Diana Lynn Severance takes the moral high ground in Feminine Threads, asserting that her work ‘aims to equip the reader to refute the distortions of women in Christian history which are often being made in academia.’
This book is rich in primary sources and that’s a great strength. Its focus, especially in the second half, is pretty western-centric but even so, I appreciated the opportunity to ‘meet’ women from Church History about whom I hadn’t previously known. The Germanic queens of the early Middle Ages were a highlight and so were the women missionaries of the 18-20th centuries.
However, Feminine Threads really only masquerades as history. It’s actually a polemic written against feminist readings of history. In the preface, Severance outlines the failure of feminist historical methodology. While I largely agree with her critique of that methodology, I was appalled at how blithely she made very similar mistakes.
Severance’s first criticism is that feminist historians have
gravitated to writings of lesser authenticity and established a new canon of scriptures they found to be more congenial.
While Severance takes the established canon of scripture, she is quite selective in her reading of the Bible. She doesn’t even entertain the passages that speak about prophetesses, for example, and she lacks the robustness to listen to consensus in biblical scholarship. (Seriously, even conservative Thomas Schreiner thinks Junia was a woman!) Furthermore, she is selective in her reading of her own history. For example, she spends two chapters extolling the contributions of women in the Middle Ages, quickly notes that things became more difficult for women in the 13-15th centuries and then declares that it was the Reformation that restored the dignity of women lost in the Middle Ages, as if the entire 1000 years prior to the Reformation were a complete loss for women. Additionally, though she manages to highlight every advantage the Reformation brought for women, she fails to mention any of the privileges they lost, such as the leadership training and academic positions many women were afforded in convents. Similarly, she recounts Luther’s description of his wife as ‘gentle, pious and faithful’ but neglects to mention that he also called her ‘My Lord Katie’!
Severance’s second plea is to favor
historical evidence [rather than] subjective interpretation by the modern reader.
However, she constantly intrudes on the historical evidence with her own commentary. For example, she considers it insufficient to note that the views of Lady Julian of Norwich were considered heresy by the 14th century, adding her own opinion that Julian’s views contradicted those of the apostle Paul. Likewise, she prefaces the view of 17th century Dutch academic Anna Maria van Schurman that women were not suited to political or ecclesiastical leadership with the phrase, ‘following the scriptures’. Additionally, she loads her language in favor of her own agenda. For example, while the women mystics of the Middle Ages ‘believed’ certain things, the Reformers are each said to have ‘recognised the truth that….’ She then labels the views of Henry and Marguerite Navarre as ‘Christian’ even though they really only represent ‘Protestant’ views, and she asserts that the Puritans who travelled to America were ‘biblical’, in contrast to those who remained in England.
Thirdly, Severance argues,
Neither do we seek to superimpose contemporary thought patterns and standards on earlier societies.
However, she fails to hear women of earlier societies on their own terms. Thus, while she quotes Katharina Schutz Zell’s desire to work with her husband, she misses KSZ’s own writing on why she should be allowed to preach and conduct church services. Likewise, she omits Pandita Ramabai’s reservations about the doctrine of the Trinity. Even more laughable, Severance brushes over Anne Boleyn’s pre-marital affair with Henry VIII, emphasising her as an evangelical who was committed to her own chastity and resisted his advances!
This book was a massive disappointment to me. I absolutely agree with Severance that
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.
However, it is just as imaginative to tidy up the women of the past. This book is more than just conservative. I’m happy to interact with conservative readings of history! I might even be happy with polemical conservative readings of history. But this is a hypocritical polemical conservative reading of history. Severance fails in her own goals, blinded by a sectarian agenda.
God has seen fit to use all sorts of women in his church in the last 2000 years, some conservative, others not. That does not necessarily condone their actions or their theology. However, we both dishonour them and downplay the grace of God if we fail to acknowledge these women’s stories in their fullness and complexity.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.