As I wrote for an endorsement of Diana Severance's new book, Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History, this book "is a must-read for men and women alike, but especially so for young women who need to have a clear view of the contributions that women before them have made to the Christian faith."
As an historian, Dr. Severance says it better herself in the preface:
Christian women were integral to the life of the Church wherever Christianity spread, but what we know of their stories is limited by the sources that have survived. There is often more we would like to know about Christian women in various geographical places and times in history. Always there are the numerous ‘common’ people in the lower and middle classes whose stories frequently are unwritten and remain unknown. Yet, the history of women in Christian history does not need a revisionist makeover. We do not need to recreate an imagined narrative out of speculative evidence. Nor do we write histories – of commoners or of so-called elite – based on what we would have liked for them to have been. Neither do we seek to superimpose contemporary thought patterns and standards on earlier societies. Though at times the evidence might raise unanswered questions, or we might wish the facts to be different, the truth of the story of women in Christian history inspires, challenges and, above all, demonstrates the grace of God producing much fruit through Christian women throughout two millennia of the Church.
The book is structured in chronological order, starting with the women of the New Testament era, progressing through the early church and late antiquity, the early and late Middle Ages, the Reformation, and on through to the 20th century. It ties women to the historical and theological movements of their day, putting them in the context of their eras. Dr. Severance quotes these women in their own words from their correspondence, diaries, and various publications. The net effect is to learn about the bold influence many women had in the cause of Christ. Or to learn that things we see as benign today were more controversial at their inception, such as Sunday schools:
In 1804, a group of women from various denominations formed a society for the education of poor girls in Philadelphia. When they applied to the state for incorporation in 1808, the Superior Court had to decide whether or not women could make such an application. After due deliberation, the Court decreed that women were ‘citizens of the commonwealth’ and entitled to file such a request! The curriculum for the poor girls included reading, writing, sewing, Scripture memorization, hymns, and the catechism.
The clergy were at first opposed to Sabbath schools for numerous reasons. Many were appalled at the idea of lay people, especially women, teaching the Bible. Some ministers feared the Sunday Schools would undermine their own teaching ministry. Some thought it was breaking the Sabbath to study or teach on Sunday. Others thought Sabbath schools usurped the rights of parents and local churches. Sabbath schools were not a part of the local church and often involved women of various denominations working together. Some held such interdenominational cooperation was dangerous or that church buildings should not be used for the general education of non-members. The very fact that the initiative was undertaken by women caused alarm in some quarters.
Diana Severance has made a serious contribution to our understanding of women in history, much less Christian history. I highly recommend it.