Book Review: Elizabeth Bouldin, Women Prophets and Radical Protestantism in the British Atlantic World, 1640–1730

Elizabeth Bouldin has written a lively, accessible and clear account of an often overlooked aspect of seventeenth-century religious history. Scholars interested in female visionary experience in England are often drawn to medieval figures such as Christina of Markyate, Julian of Norwich and Margery Kempe, the Reformation visionary Elizabeth Barton, or modern figures such as Joanna Southcott. The major strength of Bouldin’s monograph is the way it illuminates the messages of lesser-known visionary women: Baptists such as Sarah Wight, Katherine Sutton and Elizabeth Poole, the Fifth Monarchist Mary Cary, Quaker women Elizabeth Fletcher and Margaret Brewster, and the Philadelphian prophetesses Jane Lead and Ann Bathurst. In doing so, Bouldin thoughtfully provides these radical Protestant women with the very things they struggled to attain during their own lifetimes: an audience and a voice.

The study extends Bouldin’s work on radical religious networks that transcend national boundaries. Building on her important article published in Church History in 2014 on transnational and transconfessional religious exchanges between radical Protestant groups, the present volume advances similar research aims on a much larger scale. Arguing for the ‘porosity of borders’ (p. 3), we are reminded in the introduction that early modern prophets were not restricted by national boundaries, but rather actively sought out fellow visionaries and reformers who shared their concerns, wherever they might be, thereby creating networks of dissent in which ‘female prophets often held central roles’ (p. 11).

The overarching theme of the book is the relationship between gender and prophecy. Bouldin constructs three broad attitudes women adopted towards the role of gender: those such as the Quakers who minimized it, the Behmenists who saw a distinct role for women, and those such as the French Prophets who used gendered language in group prophetic performances when suitable. These three categories serve to bring structure and coherence to the chapters of the book overall, which explore these three groups in turn. Bouldin concludes by arguing that constructs of gender and gender norms were so influential that ‘gender functioned as a category of religious prophecy’ (p. 186).

After considering the work as a whole it is possible that a fourth category could have been constructed however: how men constructed female prophetic authority. Those working on hagiographical writing from the medieval period to the present day will be familiar with the importance of this dimension in the representation of Catholic female saints, nuns, and lay women. The examples of Baptist and Fifth Monarchist women parallel Catholic women, in that it appears that some prophets situated themselves (or were situated by their male editors or biographers) within expected gender norms: meek female holiness, physical weakness and domestic servitude (pp. 28, 33, 34). Accusations against Jane Lead that ‘the prophecy of a female prophet was not her own’ (p. 139), but rather that of male followers, suggests that we need to think further about whether the authority these women claimed through prophecy was still filtered through a patriarchal medium. It is a mark of quality when a work makes a reader think critically and deeply about such issues.

This is an extract from a full review published on The History of Women Religious of Britain and Ireland website which can accessed by clicking here.