Women of the Reformation: Argula von Grumbach
Argula von Stauff was born into a noble Bavarian family in 1492, the year Columbus made his first voyage of discovery to the Americas. Taught to read early, when she was ten, Argula’s father gave her a beautiful German Bible, printed by Koberger in 1483. Argula eagerly read the Bible until some Franciscan preachers discouraged her, warning that trying to understand the Bible would confuse her. As a teenager, Argula was sent to the court of Kunigunde, the Duchess of Bavaria and sister of Emperor Maximillian. There were often spiritual discussion in Kunigunde’s household, and Argula began reading the Bible in earnest. A frequent speaker at the court was John von Staupitz, the Augustinian mentor of Martin Luther. He stressed the importance of Christ’s merits, not ours, as bringing salvation.
Argula’s parents died of the plague when she was seventeen. She then came under the guardianship of her Uncle Hieronymus, but in 1516 Hieronymus was executed for taking the wrong side in a struggle for the Bavarian succession. The same year Argula married Friedrich von Grumbach; the couple had four children. While her husband remained a Catholic, Argula accepted justification by faith and the teachings of the Reformation. She arranged to have her children educated in Protestant schools.
Compelled by Scripture
In 1522, the Bavarian court issued a mandate against Lutheran ideas. This led the University of Ingolstadt to arrest Arsacius Seehofer, a young teacher who had been to Wittenberg, studied under Melanchthon, and came back with the Lutheran teachings. Seehofer was forced to recant the Lutheran teachings. Holding a Bible in his hands, Seehofer made his recantation in tears. Incensed by this action, Argula traveled to Nuremburg to consult with the Reformer Andreas Osiander, who was amazed at her knowledge of Scripture. After meeting with Osiander, Argula wrote a protest letter to the University of Ingolstadt. The letter was never answered by the Council, but it stirred up quite a public discussion when it was printed. Within two months the popular tract went through fourteen editions.
Though a woman and lacking in any scholarly education, Argula confidently assailed the stance taken by the University based upon Scriptures. She began her letter with a reference from John 12:
“I am the light that has come into the world, that none who believe in me should abide in darkness.” It is my heartfelt wish that this light should dwell in all of us and shine upon all callous and blinded hearts. Amen.[i]
Argula’s letter cited over eighty Scripture references, reinforcing her basic argument that Scripture should be the final authority. Argula felt Scripture itself compelled her to address the University, for Matthew 10 says, “Whoever confesses me before another I too will confess before my heavenly father.” Ezekiel 33 says, “If you see your brother sin, reprove him, or I will require his blood at your hands.” Argula asks,
How in God’s name can you and your university expect to prevail, when you deploy such foolish violence against the word of God; when you force someone to hold the holy Gospel in their hands for the very purpose of denying it, as you did in the case of Arascius Seehofer? When you confront him with an oath and declaration such as this, and use imprisonment and even the threat of the stake to force him to deny Christ and his word?
Argula said her heart and limbs trembled when she reflected on what they had done. Luther and Melancthon simply taught the Word of God, but the University condemned them without ever refuting them. Nowhere in the Bible could you find Christ and the apostles or the prophets imprison, burn, or murder people or send them into exile. Though we are to obey the authorities, “where the word of God is concerned neither Pope, Emperor, nor princes – as Acts 4 and 5 make so clear – have any jurisdiction.”
Argula wrote that neither the Pope nor Aristotle nor the University would ever be able to extinguish the Word of God; for in Jeremiah 1, God testifies He will bring His word to pass. Argula wrote that neither the Pope nor Aristotle nor the University would ever be able to extinguish the Word of God; for in Jeremiah 1, God testifies He will bring His word to pass. Click To Tweet“You may imagine you can defy God, cast down his prophets and apostles from heaven, and banish them from the world. This shall not happen.” Argula begged the University to allow Seehofer to remain at the University.
Argula quoted numerous warnings from the prophets Hosea, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah about the dangers of following lies and ignoring the word of the Lord. Argula had often wanted to protest the preacher’s calling Luther a heretic, but she suppressed her inclinations because of Paul’s words in I Timothy 2 that women should keep silent in church. But, since in this no man is speaking up, she is constrained to speak for God’s word.
Lawmakers should not impose laws over Scripture; “No one has a right to exercise sovereignty over the word of God.” The force used against Seehofer is against the Word of God and is what Jesus spoke of in John 16, “The time will come when they will kill you and think that they do God a service. For they know neither the Father nor me.” Argula noted that I Corinthians 1 warned that “Conflict must take place, so that those who are approved may be revealed,” and 2 Corinthians 4, “If the Gospel is hidden, it is to those who are perishing.” When the University forced Seehofer to deny all the writings of Martin Luther, they were making him deny the New Testament itself, for the translation of the New Testament into German were among Luther’s writings.
Argula concluded with a praise of Scripture and the joy that comes when the Spirit of God teaches His word. She quoted numerous Scriptures on the importance of knowing and hearing the Word. She was not ashamed of the Gospel, and she was eager to speak to the University officials and the princes about the actions against Seehofer and Luther’s teaching. She concluded:
What I have written to you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and (I write) as a member of the Christian Church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail. Against the Roman, however, they do prevail. Just look at that church! How is it to prevail against the gates of Hell? God give us his grace, that we all may be saved, and may (God) rule us according to his will. Now may his grace carry the day. Amen.
The First Female Protestant Writer
Coming through Argula’s entire letter to the University of Ingolstadt is the authority and supremacy of the Scriptures, the Word of God.
The Ingolstadt theologians were incensed by Argula’s letter. They called Argula a wretched and pathetic daughter of Eve, a female desperado, an arrogant devil, and a shameless whore. They wanted the “silly bag” tamed and punished. Her husband lost his administrative post in Dietfurt as punishment for not properly controlling his wife. Others admired Argula’s courage and Scriptural knowledge. Balthasar Hubmaier, Lutheran preacher in Regensburg, said Argula knew more of the Scriptures than the cardinals and canon lawyers and compared her with Deborah and Huldah in the Old Testament and the daughters of Philip in the New.
When the Diet of the Empire met in Nuremberg in the fall of 1523, the Count Palatine invited Argula to come and speak freely about her concerns, which she did. She also wrote and published letters to Duke Wilhelm and Frederick the Wise, calling on these officials to support the unhindered preaching of the Word of God.
Argula corresponded with Luther on several occasions, and even met with him at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, when he was at the nearby castle of the Coburg. Luther once sent some of Argula’s letters to Spalatin, saying, “I am sending you the letters of Argula von Gruymbach, Christ’s disciple, that you may see how the angels rejoice over a sinful daughter of Adam, converted and made into a daughter of God.” To another friend, Luther wrote:
The Duke of Bavaria rages above measure, killing, crushing and persecuting the gospel with all his might. That most noble woman, Argula von Stauffer, is there making a valiant fight with great spirit boldness of speech and knowledge of Christ. She deserves that all pray for Christ’s victory in her. She has attacked the University of Ingolstadt for forcing the recantation of a certain youth, Arascius Seehofer … She alone, among these monsters, carries on with firm faith, though, she admits, not without inner trembling. She is a singular instrument of Christ. I commend her to you, that Christ through this infirm vessel may confound the mighty and those who glory in their strength.[ii]
[i] Argula’s “To the University of Ingolstadt” can be found in in Peter Matheson. Argula von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation. T&T Clark, 1995, 72-95.
[ii] Roland H. Bainton. Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press,1971, 106.