Merry Wiesnerhanks

Histories of Christian groups written by their adherents during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries often highlighted the role ofwomen, viewing their actions as heroic signs of God operating through the least of his creatures. Gottfried Arnold, a German Pietist who published an enormous and sympathetic history of'churches and heresies' in 1729, included a long list of'blessed women who showed the way to the truth, or who suffered greatly, or who were amazingly gifted, enlightened or directed by God'.1 Critiques of these same groups, written by their opponents, also noted women's power, which they regarded as proof of the group's demonic or at least misguided nature. Among the 'errors, heresies, blasphemies and pernicious practices of the sectaries' described by Thomas Edwards in Gangraena (London, 1646) was the fact that they allowed women to preach. Johann Feustking, a German theologian, turned his attention entirely to women in Gynaeceum Haeretico Fanaticum (Frankfurt and Leipzig, 1704), spending 700 pages describing, as his full title reads, the 'false prophetesses, quacks, fanatics and other sectarian and frenzied female persons through whom God's church is disturbed'.

Historians of Christianity in the late nineteenth century often attempted to be more 'objective' and 'scientific', which meant that they highlighted official institutional and intellectual developments and paid less attention to popular devotional practices or individuals outside the mainstream. Like their colleagues in the newly professionalizing field of secular history, they often left women out of the story altogether as they tried to draw a sharp line between history (including church history) and the 'softer' genres of literature and devotional writings.

Research on the history of women and gender - by which historians mean the culturally constructed, historically mutable, and often unstable system of sexual differentiation involving men as well as women - over the last thirty years has led many scholars to return to a position similar to that of Edwards and Feustking. They see the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a period

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