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Deaconesses in Europe and their Lessons for Americ

We find there were deaconesses


Among

the Waldenses, the Poor Men of Lyons, who were already prominent in the last half of the twelfth century, we find there were deaconesses. We learn of them again, too, among the Bohemian brethren, the followers of Huss. With deep Christian faith they endeavored to form a Church after the apostolic model, and in 1457 appointed Church deaconesses. "They were to form a female council of elder women, who were to counsel and care for the married women, widows, and young girls, to make peace between quarrelers, to prevent slandering, and to preserve purity and good morals,"[21] aims which keep close to the apostolic definition of this office.

Luther, the great master-mind of the Reformation, was too clear-sighted to fail to appreciate the importance of women for the service of the Church. Speaking of the quality which is an inherent part of the diaconate of women, he says: "Women who are truly pious are wont to have especial grace in comforting others and lessening their sorrows." In his exposition of 1 Pet. ii, 5, he uttered truly remarkable words, for the age in which he lived, concerning women as members of the holy priesthood. He says: "Now, wilt thou say, Is that true that we are all priests, and should preach? Where will that lead us? Shall there be no difference in persons? shall women also be priests? Answer. If thou desirest to behold Christians, so must thou see no differences, and must not say, That is a man or a woman, that is a servant

or a lord, old or young. They are all one, simply Christian people. Therefore are they all priests. They may all publish God's word, save that women shall not speak in the church, but shall let men preach. But where there are no men, but women only, as in the nuns' cloisters, there might a woman be chosen who should preach to them. This is the true priesthood, in which are the three elements of spiritual offerings, prayer, and preaching for the Church. _Whoever does this is a priest. You are all bound to preach the Word, to pray for the Church, and to offer yourself to God._"[22]

There is no mention in Luther's writings, however, of the diaconate of women. It would be more natural that he should have tried to adjust the lives of the monks and nuns as he knew of them to the new relations arising from the Reformation rather than to bring to life an office of which he had no personal knowledge. This was what he did when he wrote to the burghers of Herford in Westphalia. In their new zeal they wanted to drive the inmates from the religious houses, although the latter had been the means of teaching them the reformed doctrines. In his letter of January 31, 1532, Luther says: "If the brothers and sisters who are by you truly teach and hold the true word it is my friendly wish that you will not allow them to be disturbed or experience bitterness in this matter. Let them retain their religious dress and their accustomed habits which are not opposed to the Gospel."[23]

Certainly Luther would have seen no harm in allowing deaconesses the protection of a special garb.


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