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Women of the Reformation: Marie Dentiére

A prime tourist attraction in Geneva is the Reformation Wall, built in 1909 during the 400th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. The monument has larger than life statues of leaders of the Reformation throughout Europe, with additional names inscribed for those important in the Reformation. Only one woman’s name is on the wall, the name of Marie Dentiére, added in 2002.

In Christ Alone

From a noble family in Tournai, Flanders, as a young woman, Marie entered an Augustinian convent. She became Abbess of the convent about the same time that Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the church door in Wittenberg. When Marie read Luther’s writings, she accepted the Scriptural teaching of salvation by faith in Christ alone. She left the convent in 1524 to escape persecution and fled to Strasbourg, which had become a refuge for Protestants. There she met Simon Robert, a former priest who had also accepted the truth of salvation by faith alone. Marie and Simon were married in 1528, and Simon became pastor in the French reformed church in Valais, in the Rhone Valley east of Lake Geneva. Marie helped Simon in his pastoral work and often accompanied him on his evangelistic trips. She was a diligent student of the Scriptures, even learning Hebrew and helping her husband with a Bible translation. Marie and Simon had five children before his death in 1533. Marie then married Antoine Froment, a friend of Simon’s who was working with reformer William Farel in Geneva.

During the 1520’s, the people of Geneva had rebelled against the control of the Catholic bishop and the Duke of Savoy. William Farel arrived in Geneva in 1532 and encouraged the city to move towards reform. Violence often broke out between the Catholic and Protestant groups within the city.  In May 1536, the Geneva citizens declared their allegiance to the Reformation. Two months later, John Calvin was passing through Geneva on his way to Strasbourg, and Farel encouraged him to remain in Geneva and promote the Reformation there. Having observed the momentous events in bringing the Reformation to Geneva, Marie wrote the earliest history of reform in Geneva, published in 1536 as The War and Deliverance of the City of Geneva, faithfully told and written by a merchant living in that city. (As a woman, Marie did not publish in her own name, but under the cover of an anonymous merchant in the city). In her history, she not only recounted the events of the past years, but wove theological reflections throughout her narrative. She likened Geneva’s deliverance from the tyrannical Duke and bishop to Israel’s deliverance from the oppression of the Egyptian Pharoah. The victory of the Reformation in Geneva was due to divine intervention and unmerited grace:

One must not be astonished that God so miraculously delivered us from our enemies asking nothing in return without our having merited or deserved it, because God always shows us his virtue and strength in cases where men have despaired.[1]

In August 1535, Marie accompanied William Farel and Pierre Viret to the Poor Clare’s convent in Geneva. There she spoke to the nuns about the free grace of God in Christ and encouraged them to leave the convent with its spiritual darkness and hypocrisy and live for God with a husband and children. The account of her visit by Sister Jussie Le Levain was full of disdain for Marie and recounted the nuns contemptuously spitting on her during her visit.

As the government and church of Geneva were reshaped to more closely follow the Reformation, conflict arose between the City Council and the ministers, so that the Council expelled Farel and Calvin from the city in 1538. Queen Marguerite of Navarre, patroness of the followers of the Reformation in France and sister of King Francis I of France, was closely watching developments in Geneva, where many French refugees had fled. Marguerite wanted to know how the expulsion of Farel and Calvin had come about, and she wrote Marie to find out what was happening in Geneva.

A Partnership is Forged

How Marguerite and Marie first knew each other is not known, but Marguerite was the godmother of one of Marie’s daughters. Marie wrote Marguerite a letter which she had printed in Geneva in 1539: A Very Useful Epistle composed by a Christian Woman of Tournai. Dedicated to Marguerite, the letter deplored the corruption of the times and the expulsion of Calvin and Farel from Geneva. She attacked the Geneva Council which had expelled the reformers and the authorities who did not challenge the Roman church and its errors.

Throughout her letter were over 200 biblical references. Referencing I Timothy 2, Marie noted that though women were not to preach in public, they could write and admonish one another:

For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth.  And even though we are not permitted to preach in public in congregations and churches, we are not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all charity.  Not only for you, my Lady, did I wish to write this letter, but also to give courage to other women detained in captivity, so that they might not fear being expelled from their homelands, away from their relatives and friends, as I was, for the word of God.  And principally for the poor little women wanting to know and understand the truth, who do not know what path, what way to take, in order that from now on they be not internally tormented and afflicted, but rather that they be joyful, consoled, and led to follow the truth, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ…For until now scripture has been so hidden from them.  No one dared to say a word about it, and it seemed that women should not read or hear anything in the holy scriptures.  That is the main reason, my Lady, that has moved me to write to you, hoping in God that henceforth women will not be scorned as in the past.[2]

Women Teaching Women

Marie praised the numerous illustrious women found in Scripture – Sarah and Rebecca, the mother of Moses, the judge Deborah, Ruth, the Queen of Sheba (whom Jesus named among the wise), Mary, Elizabeth, the Samaritan woman (who was a great preacher of the word in her city), and Mary Magdalene (the first to see the resurrection). Marie referenced all these women to show that women are not the source of all evil, as some contended, but women could interpret the Scripture and teach one another Click To TweetMarie referenced all these women to show that women are not the source of all evil, as some contended, but women could interpret the Scripture and teach one another. That the Samaritan woman and Mary Magdalene publicly told about Jesus showed that women could have a public role in spreading the truth of Scripture. Marie also mentioned that her daughter had written a Hebrew grammar for young girls, which she would send to Marguerite for her own daughter’s use as she studied the Scripture.

Marie concluded her letter by emphasizing that the Bible should be the only authority and source of Christian doctrine. She warned against false prophets and the Roman church’s practices of pilgrimages, devotion to images, indulgences and veneration of saints. Marie defended the truth that salvation came through faith in Christ alone.

Four hundred copies of the Epistle were printed in Geneva, but only two have survived. The authorities were not pleased with Marie’s attacks on the Council and defense of Calvin and Farel; they had the printer Jean Girard arrested, and the copies in his shop were seized. Marie’s husband, Antoine Froment, went before the Council to vouch for the orthodoxy of the book, to no avail.

Geneva later reconsidered its expulsion of Calvin, and he returned to minister in the city in 1541, famously continuing his exegetical preaching at the same passage where he had left off three years before. During 1554-1555, he preached 54 sermons on I Timothy, which were published in 1561. Calvin asked Marie to write a preface to his sermon in women’s apparel.

Marie exhorted women to avoid materialism and covetousness in dress:

You will find that those who are the most concerned about adorning their bodies, are little concerned that their spirits be adorned with true, solid virtues.  As for us, we should not seek the ornament of garments, but of good behavior.  As for women, who are in that regard more covetous than men, may they understand that too much daring has always been associated with immodesty; likewise, on the contrary, simplicity in clothes has always been a mark of chastity and continence.[3]

Marie died in 1561, the year this last work was published. She is recognized today as a woman’s voice for the Scripture during Geneva’s Reformation.



[1] Marie Dentiére.  Epistle to Marguerite de Navarre & Preface to a Sermon by John Calvin, ed. & trans. Mary McKinley.  University of Chicago Press, 2004, 6.

[2] Epistle to Marguerite, 53-54.

[3] Epistle to Marguerite de Navarre and Preface to a Sermon by John Calvin 93.

Diana Severance

Diana Severance is Director of the Durham Bible Museum at Houston Baptist University. She received her PhD in history from Rice University and is the author of several books, including Her-Story: Devotions from Twenty-One Centuries of the Christian Church; Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History; A Cord of Three Strands: Three Centuries of Christian Love Letters; The Story of Emily, a Proverbs 31 Woman; and, with her husband Gordon, Against the Gates of Hell: A Christian Missionary in a Moslem World.

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