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date: 27 January 2021

Women and religion in the Oxford DNBfree

  • Jane Garnett

Joanna Southcott (1750–1814)

by William Sharp, in or before 1812

Julia Stephen (1846–1895), the second wife of the DNB's first editor, Leslie Stephen, abandoned Christianity, and started to be interested in her future husband when she read his articles on agnosticism in the 1870s. She was herself to write (in 1880) a passionate defence of agnostic women's spirituality and capacity for philanthropic work, in response to those who argued that without Christian belief such female qualities would wither away. In the late Victorian period the association between women and religion was strong. The link seemed axiomatic. But the terms of definition of women's religious roles were contested in many ways.

One of Julia Stephen's exact contemporaries, a young Anglican woman in Huntingdon, in the 1860s began conducting services which attracted large crowds of people, and—somewhat surprisingly—gained her local bishop's permission to continue doing so. Isabella (Isabel) Reaney (1847–1929) later ran Sunday afternoon services for the working classes in London; her husband, who had followed her into the Anglican church from Congregationalism and was ordained, took the first service of the month (for men only); she conducted all the rest, for men and women. This was hardly an accepted part of women's ministry in the Church of England at the time. Her husband went into print to set out the principles of the case which his wife embodied in practice. In 1886 he wrote a riposte to an attack on women preachers, which opened: 'It is always rather a difficult task for men to discuss the true sphere of women … The truest conception of womanhood can only be possessed by women' (Reaney, 844–5).

Alongside her work for the church, Isabel Reaney founded and edited a magazine for 'tired mothers and busy daughters'; wrote novels promoting moral values (especially of temperance); set up a fund to send poor children on holiday to the country; established convalescent homes; helped to promote Blackpool as a winter health resort; and campaigned for the rights of cab drivers, engaging in debate about the virtues of municipalizing and nationalizing sections of the transport system. In 1894 she was sufficiently famous to have her profile (and glamorous studio photograph) published in the large-format glossy magazine Men and Women of the Day.

Yet after her death her achievements seem to have been forgotten, as has happened to a large number of less exceptional but still immensely energetic women who were philanthropic because they were religious. The Oxford DNB has a crucial role to play in focusing our attention on their significance within a given historical context, as well as making us think about the range of women's religious self-expression in different times and local cultures.

Private into public

The juxtaposition of these two women points to various aspects of the Oxford DNB's richness as a source for thinking historically about women and religion in all periods. Although the original DNB was not entirely conventional in its coverage of religious occupations, there was a reluctance to discuss the religious aspects of a subject's identity in the text of articles where the subject did not have an overtly religious occupation or significance. In part this was an aspect of a broader neglect of people's non-public lives. The complexity of the relationship between public and private life was not acknowledged. Women who did not have an article of their own were characteristically mentioned at the end of articles on men, after the death of the male subject had been noted. There was no scope for reference to the type of (displaced) religious context relevant to the relationship between Julia and Leslie Stephen. Some religious women were included in the DNB if they had a publicly defined independent religious identity, but very patchily: there were hardly any from what was then the recent past. Many more women have now been included for whom a conception of their religious life provided an impetus for public (and private) work in other spheres.

Work on the Oxford DNB began at an interesting historiographical moment. Religious factors were beginning to be taken more seriously in mainstream historical analysis, especially of the modern period. (In earlier periods, in which religion seemed more obviously to be a dominant ideology, there was less of a shift, although in general the significance of religious belief structures was coming to be more recognized, and there was more emphasis on lay devotion.) The evolution in the writing of the Oxford DNB's founding editor, Colin Matthew, as a political historian exemplifies this important intellectual transition. His decision systematically to record the religious affiliation of all subjects in the new dictionary was in part a product of this. More broadly there had been a move away from narrowly defined ecclesiastical history, and also away from the implicitly marxisant assumption that religion played a secondary and inherently conservative role in historical causation. At the same time women's history was beginning to show more appreciation of the complex ways in which religion could underpin a sense of female autonomy and authority. Feminist historians in the later twentieth century had not initially tended to be interested in women's religious lives, or in the lives of religious women, unless they were heretical or unorthodox in some way. But gradually the limitations of the reductive categories ‘radical’ and ‘conservative’ had become apparent as a much more nuanced picture of religious identities developed. The relationship between women and religion could neither be assumed nor ignored: it was to be fundamentally reassessed.

Woman's mission

In different historical periods such reassessment has meant different things, although there are consistent themes: most notably in the attempt to explore the ways in which women could define and articulate their own spiritual perspective, and to indicate where possible what was distinctive about women's experience or influence. In some cases the latter has been very helpfully done in the context of a group article which can both engage with a broader historiographical issue through collective biography, and include subjects who were clearly of great significance but about whom little is known.

The discussion of the saints of Ulster (c. 400–c. 650) is a good example: in giving an idea of the contours of religious life in the north of Ireland in this period, the role of mothers in genealogies of saints is indicated. Distinctions are also made between female saints whose cults were of purely local significance and a saint like Moninne (d. 517) (Modwenna in the old dictionary), probably the most important female saint in Ireland after St Brigit (439/452–524/526), whose cult was extraordinarily powerful, and also quite exceptional in being extended to England. A fascinating article on Lollard women (c. 1390–c. 1520) raises to the forefront the live historiographical question whether the Lollard movement (if indeed it is appropriate to call it that) gave more or fewer opportunities to women than orthodox religion. Emphasis is placed on women's independent activity, and on the ways in which women meeting together could construct particular contexts for debate and proselytizing. Margery Baxter visited Joan Clyfland of Norwich in midwinter, and, 'sitting and sewing by the fire' (Tanner, 44) instructed Joan and her two teenage female servants in a lengthy question-and-answer session. Joan's husband was absent; as was the husband of Hawise Mone, when she organized the ritual breaking of the Lenten fast in her home by eating pork on the day before Easter Sunday. Many Lollard women were married to Lollard men, but this sort of fragmentary evidence gives snapshots of all-female association and of independent female action.

A tantalizing glimpse into a female monastic world via the life of one woman is provided in the case of Katherine Sutton (d. 1376), abbess of Barking, reputed to be a liturgical dramatist. The evidence is minimal, but none the less it provides a vivid description of an unusual version of a Latin liturgical drama for Easter, depicting the harrowing of hell, in which the nuns represented the souls of the patriarchs in limbo. The climax of the drama was the raising of the host to the high altar, and Katherine Sutton's innovation was said to have been the performance of this ritual after rather than before matins. There was already a vibrant tradition of liturgical drama at Barking (in 1279 Archbishop John Pecham was concerned about the decorum of the nuns' Holy Innocents' play). Even if it is not entirely clear what was Katherine Sutton's precise role in developing this tradition, the very fact that her contemporaries associated her name with a striking liturgical drama at the least underlines her reputation for creativity and organization in this context.

Medieval nuns and abbesses (often powerful also because of their royal or aristocratic status) held important institutional positions which could give scope for independent theological engagement. Women were well represented amongst anchorites, mystics, and saints. A figure like the Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton (c. 1506–1534) modelled herself on prominent female mystics such as St Bridget of Sweden and St Catherine of Siena; Archbishop Thomas Cranmer noted that 'many learned men, but specially divers and many religious men, had great confidence in her' (Cox, 273). Female prophets and visionaries, in this period and subsequently, were often thought to be particularly authentic as unlearned women who acted as the vessels or mouthpieces of God's word. Such a trope could, of course, also be used strategically by women defining a special authority (as by the late eighteenth-century prophet

Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (1903–1971)

by Charles Hewitt, 1948

Getty Images – Charles Hewitt

Joanna Southcott (1750–1814), for example, who none the less wished to protect herself from the charge of irrational fanaticism by supporting her arguments wherever possible with scriptural evidence). Many mystic women, such as Julian of Norwich (1342–c. 1416), were in fact learned and drew on an extensive scriptural and literary range of reference. At the turn of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries lived a female theological writer, M. Marsin (1696–1701), of whom we know virtually nothing beyond her writing. She produced a strong critique of male authority in religion and society, and claimed special religious insights because she was a woman. A century and a half later, Frances Power Cobbe (1822–1904), a deist whose feminism and campaigns for women's rights were closely interrelated with her religious beliefs, developed the idea of God as 'not a king, but rather a Father and Mother' (Parker, 1.306) (echoing Julian of Norwich's characterization of the Trinity as Father, Mother, and Lord). The eighteenth-century philanthropist Frances Elizabeth King (1757–1821), working in an orthodox Anglican context, wrote on female scriptural characters who she felt were neglected by male commentators, and about other exemplary heroines. In her work The Beneficial Effects of the Christian Temper on Domestic Happiness (2nd edn, 1807) she criticized Bishop Beilby Porteus's The Beneficial Effects of Christianity on the Temporal Concerns of Mankind (1806) for focusing only on public benefits and for not carrying the precepts into domestic life. She saw no reason to argue that 'Religion is of any sex.'

Coming closer to the present, debates about the ministry of women in the Church of England produced arguments based both on women's equal claims to ordained status, and on the particular contributions—theological and exemplary—which women could make. Dame Christian Howard (1916–1999), an energetic campaigner for women's ordination, emphasized her position that 'In asking: “Can a woman be ordained to the priesthood?” we are dealing not with a woman's question, but a church question.' Constance Coltman (1889–1969), who was ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1917, argued for women's special role in theological interpretation and in ministry, in part through the experience of motherhood. As in other contexts of debate about women's roles, those opposed to female ordination—arguing, as did the Anglican sociologist Margaret Hewitt (1928–1991), on the grounds of Christian unity and of a woman's inability to represent the male Christ at the altar—could at the same time be active in promoting the expansion of women's opportunities in other spheres.

Many women for whom religion played a key role in their lives embodied this in lived experience, and did not leave reflections on their conceptions of religion or spirituality. Anne Steele (1717–1778), one of the first women hymn writers, was remembered in the nineteenth century because she seemed to prefer an uneventful life: 'the duties of friendship and religion occupied her time' (Evans, preface). Not all women conceived their religious identity or mission in specifically female terms. In some cases women are remembered precisely because of contemporary celebrations of them as exemplars of Christian womanhood. It is not always easy to get behind the legend, but the legend itself plays an influential part both in the development of particular religious cultures and in the reinforcement of certain views of women's religious roles. Examples include Mary Jones (1784–1866), a Welsh Calvinistic Methodist weaver and dressmaker, who at the age of sixteen walked 25 miles to Bala to buy a new translation of the Bible in Welsh. Her zeal for the scriptures inspired the setting up of the Welsh Bible Society, and her story was told and retold in Bible societies and Sunday schools, and translated into several languages, as evidence of the power of the weak. Its promotion formed an important part of Welsh evangelical expansionism, at home and abroad.

A different case is that of Susanna Wesley (1669–1742), mother of John, who has been described by her Oxford DNB biographer as 'a sort of Methodist Madonna'. Her domestic regime for bringing up her children was made famous by the account which John Wesley asked her to write. She continued the serious instruction of her children well into their adolescence, and acted as an informal theological adviser to them all her life. She laid particular stress on the education of her daughters, stating 'that no girl be taught to work until she can read very well … for the putting children to learn sewing before they can read perfectly is the very reason why so few women can read fit to be heard, and never to be well understood' (Susanna Wesley: the complete writings, 373). She also wrote an extended theological dialogue in the form of a conversation between herself and her eldest daughter, and other theological reflections which circulated in the family. Within the Methodist tradition Susanna stands as the perfect religious mother; but her own conception of the maternal role was more challenging than the often conventional retelling of her life would imply. She took an independent stance on religious and political positions against the will of both her father and her husband; and this and her determination to maintain spaces in her day-to-day life for prayer and meditation profoundly influenced the formation of John Wesley's ideas. More conventionally, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there was a proliferation of published exemplary lives of godly women, sometimes attached to funeral sermons, and spiritual autobiographies, whose protagonists are well-represented in the new dictionary.

Varieties of religious experience

The interrelationship between gender, socio-economic or occupational status, and religious identity is explored in a variety of ways. There are many instances from all periods of gentlewomen or upper-class and aristocratic women who acted as patrons of religious activities. These range from Anne Howard, countess of Arundel (1557–1630), Catholic convert and supporter of recusant priests, and Katherine Barnardiston, Lady Barnardiston (d. 1633), who used her wealth and useful family network to promote puritanism, to Anna Maria O'Brien (1785–1871), a wealthy Irish Catholic, who formed a charitable circle in Dublin, and promoted Mary Frances Aikenhead (1787–1858), who in 1815 founded the enormously successful order of the Sisters of Charity.

Certain Christian denominations were particularly associated with forms of business activity—for example, the Quakers in banking and manufacturing. Quaker women played a role in creating and holding together family firms, and in some cases in maintaining their distinctive Quaker identity. Tace Sowle (1666–1749) began to manage her family's printing firm in 1690, and succeeded her father as printer to the Society of Friends in 1691. In fifty-eight years she published nearly 600 works. She was the primary printer of Quaker women's writing, which was itself the largest category of women's writing in the period. At a time when there were strict internal controls on Quaker publications, she was sufficiently respected to be able to make recommendations to the Friends (the works of Elizabeth Bathurst, for example, including her Sayings of Women). A twentieth-century Friend,

Julia Prinsep Stephen (1846–1895)

by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1867

Dame Kathleen Lonsdale (1903–1971), crystallographer and pacifist—one of the first two women to be elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and the first woman president of the British Association—saw her life as Quaker, scientist, and mother as inextricably linked. Experience and experiment characterised both religious and scientific enquiry, as well as forming the appropriate basis of a child's upbringing.

Other occupational contexts in which women could develop their religious convictions and achieve a wide influence included painting, education, and literature. Maria Spilsbury (1777–1820) exhibited a wide range both of genre scenes with charitable themes, and of biblical and modern-life religious subjects (including a large canvas of John Wesley preaching in the open air). Alice Harrison (c. 1680–c. 1765), a Catholic schoolmistress, ran a school in a village in Lancashire for fifty years, despite the penal laws. She accepted children of all denominations, but the quality of the education which she provided was most strikingly demonstrated in the number of her pupils who went on to the English College at Douai. Literary women with a clear religious identity range from Christina Rossetti (1830–1894), the devout Anglican who often donated her poems to Christian charities, to popular writers for children, such as Mary Martha Sherwood (1775–1851) who wrote over 400 books.

The strengths of the Oxford DNB lie in the illumination of complex varieties of Christian experience. This is not an entirely unreasonable emphasis, since varieties of Christianity formed the core religious culture of Britain for a large part of the period covered. However, Judaism is well-represented, for example by writers on Jewish history and religion, such as Grace Aguilar (1816–1847), and by female members of prominent Jewish families, such as Charlotte de Rothschild (1819–1884) and Louisa de Rothschild (1821–1910), who devoted themselves to Jewish charities. Islam and other faiths are less evident—in part because important figures in later twentieth-century multi-faith British culture are still alive. A few women from the former colonial territories have entries, including Nongqawuse (b. c. 1840, d. in or after 1905), Xhosa prophet, and Alice Mulenga Lenshina (1920–1978), visionary and founder of the Lumpa church in Northern Rhodesia (a syncretic breakaway from a Church of Scotland mission).

Some women who came to Britain from elsewhere influenced spiritual debate: the Russian-born American Helena Blavatsky (1831–1891), the founder of theosophy, acquired important disciples in Britain, such as Annie Besant (1847–1933). There is an article on

Sara Louisa Blomfield (1859–1939)

by unknown photographer

The Bahá'í Publishing Trust

Sara Louisa Blomfield (1859–1939), also known as Sitárih Khánum, Baء‎i promoter and philanthropist. There is still a place for the eccentric who fits into no obvious category, such as Mary Ann Girling (1827–1886), the stigmatic founder of the Children of God. But in the new dictionary there is rightly less of the fascination with female religious oddity and hysteria which was one aspect of the original DNB, a product of Leslie Stephen's agnosticism and his desire to expose what he regarded as the silliness of religious fanaticism. New articles on witches are critically framed; there are several group articles—Essex witches, Pendle witches, and Salem witches—which explore the popular religious culture and social anxieties out of which witchcraft accusations arose. The article on Isobel Gowdie (1662), alleged witch, who operated within a network of covens and whose confessions revealed not just demonology but fascination with fairies, emphasizes the atypicality of her case. The argument of the twentieth-century Egyptologist and folklorist Margaret Murray (1863–1963) that Gowdie's case indicated a strong survival of underground paganism in Britain has been widely criticized.

The critical mass of entries in the Oxford DNB is now large enough to bring out more clearly the range and plurality of women's religious experience. The initiation of biographical research under virtually every category has produced women who were engaged in some way with religious life or culture. It is now for the readers to make their own connections and comparisons, and to set up fresh questions for debate.


  • G. S. Reaney, ‘Preaching women’, The Congregationalist, 15 (1886), 844–9
  • N. P. Tanner, ed., Kent heresy proceedings, 1511–12, Kent Records, 26 (1997)
  • Miscellaneous writings and letters of Thomas Cranmer, ed. J. E. Cox, Parker Society, [18] (1846), 273
  • T. Parker, ‘Discourse on religion’, The collected works of Theodore Parker, ed. F. P. Cobbe, 1 (1863), 306
  • C. Evans, preface, Miscellaneous pieces in verse and prose, ed. C. Evans (1780)
  • Susanna Wesley: the complete writings, ed. C. Wallace (1997)


National Portrait Gallery, London
Hulton|Archive, Getty Images, London