gospels, one for men and the other for women? One for the educated and the other for the multitude? Are we not all one in our Saviour? In whose name are we baptised, in that of Paul or of Apollo, in that of the Pope or of Luther? Is it not in the name of Christ?"10

This book, highly critical of some new pastors in Geneva and urging women's freedom to announce the Gospel as God calls them to do so, was confiscated by the city officials and never permitted to be distributed. Marie, like Katherine Zell, made her male colleagues uncomfortable because she did not fit their understanding of the proper role of women. Once the Reformation was established in Geneva, she no longer played any public role.

Glimpses of Reformed women leaders from our history


Anonymous said...

Thanks Suzanne! That was a great story, I e-mailed it to my mother.

Anonymous said...

In those days, a woman could be fined, jailed, tortured or killed for speaking out.

But what's holding us back now?

Why do so many women keep pounding their heads against the wall, trying to break into the "boys club", when we can just start over? Why are we not forming new fellowships where power and control and prestige are not worshiped?

What are we waiting for?