Contributor: Dr. Lucinda Martin, Universität Würzburg
My proposed talk explores the strategies that women Pietists used to justify their high-profile participation in the Pietist movement. By taking the traditional, conservative Pauline position that women should remain silent on church matters and rhetorically turning it on its head, the Pietistinnen actually argued that their speech was more significant than the speech of their male counterparts. They accomplished this by contrasting male ministers‘ worldly credentials – a theological education, ordination with their own alleged Divine authority. Precisely by invoking their lowly status as women, as mere “vessels” or “tools” for God‘s work, women Pietists elevated their status above that of male ministers who only were acting merely at the behest of human institutions, and not on behalf of the Lord Himself, as they claimed to be.
The influential theological writer, Johanna Eleonora Merlau Petersen, for example, justified her writings by claiming the extraordinary status of prophet. Despite her impressive education and noble background – she always insisted on her full name “Johanna Eleonora Petersen, geborne von und zu Merlau” she always figures herself as a mere tool, a channel for direct revelation. In her Glaubens-Gespräche mit Gott (1691),Merlau invokes the prophetic book of Joel (3, 2), “I shall pour out my spirit in those days even on slaves and slave-girls.” In the tract, Merlau outlines her own complex theology of a coming 1000-year reign of Christ on earth. She interprets Scripture and shows off her considerable knowledge of languages and philosophy, all the while claiming that she is only obeying the Lord‘s command. In an obvious reference to Descarte, Merlau remarks, “Es heist vielmehr: Ich glaube / darumb rede ich.”
The era‘s widespread chiliastic and apocalyptic notions suggested yet another justification to some of the female activists – namely the idea that it was the duty of all good Christians to save as many souls as possible before the impending “Final Judgment.” The Swiss Pietist, Ursula Meyer, claimed it as her Christian responsibility to travel throughout the German language territory, publicly preaching repentance in what she believed to be “the Last Days.” The crisis situation of imperiled souls, according to Meyer, excused her breach of the injunction against women‘s public speaking. In her sermons, which were noted and then later published, Meyer represents herself as a good Christian, caring for those around her.
Other women Pietists made similar gestures through their philanthropy. Of all the female patrons of the Pietist movement, perhaps the most significant is Henriette Katherine von Gersdorf. Revealing both her piety and an Enlightenment belief in knowledge, Gersdorf aimed much of her charity at schools. Significantly, she invested mainly in the education of girls, insisting that they receive proper religious instruction but also emphasizing other subjects, such as the study of Hebrew, which she believed to be crucial for a first-hand understanding of Scripture. Gersdorf‘s justification for her activity, like Ursula Meyer‘s, was the Christian care of those around her. For Meyer, this meant preaching God‘s Word, for Gersdorf, it meant educating girls to read God‘s Word.
Relying on the same strategies that earlier medieval women religious invoked to justify their religious speech – obedience to a guiding God, and Christian duty to others Pietist women were able to express their spirituality in the public arena. Thus, contrary to most of our notions about eighteenth-century Germany, my talk will conclude that “conservative” religious elements actually afforded women greater opportunities for public expression and leadership than did the secular Enlightenment.