Two Ways that Evangelicals Have Failed Women—And How a New Book Can Help


Karen Swallow Prior—professor of English at Liberty University and the author of Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionistwrote the foreword for historian Michael Haykin’s new book, Eight Women of Faith (Crossway, 2016):

HaykinGenesis 2 tells us that God created a garden with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (v. 9). God told Adam to eat freely of every tree except one. But rather than focusing on the abundance God had offered freely, Adam and Eve turned their focus on the single thing that was off-limits. And the rest is human history.

Both within the church and outside it, we too have treated in a similar fashion the biblical admonition against women preaching: we focus on the single thing that is off-limits and thereby fail to see the abundant opportunities and roles God has clearly offered, some of which are compellingly portrayed in the stories presented in this book. Likewise, the biblical admonition has led too often to extrabiblical limitations on women, as well as unbiblical oppression, also reflected in the societal restraints these eight women experienced during their lives. This kind of failure toward women—unjustly imposed limitations on their personhood and soul equality—has sometimes led to a secondary failure: the failure to see and tell women’s stories clearly, truthfully, and well.

Thus, there exists an abundance of works on the lives of women in the church that present readers with unrealistic saints, not flesh- and-blood women. Such accounts make good fairy tales but not just or suitable examples of the true life of faith. On the other hand, much of today’s retrospectives on women in history tend to focus, understandably and sometimes rightly, on limitations placed on women. Women have been and still are denied much, both in the church and in the culture at large.

This book’s snapshots of a mere eight women from a mere two centuries offer an astonishing array of roles and achievements by women in a time when women were not so much second-class citizens as not citizens at all. Yet despite (and perhaps because of) such obstacles, what women have contributed and accomplished is rich and varied. Here in these pages we meet queen, wife, theologian, hymnist, novelist, missionary, daughter, and friend. Even more importantly, we meet women of faith whose lives manifested the grace and glory of God through their faithful obedience to the roles to which they were called, whether in singleness or marriage, in sickness or in health, in riches or in poverty, and, ultimately, in death.

The facets of womanhood represented in Eight Women of Faith shine brilliantly. This abundance is particularly striking within the early modern era represented by the lives detailed here. The period hinges on a significant turning point in both human history and church history: the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation’s emphasis on faith alone and Scripture alone gave birth to the modern individual (and thus the evangelical tradition)—and it is the lives of women that most clearly reflect the dramatic historical shifts that took place as a result. It is women of faith, particularly evangelical faith (with its emphasis on individual salvation), who mirror most clearly this great shift in human history and culture that elevated human agency and equality. These developments drew me to my own study on an evangelical woman of this era, Hannah More, the British poet, abolitionist, and reformer of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—and they drew me to this fascinating work as well.

The portraits Haykin paints of these wildly different women reduce them neither to their roles nor to their religion, but rather show how their faith informed, shaped, and fulfilled their earthly callings. Furthermore, regardless of their relationships to men (single, married, wife, daughter, mother), the women are presented as individuals in their own right, as influenced as they are influential in the roles they fill. Margaret Baxter and Sarah Edwards, for example, are shown as faithful servants of the gospel who are as much served by as servants to their respective husbands, Richard Baxter and Jonathan Edwards. The theology embodied by the written works of Anne Dutton, Anne Steele, and Jane Austen models the abundance in God’s garden: we can obey the command not to eat the forbidden fruit and still enjoy a feast abundant enough to nourish all of the faithful.

The lives here demonstrate the truth of Jane Austen’s words, applicable to men and women equally, that “Christians should be up and doing something in the world.” The women in this book, each in her own way, did just that. After reading about them, you will want to, too.

Here is the table of contents for Haykin’s book:

  1. The Witness of Jane Grey, an Evangelical Queen
    “Faith Only Justifieth”
  2. Richard Baxter’s Testimony about Margaret Baxter
    “Ruled by Her Prudent Love in Many Things”
  3. Anne Dutton and Her Theological Works
    “The Glory of God, and the Good of Souls”
  4. Sarah Edwards and the Vision of God
    “A Wonderful Sweetness”
  5. Anne Steele and Her Hymns
    “The Tuneful Tongue That Sung . . . Her Great Redeemer’s Praise”
  6. Esther Edwards Burr on Friendship
    “One of the Best Helps to Keep Up Religion in the Soul”
  7. Ann Judson and the Missionary Enterprise
    “Truth Compelled Us”
  8. The Christian Faith of Jane Austen
    “The Value of That Holy Religion”

You can read an excerpt here.

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