Curtis Freeman on prophetic women in C17th Baptist life

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…)

4 Comments

  1. Curtis Freeman
    Mar 24, 2010

    Steve:

    Thanks for blogging on my article. It started out as a lecture, and as I discovered more, it grew. This spring I will be sending transcriptions of the writings of the women I discussed in the second section (Sarah Wight, Jane Turner, Anna Trapnel, Katerine Sutton,and Anne Wentworth) plus Katherine Chidley, Elizabeth Pool,and Mary Adams.

    Interestingly, though in some ways the General Baptists may have had some women preachers, the writing prophetesses were mostly Particulars with strong millennial (even 5th monarchy) tendencies. Katherine Chidley (the lone exception) was a proto-baptist Independent and Leveler and member of the Duppa Church in London that came out of the Jessey congregation.

    My hope is to get a wider conversation going. The Feminist literature scholars are interested in these women as representatives of agency and equality but not so much in the content of their work. Liberals find the Puritan theology and practice problematic, and so are also inclined to be interested in that but not what these women are prophesying. And evangelicals whom I hope will engage these prophetesses may think the hidden agenda is to undermine complementarian gender relations. It would be amazing if we could get these groups to talk to one another by engaging these women’s texts.

    I don’t know that Baylor University Press will reach widely into the UK to stretch the conversations across the pond, but I do hope so. I’ve given talks about these women to church groups as well as academic settings. The primary response has been one of happy surprise. I’ll look forward to seeing how engaging these preaching women might inform our contemporary conversations.

    With an eye on the horizon,
    Curtis

    • Steve H
      Mar 24, 2010

      Thanks, Curtis – I should have done you the courtesy of pointing out the post; my apologies, and I’m glad you found it.

      I think you’d find more receptivity this side of the pond. We’ve got quite a good tradition of receiving religious radicals as being interesting, despite being religious, on the one hand; and an evangelical movement that is generally not very interested in complementarianism on the other. Also a few weird Baptists who actually find what went on in the C17th conventicles interesting in its own right!

    • Steve H
      Mar 24, 2010

      PS The random avatar generator was really not kind to you! Sorry! Steve.

  2. Curtis Freeman
    Apr 16, 2011

    Steve:

    Thanks for your note on FB. I thought you and your blog readers might like a preview of the Company of Women Preachers here:

    http://www.bwim.info/category/curtis-freeman/

    There’s also a discount rate through the BWIM site.

    All the best,
    Curtis

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