White Horse Inn Modern Reformation

“Questions Women Asked: Historical Issues, Timeless Answers” by Simonetta Carr

Published Monday, April 26, 2021 By Sarah White

Admirers of Simonetta Carr’s Christian Biographies for Young Readers series will be delighted to know that Carr has written an equally engaging, edifying book for readers not so young. In Questions Women Asked, Carr profiles 31 Christian women “who have either posed or examined a variety of puzzling questions, striving to find biblical answers.” While these questions reveal a lot about each woman’s historical context and individual personality, they can also stir up fruitful questions and discussions for our own day.

Some of the women in these chapters posed questions directly in published writings or correspondence; others lived with questions over the course of their lives, as they endured trials or pursued their vocations. Spanning from the fourth century to the late 20th, Questions Women Asked also provides a unique, episodic overview of church history. With an academic background in this area, I was especially pleased to encounter many names that were new to me (more on some of those below). Even when a familiar name popped up (like Augustine’s mother Monica, poets Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, or, say, Olympia Morata!), I found their stories told from a fresh angle, raising good questions about topics like motherhood, marriage, doubt, and injustice.

Sometimes women posed theological questions in letters to pastors, which allow us to glimpse their interactions with prominent Reformers. For example, in the chapter “How Can I Be Sure I Am Saved?” Elizabeth Aske Bowes’s correspondence with her friend John Knox addressed matters which, as Carr points out, were rather novel in a newly Protestant milieu—that is, how a believer can have assurance of salvation. In his replies, Knox admitted that Elizabeth’s searching questions forced him to study Scripture more deeply, even confronting his own doubts, in order to answer her well. This was a compelling example of how questions might help pastors refine their own thinking, which in turn serves the church as a whole. Another example comes from Giulia Gonzaga, who narrowly escaped kidnapping by pirates and later corresponded with Spanish Reformer Juan de Valdés, who calmed her troubled conscience by teaching her how to distinguish between law and gospel.

In some chapters, a question might not seem to have immediate modern relevance, but it demonstrates how a woman sought biblical answers for herself. In the chapter “Does God Care about Hairstyles?” 16th-century Charlotte de Mornay faced excommunication on the grounds that her favored style was too ostentatious. Charlotte appealed this decision, in part, by citing Calvin’s commentary on 1 Timothy 2:9, arguing that conduct was more important than fashion and questioning whether this was a suitable matter for church discipline. Besides showing that women’s thoughtful engagement with Scripture is nothing new, this story could open up to a broader discussion of Christian liberty. Carr also embeds each woman’s questions within her personal biography, and this chapter was especially moving with its look at the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and Charlotte’s reflections upon the death of her teenage son.

For me, the most exciting part of the book was being introduced to lesser-known figures whose writings aren’t always available in modern editions—like Dorothy Leigh (“What Should a Mother Teach Her Sons?”), whose parenting manual was a seventeenth-century bestseller. Among other exhortations, she advises her sons on being good fathers to little girls, reminding them of what Scripture says about women’s God-given dignity. In the same century, multilingual Bathsua Makin, a tutor in Charles I’s court, argues passionately for the importance and practicality of women’s education in Scripture and theology. Besides authoring her own religious works, 18th-century Kata Bethlen (“Can I Marry a Nonbeliever?”) was a patroness of Reformed publishing and education in repressively Roman Catholic Hungary.

Many women didn’t necessarily write about a specific question, but nevertheless sought answers in the course of pursuing ordinary callings and wrestling with difficult providences in their lives. For one, there’s the amazing story of Marie Durand, who was imprisoned for 38 years in the Tower of Constance for refusing to renounce her Protestant faith. While in prison, she led devotions for the other women, taught children who were born into imprisonment, and wrote letters to inform others of the women’s plight. In turn, she received words of comfort and exhortation from pastors, often encouraging the jailed believers to stay rooted in the Word instead of resorting to private “prophecies.” Carr frames Marie’s story in terms of the question, “Can I be a secret Christian?” Marie’s answer was obviously “no.”

Among many others, Carr introduces readers to the beloved hymnwriter Anne Steele (“Must I Forever Mourn?”), Isabella Graham (who, with Alexander Hamilton’s widow Eliza, helped found one of America’s first orphanages), and Betsey Stockton. A former slave, Betsey was the first Black woman and single woman to be sent by an American missionary society, serving for years in Hawaii before becoming a successful educator in Philadelphia. One of my favorite new “acquaintances” was Ann Griffiths, who wrote many biblically rich poems in her short life while seldom venturing beyond her rural Welsh farm. Likewise unforgettable is Jeanette Li, who suffered imprisonment for her faith in China and, after a lifetime of evangelizing, remained confident that the Church would not be stamped out—after all, she said, Christ had purchased it and promised its survival. The book concludes on this heartening note.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to better understand women’s contributions to church history, or who could simply use some encouragement from the stories of Christian lives well lived. Since each chapter stands alone, one could dip into this volume every now and then without feeling lost. However, it’s especially well-suited to group discussion. Each chapter’s discussion questions are genuinely thought-provoking, sometimes inviting readers’ own thoughts about the specific theological or practical questions a woman poses. (Carr doesn’t assume, for instance, that readers will necessarily agree with each woman’s conclusions.) Other times, readers are asked how a given woman’s example could shed light on situations in their own lives, frequently pointing to Scripture. Each chapter also includes suggestions for further reading, and there’s a helpful timeline at the end of the book. In short, the book doesn’t demand much background preparation—a group leader doesn’t need to have a degree in history or theology, for instance, to be able to guide conversation. Given the range of stories presented, every reader will learn something new, and I’d venture that most readers will meet a historical sister who will come to feel like a friend.

Carr writes in clear, engaging prose, and I found each narrative difficult to put down once I started. Finally, I appreciated that the book isn’t hagiographical in its descriptions; the women are portrayed as real human beings with strengths and weaknesses. Carr describes their struggles honestly, as most of these women dealt with trials like grief, illness, depression, loneliness, or spiritual doubt at some point in her life. No matter the particulars, Simonetta takes care to highlight each woman’s trust in God’s Word and His grace in Christ. That’s the solid ground these questioning women have in common, and it’s where all readers can be most encouraged and inspired by them, too.

Sarah White lives in the Appalachian foothills with her husband and her Basset Hound. She holds degrees from Yale Divinity School and Saint Louis University.

  • Sarah White