Women’s History Month at JI: Women and Revelation in Christian History

By March 31, 2011

This wraps up our un-official series for Women’s History Month here at JI. Thanks to all the contributors and readers for their comments! –David G.

Throughout the history of Christianity, prophets and revelators have overwhelmingly been women. Though few such figures are found in the scriptures, David Potter argues that the very act of canonization is a routinization of charisma and a suppression of female prophecy. “In the primary canon,” argues Potter “accepted prophets had to look like the authority figures of the church: they had to be men; they also had to be dead so that they could not confuse the situation by offering their own views on what it was that they were saying. In this, the early church was blessed by its Jewish heritage, from which it inherited the idea of sacred canon, male prophecy, and prophetic interpretation through the exegesis of texts.” [1] Of this era E. R. Dodds says,

From the point of view of the hierarchy the Third Person of the Trinity had outlived his primitive function. He was too deeply entrenched in the New Testament to be demoted, but he ceased in practice to play any audible part in the counsels of the Church. The old tradition of the inspired prophetes who spoke what came to him was replaced by the more convenient idea of a continuous divine guidance which was granted, without their noticing it, to the principal Church dignitaries. Prophecy went underground, to reappear in the chiliastic manias of the later Middle Ages and in many subsequent evangelical movements. [2]

Dodds’s description of what happened to prophecy from the Middle Ages onward needs to be fleshed out a bit. Indeed, the Third person of the Trinity was deeply entrenched and the late Middle Ages would bring on what Andre Vauchez calls “an ‘Indian summer’ of feminine religiosity” where several women “claimed the right to speak freely in the name of the Holy Spirit, which they had received through the grace of baptism.” [3] Nancy Caciola calls the entire era from Hildegard of Bingen (1100) to Joan of Arc (1400) “the effeminate age,” borrowing the phrase from Hildegard. In fact, the only major male prophet during the Middle Ages, Joachim of Fiore, claimed not to be a visionary at all but an exegete. During this time the issue of female prophecy was a major concern. Many admitted that women women were indeed more likely to have revelations than men, but that they were also more likely to be tricked by the devil. This was seen as a product of biological differences: men were closed, while women were open. As a result, many thinkers tried to come up with ways to determine the true from the false. “The ‘safest route’ is skepticism, ” declared Venturion of Bergamo. In what may be the first argument for cessation, Henry of Langenstein declared, “One can be aided in one’s actions and understanding just fine by the things that God already has shown and bestowed upon humanity in the past … It is not fitting—indeed, it is not necessary—that God should miraculously and recently interfere with his own handiwork, directing [his creation] with new revelations or the performance of new miracles.” But, “if there is any doubt about whether someone’s visions or miracles derive from a good spirit, one should look to the degree or level in the ecclesiastical hierarchy that they hold or held. In particular, consider where he is a prelate, a bishop, or a doctor of the Church.” [4]

The work of the scholars to suppress female revelation in the late Middle Ages was taken up by both Catholic and Protestant reformers in the early modern period. The Catholics followed the thinking of the late medieval theologians in wanting to be very cautious about female prophecy. The rule of thumb they came up with was to the examine the conduct and attitude of the supposed prophet. Only good and humble people had authentic revelations. Humility was the key. The best way for visionary women to show their humility was to listen to their clerical leaders and not be over confident of the validity of their visions. If their visions were deemed authentic by their superiors, they would be cloistered away and could dictate their visions to their confessors would would screen them for proper content. “By 1630,” explains Moshe Sluhovsky, “the French word visionnaire acquired a new meaning and became synonymous with ‘crazy,’” and “by the later seventeenth century most women who claimed such interaction were likely to be unveiled as deluded, possessed by demons, or impostors, and the credibility in such matters was repudiated.” [5]

For Protestants, the issue was much simpler, there was no more revelation at all. One could say that the English Reformation was kicked off with the execution of its last major female prophet, Elizabeth Barton. Barton (the Holy Maid of Kent) was a church-approved visionary, but when she denounced Henry’s break with Rome, Henry first tried to bribe her and then had her executed. Not stopping with her death, Henry’s men worked to paint her a whore to the larger public. [6] It’s significant that Protestants produced no major female religious figures in the early modern period (except one, more on that below) whereas Catholics had a handful.

Anne Hutchinson collected a group of followers in Boston in the 1630s to the dismay of the colony’s establishment. The standard story on Hutchinson’s trial is that she parried the court’s questions until she finally broke down and admitted that she was having spiritual inspiration. With such an obviously unacceptable claim, she was thrown out of Boston. Yet Jane Kamensky offers an interesting twist. Speech was very important in colonial Massachusetts, and public speech was to be intelligent and moderate. Women and children were not allowed to participate in public speech, lacking the ability, according to the authorities. When Hutchinson thwarted her accusers at her trial with her superior debating skills, she committed the crime of being better at male public speech than were the leaders of the colony. “Such obvious skill in the men’s game of verbal thrust-and-parry was arguably more damning than Hutchinson’s sometime prophetic mode.” “Hutchinson, it seemed to her judges, inverted every principle of Puritan womanhood.” Kemensky notes that Hutchinson’s claim to revelation is not found in the original trial records but comes from a later telling. Kamensky thinks that Hutchinson was too smart to admit revelation at her trial but that the claim was added later to smear her. “Coming as it did after a lengthy display of what Cotton referred to as her gift for ‘ready utterance,’ Hutchinson’s heretical claim of immediate revelation was a godsend to her judges. With their heads held high, they could dismiss this deft rhetorician as a babbling woman.” [7] I don’t know if this is true or not, but it’s very interesting claim. Was the accusation of claims to revelation a smear effort, a way to make Hutchinson look foolishly female?

The English Civil War (1640s) opened the flood gates of radical religion and though with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the authorities tried to suppress prophesy, the eighteenth century saw the continued claims to visions to the point that Leigh Eric Schmidt declared, “With the Swedenborgians, as with Mormons, Adventists, Shakers, and Methodists, one thing was clear: God was hardly falling silent. Instead, with the crumbling of established authorities, God had more prophets, tongues, and oracles then ever before; thus, the modern predicament actually became as much one of God’s loquacity as God’s hush.” [8] By this time, a number of the visionaries were male allowing Susan Juster to examine the difference between male and female prophets: men seen as being part of the public sphere use the language of reason (but the more they did so the more they look duplicitous), whereas women engaged in pure revelation. [9]

Ann Lee (as far as I know) was the first female visionary to lead a successful religious movement with Ellen G. White and Mary Baker Eddy to follow. So, to ask something a bit irreverent, what’s the significance of Mormonism having a male visionary founder?

[1] David Potter, Prophets and Emperors: Human and Divine Authority from Augustus to Theodosius (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 215.

[2] E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety: Some Aspects of Religious Experience from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1965), 67-68.

[3] Andre Vauchez, The Laity in the Middle Ages: Religious Beliefs and Devotional Practices, ed. Daniel E. Bornstein, trans Margery J. Schneider (Notre Dame: Ind. University of Notre Dame Press, 1993), xix, 264.

[4] Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003), 14, 156, 221, 294, 299.

[5] Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 203, 208.

[6] Ethan H. Shagan, Popular Politics and the English Reformation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), chap. 2; Gwenfair Walters Adams, Visions in Late Medieval England: Lay Spirituality and Sacred Glimpses of the Hidden World of Faith (Leiden: Brill, 2007), chap. 5.

[7] Jane Kamensky, Governing the Tongue: the Politics of Speech in Early New England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 77, 80, 81.

[8] Leigh Eric Schmidt, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 11.

[9] Susan Juster, Doomsayers: Anglo-American Prophecy in the Age of Revolution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003). Male prophets emerged among the radicals during the Reformation and the English Civil War and therefore were not new to the eighteenth century. Such had not doubt increased by JS’s time.

Article filed under Christian History Cultural History Gender


  1. Great reminders of important topics. Brekus’s book is great on this.
    I doubt Ann Lee was first because there were so many around the same time, but I could be wrong.
    I think Jemima Wilkinson (namesake of BYU’s student union, as I understand) and Joanna Southcott, near contemporaries of Lee, are also quite interesting.

    Comment by smb — March 31, 2011 @ 2:32 pm

  2. Steve, this is a great post, although I don’t agree that medieval Christian prophecy was overwhelmingly female. I’d give it something more like an even split.

    This may be due solely to disciplinary differences, however. From the standpoint of literary studies, a prophet is often not a person who writes or preaches visionary things, but rather a figure capable of functioning as the author of prophetic texts. In the late medieval compilations I’ve worked with, it really is remarkable how many women appear (Hildegard, Catherine of Siena, Birgitta of Sweden, various Sibyls, and others), but men are at least equally well represented. If you confine prophecy to visionary preaching, then you eliminate some of the most popular medieval prophetic texts, like pseudo-Methodius. And I think you’re too quickly dismissing exegetical commentary as a mode of prophecy.

    One issue might be the lack of women’s access to astrology as a way of commenting on the future. In the the hundred-plus late medieval and early modern astrologers whose printed works I glanced at, I don’t recall a single woman appearing, although astrology was a respectable enough pursuit for a cardinal like Pierre d’Ailly. That might have forced women disproportionately into the path of visionary prophecy.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — March 31, 2011 @ 6:32 pm

  3. Thanks Sam,
    Jonathan, I didn’t mean to be dismissive of exegetes, I had just read the Joachim did not consider himself a prophet, only an exegete. He no doubt was a major prophet figure. But, as I understand it, those recognized a major prophet figures in the high to late middle ages tend to be women.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2011 @ 10:47 am

  4. Steve, yes, but if you start taking modesty topoi at face value, you have to toss a lot of people who claim not to be anything special (even if their fan clubs, and sometimes even the person in question, are furiously working towards canonization).

    A lot hinges on precisely what one means by ‘major,’ ‘prophet’ and ‘recognized.’ My impression is that there are probably about an equal number of men (counting, say, Savonarola, Melchior Hofmann, Konrad Schmidt, and one could find more if one looked closely) but, again, I was specifically looking at texts in circulation rather than at people, so my perspective might be skewed by that.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — April 1, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  5. Thanks for the write up. Juster’s volume seems to have a lot of men in it and the Restoration is replete with stories of men who had miraculous conversions and then went off to preach the gospel spectacularly (e.g., PPP). It is perhaps that we did not have women join the itinerancy that we don’t have the same circulating stories about women. It seems that in structure, it is easier to think of the early church along the lines of Methodism with a prophetic element.

    I think that it is fair to say that glossolalia was more common among Mormon women, and lasted longer in regular worship among the women’s organizations.

    The development of the temple liturgy is also a story of increasing participation of women and the radical kinship introduced in Nauvoo did elevate many women as important interpreters of JS. It is this group were you see things like “high priestess” and “prophetess” bandied about.

    Weren’t there a number of prominent women among the French Prophets?

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 1, 2011 @ 11:47 am

  6. Good points Jonathan. It would be interesting to create some sort of rubric for this. Though Hoffman was early modern, right (fn 9)? (I don’t know Savanarola or Schimidt).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2011 @ 11:48 am

  7. Yes, two of my examples are later than 1400. Hoffmann is 1530ish, Savanarola up to 1498, Schmidt up to 1369. For pre-1450, I’d have too look up facts rather than going off the top of my head.

    Comment by Jonathan Green — April 1, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

  8. Interesting points J. This post was based on the impression I had gotten from my readings but it no doubt needs further scrutiny. I’m interested in exploring the larger issue of the culture of female knowledge and charisma and the various efforts of the establishment to suppress it. Degrading the wisdom of old women became a major trope in Western learned culture; further, it’s estimated that executed witches were 80 percent female. I see issues of female prophecy as related to these larger trends. There were a number of medieval commentators who asserted that women were more likely to have visions than men while at the same time expressing considerable ambivalence over the fact. Jean Gerson in particular.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 1, 2011 @ 5:17 pm

  9. “So, to ask something a bit irreverent, what’s the significance of Mormonism having a male visionary founder?”

    Lucy Mack Smith can be brought into this discussion.

    Comment by Mark Ashurst-McGee — April 6, 2011 @ 9:49 am


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