"Death comes when our work is done, not before or after" (pg. 113).
Rebecca VanDoodewaard has done the church a wonderful service in revising, expanding, and correcting James I. Good's 1901 work, Famous Women of the Reformed Church. Originally appearing as a series of magazine articles, each chapter succinctly presents the life of one saint as a "…biographical sketch--an introduction to a woman who could be the subject of an entire book" (pg. xv). Through Reformation Women, VanDoodewaard successfully whets one's appetite to learn more about the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us!
In her Introduction, VanDoodewaard attempts to set the stage by detailing "…major events, documents, and figures…to provide a larger context" (pg. xvii) so that each chapter can focus on a specific woman. Unlike many modern works, she selected "…believing women who helped form our Reformed faith but who are largely unknown now" (pg. xi). Throughout Reformation Women, VanDoodewaard highlights the beauty in the diversity of God's people:
"A range of personalities, abilities, and positions gives us a sample spectrum of what faithful, strong service to Christ and His church looked like then. These same principles and examples are invaluable for helping women today bear fruit within the broad boundaries that God gives us in His Word" (pg. xi).
Within the Preface and Conclusion, VanDoodewaard considers some of the characteristics that were common to all of these believing women: they were devoted, faithful, brave, compassionate, and self-sacrificing; given to hospitality; stewarded their intellectual abilities to understand Scripture, theology, correspond, etc.; and sought, above all, to glorify Christ and build His Church. They weren't always right, but God was faithful to use them to influence, protect, and multiply His church. Reformation Women illustrates that change truly is a process, not an event. VanDoodewaard honestly allows us to see both the good and the bad in the lives of these saints so that God gets the glory rather than merely elevating humankind.
One of the things that I appreciate about this book is its emphasis on truly biblical womanhood. Through these women, VanDoodewaard shows us that "Real femininity is strength--a uniquely feminine strength that is tough and ladylike" (pg. xiii). She shows us what Christ-centered, healthy marriages look like (and some unhealthy ones!). She shows that there are times when it is appropriate for a woman to submit to her husband and authorities (church and government) and times when she should obey God rather than man. These women were not doormats or mindless. Education was a high priority with God's Word being of utmost importance. For example, Charlotte Arbaleste was involved in an odd case of church discipline in which,
"She genuinely believed that the local church was overstepping its bounds and was willing to argue the point to keep her biblical freedom and clarify procedure. She could only do this with integrity because she knew her Bible and church polity. The fact that she was a woman in no way diminished her responsibility to understand the denomination's ecclesiology and to speak out when it was being abused" (pg. 59).
We desperately need examples of women who submit to godly leadership, as well as, examples of women who know when to stand their ground and fight for what is right, regardless of the consequences.
The "…women of that day were not just sitting around waiting for their husbands to do things: they were reading, writing, and ruling. They were teaching children, sheltering refugees, and balancing husbands. They directed armies, confronted kings, and rebuked heretics" (pg. x). They comforted, encouraged, served, and studied. As VanDoodewaard records:
"These women were not hanging out on social media or mommy blogs, waiting for spiritual maturity to happen. They actively pursued it: Bible reading, prayer, attendance at worship (often several times a week), fellowship with the saints, theological study and discussions, and conscious self-denial matured them into usefulness that God blessed. Personal projects, comfort, and plans were subservient to the mission of the Great Commission" (pg. 113).
Reformation Women isn't a book that seeks to merely entertain the reader but is immensely practical. Many chapters close with a practical application for modern Christian women, and the Conclusion fittingly brings the book to a close by outlining seven application points that will strengthen the church today based on common facts about these women's lives. Among them, she shows how these women were able to live the way that they did:
"Their goals were not a great weekend, or seeing kids through college, or even helping with grand-children. Their goal, in different spheres, was the establishment and flourishing of a strong and faithful church that would be there long after they were gone. Because they were aiming for things beyond their life spans, it gave perspective and purpose to their everyday actions. Thinking long term gives us the ability to act meaningfully in the short term" (pg. 113).
That being said, Reformation Women isn't a "preachy" book. These women's stories are absolutely fascinating. Filled with accounts of joy, sorrow, and humor; victory and defeat, loyal friends and plotting enemies, I could hardly put this book down. VanDoodewaard highlights both unusual deeds (fleeing in disguise, preventing war, enduring persecution, and resisting arranged marriages) as well as everyday faithfulness in the mundane. It is encouraging to see how God faithfully intervenes in people's life circumstances to bring them to the Gospel and use them for His glory, especially when it seems unlikely from a limited, human perspective.
Throughout this book, I found myself longing for more details and jotting down questions for further study. Mrs. VanDoodewaard successfully whetted my appetite for further study, indeed. I would love to know more about how these women balanced their many responsibilities, educated their children, managed their homes, etc., and because her sources are well-documented in footnotes, I know just where to turn for additional information!
Most importantly, VanDoodewaard uses Reformation Women to point us to Christ and His all-sufficiency in the midst of life, whether that's joy or sorrow, peace or anxiety, prosperity or poverty, comfort or persecution, affliction, exile, and/or death.
I'm grateful that Rebecca's husband brought her Good's book, as well as, other resources and supported this project with peanut butter cups and pizza for supper. I pray that many will be encouraged to faithfully use what God has given them and where He has placed them for His glory and trust that many will be blessed by Mrs. VanDoodewaard's labor and sacrifice! :)