Diana Lynn Severance (Ph.D., Rice University) is an historian serving as director of the Dunham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University. Her most recent book, Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History, exposes and celebrates the crucial role of women in the history of the Christian church. Perhaps too often we practice a kind of “chronological snobbery,” as C. S. Lewis termed it, assuming that we today understand everything much more clearly than the unsophisticated people of previous centuries. On some subjects that assumption might work. On most, we might wisely practice more humility.

The subject of women’s roles is a complicated one: certainly we have made much progress, but perhaps we would do well to look back more carefully to see what we can learn from those who have gone before. Severance helps us do that. Her book is full of snippets of stories and quotations that make the reader want to spend time delving into the original sources. I came away from her book and from this interview convinced that our contemporary discussion of women’s roles would be much more profitable if it were better informed by a clearer historical perspective.

Your book focuses on women in church history. Why is history—-and this particular history—-important for all of us in the church today?

God is a God of history. The Bible itself, God’s inspired revelation, is a book of history, in that much of it is a historical record of God’s working with and bringing redemption to his people. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are events central to all of history—-as seen in the commonly used dating system of B.C. and A.D. Paul in his address on Mars Hill (Acts 17) told the Athenians that the God who made us all so orders the boundaries and times of nations to bring people to himself. In a way we cannot fully know now, God is working through nations and their histories to bring glory to his name. When I study history, I delight in discovering threads of the story that show Christians’ influence in God’s tapestry of history.

Looking especially at Christian women in history is important for several reasons. I’ll briefly mention four.

  1. Wherever Christianity has gone, the condition and status of women has improved. In today’s world, wherever Christianity has flourished, men and women are both recognized as valued members of society; wherever Christianity has been largely rejected, women have few rights and can be treated as something less than a full person. The history of the treatment and position of women itself is a useful apologetic for the Christian faith.
  2. Many historians have focused on great men with little attention given to women, who certainly make up a large segment of humanity! Their story needs to be told and integrated into the larger history.
  3. Recent feminist historians have produced a plethora of revisionist writings driven more by the feminist agenda than by the facts and records of history. An accurate narrative of women’s history is needed apart from re-imagining and re-constructing the actual records.
  4. A look at Christian women in the past can encourage and challenge women today. History offers examples of women faithful to God in many different social spheres and facing many difficult conditions—-just as women face today. This “great cloud of witnesses” both encourages and admonishes us.

You expose women’s roles in previously less-exposed places . . . in the martyrdom of the early church, for example. 

Jesus said that the disciples are not above the master, and as he was persecuted, so his disciples will be persecuted. Throughout church history, Christians have suffered persecution. In the first centuries of the church, if a person refused to declare that Caesar was Lord, it could mean the death sentence—-and the sentence was applied to both men and women. Women as well as men were thrown to the wild beasts in the arena, becoming martyrs for their faith. The very Greek word martyr means “witness,” and a very powerful witness for the truth of Christianity was that women as well as men were ready to endure torture, intense pain, and a terrible death with joy because of their faith in Jesus. My book details several of the accounts from court records and friends of these women telling of their suffering as well as their joy in Christ even as they died for his sake. Reading these accounts made me feel how glib and shallow so much of our American Christianity is today. Suffering and persecution strengthened the faith and character of these women.

Some of today’s “women’s issues” might benefit from a historical perspective—-abortion, for example. How can the early church instruct us here? 

Abortion and infanticide were both practiced and commonplace throughout the ancient Roman Empire. Abortions were induced by special potions as well as by surgery and often put the woman’s life at risk. When a child was born, it was shown to the father, and the father decided if the child should live or not. It was rare for a family to have more than one girl, for girl babies were the most frequently destroyed. Babies were often left along the roadside for wild beasts or birds to consume. The Christians, however, did not approve of either abortions or infanticide. They began collecting the infants left to die of exposure, brought them into their homes, and cared for them. The caring practices of the Christians caught the attention of the pagan world and demonstrated that women had value, dignity, and respect within the Christian community.

Women have not always been viewed as worthy candidates for education. How can women like fourth-century Paula encourage and inspire us?

Paula was truly amazing. She was a woman of great wealth but had a passion to learn the Scriptures. She became a patroness of Jerome, sponsoring much of his Bible translation work and finding Bible manuscripts for his translation. She peppered him with endless questions about Scriptures, learning as much as she could. She even learned Hebrew so that she could pray the Psalms in their original language! Jerome himself praised Paula’s learning and her passion for the Scriptures. Paula is just one of the early demonstrations of the truth that wherever Christianity has flourished, education and the particularly education of women has increased. This becomes clearly seen during the Reformation and the missions movement of the 19th century. Martin Luther was among the first to encourage education for girls as well as boys, and William Carey and later missionaries often were the first to establish schools for girls in their region of work.

Reading your book, I loved the glimpses into lives of remarkable women I’d never even heard of—-Marie Dentiere, for example, who lived during the Reformation.

There were so many women I had never heard of whom I came to admire after researching their stories. One of my favorites was Dhuoda from the ninth century, shortly after the time of Charlemagne. She wrote a wonderful advice manual for her son, who was separated from her for several years. This mother’s heart and Christian concern for her son, as well as her wise instructions, speak to us across the centuries. The early queens of the German and British regions, such as Margaret of Scotland, were so influential in bringing their husbands to Christ and Christianity to their people.

Marie Dentiere, as you mentioned, lived during the Reformation. She wrote the first history of the reform in Geneva and is the only woman whose name is inscribed on that great Reformation wall in Geneva. I was especially fascinated by Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII, and her very strong Christian witness and influence. Though I had heard of her before, standard history texts do not mention she was a Christian and had a Bible study in the palace. Some of the writings of these women have been preserved, and we can, as it were, actually hear their own voices and thoughts.

You tell of women who served God in both extraordinary and ordinary ways—-often through their homes and families. Do certain examples or patterns stand out?

Two of my long-time favorites whom I came to value more as I studied were the poet Anne Bradstreet and Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley. Both were extraordinary women in the way they lived for the Lord as wives and mothers through many crises and difficulties. We see from Anne’s poetry, for example, how she can take the disaster of her house burning down to fix her mind more on the heavenly home God has for her. For Anne, every event shone with a spiritual purpose.

In one sense, the pattern to be seen over the centuries of Christian women is the variety of women and the variety of ways the Lord used them. There were singles, married, widowed, queens, teachers, writers, mothers, patronesses, women serving through hospitality and charitable works . . . the categories are endless. This is consistent with the New Testament, where we find women in ministries of “prayer, mentoring other Christians, supporting the Church leaders, showing hospitality, fellow-laboring as missionaries, instructing other women, evangelizing and sharing the Word with others, teaching children and helping those in need and distress” (to quote from Feminine Threads). Some today assert that women must have positions of ordained pastoral leadership within the church. What we find in history, as in the New Testament, is that women even without such positions have roles and ministries of tremendous influence in the body of Christ.

Your book brings out the significant role of women in the missions work of recent centuries. What can we learn?

Women’s role in missions was especially important in the examples of their lives and their ministries to other women. In societies where women were isolated within harems and separate quarters, the women missionaries could enter and present Christian truth in ways that men could not. The family life of the missionaries was tremendously important to the unchristian cultures as an example of Christian marriage and home life. The exemplary life of the missionary woman was a tremendously powerful witness and testimony to the gospel of Christ.

What words would you leave with us concerning the feminine threads in the tapestry of Christian history?

The lives of Christian women over two millennia offer examples of the grace and mercy of God as well as encouragement and challenges to live life for his glory and honor. Though often with differing roles, both Christian men and women are important to the tapestry of history God is weaving. I’m looking forward to spending eternity with these Christian women who have gone before.