The (Radical) Reformer’s Wife: Katharina Purst Hutter

In the study of women and the Protestant Reformation, the reformers’ wives loom large. For those magisterial reformers who had begun their careers as Roman Catholic priests or monks, the choice to marry was a deliberate rejection of Catholic dogma, and the women who married former priests and monks likewise made a choice that publicly confirmed their break with Rome. Of the women profiled in the Germany section of Roland Bainton’s 1971 Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, fully half were reformers’ wives, and many of these women, particularly Katharina von Bora and Katharina Schütz Zell, have also been the subject of full-length biographical treatments.1

In early Anabaptism, pastors’ wives were less prominent. While Anabaptists likewise rejected clerical celibacy and some of the most prominent sixteenth-century Anabaptists—among them Michael Sattler and Menno Simons—were former monks and priests, the pressures of persecution often relegated marriage and family life to secondary theological concerns. Of the women whose stories were included in the 1996 volume Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers, edited by C. Arnold Snyder and Linda Huebert Hecht, only a few were married to Anabaptist leaders (most notably Katharina Purst Hutter, Anna Scharnschlager, and Divara of Haarlem), and many were not married to Anabaptists at all.

The story of Katharina Purst Hutter (the wife of Jacob Hutter, founder of the communitarian Hutterite Anabaptists), however, offers an interesting comparison with that of more prominent magisterial reformers’ wives such as Katharina von Bora or Katharina Schütz Zell. Like her fellow Katharinas, she developed a strong faith of her own, even as the man who became her husband was instrumental in her conversion story. As Katharina Schütz had first been stirred by the preaching of Mathis Zell and Katharina von Bora by the writings of Martin Luther, so Katharina Purst first learned of the Anabaptist faith while working in South Tyrol in the household of Paul and Justina Gall, who hosted Jakob Hutter and other Anabaptist leaders.2 Katharina made a confession of faith and Hutter baptized her.3

Persecution, however, was a far more present reality for Katharina Purst Hutter than for her magisterial counterparts. While the Luthers and the Zells undoubtedly faced opposition, they also enjoyed the protection of Frederick the Wise and the Strasbourg city council respectively. Jakob and Katharina’s situation was not so secure. In 1533, authorities in the Tyrol arrested the Galls and all the members of their household, including Katharina. The Galls and Katharina recanted in exchange for release, only to flee to Moravia in hopes of finding a place to practice their faith more freely. Paul was captured and executed, but Justina and Katharina arrived safely in Moravia where they joined Hutter and his followers.4

Gedenktafel_Jakob_Hutter

A plaque at the Goldenes Dachl in Innsbruck, Austria, commemorating the execution of Jakob Hutter. Source: Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gedenktafel_Jakob_Hutter.jpg)

Katharina married Jakob Hutter two years later, in the spring of 1535, and the couple soon left Moravia and returned to the Tyrol, where they traveled from town to town visiting Anabaptists and making converts. Jakob, however, was too notorious to evade the authorities indefinitely and, in late November of 1535, he and Katharina were arrested in Klausen, at the house of a family named Stainer.5 After months of torture and interrogation, Jakob was burned at the stake in February 1536, but the authorities elected to keep Katharina alive despite the fact that she had not kept the terms of her previous release and had returned to Anabaptism after her recantation. The authorities sent for priests to convince her to return to the Catholic faith, but this time she refused to make even a pretense of recantation.6 In a statement made shortly after her arrest, Katharina explicitly rejected the mass, the Eucharist, the church building, and infant baptism as useless, abominations before God, and from the devil.7 Katharina escaped from prison in 1536 and evaded the authorities for two years, but, in 1538, she was arrested in the village of Schöneck and executed.8 Unlike her husband, no memorial plaque marks the site of her execution, but Katharina, like so many other sixteenth-century Anabaptist women, proved that she took her faith seriously enough to risk everything for it, without thought of recognition from anyone but God Himself.


  1. See, inter alia, Elsie Anne McKee, Katharina Schütz Zell: The Life and Thought of a Sixteenth-Century Reformer (Leiden: Brill, 1998); Ingelore Winter, Katharina von Bora: Ein Leben mit Martin Luther (Düsseldorf: Droste, 1990). On pastors’ wives in the Reformation more generally see Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer, From Priest’s Whore to Pastor’s Wife: Clerical Marriage and the Process of Reform in the Early German Reformation (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2013). 
  2. Elfriede Lichdi, “Katharina Purst Hutter of Sterzing,” in Profiles of Anabaptist Women: Sixteenth-Century Reforming Pioneers (Waterloo, ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press), 179. 
  3. Katharina Hutter, “Testimony of Katharina Hutter, Given before December 3, 1535, at Klausen (1535)” in Sources of South German/Austrian Anabaptism, edited by C. Arnold Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2001), 194; Grete Mecenseffy (Ed.), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer, Österreich III Teil (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1983), 300. 
  4.   Lichdi, 179. 
  5.   Mecenseffy, 302. 
  6.   Mecenseffy, 323. 
  7.   Hutter, 195; Mecenseffy, 301. 
  8.   Werner Packull, Hutterite Beginnings: Communitarian Experiments during the Reformation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 256. 

Change Without a Bang

As a child, one of the things that fascinated me about Mennonites of the past was dress, particularly the head covering. What would it have been like to be marked, physically, by your religion? To have people look at you and know you were a Mennonite? Head coverings and plain attire were mostly past when I was growing up—the province of grandmothers and old photographs. And so I could romanticize dress regulations a bit—toy with the idea that perhaps there was something desirable in the certainty and identity that rules on dress created. But, as my mother has pointed out, that shows how little acquainted I am with the tedium of listening to long sermons on skirt length.

Dress, any historian of Mennonites will tell you, was a potent symbol of many things: patriarchy, nonconformity, agency, resistance. Given all this weight, I was eager to ask several Mennonite women about when and how expectations about dress shifted in their lives. As I worked with them on oral histories, I was surprised to find that the women I spoke with did not have firm memories about how change had happened.

The women I interviewed were born between 1924 and 1942. They all grew up with the expectation of at least a head covering. Some wore cape dresses, even if only to church or school, while others were only expected to dress modestly in a regular skirt and blouse. Expectations varied depending on family and congregation. But the women shared two things: a vague sense of when and how rules changed and an emphasis on rules as something they followed to get along, not something that they approached with deep personal conviction.

In a group interview with several women from the Denbigh, Virginia, community, several agreed that they couldn’t remember exactly when standards on dress had changed. “I just can’t remember being much bothered by [discussion on dress],” one woman stated.1 Another woman recalled that it seemed like there was a time (around the 1960s) when “it was almost like every woman did was right in her own eyes,” about dress. She took cues from other women in her congregation, particularly women who were respected, and did not necessarily look to church leadership for guidance as things changed.2

These women were not overtly rebelling against dress rules but were happy to find spaces where they could get around rules without notice. One woman recalled that as a nurse in the 1950s she could avoid a cape dress in daily life because she needed to wear a uniform. She also remembered that she quit wearing black stockings “as soon as I could get out of it,” emphasizing how unattractive they looked. Sometime in the 1970s she stopped wearing a covering. Someone at work had asked her why Mennonites wore coverings. She realized she had no good answer and took that as an indication that it was time to change. She continued to wear a small lace covering to church “out of respect” for others.3

Another woman made similar comments about a desire to get along with the church. She stopped wearing a covering (outside of church) her senior year of high school, in the early 1950s. She “didn’t want to disappoint” leaders but also didn’t feel the covering made sense.4 Another remembered relief in leaving Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for Goshen College and an atmosphere that was less focused on dress.5 Men also lacked attachment to the rules. One woman recalled that once her husband was ordained as a minister in Virginia Conference in the late 1950s he began wearing a plain coat, but “not because of personal conviction.”6 Overall, the women looked back on ideas about dress with some amusement. They emphasized critiques they had held—quietly—in the past and agreed change was a good thing.

A few of the women that I interviewed did indicate some personal conviction about dress. One called the head covering a “symbol of my relationship” [with her husband]. She explained she did not stop wearing it until she checked with her husband, who told her it should be up to her what she wore.7 Another told the story of the last cape dress she made. She had trouble getting it to fit right and prayed for the Lord to help her: “if he wanted me to wear a cape he’d help me. And I had more trouble with that cape than any.”8 She took it as a sign that cape dresses were not an essential part of Christian life. But, even these women described an overall change process that was subtle and without moral distress. I was left with the impression that dress regulations faded away—and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

So what interpretations can a historian draw? Of course, there are some caveats. Firstly, my sample was quite small (about 15 women) and I did not attempt to find women from the same communities or same age cohorts (they ranged from birth years 1924 to 1942 and came from home communities in Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Ohio; all grew up in old Mennonite—MC—congregations). Secondly, none of the women came from the generation that did the most to push outright against rules on dress—although those born in the early 1940s came closer to that age cohort, and had more tales to tell about the tricky ways they got around rules. Moreover, most of the women remained Mennonite their entire lives; I might have found different stories if I had interviewed women who left the Mennonite church. Another point is that my sample skewed toward the college educated; several of the women had professional careers. Finally, oral histories often tell us as much about the present as the past. Regulating religious dress seems far away. It maybe that, feeling no attachment to head coverings now, it is difficult to remember a time when perhaps one did find meaning in them.

My working theory, however, is that there were a lot of people in the Mennonite church donning plain coats and head coverings not out of conviction but out of a desire to remain in fellowship. My evidence speaks most to the period of the 1950s-1970s— although given some of the comments women made about their mothers’ attitudes toward dress, I have cause to suspect there was never full consensus on the matter. Change sometimes comes with a bang. And sometimes it comes quietly. I doubt there is anything particularly Mennonite about a pattern where a few people openly push for change while many more change slowly, perhaps all the while seeming to be not changing at all. I leave it to the sociologists to say for sure, but I suspect this is a common social pattern.

But change without a bang does raise some questions relevant for the Mennonite church today. In our current conflicts over embracing and including LGBTQ persons in church life it is tempting to think only those who are the most vocal seek change. But is it possible that we have pews of people quietly wondering why sex is such a big deal for church membership? Who may not be asking for change but would be okay if it came? Could we apply the concept of a silent, questioning majority to other conflicts in church history: women in leadership or divorce and remarriage? The value is not in finding perfect historical parallels—often a futile task, anyway—but in being attentive to the range of ways change develops.

The silent majority trope should be used with some caution, given its history. Richard Nixon used it to galvanize support as he argued against cultural and political change in the 1960s, but naming a silent majority of supporters obscured as much as it illuminated. For one, if a group is “silent,” it is conveniently easy for politicians to speak for it, in ways that may or may not accord with reality.9 There are philosophical issues with silent majorities as well: are they necessarily noble or wise? Does elevating them ignore the importance of prophetic minorities? But, despite the complexity, the concept of a silent majority can be useful in thinking about how change happens, particularly if we remember this: silent majorities are not static. They are made up of real people who change and respond to change over time. Just because people don’t protest something does not mean that they like it. Most Mennonite women in the 1950s didn’t openly push the boundaries on dress, but it would be a mistake to read that as true belief in the rules.

Silent majorities can be real or invented. They can resist change or form a backlash. But they can also be a key part of how change unfolds. They can embrace change. As one group of women I interviewed put it, “we were the good kids.”10 Would anyone have guessed, in the 1950s, how many good girls wearing coverings were ready to take them off?


  1. Group interview with women who have roots in the Denbigh Colony (Newport News, VA), oral history interview by Holly Scott, February 12, 2014, archived in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University Historical Library and Archives, Harrisonburg, VA. All interviews cited in this post can be found in this collection. 
  2.  Janet Yoder, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 5, 2013. 
  3. Mary Reitz, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  4. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 2, 2013. 
  5. Vera Kauffman, oral history interview by Holly Scott, February 5, 2014. 
  6. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  7. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview by Holly Scott, January 29, 2014. 
  8. Janet Yoder, oral history interview by Holly Scott, December 5, 2014. 
  9.  At the time Nixon made his silent majority speech a majority of Americans thought the Vietnam War was a mistake, even if they didn’t endorse the antiwar movement. Some historians argue that Nixon didn’t so much describe a silent majority as he did create it. On broad antiwar sentiment, see Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, (New York: Bantam Books, 1993), 293-294. On Nixon directing, not describing, the silent majority and the use of silence to speak for others, see Penny Lewis, Hardhats, Hippies, and Hawks: the Vietnam Antiwar Movement as Myth and Memory, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2013), 159-163. 
  10. Eastern Mennonite High School class of 1959, oral history interview by Holly Scott, March 14, 2014. 

Meditation on Jealousy and Relief/Community and Individualism

Back in November, I reflected on what some of the women of the Eastern Mennonite High School class of 1959 had to say about mischief in their school days. Talking to these women I had the same two reactions I have anytime I talk with Mennonites from older generations: jealousy and relief.

My interview with the EMHS grads was part of a series of interviews with Mennonite women, talking about daily life in the 1930s-1960s. My interviewees described a world centered on church community. It was a world that sounds like an awful lot of fun (thus, the jealousy).

From a group of women who grew up in Denbigh, Virginia in the “Mennonite colony,” the 1940s and 1950s meant roller skating parties on Colony Road, hot dog roasts, boat rides on the river, swimming, and girls’ slumber parties at home or along the river. The boys usually stopped by, too—to hang around and tease a bit. “I just remembering having fun,” one woman remarked. Another chimed in, “the young folks would have so much fun together.” Their bonds were strong, perhaps because so much of the world was off limits. One woman remembered that they were not allowed to play cards, so they made their own decks.1

Other women also described church as their social world. Ruth H. (b. 1924, Ohio) remembered the difference the new Mennonite Youth Fellowship made in her life. Sermons may have been long, but MYF made church worthwhile.2 Vera K. (b. 1926, Pennsylvania) remembered how much she enjoyed hanging around after church just talking with other young people. Both described singing, in groups or quartets, and Sunday School parties.3

Church was a place to fit in—often in contrast to life at public schools. Ruth H,. recalled being “lonely” at school, in the early 1940s, as one of only a few Mennonites. Going to Goshen College was a “wonderful experience” where she found close friends and mentors and felt she finally belonged.4 Ruth S. (b. 1933, Pennsylvania) echoed this sentiment. She, too, went to public school where she was involved in activities, but only to a point. She remembered making signs for school dances but not going to the dances. On the rare occasion she did go, she hung back and didn’t dance (one time she danced with the football coach: “I survived it okay. It didn’t do me in,” she reported). Ruth S. described feeling torn: she wasn’t comfortable taking part in all of the school activities and yet she didn’t like being left out. For her, too, Goshen College was where she could fully participate.5

You don’t have to be a historian to realize the risks in idealizing the past. The price of a tightly knit community was surveillance and conformity. The women all remembered a less fun cornerstone of community life: revival meetings. While many had positive things to say, most also remembered feeling fear as well. Ruth S.  called revivals “high pressure” and “very emotional.”6 The Denbigh women recalled that preaching often centered on fear of hell, not the love of God. The preachers were “after the hardened sinners but… got me” said one, remembering the fear she felt. Another recalled the anxiety around communion and the experience of taking open communion at a Presbyterian church as and adult. “It was unbelievably freeing,” she said, so moving that she cried. Another faulted their church community for having “no grace” and said that leaders “deprived me of a loving God.”7

Revival meetings were not the only source of anxiety. The same social bonds that could make life fun could make life hard. The EMHS women remembered how even just looking “worldly” could get you marked as a trouble-maker. Looking worldly could involve your dress and deportment choices—or it could be something you had no control over, such as having bright, unruly hair.8 And there was always someone watching, especially if you were a woman. Mary R. (b. 1930, Pennsylvania) remembered how uncomfortable it made her to walk up the steps to the Lancaster Mennonite School library with a male administrator looking on, checking that skirts were long enough.9 The good old days were not that great (thus, relief that those days are gone).

Just as we should be cautious about idealizing the past, we should not forget that community norms are often unstable—and there is joy in the process of contesting culture. The EMHS women chuckled at their exploits: holding hands under the table, away from the eyes of “spies” in the social room, sneaking out for motorcycle rides, banding together to irritate a conservative teacher in subtle ways. There is no fun quite like subversive fun. We don’t acknowledge this nearly enough.

Then again, subversive fun is less fun if you’re caught—and you’re more likely to be caught if you’re someone who is less “in.” Being “in” means knowing how to break rules, or how to read the often unstated exceptions to rules and knowing how to handle yourself if caught. Being “out” means you function with the same rules but without the inside knowledge required to keep you from more serious consequences.

These are hard truths: tight community bonds often mean community surveillance. Having a sense of being “in” often means someone else will have a sense of being “out.” I am relieved to have grown up in a time where I never imagined God as scary, where no one checked my skirt length, and there was no pressure surrounding baptism. I was encouraged to know my own mind and to make choices that were “right for me.” I am relieved the Mennonite world shifted before I was born.

But I am still jealous. When I’m 70, I won’t be gathering for regular breakfasts with the women of my high school class. As a child I stayed in one place but my friends moved regularly as parents climbed career ladders. We were drawn together by similar interests but we didn’t know each other’s families in the same way these women knew each other. We were friends as individuals. We were not a community.

Is there a way to have both room for the individual and a close-knit community? When I think about this on a theoretical level the answer seems like an obvious yes. It’s a matter of prioritizing community and intentionally cultivating it. When I think about this on a practical level it gets stickier.

What does it mean to prioritize or intentionally cultivate community? The world is no longer off limits. You can go to the college that best suits you, as an individual, not necessarily a college you have family or church ties to. It’s expected that you’ll move for a career, leaving the connections of family, friends, and church. You can give as little or as much as you like to a church in terms of time and resources. No one is watching. There is a never-ending list of things you can do with your time, the people you can meet, and the places you can take your talents. We don’t need to invent our own deck of playing cards anymore. We are all free to go to the public school dance.

But there is only so much time in this life and if I go to the dance Saturday night I may be too tired to go to church on Sunday. Or, to make this metaphor more fitting for my life: if I’m facing a deadline at work then I might stay home and work on a Sunday, because that’s what I need this day. It’s more than just church attendance. I look for the friends and communities that suit my individual tastes—sometimes that means church community and often not.

What has been lost? Community life? Sense of place? Stable church-related institutions? Individualism has its place, but it’s not always conducive to walking together. If the church I was raised in doesn’t suit me just right as an individual, I can easily go down the road to another one.

There is probably no easy solution to the conundrum of community and individualism. No easy resolution to my feelings of both jealousy and relief. Perhaps the tension does not need to be resolved, only acknowledged. Is this state of tension at the core of what it is to be a Mennonite in the twenty-first century? We are painfully aware of the ways in which community went wrong in the past and continues to go wrong today. But we also make community a hallmark of our faith.

A couple of months ago I ended up in a Facebook conversation about Austin McCabe Juhnke’s piece “Rethinking 606, the ‘Mennonite national anthem.’” My friends and friends of friends pondered the implications of Juhnke’s argument. We agreed we all wanted community, and rituals that bring us together, but we struggled with how to create community that does not exclude.

I find it difficult to know how to end a meditation like this one. Perhaps that is because you can’t think your way out of the conundrum of community life. We may have to spend more time together to work on it. I don’t necessarily mean more time at church or more time dissecting hidden power dynamics inherent in community building. I mean more time playing together or getting to know each other—perhaps more time engaging in subversive fun together. In the past Mennonites knew each other well but likely had a less developed analysis of the perils of community life. Today we have the theory down, but we don’t know each other as well. Could we put the two together—awareness of the danger and knowing each other well—and see if we end up in a different place?


  1.   Women from the Denbigh community, oral history interview (February 12, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  2. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  3.  Vera Kauffman, oral history interview (February 5, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  4. Ruth Heatwole, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  5. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview (December 2 and December 5, 2013), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  6. Ruth Stauffer, oral history interview (December 2 and December 5, 2013), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  7. Women from the Denbigh community, oral history interview (February 12, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  8. Eastern Mennonite High School, class of 1959, oral history interview (March 14, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 
  9. Mary Reitz, oral history interview (January 29, 2014), in Voices: Oral Histories of Mennonite Women, Eastern Mennonite University archives, Harrisonburg, VA. 

Melchior Hoffman’s Defense of Female Prophets

The relatively wide array of roles open to women in Melchiorite congregations—Anabaptist congregations found in the Netherlands and North Germany in the sixteenth century and founded by the itinerant apostle Melchior Hoffman—has long been recognized by scholars of early modern Anabaptism. As Arnold Snyder noted in Anabaptist History and Theology, “nowhere in the Anabaptist movement did women achieve and maintain as lofty a pastoral and leadership role as in the Strasbourg Melchiorite community.”1  Sigrun Haude, in her 1998 essay “Anabaptist Women—Radical Women” echoed the point and argued that “the greatest freedom enjoyed by women can be found in those Anabaptist groups that emphasized visions, prophecies, and the Spirit.”2 Hoffman did indeed emphasize visions, prophecies, and the Spirit. He believed, firmly, that he lived in the Last Days, a time in which God would pour out his Spirit on all people, men and women alike.3

After his arrival in Strasbourg in 1529, Melchior Hoffman encountered Lienhard and Ursula Jost, a married couple who had both had visionary and prophetic experiences over the course of the 1520s. He set out to disseminate their visions and prophecies through print (the Josts were illiterate, and had thus not been able to publish them themselves). Hoffman first published Ursula’s visions in 1530. This first edition of her visions, published by the Strasbourg printer Balthasar Beck, did not record her name, but instead referred to her simply as a Gottesliebhaberin, a feminine noun meaning “lover of God.”4 For Hoffman, the emergence of contemporary prophets such as Ursula and her husband Lienhard served as validation for his apocalyptic ideas. Hoffman’s ideas about prophecy and the work of the Spirit also shaped his views of how church hierarchies should be structured. In the afterword to the 1530 edition of Ursula’s visions he included a discussion of church offices and the gifts of the Spirit; Ursula, for instance, possessed the gift of prophecy but not the gift of interpretation.5

image1-17

The title page to the 1532 edition of Ursula’s visions, published jointly with Lienhard’s prophecies and housed at the Austrian National Library in Vienna

In the 1530 edition of the visions, neither Melchior Hoffman nor Ursula Jost made an issue of Ursula’s gender. They simply took for granted that women could prophesy. In 1532, however, Hoffman offered a more systematic defense of female prophets in a foreword to the second edition of Ursula’s visions. This second edition, printed by Albert Paffraet in Deventer, appeared alongside an edition of Lienhard Jost’s prophecies and its survival at the Austrian National Library in Vienna was unknown to Klaus Deppermann, Hoffman’s most recent biographer.6 In his foreword, Hoffman acknowledged that “some are bewildered and angry that God works and lays out his plans through such a poor and simple little woman.”7 Hoffman contended, however, that this was not remotely novel, and that God had spoken to and through women since the beginning of the world.

To reinforce this point, Hoffman provided a list of women in the Old and New Testament through whom God had spoken or accomplished His purposes in other ways. His list was comprehensive, with a few exceptions—curiously, he omitted Huldah, whom the authors of 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles explicitly identified as a prophetess.8 He began his list of biblical prophetesses and female servants of God with the women of Genesis: Eve, Sarah and Hagar (both of whom heard the voice of God), and Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, who became the mother of two people groups.9 Exodus provided the example of Myriam, Aaron’s sister, and Judges the stories of Samson’s mother, Jael (who defeated the general Sisera), and Deborah (who was not only a prophetess, but also a “great teacher of Israel”).10 Hannah, who prayed so fervently for a child that the priest Eli mistook her for a drunk woman, went on to become the mother of a great prophet of Israel in 1 Samuel, and Judith and Esther both rescued the people of Israel in the books that bore their names.11 Finally, Hoffman highlighted the woman with seven sons in 2 Maccabees, whose sons died for the sake of God’s law and who ultimately gave up her own life “in a very manly way.”12

Unsurprisingly, Hoffman began the New Testament portion of his survey of biblical women with Mary the mother of Jesus, and he went on to list two other women from the beginning of Luke: Elizabeth, who recognized Christ while he was still in the womb, and the prophetess Anna, who recognized Him at the Temple.13 Mary Magdalene, he continued, became the first of Christ’s followers to see Him after the Resurrection and was tasked with spreading this good news to the apostles.14 The Samaritan woman met with Jesus and preached about him to her city in the book of John, and the daughters of the deacon Philip in Acts had the gift of prophecy.15 Hoffman ended this cast of characters with a reference to twelve Gentile prophetesses “reported in the histories”—a possible reference to prominent women from the early and medieval church, though the reason for the number twelve is not clear.16

Since the Bible explicitly called certain women prophetesses, the theoretical possibility of female prophets was undisputed among medieval and early modern Christians, even as many other ecclesiastical roles remained closed to women. Hoffman, however, went further than many of his contemporaries; he described the Samaritan woman’s actions as “preaching” (predigen) and used the word “teacher” (lerrerin) to refer to both Judith and Deborah.17 He did not directly acknowledge or attempt to reinterpret the Pauline command from 1 Timothy that women should remain silent in the churches, but instead mined other Pauline letters for support for his position. After all, had not Paul said in Galatians that all—male or female—were one in Christ? And had he not acknowledged in 1 Corinthians that women could prophesy, provided they did so in an orderly fashion? Moreover, Hoffman added, women could also take on the role of teaching, “if there were no enlightened men.”18

Ultimately, for Hoffman, God gave the gift of prophecy to all who hungered for truth and righteousness without regard for age, gender, or social station, as was made clear in Joel 2, which spoke of sons and daughters, old and young, manservants and maidservants as recipients of the Spirit of God.19 The only trait that disqualified a person from prophesying was pride and hardness of heart. Indeed, Hoffman acknowledged that there were many learned women (schriftgelerder weyber), who were better-educated and more prominent than Ursula, to whom God might have revealed Himself instead. However, despite their prestige, these women were unsuitable because they were proud and haughty.20

While Hoffman’s support of women such as Ursula Jost and Barbara Rebstock has long been known, the recently rediscovered foreword to the second edition of Ursula’s visions sheds further light both on the biblical examples Hoffman used to justify his support of women’s active leadership in Melchiorite communities and the boundaries he still placed on this leadership. The range of possibilities Hoffman envisioned for women in the church was wider than that afforded to them by many of his contemporaries. Ultimately, however, women were second to men even in Hoffman’s congregations, since the role of teaching was open to them only when no qualified men were present to fill it.


  1.   C. Arnold Snyder, Anabaptist History and Theology: Revised Student Edition (Kitchener: Pandora Press, 1997), 321. 
  2. Sigrun Haude, “Anabaptist Women—Radical Women?” in Infinite Boundaries: Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture, ed. Max Reinhart (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1998), 318-319. 
  3. Cf Joel 2 
  4. Ursula Jost, Prophetische Gesicht un[d] Offenbarung der götliche[n] würckung zu diser letste[n] zeit (Strasbourg: Balthasar Beck, 1530), passim. 
  5. Melchior Hoffman, afterword to Jost, Prophetische Gesicht, fols. C vii r-v. 
  6. For the English version of Deppermann’s seminal biography, see Klaus Deppermann, Melchior Hoffman: Social Unrest and Apocalyptic Visions in the Age of Reformation, edited by Benjamin Drewery, translated by Malcolm Wren (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1987). The survival of the 1532 edition of the Josts’ prophetic writings was briefly noted in Andrew Pettegree and Malcolm Walsby (Eds), Netherlandish Books: Books Published in the Low Countries and Dutch Books Printed Abroad Before 1601, Volume 1 A-J (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 753 and its contents were the subject of Jonathan Green, ‘The Lost Book of the Strasbourg Prophets: Orality, Literacy, and Enactment in Lienhard Jost’s Visions,’ in: The Sixteenth Century Journal 46:2 (Summer 2015), 313-330. 
  7. Melchior Hoffman, foreword to Ursula Jost, Eyn wore prophettin zu disser letzsten zeitt (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. F4r. 
  8. For the story of Huldah, see 2 Kings 22:13-20 and 2 Chronicles 34:22-33. 
  9. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  10. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  11. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fols. F4r-F4v. 
  12. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  13. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  14. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  15. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  16. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  17. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fols. F4r-F4v. 
  18. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4v. 
  19. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F4r. 
  20. Hoffman, foreword to Jost, Wore Prophettin, fol. F3v. 

In A Reunion Like This We Can Share

Anita Hooley Yoder

History matters in the church. It matters what kinds of stories are told about our past, and who gets to tell them.

This was obvious at the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, where a timeline exercise brought up some past events and issues but left out others. (See Joel Nofziger’s recent post)

As I worked on a book on the history of Mennonite women’s organizations, I found myself especially captivated by stories I had not heard before, and did not fit neatly into a typical understanding of Mennonite women. I was specifically fascinated to learn about the activities of Black and Hispanic Mennonite women, which began in an organized way in the 1970s and, to some extent, continue to today.

These activities are narrated in just one chapter in the book, but I hope the chapter I wrote is just the beginning of more writing and sharing about what happened at these events and the way God continues to work through Mennonite women of all kinds of backgrounds.

Below is an excerpt from Circles of Sisterhood, about the start of the Hispanic Mennonite women’s conferences. To read more, purchase the book! You can order online from Mennonite Women USA or MennoMedia.


5-1 Sefi de Leon

Seferina De León speaking at an Hispanic Mennonite women’s conference in the 1970s

The first Spanish-speaking Mennonite women’s conference was held in April 1973 in Moline, Illinois. Maria Bustos, wife of pastor Mac Bustos, coordinated the gathering, along with Lupe Bustos and Maria Rivera Snyder. Several reasons were given for the one-day event, which was called a servicio de inspiración. Seferina De León described it as an opportunity “to have a group of our own to listen to each other and figure out how we can help each other.”1 The organizers specifically wanted to gather women whose husbands were involved in church work and spent much time traveling, so the women could have a meaningful time together while their husbands stayed home.2 In a Voice article about the conference, Lupe Bustos wrote that the gathering arose from a concern for women who could not speak English and had never had the benefit of participating in the WMSC [the Mennonite Church women’s organization].3 As a woman of “American-Spanish descent,” she had been encouraged by attending WMSC meetings and wanted to provide similar encouragement for Spanish-speaking women.4

At the first conference, about sixty women gathered from churches in several Midwestern states as well as New York and Texas. Lupe Bustos’s article described the event as having women’s marks of creativity and care: hospitable overnight hosts, corsages for each participant, a craft project fashioning crosses out of a variety of materials. But the most memorable aspect of the event was the spiritual presence that pervaded it. The Spirit-led singing, prayer, and testimonies came to a climax when the women gathered to take communion. Mac Bustos wished to join the group for the communion service, which was led by pastor Mario Bustos. Suffering from leg pain and other health complications so severe that he was planning to give up his pastoral work, Pastor Mac was assisted into the sanctuary. Women nearby laid hands on him as they prayed and praised God. Suddenly, Mac got up and said, “Praise the Lord, all pain is gone!” He began going up and down the steps to show his increased mobility.5 “Tears just streamed from all of us,” Lupe Bustos wrote. “We realized that God still performs miracles; and a miracle happened to all of us there, because we were renewed again in Him.”6

The conference’s leaders viewed the miraculous healing of Mac Bustos as confirmation of God’s presence with them and as encouragement to continue their gatherings. At the October 1973 Minority Ministries Council meeting, they made plans for another conference and also adopted the name Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita (Hispanic Mennonite Women’s Conference). This is the name the group uses today, after a several-year period of using the name Sociedad de Damas Cristianas en Acción (Society of Christian Women in Action).

A 1974 gathering was planned for Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first gathering was presumably paid for by the women themselves; Maria Bustos lists “faith” in the finances column on a chart showing figures for the early conferences.7 To help with the second conference, the Concilio leaders wrote to the WMSC requesting a grant of $3,000 for “las hermanas.” The WMSC executive committee decided to make the money available, even though it required some temporary reallocation of funds. Beulah Kauffman, WMSC director, wrote a letter to the WMSC district presidents explaining the move and reminding them of the WMSC meeting at the 1973 MC assembly. . . . At that meeting, women had expressed that they would “stand ready to help in whatever ways possible” when “clearly defined” needs of Spanish-speaking members were presented. Kauffman described this request as just such a need and expressed hope that women across the denomination would consider making the Hispanic women’s conference their annual giving project.8

The WMSC money was apparently the only outside funding received for the 1974 conference. Women from many Hispanic churches contributed through offerings, craft sales, and other fundraisers, either to support the conference in general or to fund the travel of their own members. Lois Gunden Clemens attended the gathering as a WMSC representative. She reflected in a July 1974 Voice article: “It has been good for me at various times to be a minority within a Christian group representing a cultural heritage different from mine. My heart has been strangely warmed in sensing the oneness I could feel with them. This was true again when I joined our Spanish-speaking sisters gathered together in their Lancaster meeting.”9 Enriqueta Diaz summed up her sentiments about the conference in an August 1974 Voice article: “It is marvelous that in a reunion like this we can share with each other ideas, emotions, and thoughts, all in our own language and in a cordial environment. Praise God for His love!”10

Excerpt and photo are from Circles of Sisterhood by Anita Hooley Yoder. © 2017 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.HeraldPress.com


  1. Quoted in Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 152. Maria Bustos is often referred to as “Mary Bustos” in publications, since there were many other “Marias” involved with the organization. I follow Hinojosa in using “Maria.” 
  2.  Ibid., 152–53. 
  3. Lupe Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” Voice, April 1973, 5. 
  4.  Ibid. 
  5.  This event is also written about in several other places, including Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites, 153. 
  6.  Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” 5–6. 
  7.  Mary Bustos, “Report to the Executive Committee,” November 10, 1978, box 1, folder 3, WMSC Partnerships Records, 1973–1992 (IV-20-008), MCUSAA– Elkhart.  
  8.  Beulah Kauffman, letter to district WMSC presidents, April 3, 1974, box 4, folder 19, Women’s Missionary and Service Commission Executive Committee Records, 1917–1997 (IV-20-001), MCUSAA– Elkhart. 
  9. Lois Gunden Clemens, “Editorially Speaking,” Voice, July 1974, 2. 
  10.  Enriqueta Díaz, “Hispanic Women’s Conference,” Voice, August 1974, 11. 

“Crossing the Line” Reflections

Wendy Urban-Mead

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Two notable elements of the “Crossing the Line” conference come to mind: first, it was exceptionally well-planned, logistically, and flowed beautifully at a rich but manageable pace. Second, the offerings were refreshingly varied, ranging from serious academic work in the fields of history, sociology, literary analysis, and theology, but also offered memoirs and family histories, as well as a range of fine arts including dance, poetry, and visual arts. The tour to nearby notable Mennonite sites was truly beautiful and memorable. I would like to draw your attention to the photo I took of Mrs. Barbara Nkala, as she exited a church building we visited on the tour. This photo speaks to the question, “who is an Anabaptist today?” The image reaches from Old Order Mennonites in the Shenandoah Valley to a Brethren in Christ Church Zimbabwean mother in the faith—who journeyed far and at significant expense, together with her sister, to participate in and lead at Crossing the Line.  The impact of this admirably well-thought-out and holistic program was to offer participants both spiritual and intellectual refreshment.

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The long supper table and delicious-looking dessert comes from our meal at the home of Janet Shank.

I came to the conference in response to urging from Jan Bender Shetler that I send in a paper proposal, and at the invitation of Devin Manzullo-Thomas, to join a panel he was proposing on BICC women in leadership. I gave a talk about Sithembile Nkala, a member of the Brethren in Christ Church, Zimbabwe, who served as pastor of her BICC church during the 1970s. The story I shared centered around Pastor Nkala’s encounter with liberation war guerrillas. She drew on what I called “spiritual muscles” to find courage to confront the guerrillas, challenging them not to believe at face value the “sell-out” accusations they heard, in spite of the real possibility that they could have executed her for speaking out in this manner. This material is based on research I did for my dissertation in history at Columbia University and which in turn served as the basis for my book, The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Ohio Univ Press, 2015.) Devin spoke about women of the BICC in North America in the post-WWII era during the BICC’s “evangelical turn.”  Also presenting on this panel was Lucille Marr, a historian from McGill University in Canada. Lucille spoke on the early life and calling of Hannah Frances Davidson, the BICC’s first foreign missionary. H. F. Davidson, Lucille’s own great-aunt, was a crucial leader of the BICC’s mission to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) See the photo of Lucille, Devin, and me—which Devin has also posted in his social media platforms.

19399675_10154676829305869_7987347151558697291_nBarbara Nkala’s talk on “Unsung Heroines” of the BICC Zimbabwe was delivered with clarity and authority. Based on her own and her sister Doris Dube’s extensive work of collecting stories of women of the BICC Zimbabwe, Barbara’s joyful spirit came through, as well as her well-honed teacher’s expertise.  A longtime secondary school teacher at the BICC’s Matopo Secondary School, she is now a publisher of Christian and Ndebele literature and serves as the southern Africa regional representative for MWC.  I had not seen Doris and Barbara since 1999; our reunion at Crossing the Line was poignant and joyful. See the photo of the three of us standing before EMU seminary’s gorgeous stained glass window. Note also the photo of the conference’s wrap-up panel, which includes Barbara Nkala seated at the far right.

19429639_10154676830320869_914360242205161917_nI may well have been one of the only (if not the only) participants in the conference who is not a member of an Anabaptist-derived church.  I felt welcome; I became more deeply acquainted with the Anabaptist tradition, and came to admire and appreciate my Anabaptist fellows in Christ and in scholarship all the more. Thank you to the conference planners who accepted my paper proposal, allowing me to partake of these riches.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

Reflection on “Crossing the Line”

Anita Hooley Yoder

at book signing

Anita Hooley Yoder (right) with Doris Dube (left) and Marian Buckwalter (center)

For me, part of the fun of attending a conference in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is the drive there. It’s about six and a half hours from my home near Cleveland, Ohio, and I enjoyed taking a somewhat mountainous route and stopping to hike along the way. I also enjoyed staying with my sister and brother-in-law, who live in town.

The first day I spent with my sister, before the conference began, and she shared some past struggles that I knew little about. I thought that, unlike many of our female Anabaptist ancestors, my sisters and I had a pretty great childhood. And in many ways we did. But I suspect that all of us have stories in our past—our own histories—that we haven’t heard or acknowledged.

“Crossing the Line” was, at least in part, about honoring those kinds of stories.

One of the most poignant moments was hearing Jean Janzen, an 83-year-old Mennonite Brethren writer, share one of her first published poems, which focused on a long-buried family story about the suicide of her grandmother. “I am speaking the syllables you could not say,” Janzen read.

As part of the conference wrap-up panel, Doris Dube mentioned that Zimbabwean women often carry children wrapped tightly on their backs. Then she shared a proverb: “A weaning baby that does not cry aloud will die on its mother’s back.”

We, gathered here, are the children crying aloud on our mothers’ (mother church’s?) backs, I thought. And, we are the mothers who hear the cries and will not leave the child to die.

Hearing people’s cries—their most heartfelt stories—has become a kind of vocation for me.

I spent a large part of the past several years listening to stories of Mennonite women as I worked on a book about the history of Mennonite women’s organizations. These stories inspired me, as I encountered women who received little recognition but continued serving faithfully for decades.

Last August I started working as a campus minister at a small Catholic college. In that role I listen to students, faculty and staff, sometimes for most of the day. Their stories are sometimes painful, even shocking, but also full of resilience and serendipity and grace.

However, my experiences at and around this conference made me wonder about other stories I need to attend to. If hearing people’s stories is my vocation, how did I miss the stories my sister had been living for so long?

Sometimes it seems easier to focus on faraway stories, whether from distant times or distant lands. That was perhaps a shortcoming of this generally wonderful conference. While the presence of international attenders was commendable and clearly a focus of conference organizers, there was a lack of women from U.S. minority groups, even though there are Mennonite congregations of various ethnicities not far from our gathering place.

“We need all the women’s stories we can get,” Sofia Samatar said in her brilliant and broad-sweeping plenary address. So I am left to consider whose stories are still missing. What are the stories in my own family, my own community, my own soul that need to be heard? What about the stories of Mother Earth, the ground I drove across and walked over during my trip to Virginia?

Really hearing and honoring these kinds of stories often entails “crossing a line” of sorts, because such stories have been ignored and marginalized for so long. This conference was brimming with women and men who seem compelled to lift up all kinds of stories—the stories of undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ folks, Mennonite ancestors who had uncomfortable nationalistic tendencies. We didn’t cover everything, didn’t include everyone. But we know more stories now than we arrived in Harrisonburg, and that fills me hope for years to come.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.