The Life of Thecla: When Chastity Gets You into Trouble

Saint Thecla (source)

Saint Thecla (source)

In the early days of Christianity, many people believed they were living in the last days. Life was difficult, persecution was increasing, and to many it made sense to live a life as unencumbered as possible. In his letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul recommends that people remain celibate, but says that it is not a requirement. However, in the extra-canonical book The Acts of Paul he takes a much stronger stance saying that it wasn’t just preferable, but necessary. This was of course quite controversial, particularly when married women wanted to stop having sex or when virgins refused to go through with weddings.

One of the most well-known adherents to the teachings of Paul was a young woman named Thecla. It was in Iconium when she first heard him teach. Sitting in her window three nights in a row, she became enamored of Paul and his message much to the horror of her mother, Theocleia, and her fiancé, Thamyris. Thamyris, fearing that he had been deprived of his wife, stirred up a mob and had Paul brought before the governor. After a brief hearing, Paul was put in prison to be held for further questioning.

During the night, Thecla bribed the guards to let her into Paul’s cell where she spent the night listening to him and “kissing his fetters.” The next morning they were both brought before the governor. As an outsider, Paul was scourged and expelled from the city, but a more dire fate awaited Thecla.

The governor asked Thecla why she was refusing to marry Thamyris. She remained silent, refusing to answer and simply gazing at Paul. This was too much for Theocleia who cried, “Burn the lawless one! Burn her that is no bride in the midst of the theater, that all the women who have been taught by this man may be afraid.” (You have to wonder what Thecla’s mother was getting out of this marriage.) Although the text says that the governor wept and marveled at Thecla’s strength, he agreed and Thecla was led to the pyre. However, God had compassion and when the fire blazed, Thecla wasn’t burned. Then a cloud appeared bringing rain and hail to put out the fire saving Thecla and allowing her to escape.

Thecla fled the city and set out on the road to join Paul. Curiously, even though Paul had been praying that the fire wouldn’t touch her and after her miraculous escape, he refused to baptize her, “lest she fall prey to temptation.” In spite of this, Thecla travels with Paul to Antioch where once again a powerful man is smitten with her.

Fresco of Paul and Thecla from a cave at Bülbül Dag, above the ruins of ancient Ephesus (source)

Fresco of Paul and Thecla from a cave at Bülbül Dag, above the ruins of ancient Ephesus (source)

Thecla must have been very special because once they arrived in Antioch, a man named Alexander saw her on the street and fell in love with her. He first tried to buy her from Paul, who denied even knowing her. When that didn’t work, he tried to take her by force in the street. But Thecla wasn’t easily taken. She ripped his clothes and knocked the crown off of his head, much to the amusement of the crowd. Alexander was humiliated and once again Thecla found herself standing before city officials.

For her “assault” on Alexander, Thecla is sentenced to be thrown to the beasts. In most cases in these stories it’s pagan vs. Christian, but in this case all of the women protest the sentence calling it an “evil judgement.” Thecla asks that she be able to remain “pure” while waiting, so a wealthy woman named Tryphaena offered her protection. (I assume this is protection from sexual assault, hence remaining “pure.”) Tryphaena’s daughter had recently died and she becomes quite attached to Thecla, who prays for her, bringing her comfort.

On the following day, Thecla was taken to the arena, stripped, and cast into the stadium where bears and lions were released to attack her. As the animals came into the arena, a fierce lioness ran to her and lay down at her feet. The first animal to attack was a bear, which the lioness defeated. The second was another lion. The lioness killed the lion, but also died in the process. Thecla was now defenseless.

Statue of Saint Thecla at Ma'loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Statue of Saint Thecla at Ma’loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Realizing that her time might be short, Thecla saw a large vat of water and decided to baptize herself before she died. She threw herself into the water and cried, “In the name of Jesus Christ, I baptize myself on the last day.” Evidently, God approved because a flash of lightening killed all of the seals in the water before they could attack her.

One more attempt is made to kill Thecla. She was bound by her feet between two bulls and red-hot irons were placed under their bellies. They leapt forward, but instead of ripping Thecla apart, her bonds are burned through setting her free once again. Finally, it is all too much for Tryphaena and she faints. Tryphaena, however, is a kinswoman of Caesar and Alexander becomes afraid that any harm to her will bring Caesar’s wrath on the entire city, so he asks the governor to set Thecla free.

Of course Paul is long gone, and when she is released, Thecla once again sets out on the road to find him. This time, however, after telling him about her ordeal and her baptism, she informs him that she is returning to Iconium. Paul not only gives her his blessing, but commissions her to preach. When she returns home, she visits with her mother, finds out that Thamyris has died, and leaves for Seleucia, where she has a long life preaching the Christian gospel.

It must be said that The Acts of Paul is a forgery. Although it wasn’t unusual for documents to be attributed to a more well-known person, in this case the writer, in fact a church leader, was caught, confessed, and was excommunicated. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth in the story. It is likely that there was an oral tradition of a woman named Thecla and the author simply recorded events that had been passed down. In any case, she was extremely popular from the early 3rd century up through the middle ages, especially in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey), Syria, and Egypt.

One more note, we know about the forgery because of the writings of Tertullian, a 2nd century church father who disapproved of the document. Why? Because it portrays Thecla acting like a man! She preaches and baptizes (herself and possibly others), and of course in his thinking these things are supposed to be done only by men.

Saint Thecla monastery, Ma'loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)

Saint Thecla monastery, Ma’loula, Syria by Bernard Gagnon (source)


Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew by Bart D. Ehrman
The Other Bible: Ancient Alternative Scriptures ed. William Barnstone
The Acts of Paul and Thecla
(Translation probably by Jeremiah Jones, (1693-1724))
Early Christian Writings: The Acts of Paul

Susanna Wesley – Mother of Methodism

Yesterday, June 28, was the birthday of John Wesley, who was born in 1703 and is considered the father of modern Methodism. He and his brother Charles began the “Holy Club” while attending Oxford, where they emphasized purposely and methodically working to better your life. The term method-ist was initially a term of derision, but came to be associated with the movement that would become a new church in America in the late 18th century. But the roots of this movement go back before the Wesley brother’s days at Oxford. Both of their grandfathers were dissenters from the Church of England, and although their parents Samuel and Susanna Wesley, as well as both brothers, would remain in the Church of England, the roots of dissent ran deep.

Susanna was born in 1669, the youngest of 25 children of Dr Samuel Annesley and Mary White. Annesley was a Puritan. When the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1662, requiring all Church of England ministers to strictly conform to the beliefs and practices of the Church, he refused to sign it and was removed from his church and forbidden to preach. When restrictions were relaxed a few years later, he began his own successful ministry in London.

We don’t know much about Susanna’s upbringing, but we can draw a few conclusions from her later life. When she was 13, Susanna decided to leave her father’s church and return to the Church of England. There she met her future husband, Samuel Westly, who also had left the church of his dissenting father to return the Church of England. He later changed the spelling of his name to Wesley out of respect for his father. They were married after Samuel’s graduation from Oxford and ordination as a minister; he was 26 and she 19. This strong sense of her own convictions and dedication to the Church would be passed on to her sons; both John and Charles would remain in the Church of England although dissenting to the point that John would be barred from the pulpit and begin preaching in the fields and on street corners.

After their marriage, Samuel took several positions before they ended up at South Ormsby in a small parish with a one room parsonage. Children followed in quick succession contributing to her poor health. Susanna had nineteen children, ten of which survived into adulthood (3 boys and 7 girls.) With no public education available to girls, Susanna would have been educated at home. We don’t know details, but we do know that she was equipped to educate her own children to a degree that the boys would be successful at Oxford.

Susanna ran a very structured household. None of the children were taught lessons until they turned five years old. The day after their fifth birthday, the day was devoted to teaching them the alphabet. Once this was mastered, they began reading instruction from the Bible. All of the children with the exception of two of the girls learned the alphabet in one day and reading instruction began the following day. Lessons were conducted six days a week from 9 – 12 and 2 -5.

The parish at Ormsby provided an income too small for their growing family, so when Samuel was offered a parish at Epworth it appeared to be a blessing. It provided more money and an opportunity to preach to wealthier and more influential people. Five more births followed the move, but all five children died young. While at Epworth the Wesley’s also lost their house to fire twice. The second fire completely destroyed the house with all of the family’s possessions. While the house was being rebuilt, the children were farmed out to various relatives and friends, and one month later the last of the children was born. When the children returned, Susanna was dismayed to find that they had been allowed to be unruly, so she began to schedule weekly private sessions with each child devoted to helping them reflect on their behavior and conduct. This would contribute to the life-long habit of reflection for John and Charles, which they would incorporate into the message they passed on to their followers.

The family had ongoing financial problems. Twice Samuel would be put into debtor’s prison. To try to remedy this he traveled often to London to preach. During one extended absence he hired a curate to preach in his stead. Susanna was dissatisfied with the sermons of the Curate and began reading sermons on Sunday afternoons. Initially just for the family and neighbors, she soon had audiences of up to 200 people. When Samuel got word, he disapproved. Her response was that she couldn’t neglect her responsibility to her charges, her children and their parishioners. After presenting her case to him in a letter, she told him that if he desired her to stop the meetings, it would not be sufficient. He would have to command her to stop in such “full and express terms as would absolve me from all guilt and punishment for neglecting the opportunity for doing good.”

This wasn’t the only time that she maintained her own convictions. For a period of six months Samuel left the family following a disagreement over the legitimacy of William of Orange (he in favor, she against.) Susanna was pregnant at the time, but when he objected that she didn’t say “Amen” to his prayer regarding King William, she stood her ground. Soon afterwards, King William died and Queen Anne came to the throne. When Susanna’s child was born, she named her Anne in honor of the Queen and Samuel soon returned home.

Samuel died in 1731, leaving Susanna without resources. She went to live with their oldest son Samuel until his death, after which she moved between her children until her death in 1742. Many of Susanna and Samuel writings were lost in the fires, but in addition to materials used for teaching her children, Susanna wrote meditations and extended commentaries on The Apostle’s Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. Although, only Charles had a lasting happy marriage, it could be said that Susanna had many more children than the ones she gave birth too. The disciplines of daily meditation and reflection, as well as a belief that each person can have a personal experience of God, were passed on to generations through the work that her two sons John and Charles did. In many ways she can be called the “Mother of Methodism.”

“Whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, takes off your relish for spiritual things, whatever increases the authority of the body over the mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may seem in itself.” ~ Susanna Wesley

The Prayers of Susanna Wesley edited by W. L. Doughty
Christian Leaders of the 18th Century by J. C. Ryle
Susanna Wesley by Eliza Clarke
The Women of Methodism by Abel Stevens

Carrie Nation – Saintly or Insane?

“When I first started out in this crusade, I was called crazy and a ‘freak’ by my enemies, but now they say: ’No, Carry Nation, you are not crazy, but you are sharp. You started out to accomplish something and you did. You are a grafter. It is the money you are after.”

Carry A. Nation

Carrie Nation (also spelled Carry) is usually portrayed with a hatchet in her hand. She is best known for marching into saloons, declaring that she was there to save people from the evil of drink, and proceeding to smash anything breakable in the establishment. She never showed any remorse for this destruction of property, although she did pay the fines that were a result of her arrests. In fact, when she was initially charged with “defacing public property”, she stated that she had not defaced it, but destroyed it. Carrie believed that she was doing God’s work and she was good at it.

Born Carrie Amelia Moore in Kentucky on November, 25 1846, she had an inconsistent childhood. At the beginning of her autobiography she describes what seems like a happy childhood, but her memories are not all happy. She suffered from poor health and the family had financial setbacks. At least one source says that Carrie’s mother suffered from delusions. She doesn’t discuss this in her book. In fact, she doesn’t say much about her mother at all. She was often left in the care of Betsy, one of the family’s slaves or would stay with the other slaves watching them spin the flax that was grown on the farm.

Carrie was a serious child and interested in religion from an early age. When she was 10 years old, she attended a church meeting with her father. Afterward during the invitation she “began to weep bitterly” and felt compelled to go forward. “I could not have told anyone what I wept for, except it was a longing to be better.”  The next day she was baptized and emerged from the water without saying a word. “I felt that I couldn’t speak, for fear of disturbing the peace that passeth understanding.”

Although Carrie was young when she was baptized, she didn’t simply take on the theology of others. As an avid reader of many different things (poetry, history, Josephus, mythology, etc.), she devoted herself to reading and understanding the Bible as well. She had “doubts as to whether the Bible was the work of God or man” and thought “It often seemed to be a contradiction.” In spite of this she studied it diligently and ultimately used the Bible as the justification for her actions against the sale of alcohol.

In 1855, the family moved from Kentucky to Missouri just before the breakout of hostilities between Kansas and Missouri over slavery. When the Civil War broke out, they moved to Texas with their slaves, but left them there and returned to Missouri. Carrie spent time nursing soldiers and felt that the experience was something that all young women should do. The thought of not being useful was anathema to her. Throughout her life she would look for ways to help those less fortunate than she.

One group of people that Carrie would work to help and which she related to strongly were wives and children of alcoholics. She didn’t just oppose alcohol based on theological reasons. She was intimately acquainted with the damage it could do to a family. In the 1860s, Carrie fell in love with Dr. Charles Gloyd. Charles was teaching school, saving money to begin his medical practice, and boarded with the Moore family. Carrie’s parents disapproved of the match because of Gloyd’s drinking so Carrie and Charles would communicate by leaving notes in his copy of Shakespeare. Eventually they went ahead and were married in November of 1867.

It wasn’t long before Charles’ drinking became a problem, so when Carrie became pregnant she moved back to her parent’s home. She had strong feelings about children inheriting alcoholism or other negative traits, but it’s not clear in her autobiography whether or not she really means traits that are passed on or just exposure to a negative atmosphere and negative thoughts from the mother. She gave birth to a daughter, Charlien, in September of 1868 just six months before Charles died.

Throughout her life Carrie would give much of her money to those less fortunate than she, but at this time her focus had to be on supporting herself, Charlien, and her mother-in-law. Although she taught school until she was dismissed over a disagreement with the board, it was difficult for a woman to support herself alone during this time and Carrie finally decided to pray for a husband. She soon met David Nation and they married in 1874. From the time they were married until 1889 they did a variety of things to support themselves without success including the purchase of a cotton plantation in Texas. David worked as an attorney, minister, and newspaper editor. In 1889, the family moved to Medicine Lodge, Kansas where Carrie ran a hotel. This is where she began her work against the sale of alcohol.

Although prohibition would not become the law of the land until 1919, some states already had such laws on the books, including Kansas. Just as the national ban on the sale of alcohol gave rise to widespread corruption, so did the ban in Kansas. This was particularly egregious to Carrie. She saw alcoholics, the families of alcoholics, and prostitutes associated with saloons, as victims. The real offenders in her mind were those who would take advantage of the weakness for drink. This included not only those who sold alcohol, but those in politics and law enforcement who turned a blind eye and of course received payment for this service.

Carrie began her work by campaigning for the enforcement of the Kansas laws. She petitioned politicians and law enforcement. She organized a branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and she would kneel outside saloons singing hymns and praying, often with other women. This proved largely ineffective and I’m sure was very frustrating. On June 5, 1899, Carrie was praying for guidance when she heard God speak to her saying “Go to Kiowa. I’ll stand by you.” Over the next couple of days she gathered large rocks and wrapped them in paper. On June 7, she went to Kiowa and beginning with Dobson’s saloon, began “smashing.” Before long she began using a hatchet and calling these events “hatchetations.”

Carrie had seen visions before so the idea that God would appear to her and give her direction didn’t surprise her and neither did the “demons” she saw on the road barring her way when she set out for Kiowa. She found support for the idea of smashing from the story of Jesus throwing the money lenders out of the temple as well as other biblical stories of destruction in the name of God. She believed that she had a mission from God. At some point she began spelling her name Carry A. Nation and saw her mission as one to “carry a nation.”

Much of Carrie’s autobiography is spent using the Bible to justify her actions. She didn’t avoid the consequences and was jailed as many as 30 times, but she was certainly not remorseful. She would do her time and pay her fine. She raised money through speaking fees and the sale of souvenir hatchets. There were people who thought she was crazy and more than once she believed she was being held in jail while people tried to find evidence to support this claim.

Both the term saint and insane, at least in the colloquial sense, are subjective. Among other religious people of the day, opinions ran the gamut from those who wholeheartedly agreed and even participated with her, to those who were against prohibition. Some must have seen her as a “martyr” for the cause, willing to endure the humiliation of ridicule and imprisonment in order to get the message out, but this was hardly a universal view even among the religious. On the other hand, religious delusions are certainly not unheard of among the mentally ill. And while many people consider anyone who believes God speaks to them as mentally unstable, much of what Carrie describes and the way she uses the Bible can be seen and heard in churches today.

Reading Carrie’s account and justification of her actions it sounds reasonable, if you start from her assumptions. If you don’t believe that God speaks to people or intervenes in the events of the day it is difficult to see her as rational, but then you must include a lot of other people (even today) in the same category. This is certainly a question that is much bigger than any one person and will endure for generations to come if not as long as we inhabit the planet.

As far as Carry A. Nation is concerned, I don’t see her as “insane” or “crazy” in any real clinical sense nor would I call her a saint. In fact, I’m not sure the question is fair framed in such black and white terms. Given her religious experiences as a child and young adult and her experiences with alcoholism in her first marriage, I think in many ways her response is very rational. Although, many people with similar backgrounds would never take it to that extreme. Admittedly, this is based on a very one-sided account, her own. I would love to hear your opinions on this or other information that you may have. Please comment.

Resource: The Use and the Need of Carry A. Nation by Carry A. Nation (in the public domain)

Anne Hutchinson – Running Afoul of the State Church

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey (source)

Anne Hutchinson on Trial by Edwin Austin Abbey (source)

The “separation of church and state” has been a continuing issue in our American history. Most often it comes up with regard to our public schools. Over the years, these issues have ended up in the courts, with things being decided in the favor of keeping religion out of the schools, but the issues never really go away. Still prayers are said before football games, at graduations, and even as late as 2004 the school board of Dover, Pennsylvania tried to introduce Creationism into the high school biology classroom in the form of Intelligent Design.

I’m not surprised that the effort continues. The United States is one of the most religious nations on earth with hundreds of different religions and Christian denominations.  What does surprise me, however, is that the effort is usually led by evangelical Christians. The reason this surprises me is that evangelical Christians were in large part the driving force behind the First Amendment clause being written into the Constitution.

We don’t have a state religion in the United States, but that wasn’t always the case. During colonial America, many colonies did have official religions that were supported by the state and tax money. In the north, the Congregationalist church (formerly the Puritans) was the official church of Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire, in the south, the Anglican Church was the official church of Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia. There certainly were states without an official religion, most notably Rhode Island which was established on the principle of freedom of religion. But in many of these colonies, evangelicals found themselves at odds with the established churches. One person who is of particular importance to the idea of “separation of church and state” is Jeremiah Moore. Taking up the cause of Moore and many other Baptist preachers who had been arrested for preaching without a license in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson would introduce a bill into the legislature that would eventually be passed and sever the tie between the Anglican Church and the state of Virginia. He would then go on, with others, to insist on the addition of a clause in the Constitution that ensured freedom of religion.

Evangelicalism is characterized by the belief that you can have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Although Evangelicalism didn’t really begin as a movement until the 1730s, the idea that you could have this communion with God through the Holy Spirit did exist. One woman who believed and taught this idea is Anne Hutchinson.

Marshalsea prison where Anne's father spent 2 years after being convicted of heresy (source)

Marshalsea prison where Anne’s father spent 2 years after being convicted of heresy (source)

Anne Hutchinson, born Anne Marbury in 1591, was the daughter of an Anglican minister in England. Her father had strong Puritan leanings and was censured by the church on more than one occasion. He spent time in prison for his preaching and for a time was under house arrest. He was a strong believer in education and in a time that it was unusual for women to be educated, he taught both his boys and his girls.  At the age of 21, not long after her father’s death, Anne married William Hutchinson. Together they began to follow the teachings of John Cotton and John Wheelwright. These two ministers preached similar messages emphasizing grace and a “moment of conversion”, and deemphasizing a salvation based on works.

By 1633, Cotton’s message, which didn’t strictly adhere to the Anglican Church doctrines, was attracting attention from the church and he found it necessary to flee to America. After a time, Anne felt the Spirit leading her to follow Cotton to Massachusetts and she and William, with their 11 children, sailed for Boston in 1634. They flourished in Boston. William was successful in trade, and Anne found a place in the community helping others and attending childbirths where women often congregated. At some point, she began to share with these women the message she had learned from Cotton and Wheelwright.

Men would often congregate to discuss recent sermons and theology, but there were no such meetings for women. As more and more women became interested in what Anne had to say, she began to have meetings for them in her home. This eventually led to meetings twice a week attended by as many as 80 people. They would review the sermon, discuss it’s meaning, and often disagree with it. Anne began to espouse her own teachings. Principle among them was the “covenant of grace” as opposed to the “covenant of works.” She emphasized “an intuition of the Spirit” or “a personal revelation” as the true evidence of a person’s salvation rather than their good behavior.

In 1636, it became clear to officials in Boston, that many people were developing opinions that weren’t considered orthodox within the church. The fault for this was laid at the feet of Cotton, Hutchinson, and Wheelwright (who had recently arrived from England.) A number of meetings were held, particularly with Cotton, to try to sort out what his specific teachings were and where they differed from the official church doctrine. (This controversy still exists today between different denominations, with some emphasizing that works have nothing to do with the state of your salvation, and others emphasizing that your faith is not assured unless there is evidence of the fruit of good works.)  By late 1636, things came to a head and Hutchinson and her followers were accused of heresy.

Anne was accused of antinomianism and familism. Antinomianism literally means “against the law” and Familism was a sect that emphasized a feeling of divine love. Both of these ideas were considered to be dangerous for fear that they could lead to immoral behavior. Neither accusation is really accurate. While Anne believed that she and others like her, received salvation purely by the grace of God and that this could be experienced and felt by the believer, thereby providing “proof” to the individual, they were not immoral people. By all accounts, Anne was highly respected in the community and very active in helping people, in spite of having a large family of her own.

John Winthrop, Anne's accuser and judge (source)

John Winthrop, Governor of Massachusetts, presided over Anne’s trial (source)

By 1637 when Anne came to trial, her primary accuser John Winthrop had become governor of Massachusetts. He feared that if the people in the colony did not remain “pure” that God would not protect them. It was a difficult life for the settlers. Just before Anne’s trial, the settlers had engaged in a war with the Pequot Indians. Many Puritans believed that Indian attacks, poor crops, natural disasters, or any misfortune was God’s judgment for sin.  Another aspect of this trial was that Anne had risen to a place in the community that Winthrop did not deem “fitting to her sex.” Men had begun to attend Anne’s meetings. In fact, one of her admirers was the previous governor of the colony, Sir Henry Vane. It was not considered proper for a woman to teach men. Cotton, in an attempt to distance himself from Anne, even accused her of promoting licentious behavior by having men and women together in her home for these meetings. The entire situation was filled with politics, fear of judgment, and probably no small amount of misogyny.

On the first day of the trial, Anne met their arguments point for point, probably frustrating them greatly. However, on the second day, Anne gave them her message. She told them that she was assured of her salvation because of a “personal revelation.” The court deemed her a heretic and sentenced her to banishment from Massachusetts. She remained under house arrest throughout the winter in the home of Joseph Weld in Roxbury. It was a severe winter in which she was separated from her family.

In the spring, a church trial was held, in which Anne was excommunicated. During the winter, William and some other men made plans to leave Massachusetts. Twenty-three men would ultimately sign what became known as the Portsmouth Compact. They purchased Aquiddeck Island from the Narragansetts and formed a new settlement. This was near Providence Plantations which had been established by Roger Williams with specific provisions for freedom of religion.

At some point after the death of William in 1641, Anne and some of her family moved to a place in eastern New York. Here she and all but one of her children and other family members were massacred by the Indians. She had had good relationships with the Narragansett Indians in Portsmouth and may not have realized how tense the relationships were in her new home. Her daughter Susanna was away from the house and by some accounts was captured and held for several years before being ransomed to her remaining family in Boston.

As with many historical figures Anne’s life is viewed through many lenses. She is seen as a heretic, a libertine, and a feminist, or as a woman who simply followed the dictates of her conscience. She definitely stepped out of the generally accepted role of women in Puritan society. Ultimately, she was a victim of both secular and church politics, but she was also a woman who insisted on her religious liberty.

Life of Anne Hutchinson: With a Sketch of the Antinomian Controversy in Massachusetts by George E. Ellis
God In America – PBS special

Maria Gaetana Agnesi – 18th century mathematician

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, artist unknown (source)

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, artist unknown (source)

“How long will I have to do this?” must have been the thought that frequently ran through the mind of Maria Agnesi as she stood in her parlor on Friday nights.  Maria Gaetana Agnesi was the oldest of 21 children born into the family of Pietro Angesi.  The Agnesi family was a well to do family in Milan, Italy in the 18th century.  Pietro came from a merchant class family who had made their money in cloth goods.  The family owned many properties and had furnished them exquisitely.

Pietro’s grandfather, father, and uncle had built the business into a sort of empire.  For some unknown reason, Pietro was never trusted with the business.  Even when his father died, provision was made in his will that prevented him from making any decisions concerning the business without the approval of his uncle.  However, when his uncle died childless, the responsibility for the business fell entirely onto Pietro’s shoulders.

Pietro was a very ambitious man.  He had almost everything that he could want, materially.  The one thing he didn’t have was a position in the aristocracy.  He tried many things to be recognized as a member of this class which eventually ran up a huge debt.  One of these things was hosting “conversazione” on Friday nights.  There were many such events held around the city for the wealthy to indulge themselves.  Some were for music and dancing, some for gambling, but at the Agnesi household discussions of philosophy were held.  These events served their purpose and attracted many distinguished persons to the Agnesi home such as Monsieur Charles Brosses, president of the parliament of Burgundy and Frederick Christian, heir to the throne of Poland.

One thing Pietro never scrimped on, even when he was accumulating debt, was his children’s education.  He hired the best tutors from around Europe for both the boys and the girls.  This was during a time when women across Europe were rarely educated.  Genius was, however, recognized and Maria Gaetana was that – a child prodigy.  By the age of 11, she could speak, read, and write Italian, French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  At the age of 9, she translated a treatise written in Italian into Latin, memorized it, and delivered the oration at one of her father’s “conversations”.  The treatise was on the education of women, arguing that they should be allowed access to “the fine arts and sublime sciences”.

She and her sister were regularly put on display in the salon of their family home.  Here her father entertained many wealthy and noble men.  Maria Gaetana was asked questions by the participants and she would expound on the subject.  She was adept at discussing philosophy as well as the sciences and mathematics.  She was brilliant, and the men who attended were amazed that she could discuss the philosophy of Descartes as easily as celestial mechanics or the theory of gravitation.  Her sister, Maria Teresa, was a composer.  She would play the harpsichord and sing, sometimes accompanied by Maria Gaetana on the viola.

Maria Gaetana (1718 – 1799) was basically shy and reserved person.  She didn’t enjoy being put on display, but was obedient to her father’s wishes.  A devout Catholic, at one point during her teens, she approached him to ask if she could be excused from further events.  She wanted to enter the cloister.  Her father refused to allow this and she continued participating.  Maria Gaetana never married and most of her time was spent teaching the younger children and after her mother (Anna Brivio) died in 1732, managing the household.  What time she could spare, she gave in helping ill and homeless people, primarily women.

First page of "Analitical Institutions", 1748 (source)

First page of “Analytical Institutions”, 1748 (source)

As she got older, one of Maria Gaetana’s responsibilities was to tutor her younger brothers in mathematics.  She had a passion for scholarship including mathematics and had absorbed works by Newton, Fermat, and Descartes among others.  She found all of the texts available to be inadequate for the task of teaching her younger siblings.  For this reason she decided to write her own.  Originally, it was intended to be used only for their lessons but 10 years after she began it, Analytical Institutions was published to wide acclaim.  It was a comprehensive look at mathematical analysis at the time, from algebra through differential and integral calculus, infinite series, and differential equations.  She managed to synthesize work from many of the masters including Newton and Leibnitz to write a text that made these topics accessible to the lay person.

Maria had previously published Propositiones Philosophicae a volume of about 200 essays on various topics presented at her father’s conversations.  But she is primarily known for Analytical Institutions.  It is the earliest surviving math text written by a woman and was translated into English and French for use as a textbook.  She was honored by such people as Pope Benedict XIV with a gold medal and Empress Maria Theresa with jewels.  She was also elected to the Bologna Academy of Sciences.  This position included a faculty post.  There is some disagreement as to whether or not she ever taught there.

Whether or not Maria Gaetana taught outside the home, this would have ended when her father died in 1752.  He had left the family in tremendous debt and most of their possessions had to be sold to cover it.  This changed Maria’s lifestyle and set her free to pursue her passion.  Until her death in 1799, Maria Gaetana gave selflessly to others.  She worked with the ill and homeless people of Milan with both her time and what resources she had left.

The "Witch of Agnesi" curve (source)

The “Witch of Agnesi” curve (source)

Maria Gaetana Agnesi is most well known for a curve that she worked with called the “Witch of Agnesi.”  Known for, that is, outside of Italy.  In Italy she is known as a great humanitarian and woman of God.  She was buried in a common grave with 15 other women and her childhood home was destroyed during WWII.  But the city of Milan is proud of their daughter and there are monuments that have been erected to celebrate her life.

Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, beneath the arcades of the courtyard of the Palace of Brera at Milan. Photographer: Giovanni Dall'Orto (source)

Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, beneath the arcades of the courtyard of the Palace of Brera at Milan. Photographer: Giovanni Dall’Orto (source)

The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God
by Massimo Mazzotti
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists

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