WRF Member Dr. Trevor Morrow Describes the Work of "Marie Dentiere, Woman Theologian and Preacher of the Reformation"
500 years ago at the dawning of the reformation, the life of a woman was not easy. Most were illiterate. The nobility would have had tutors to provide some formal education for their children including the girls. The only option for the rest was to join a religious order. In the convents, the nuns, whatever their social background, became articulate and well educated in the classics and spiritual literature.
Marie Dentiere, who had come from a well respected Flemish family, chose to join such an Augustinian monastery in her home town of Tournai. She was evidently an able scholar, a woman of piety and a gifted leader. She became the Abbess. Another Augustinian, this time a Monk in Wittenberg in Germany had begun writing and preaching on the need for the church to be reformed in doctrine and practice according to the teachings of scripture.
Mother Marie became aware of the writings of Martin Luther. She embraced them with enthusiasm and found the emphasis on justification by faith alone liberating. She now no longer needed to be a nun in order to please God so that he would accept her. Instead she saw that out of his amazing love for her he had done everything in Jesus to have her completely accepted. She left the convent but her action meant she was in conflict with the church and the state. In order to escape persecution she fled to Strasbourg, a place of refuge for Protestants at that time. There she married a former priest and Hebrew scholar Simon Robert. She was a wife and mother of their children but together they also sensed a call to contribute to the reformation of the catholic church. They went to Geneva when the movement for reform there was at its embryonic stage. Shortly after their arrival her husband died and later she married again, to a close ally of the reformer William Farel who was instrumental in persuading John Calvin to come to the pulpit of St Pierre in Geneva. Marie’s new husband, Antione Froment, encouraged her to use her exceptional gifts as a communicator for the advance of the reformed movement in their new adopted city.
Marie Dentiere was a theologian and with her first husband had translated the bible into the vernacular and had herself produced a Hebrew grammar. Her first published work was a history of the Genevan reformation. It is a piece of historical theology in which she shows herself at ease with the scriptures and canon law. As a woman she had to publish it under the pseudonym of a merchant in the city. However, It was her next publication which caused her the most grief. In 1539 ‘A very useful epistle’ was released. It was an open letter addressed to Queen Marguerite of Navarre, a sister of King Francis 1 of France. At one level it is a plea for help for those being persecuted for their reformed convictions but it is also the first explicit statement of reformed theology by a woman to appear in French. In it she defends John Calvin against his opponents who had caused his exile from the city and she also criticizes the hierarchy of the Roman church. But knowing that Marguerite the Queen of Navarre was a renaissance woman who had written to defend the honour of women, Marie also writes in ‘defense of women’. She argues for the rights of women to read, interpret and to teach the scriptures.
She gives a threefold rationale for her convictions all of which were grounded in what had been rediscovered in the reformation movement. The first was the testimony of scripture to the women who had been central to the purposes of God in the biblical history of redemption such as the mother of Moses who defied the law to save her son, or the Samaritan woman, who after the encounter with Jesus at the well became a preacher to her people, or the women at the empty tomb of Jesus like Mary Magdalene, who were instructed to go and make the message of his resurrection known. The second was one of the central emphases of the reformation ‘the priesthood of all believers’. For Dentiere, women believers were equally with men the priests of God who had access to his presence and could know and speak his word as it was revealed in the scriptures. She quotes from Galatians 3:28 that male and female are one in Christ Jesus seeking to show that it is more than a spiritual but a social and practical equality. It was a common conception then that women were made for sensual pleasure and did not have the brains to think and study.. She confronted those who said “it s not up to women to know (scripture) …. But they should just believe without questioning anything.” She continued , “( the Roman Catholics) just want us to give pleasure, as is our custom, to do our work, spin on the distaff, live as women before us did, like our neighbours”. She countered, “Do we have two gospels, one for the men and another for women? One for the wise and another for fools? Are we not one in the Lord?’ The third reason she gives in her defense of women is that in God’s providence he has and does give to women the gifts and competence to grasp and to preach the truths of God’s word. She concludes her book with these words, “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.”
The book was a scandal of its time in making a case for the equality of women with men to read, interpret and to teach the scriptures. The book was seized by the civil authorities and publically burnt. The printer Jehane Girard was imprisoned.
Marie Dentiere was a strong and feisty lady. John Calvin and William Farel, the leading reformers, struggled with her and her outspokenness especially in her criticism of their fellow clergy in Geneva. Farel in a letter to Calvin reckoned that their close colleague, Antione Froment, Marie’s husband and 14 years her younger, was too easily influenced and even controlled by his wife. She was not without her faults but her passion was to be a coworker with Christ in his mission. Two groups of people in Geneva seemed to have been laid on her heart. There were of course the sisters in the convents with which she was only too familiar. Using her contacts and opportunities created for her she often went and spoke to the nuns about the gospel of free grace and that all their religious endeavours however good and noble could not save them. She encouraged them to trust Christ, leave the convent and join the reformation. The others, for whom she was concerned, were the men and women who were the marginalized of Genevan society. Hundreds crowded in each day to St. Pierre’s to hear Calvin preach the word but so many never heard the gospel that would set them free. The poor and the indifferent and those socially on the edge were beyond the reach of the preachers from the pulpit so she went to them. With all the zeal of a Faith Mission pilgrim or a Salvation Army cadet, Marie preached on the street corner and in the local taverns and to anyone who would listen, the gospel of grace which deals with our past and gives us hope for the future. “I ask, didn’t Jesus die just as much for the poor illiterates and the idiots as for the shaven, tonsured and mitred Lord? Did he only say, ‘Go, preach my gospel to the wise Lord and grand doctors?’ Did he not say, ‘to all’”
Time and the distress of the persecution of their brothers and sisters drew John Calvin and Marie Dentiere closer. Calvin grew to admire her. Mary McKinley, the primary historian and translator of her works into English, suggests that the heat of the battle for the reformation had drawn the goals of Calvin and Dentiere into closer proximity. Significantly shortly before she died, at John Calvin’s request, she wrote a foreword for a book he had written on woman’s apparel. She wrote sensitively but freely spoke her mind on the subject. He was happy to accept it.
As we celebrate this year, it is right that we should honour the courage and faithfulness of this woman theologian and preacher of the reformation. It is also good and right that on the ‘wall of fame’ to remember the reformers in Geneva there has been added the name ‘Marie Dentiere’.