Curtis Freeman on prophetic women in C17th Baptist life

Posted on March 11, 2010

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Curtis Freeman of Duke has a fascinating article in the latest Baptist Quarterly, entitled ‘Visionary Women among Early Baptists’ (BQ 43 (Jan 2010), pp.260-83). He reflects on the (well established, but not well known) history of women exercising public teaching ministries amongst the radical protestants under the Commonwealth, examining particular examples from Baptist life. The sociological context is significant, of course: Curtis notes in concluding ‘[r]evolutionary forces had destabilized the centres of power and dislodged the mechanisms of social control that long had kept women in their place [sic!]. The social space that opened up enabled women, not just to think for themselves, but to speak their minds.’ (279) We might add that toleration, which inevitably brought a rapid institutionalisation to the Baptist movements, led to a reassertion of  culturally-dominant models of gender roles within Baptist churches.

Curtis also notes the broader themes within Baptist, and other congregationalist, ecclesiology that created a pressure towards a counter-cultural assertion of the full moral agency of women in the seventeenth century. If obedience to a husband’s (or father’s) command was not an acceptable response to a matter of church discipline – and it seems that generally it wasn’t – then an important blow against the intellectual assumptions that shored up patriarchy had already been struck. (Curtis quotes a delightful line from Knox’s History of Enthusiasm which I had not come across before: ‘the history of enthusiasm is largely a history of female emancipation, though it is not a reassuring one.’)

I would add the context of expansion and missionary activity as a driver: generally, an openness to the ministry of women and expansion go hand-in-hand in evangelical (and broader radical protestant) history. No doubt in part this is sociologically explicable: revival disrupts social control mechanisms, and creates a particular focus on the achieving of certain results (so even John Wesley, accepting the preaching ministry of Sarah Mallett because it worked…). Dare I hope that it is also an example of the leavening work of the Spirit, calling the churches away from conformity to patriarchal cultures and forward to true holiness?

The General Baptists seemed to be more open to a full preaching ministry from women, on Curtis’s telling; but it was the stories of the Particular Baptists that I found most interesting.  Curtis offers five brief biographies of women who, as prophetesses or through writings, exercised a significant teaching ministry: Sarah Wight; Anna Trapnel; Jane Turner; Katherine Sutton; and Anne Wentworth. By the time these accounts are done, we find that Henry Jessey, John Spilsbury, and Hanserd Knollys had all publicly supported the ministry of one or more of the women mentioned. These are central figures and national leaders – perhaps only Keach could claim to stand above them in influence. The ministry of women was not marginal to the movement, on this evidence.

An excellent article, well worth reading. (BQ is not online, unfortunately – you’ll need to find a library that takes it.) (If you are online, and have access to EEBO, have a look at the exegesis on 1 Cor. 11 offered by the Quakers Mary Cole and Priscilla Cotton from prison towards the end of their pamphlet To the Priest and People of England; it is quite magnificent…)

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