The old saw is that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it, or something like that. Today is in the middle of the anniversary of the Great fire of London (1st to 3rd September 1666) when huge swathes of London were destroyed, but with only a few lives lost. That’s 350 years ago, and was recorded by the diarist Samuel Pepys. It’s the year that the Great Plague began to subside, the year Sir Isaac Newton is supposed to have watched a falling apple and discovered gravity as well as how to refract light in prisms. It was the time just after Cromwell, when King Charles II had been restored to the throne (it was his baker who accidentally started the fire – how many fires have been started by someone forgetting to turn off the oven?).
Since then, great happenings that aided the move to democracy happened, such as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688, and the formation of the United Kingdom / Great Britain. Then came the industrial Revolution, the abolition of the slave trade, the reign of Queen Victoria, the two world wars and so on until today.
So what has ‘godly feminism’ have to do with the Great Fire of London? Well, not much, except for an interesting coincidence. To many Christians of a more conservative bent, from all traditions, evangelical, Roman Catholic, etc, feminism is a scheme of the devil, and what is more, they will claim that any Christian who claims to be a Christian and believe the bible is true (biblical feminism) are really only echoing the zeitgeist of the time, echoing what the evil secular world says just to try and fit in.
That coincidence? Well, ask yourself what do you think is the earliest that anyone would write a book claiming that the bible teaches equality between the taxes? It’s a little bit before Rosemary Radford Reuther! It is 1666, the same year as the Great Fire. Given that the earliest any generally recognized form of feminism was early 19th Century, that means that there is no way that a 1666 biblical feminist work is aping secular trends, quite the opposite. It went against the consensus in society and the church. And no way that it was on the basis that the bible is culturally relative, a view that only came much later. It was a tract entitled ‘Women’s Speaking: Justified, Proved, and Allowed of by the Scriptures, All such as speak by the Spirit and Power of the Lord Jesus. And how Women were the first that Preached the Tidings of the Resurrection of Jesus, and were sent by Christ’s own Command, before he Ascended to the Father, John 20. 17’ – that’s a relatively short about the length of title typical in those days. It was written by one Margaret Fell, a Quaker, when she was imprisoned for her faith (and remember, in those days Quakers were not the bastion of liberalism that many meetings are now, but a bastion of radical, biblical discipleship).
Most of the arguments used were very similar to those used by biblical feminists today. For instance, it starts in Genesis 1, noting that both sexes are recorded as being made in the image of God, without distinction or differentiation, and no hint of hierarchy or inequality. She notes how so many women were spoken to by Jesus, or ministered to him, and how he sent women to be the first apostles of his resurrection (and this is in accord with the early church who, whether Margaret Fell knew it or not, for many centuries referred to Mary Magdalene as the ‘Apostle of Apostles’ for this very reason). Regarding 1 Corinthian 14, she states that the issue was not that women were speaking, but that they, along with others, were speaking out of turn, causing confusion. The exact way she exegeted that passage is not something I, as a charismatic would agree with, but the general tenor that women were not barred from speaking, but only, along with the men, from speaking in an unedifying manner I can go along with. Regarding 1 Timothy 2, she interpreted it to mean that only those women who were coming to church in gaudy get-ups should refrain from speaking in church. I might not agree with that precise interpretation, but it is telling that she is using the context and understanding of Scripture alone to argue her case. As she rightly points out, an outright ban on women ministering does not match, for instance, with what Paul says in Philippians about his two female fellow-labourers in the mission field. She is quite forthright about the origin of the doctrine of Women’s silent subjection:
‘But all this opposing, and gainsaying of Womens Speaking, hath risen out of the Bottomless Pit, and Spirit of Darkness, that hath spoken for these many Hundred Years together in this Night of Apostacy, since the Revelations have ceased and been hid. And so that Spirit hath limited and bound all up within its Bond and Compass; and so would suffer none to Speak; but such as that Spirit of Darkness approved of, Man or Woman.’
In addition, Pentecost was prophesied about and poured out upon, both men and women equally. She also noted the four virgin daughters of Philip who prophesied, and many other Old and New Testament examples of women speaking out or being given ministry – for example how under the law in the Old Testament, Huldah, Hannah and Miriam all prophesied. Perhaps the key to her understanding of women’s role is in her comments on the import of God’s prophecy in Genesis 3:
Let this Word of the Lord, which was from the beginning, stop the Mouths of all that oppose Women’s Speaking in the Power of the Lord; for he hath put Enmity between the Woman and the Serpent; and if the Seed of the Woman speak not, the Seed of the Serpent speaks; for God hath put Enmity between the two Seeds; and it is manifest, that those that speak against the Woman and her Seed’s Speaking, speak out of the Envy of the old Serpent’s Seed. And God hath fulfilled his Word and his Promise, When the fulness of time was come, he sent forth his Son, made of a Woman, made under the Law, that we might receive the Adoption of Sons, Gal. 4. 4, 5.
An interesting point to ponder. 150 years before modern feminism started, here is a powerful, biblical argument for equality of the sexes. So much for biblical feminism being a modern derivative. It is ancient, over quarter of a millennia old, at least, without getting into disputes about the nature of the early church and the biblical text itself.