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The ministry of women among early Calvinistic Baptists

  • Ian Birch (a1)


Although there is considerable documentation of women preachers during the English Civil War period and the Interregnum, it is clear that such activities were not encouraged among English Calvinistic Baptists, and most especially among Particular Baptists. Yet there was a tension in even the most restrictive Baptist teaching on this subject. For since Baptists had opened the door to congregational participation in the public ministry of the church, they were faced with the problem of partially closing that door in order to restrict the ministry of women to that of diakonia, and good works. Nevertheless, a small number of women have been identified as both prophets and Particular Baptists, and the nature and context of their ministry illustrates the role of women in early Baptist communities.

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1 E.g. A Discovery of Six Women-Preachers in Middlesex, Kent, Cambridge, and Salisbury. with a Relation of Their Names, Manners, Life, and Doctrine (London, 1641); Edwards, Thomas, Gangraena, or, A catalogue and discovery of many of the Errors, Heresies, Blasphemies and pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of this time, vented and acted in England in these four last years (London, 1646). Ethyn Morgan Williams regarded women preachers in the Civil War period as an early manifestation of feminism rooted in freedom of expression and radical individualism. There is little evidence of this motivation in these women's writings, the greater impetus being theological, namely that God had given his Spirit equally to women as men enabling both to prophesy. See Williams, E. M., ‘Women Preachers in the Civil War’, Journal of Modern History 1/4 (1929), pp. 561, 569.

2 See Cross, Claire, ‘“He-Goats Before the Flocks”: A Note on the Part Played by Women in the Founding of Some Civil War Churches’, Studies in Church History 8 (1972), pp. 195202 . Cross recounts the exploits of Dorothy Hazard in the Broadmead church in Bristol.

3 This was especially true when compared to the Levellers and Quakers. McGregor, J. F., ‘The Baptists: Fount of All Heresy’, in McGregor, J. F. and Reay, B. (eds), Radical Religion in the English Revolution (Oxford: OUP, 1984), p. 47 .

4 Goodwin, Thomas, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 9 (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), XI, 11 . The Independent John Rodgers was marginally more generous to women in his Dublin congregation, allowing them to speak and vote, when it was in subjection to the church, but not to teach or rule. See Rodgers, John, Ohel or Beth-Shemesh (London, 1653), p. 294 .

5 See Thomas Edwards, Gangraena, i.ii.29, 31, 32; ii.9. On Edwards, see Hughes, Ann, Gangraena and the Struggle for the English Revolution (Oxford: OUP, 2004), pp. 112–15. On Mrs Attaway see Freeman, Curtis, ‘Visionary Women among Early Baptists’, Baptist Quarterly 43/5 (Jan. 2010), pp. 260–83. On the ministry roles of women among the early General Baptists see Briggs, John, ‘She-Preachers, Widows and Other Women: The Feminine Dimension in Baptist Life since 1600’, Baptist Quarterly 31/7 (1986), pp. 337–52.

6 Willen, Diane, ‘Godly Women in Early Modern England: Puritanism and Gender’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 43/4 (Oct. 1992), p. 566 .

7 ‘House of Commons Journal Volume 4: 15 January 1646’, Journal of the House of Commons: volume 4: 16441646 (1802): 407–8. compid=23595; accessed Jan. 2013.

8 White, B. R. (ed.), Association Records of the Particular Baptists of England, Wales, and Ireland to 1660 (hereafter ARPB) (Didcot: Baptist Historical Society, 1971–4), p. 55 .

9 On the distinction between terms see Mack, Phyllis, Visionary Women: Ecstatic Prophecy in Seventeenth Century England (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), p. 107 .

10 Collier, Thomas, The Right Constitution and True Subjects of the Visible Church of Christ (London: Henry Hills, 1654), p. 26 (original italics).

11 Ibid., pp. 34–5.

12 Collier, Thomas, The Pulpit-Guard Routed, in Its Twenty Strong-Holds (London: Giles Calvert, 1651), p. 79 .

13 ARPB, p. 185 (formatting as original).

14 Two Independent ministers, John Rogers and Henry Walker, published collections of testimonies given by postulants for admission to their congregations, amongst which are a considerable number of women's testimonies, showing that this was a common feature of sectarian religion. See Watts, Michael, The Dissenters, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), pp. 174–5; also, Laurence, Anne, ‘A Priesthood of She-Believers: Women and Congregations in Mid-Seventeenth-Century England’, Studies in Church History 27 (1990), p. 348 .

15 On this point see the case of Jane Adams, who was censured by the Fenstanton church for absenting herself from meetings because ‘her husband would not suffer her’. The church decreed that in such cases a husband had no power over the conscience of his wife. Underhill, E. B. (ed.), Records of the Churches of Christ (London: Haddon Brothers & Co., 1854), p. 242 .

16 See Thomas, Keith, ‘Women and the Civil War Sects’, in Aston, Trevor (ed.), Crisis in Europe 1560-1660 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965), p. 320 .

17 Evidence of women defending themselves in disciplinary hearings among the General Baptists is found in the Fenstanton records of 1652-1653. Testimony was given by Elizabeth Browne, widow Sanders, Anne Marriat, Anne Pharepoint, widows Binns, Peppers, Sneesby, and Wiggs on charges relating to absence from worship, unequal marriage, parish church attendance and backsliding. In E.B. Underhill, Records of the Churches of Christ, Gathered at Fenstanton, Warboys, and Hexham, pp. 20-58. See also Freeman, ‘Visionary Women among Early Baptists’, p. 268.

18 John Bunyan held the view that women ‘are not the image and glory of God as the men are’, and that if a woman ‘worships in assemblies, her part is to hold her tongue, to learn in silence’. When a group of women in Bunyan's church in the 1680s sought permission to pray independently the Pastor replied: ‘you should be content to wear this . . . badge of your inferiority, since the cause thereof arose at first from yourselves. ’Twas the Woman that at first the Serpent made use of . . . Wherefore the Woman, to the Worlds end, must wear tokens of her Underlyingship in all Matters of Worship’. Bunyan, John, A case of Conscience Resolved (London: Benjamin Alsop, 1683), pp. 38 and 34. Phyllis Mack argues the popularity of the early Quakers, which was also the source of their threat, was that their radical and democratic principles overcame the usual gender boundaries. See Mack, Phyllis, Visionary Women (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 910 . See also Thomas, ‘Women and the Civil War Sects’, p. 318.

19 Freeman, Curtis (ed.), A Company of Women Preachers: Baptist Prophetesses in Seventeenth Century England (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011), p. xiii. At the impolite extremity of male opinion about women prophets was the invective penned by Mr Brookes to Lady Eleanor Davies: ‘I will spend no more term time upon thee Hecate, Medusa, legion, clovenfooted Gorgon. Yet if I meet thee . . . assure thyself, I will kick thee and scratch a minced pie for a dog from thy ill kept filthy dunghill arse.’ Cited in Mack, Visionary Women, p. 17.

20 In 1655 two Quaker women, Pricilla Cotton and Mary Cole were imprisoned in Exeter for preaching. Their arrest was based on a supposed violation of the biblical injunction in this text, 1 Cor 14:34. See Freeman, ‘Visionary Women among Early Baptists’, p. 267. For a modern Baptist, and egalitarian, interpretation of the texts from 1 Corinthians, see Fiddes, Paul, ‘“Woman's Head is Man”’, Baptist Quarterly 31/8 (1986), pp. 370–83.

21 Wentworth, Anne, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (London, 1679), p. 19 . She was excommunicated from her church by the elders, one of whom was Hanserd Knollys. See A Company of Women Preachers, p. 648.

22 Thomas Edwards, Gangraena, i.86 and iii.218. See also A Company of Women Preachers, p. 8: ‘Edwards scrupulously noted the class and gender of each Baptist [indicating] that these factors, every bit as much as suitable ordination credentials, counted in disqualifying dissenting preachers who were neither university educated nor proper churchmen.’

23 Thomas, ‘Women and the Civil War Sects’, p. 340.

24 ARPB, p. 28.

25 See Briggs, John, ‘She-Preachers, Widows and Other Women: The Feminine Dimension in Baptist Life since 1600’, Baptist Quarterly 31/7 (1986), pp. 337–52; Smith, Karen E., ‘Beyond Public and Private Spheres: Another Look at Women in Baptist History and Historiography’, Baptist Quarterly 34/2 (1991), pp. 7987 . Freeman, ‘Visionary Women among Early Baptists’, pp. 260–83; A Company of Women Preachers; Laurence, ‘A Priesthood of She-Believers’, pp. 345–63.

26 ‘Wight, Sarah (b. 1631)’, by O'Dell Bullock, Karen in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn, ed. Goldman, Lawrence (Oxford: OUP),; accessed Jan. 2013.

27 A Company of Women Preachers, 20.

28 Dailey, Barbara Ritter, ‘The Visitation of Sarah Wight: Holy Carnival and the Revolution of the Saints in Civil War London’, Church History 55/4 (1986), p. 438 .

29 The list of those who visited Sarah Wight included Baptist, Independent and Presbyterian ministers, family, friends, doctors, aristocratic women, army personnel and politicians. See Jesse, Henry, Exceeding Riches of Grace Advanced by the Spirit of Grace, in an Empty Nothing Creature (London: Matthew Simmons, 1647), pp. 810 . According to Barbara Dailey, Jessey's list of names had the effect of turning this tract into a petition for tolerance and unity in a period of political instability in the capital. ‘Visitation of Sarah Wight’, p. 452.

30 Jessey, Exceeding Riches of Grace Advanced, pp. 44–5.

31 Ibid., pp. 65–76.

32 Ibid., pp. 77–85.

33 Ibid., p. 96 (original italics).

34 Ibid., p. 120.

35 Ibid., p. 121.

36 Ibid., p. 135. Following this vision Wight broke her fast and began to regain her strength.

37 Dailey, ‘Visitation of Sarah Wight’, p. 444.

38 A Company of Women Preachers, p. 20.

39 Baptised 1622? See ‘Poole, Elizabeth (bap. 1622?, d. in or after 1668)’, by Manfred Brod, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,; accessed Jan. 2013. The historiography of Poole's life and ministry is discussed by Kreitzer, Larry, William Kiffen and his World (Part 2) (Oxford: Regents Park College, 2012), pp. 262–89.

40 Charges she denied. Mack, Visionary Women, p. 98.

41 See Kreitzer, Larry J., ‘The Fifth Monarchist John Pendarves: Chaplain to Colonel Thomas Rainborowe's Regiment of Foot (1645–7)’, Baptist Quarterly 43/2 (2009), pp. 112–22.

42 It is also suggested, by Ian Gentles, that Poole came into contact with the General Council via Colonel Nathaniel Rich, and David Underdown suggests Cromwell was the nexus. Lack of evidence makes the question indeterminable. See Nevitt, Marcus, ‘Elizabeth Poole Writes the Regicide’, Women's Writing 9/2 (2002), p. 235 .

43 Poole, Elizabeth, An Alarum of War, Given to the Army (London, 1649), p. 1 .

44 Nevitt, ‘Elizabeth Poole Writes the Regicide’, p. 236.

45 Firth, C. H., The Clarke Papers, vol. 2 (London: The Historical Society, 1992), p. 154 .

46 The manner of the deposition of Charles Stewart, King of England, by the Parliament, and the Generall Councell of the Armie (London, 1649), p. 6.

47 Firth, The Clarke Papers, vol. 2, pp. 164–5, 167–8.

48 See Poole, An Alarum of War, pp. 3–4.

49 Ibid., p. 9. For the remainder of Elizabeth Poole's career see Kreitzer, William Kiffen, pp. 282–9.

50 A Company of Women Preachers, pp. 21–8.

51 In his preface to her work Choice Experiences, Spilsbery [sic] described Jane Turner as ‘a Daughter of Zion’, and ‘a Mother in Israel’. See To the Christian Reader, p. i.

52 Turner, J., Choice Experiences of the Kind Dealings of God before, in, and after Conversion (London, 1653).

53 ‘Sutton, Katherine (fl. 1630–1663)’, by Michael Davies, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,; accessed Jan. 2013.

54 Sutton, Katherine, A Christian Womans Experiences of the Glorious working of Gods free grace (London: Henry Goddaeus, 1663), pp. i–ii.

55 Ibid., p. ii.

56 Anne Laurence discusses the role of the woman as source of religious guidance in the household. See ‘A Priesthood of She-Believers’, p. 346.

57 In Sutton, A Christian Womans Experiences, p. ii.

58 See Thomas Edwards, Gangraena i.ii.30.

59 In Sutton, A Christian Womans Experiences, p. i.

60 Published anonymously.

61 A Discovery of Six Women Preachers, p. 2. Anne Hempstall is commonly described a Baptist, but while this is possible, there is no specific evidence for the identification. Baptist historians E. C. Starr and W. T. Whitley listed this document in their bibliographies among Baptist writings. For a summary of the evidence see Durso, Pamela, ‘Baptists and the Turn toward Baptist Women in Ministry’, in Williams, M. E. and Shurden, W. B., Turning Points in Baptist History (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2008), p. 275 n.

62 A Spirit Moving in the Women-Preachers (London: Henry Shepheard, 1646), p. 3. Thomason corrects the date to 1645.

63 Prynne, William, A Fresh Discovery of Some Prodigious New Wandring-Blazing-Stars, & Firebrands, Stiling Themselves New-Lights (London: John Macock, 1645), Epistle Dedicatory A2.

64 Although often associated with Martin Luther, the phrase ‘Priesthood of Believers’ was never used by him; he spoke rather of the universal priesthood of believers. See Timothy J. Wengert, ‘The Priesthood of All Believers and Other Pious Myths’, Institute of Liturgical Studies Occasional Papers, Valparaiso University;; accessed July 2016.

65 The only exception to this position I am aware of is the Seventh-Day Baptist Church of Dr Peter Chamberlen who decided, ‘a Weoman, (Mayd, Wife or Widdow) being a Prophetess (1 Cor. 11) may speake, Prophesie, Pray, with a Vayl. Others may not.’ In Cross, Claire, ‘The Church in England 1646–1660’, in Aylmer, G. E. (ed.), The Interregnum: The Quest for Settlement 1646–1660 (London: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 116–17, spelling adjusted to original mss from Laurence, ‘A Priesthood of She-Believers’, p. 351.

66 Laurence, ‘A Priesthood of She-Believers’, pp. 349 and 358, respectively.

67 Hanserd Knollys in Katherine Sutton, A Christian Womans Experiences, p. i.



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