When you grow up in an Anabaptist culture, the history of your ancestors is often taught across the pulpit, in school, and even at home. Names like Conrad Grebel, Michael Sattler, Dirk Willems, Menno Simons, and many more are names that are almost as familiar as Moses, Noah, Abraham, and David. Our ancestors believed that being baptized as a baby was not enough and chose to be rebaptized when they were born again. They taught that the church and the state should be separate entities; and that the Bible should be read, taught to, and lived out by everyone. They called out false beliefs and abuses within the Roman Catholic church, the supreme authority at that time. Because of this, many were martyred. Others spent their lives hiding from church authorities.
In all the years of listening to teaching, I do not remember ever hearing the names of any of my female ancestors taught. I heard the names of women—along with men—when I was taught Bible stories. Was there no Sarah, Deborah, Abigail, or Ruth from the Reformation era that mattered like the names of the men did?
I often found myself wondering, “Did my female ancestors not do anything important or make any impact as the men did? Were they viewed as lesser?” I knew from reading the Martyr’s Mirror that many women were also killed for their faith (about one-third of the martyrs listed are women), and yet those names were not familiar, and certainly not taught to us in any of our history lessons.
This began my own search. I began reading and researching with the aim of finding out about women of the Radical Reformation. I found that more recent studies have been done on the history of the roles of Anabaptist women—studies that delve into their lives and not just how they died as martyrs.
There were many women who had a prominent part in evangelism and spreading the Anabaptist movement. Often women joined the movement even though their husbands did not. Sometimes they were tortured or killed. Sometimes they fled for their lives. Sometimes their husbands divorced them. Though these women were permitted to remarry men within the Anabaptist group if their husband divorced them, they often were separated from the children they had borne in a previous marriage.
Some women had husbands who did not convert to the movement but were not willing to divorce because of the beliefs of their wives. In Stuttgart, Switzerland, there were so many women that were converting that the authorities were unsure what to do. They had tried imprisoning or exiling them but doing was a great burden for the township. There was a substantial public expense to find someone to replace all the women that were no longer there to prepare food and look after children. The authorities then came up with the idea to chain the women in their houses to take care of the problem of the women proselytising and spreading their beliefs without creating a hardship in the family dynamic.
One such case was a prominent woman named Margaret Hellwart of Beutelsbach (1568-1621). She was summoned and interrogated by the church authorities over and over, but she refused to conform to their demands. Finally, they decided to do with her what they had already done with many of the women in that area. They ordered that she be chained in her house and church leaders were to visit her regularly and continue to attempt to convert her.
But for Margaret, the chains did not work. She repeatedly escaped from the chain that was attached to her ankle and continued to go about her usual life. She went to Anabaptist meetings and openly visited people in her town and neighboring villages. She would get caught and chained again, but she continued to escape. Between 1610 and 1621, she was chained twenty-one times.
On one surprise visit from the mayor and the church superintendent, they knocked on the door and were quite sure that they heard her putting her own chain back on before she came to answer the door. The authorities were never sure who to blame for her escapes. They suspected that her husband (who was not Anabaptist) or others were probably helping her, but they could never catch anyone or prove it. When she was asked how she always got free, she would only say that she had been “released from her confinement as Peter had in Acts 12.”
She continued to visit other women in the community to teach and encourage those who already believed, and convincing others to convert. Those who converted were then also chained in their homes. One such woman, Katharina Koch, when questioned about why she would not attend the state church, said that she did not need to go because Margaret Hellwart taught her all she needed to know about the Bible.
Margaret Hellwart was known for her self-confidence and boldness. She would laugh at church interrogators who would try to correct her beliefs and had a ready answer to any argument they brought. In some of the records, the authorities wrote that she would listen to what they said to her with a “mocking smile on her face”.
Margaret was never martyred for her faith but died at the age of fifty-three. She was an Anabaptist hero who spread the gospel boldly with no regard for consequences.
This is just one highlighted story of a female Anabaptist hero of the faith. I have read of many more in the past few years, and I want to keep writing and telling the stories. Their lives mattered and they made a difference in their areas of influence by the way they faithful to what God had called them to.
- Bender, Harold S., Nanne van der Zijpp, Cornelius Krahn, Marilyn G. Peters, Anneke Welcker and M.M. Mattijssen-Berkman. “Women.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 14 Mar 2021
- Snyder, Arnold and Linda Hecht, Profiles of Anabaptist Women, Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, (Canadian Corporation for Studies in Religion 1996) pg. 64-66