A favorite Elisabeth Elliot quote comes to mind whenever I overhear fragments of the ongoing row about the role of women in the church:
“I am not a different kind of Christian because I am a woman, but I am, most certainly, a different kind of woman because I am a Christian.”
Since ten of the twenty-seven believers commended by Paul for faithfulness in the early church at Rome were women, it is no surprise that women continued to fulfill roles of influence and responsibility throughout church history, whether recognized and appreciated — or overlooked and unsung. The individuals featured in Michael Haykin’s Eight Women of Faith span nearly three hundred of those years (1537-1817), and each of his subjects faced and overcame significant cultural obstacles. In his eight vignettes, Michael chronicles the way in which significant cultural changes in the 18th century impacted women of faith. Some were able to leave their own record of faith in their own words, while others are known to us only because they have been lauded in the writings of others.
The Queen – “Faith Only Justifieth”
The great niece of Henry VIII, Lady Jane Grey (1537-1554) was Queen of England for a little over a week, and she also did time in the Tower of London like so many of her royal relatives of that era. Condemned to death for her Protestantism by her devoutly Catholic cousin, Mary I (with the less-flattering name, “Bloody Mary”), Jane stood firm in her belief that faith alone justifies, and this along with her view of the Lord’s Supper show that she had clearly embraced the doctrines of the Reformation. A Woman of the Word to the end, she owned a Greek New Testament and recited Psalm 51 from memory before being executed.
The Wife – “Ruled by Her Prudent Love in Many Things”
Surprisingly, many of the church fathers held a very low and utilitarian view of marriage. The Reformers and the Puritans did their bit to put an end to that by their example and by their words, and we find in the writings of Richard Baxter a glowing report of the blessings of marriage. His wife, Margaret Charlton Baxter (1636-1681), was clearly the one to whom he opened his mind and communicated his concerns. Although they were childless, they were comrades in ministry during a turbulent period of English history under Charles I in which, for a time, Richard was banned from preaching or leading worship because of his Puritan views. In a faith formed by persecution, Margaret’s influence was formative for her husband and marked a turning point in the recognition that “a husband and wife must take delight in the love, and company, and converse of each other.”
The Theologian – “The Glory of God, and the Good of Souls”
Disregard for female authors persisted well into the eighteenth century. Therefore, Anne Dutton (1692-1765) would naturally have felt that it was necessary to defend herself whenever she shared her gift in the form of books, tracts, treatises, and poems. In spite of her critics, she was the most prolific female Baptist author of her time, reminding her readers that she wrote only for the glory of God. At the same time, she boldly critiqued the theology of John Wesley (among others) in their view that it was possible to live without sin on this planet. Like Lady Jane Grey, Anne also pondered the nature of the elements in communion, beautifully expositing Calvin’s view by describing the Supper as “communication.” The Lord “gives Himself . . . with all the benefits of his death, to the worthy receivers,” and so He is indeed present at the celebration of His Supper. Anne wrote and taught about her Lord until her death.
The Friend of Revival – “A Wonderful Sweetness”
A key figure in the First Great Awakening of the 18th century in the United States, Jonathan Edwards addressed the topic of revival from various angles. In an era that minimized the input of women, he, nonetheless, shared (anonymously) the account of his wife, Sarah Edwards’s (1710-1758), spiritual experience so that, although she was not a writer, we have rich insight into her life both from her husband and in the writings of Samuel Hopkins (who was tutored by Jonathan Edwards and lived in their home). Living with eleven children in the fishbowl of ministry during seasons of financial stress and her husband’s professional ups and downs, Sarah experienced an encounter with God that Jonathan recorded as “the soul . . . being swallowed up with light and love,” accompanied by “an extraordinary sense of the awful majesty and greatness of God” in which she lost all bodily strength. As a faithful wife and mother, Sarah had the additional honor of becoming a model of what a “true revival personality looks like.”
The Hymnist – “The Tuneful Tongue that Sang Her Great Redeemer’s Praise”
Described as “the Baptist equivalent of Isaac Watts,” Anne Steele (1717-1778) began writing hymns simply to express her personal devotion to God. As the daughter of a pastor, her creations soon found their way into worship services, and eventually were included in a hymnal. “Father of Mercies, in Thy Word” is still in use today, and beautifully expresses the rich theology and high view of Scripture that sustained her through a life of continual suffering from various illnesses.
Father of mercies, in Thy word
What endless glory shines!
For ever be thy name adored
For these celestial lines.
The Daughter – “One of the Best Helps to Keep Up Religion in the Soul”
Recently, reading in the book of I Chronicles, I found a treasure in the midst of the lists. Hushai the Arkite was immortalized in the pages of Scripture because he was “the king’s friend,” (I Chron. 27:33 NIV). We don’t value friendship in that way today, but the Bible provides glorious examples of deep friendship, and church history is also a rich source of illustrations. Esther Edward Burr (1732-1758), daughter of Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, grew up during the Great Awakening and married a minister with the same “evangelical cast of mind” as her father. Homesick for New England, she began a correspondence with Sarah Prince which chronicles their deep devotion to one another, but, more importantly, serves as a record of a spiritual conversation from which we can learn much about Esther’s commitment to God. Thanks be to God that Jonathan Edwards saw the importance of educating his daughters!
The Missionary – “Truth Compelled Us”
Adoniram and Ann Judson (1789-1826), pioneer missionaries to Burma, were a key source of inspiration for the modern missionary movement. In addition to their stalwart service in a field that yielded much trouble and little fruit, the record of their commitment to expressing the truth of Scripture is inspiring. Ann’s letters document the struggle to learn Burmese, and her testimony of faithfulness ends with her final words on this earth begin spoken in Burmese.
The Novelist – “The Value of that Holy Religion”
With her books being made into movies, Jane Austen (1775-1817) has become a well-known literary figure, but few have documented the deep Christian convictions that lay behind her creative work. With a father, two brothers, and various other relatives employed as ministers, she was uniquely qualified to write with humor about the ridiculous Rev. Collins and to put words of wisdom about pastoral ministry into the mouth of Edmund of Mansfield Park who asserts that a minister:
“has the charge of all that is of the first importance to mankind . . .”
Jane did not consider herself an evangelical and was uncomfortable with overt displays of religion that characterized the ministry of Hannah More. Her private but sincere faith was expressed in written prayers and in the Christian virtues that were lauded by the characters in her novels.
No matter what role women choose today — with all our glorious freedom of choice and our comfortable lifestyle to make it so — there is inspiration in Eight Women of Faith. In her foreword, Karen Swallow Prior describes Haykin’s eight portraits as a demonstration of “how their faith informed, shaped, and fulfilled their earthly callings.”
Women of Faith, may it be so of us today!
This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
For my recommendations of more biographies of Christian women, check out these reviews:
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