Women of the Early Church: A Gallery
Anthusa lived from c. 330 to 374 A.D. in Antioch. Widowed at the age of 20, she is remembered for her influence in the life of her son, John Chrysostom, one of the greatest preachers and leaders of the 4th-century church. Her contemporaries tell us Anthusa was cultured, attractive, and from a wealthy family. Yet she chose to not remarry after her husband’s death, deciding instead to devote herself to rearing her two children, John and his sister.
John later wrote that his mother not only taught her children to know and love the teachings of the Bible, but also that her very life was a model of biblical teaching. A student of law, rhetoric and the Scriptures, John was ordained by Bishop Meletius and later became bishop of Constantinople. A zealous missionary himself, he inspired numerous others to serve as missionaries. And he always emphasized that a crucial factor to effective evangelism is for Christians to be living examples of Christ-centeredness. Surely he learned something of this from his mother Anthusa.
Chrysostom is known as the writer of numerous biblical commentaries, and as one of the most articulate and influential spokesmen for Christianity in his era. So much so, in fact, that the Empress Eudoxia tried in Chrysostom’s later years to silence the preacher by banishing him. Chrysostom deeply revered his mother, admiring her prayers and her faith, and cared for her until her death. We don’t know much else about Anthusa, but we know she had great positive influence, at the least by way of her influential son.
Candace was a queen of Ethiopia, the one mentioned in Acts 8:27 in the story of Philip witnessing to an Ethiopian eunuch who was this queen’s treasurer. Tradition tells us that Queen Candace was converted to Christ through the eunuch’s testimony, and that her conversion caused her to use her office to promote Christianity in Ethiopia and the surrounding countries. She and her husband reigned c. 25–41 A.D.
Cecilia was a martyr of the 2nd century, who is remembered not only for the circumstances of her martyrdom but also for her contributions to the church’s music. She is sometimes referred to as a patron saint of music. Tradition says she was the inspiration for the musical maiden described in “The Second Nun’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the painter Raphael painted her sitting at an organ. Her remains lie beneath the Church of St. Cecilia, at Trastavere in Rome.
According to the records, Cecilia decided at a fairly early age that she wanted to live a life of celibate devotion and service to God. But her parents disapproved of this idea, and thus proceeded to arrange her a marriage with a high-born young Roman. However, only a few hours before the time appointed for the wedding, both the groom and his brother became Christians. This was good news to Cecilia—but also bad news, because in those times of heavy imperial opposition to Christianity it meant the two brothers were almost immediately beheaded. Cecilia’s life was also threatened by the imperial forces, but she was not actually martyred for her faith until later, in Sicily.
Helena, a 4th-century Christian, is remembered for her influence in the life of her son Constantine, the first Christian ruler of the Roman Empire. She was married to Emperor Constantius Chlorus I, though he later divorced her for political reasons. Still, their son Constantine claimed a share of the imperial throne when his father died.
It was on the eve of the decisive battle in Constantine’s quest for the emperorship that he claimed to have seen the vision that inspired him to become a Christian. After his conversion, Constantine sponsored the church’s first general council at Nicea, designated Sunday as a sacred day, appointed many Christians to high offices in the empire, and avowedly tried to use a Christian approach in the affairs of state. He publicly revered his mother, ordering that all honor due the mother of the emperor be paid to her. He named the city of Helenopolis for her, and ordered the casting of gold medals bearing her image and inscription.
Helena is credited with sponsoring the building of the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem. She was one of the first Christian pilgrims to tour the Holy Land, and apparently had a keen interest in finding and restoring revered historical sites, or at least building new church buildings on them. Tradition has it that she was successful in finding the actual sites of Jesus’ birth and resurrection and that she even found the actual cross upon which He died—though this last item is especially questioned by scholars.
Macrina, another 4th-century Christian woman, is known mostly today for the great influence she had on and with her brothers who became church leaders in Asia Minor: Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea; Gregory, bishop of Nyssa; and Peter, bishop of Sebaste. Born to Christian parents in Cappadocia in 327, she and her brothers grew up in Pontus. Their father was an attorney and professor, and their mother, Emmelia, was recognized as “a godly woman.” Their grandparents were also influential Christians. Basil and Emmelia had 10 children, and Macrina was probably the eldest.
Macrina apparently was unusually well-educated for her time; in fact, she may have taught her brothers in their younger years. We know that she, after their mother died, took responsibility for the care and upbringing of young Peter, and that all three of her well-known brothers apparently had great respect for her.
Basil, recognizing her able intellect, arranged for her to receive a theological education—a great rarity for women in those days. Rare as her case was, it was she who reminded Basil, when he returned from some high-level studies in Athens, that he ought to stay humble.
About 355, while still in her 20s, Macrina established a religious community for women in Pontus. The monastic movement was still in its early stages, so this was pioneer work. It’s probable her cloister inspired Basil to start a companion monastery for men nearby, and served as a model for numerous other monasteries and convents.
On the theological front, Arianism was the conflict of the day, and Basil and Gregory both wrote and taught in defense of the Nicene Creed, affirming that Jesus did indeed share the very substance of the Father. What background support Macrina may have given them in this conflict is uncertain. It is certain she was known for her teaching abilities, for organizing the religious community, and for founding a hospital devoted to caring for the needy. The hospital was quite large and gave help to many, often funded by the money Macrina inherited from her parents. In fact, she was so generous with this money that she’s said to have died almost penniless, in 379.
When a frustrated Gregory came to her deathbed (after being banished by an Arian emperor to a backwoods bishopric in Nyssa), she told him that the church needed him, and that he should accept his responsibility for the church as a blessing from God. Apparently taking her words to heart, he served the church for 20 more years, and won the day for the orthodox faith at the Council of Constantinople in 381.
Gregory stayed with her to the last, and then was surprised to find she possessed no garment suitable for burial; she had given all her formal clothing away to the poor. But her gifts to her brothers and the church was greater: her spiritual influence in their lives, her charity to the poor, and a community of women wholly dedicated to the Lord.
Marcella, who was born to a noble Roman family in 325, was highly revered by Jerome, the 4th-century translator of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible. This noblewoman offered her palace as a sanctuary for Christians who were being persecuted, and was active in leading Bible classes and prayer meetings among the other noblewomen.
Though widowed at an early age and having no children, she chose to not remarry and instead devoted herself to serving Christ and the church. When Pope Damasus commissioned scholar Jerome to make a newly revised translation of the Gospels, taking the latest available Hebrew and Greek texts and translating them into Latin, Jerome moved into Marcella’s retreat house palace for the duration of his task. For three years, he depended upon Marcella and her other house guests to critique his ongoing work, which eventually became a classic, the Latin Vulgate Bible.
Marcella founded the first convent for women in the Western church, and gave liberally of her wealth to help other Christians, clearly showing to her fellow noblewomen that greater rewards and fulfillment come from storing up treasures in heaven than from hoarding treasures on earth.
Marcellina was a 4th-century Christian woman who was known for her effective prayer ministry, her teaching abilities, and her influence in the life of her brother, Bishop Ambrose of Milan. He dedicated his book De Virginibus (Of Virginity) to her, in remembrance of her devout prayers and influence on his life. After their father died, Marcellina assisted their mother in providing for Ambrose’s education, and in her later years she resided with Ambrose. A consecrated virgin, she was the recipient of three of Ambrose’s most important letters on theology. He often praised her for her devotion, though he once cautioned her to not be over-diligent in her fasting practices.
Olympias, a daughter of the wealthy Count Seleusus, was born near Constantinople in 368. Apparently her parents died when she was still quite young, but they left her a substantial fortune. This drew the attention of many matchmakers, including the Emperor Theodosius, who wanted to be sure that such a large amount of wealth—and the influence that went with it—came to rest in the proper hands.
So while still in her teens, Olympias married an official in the imperial court named Nebridius. But he died less than two years later. The stream of eager suitors resumed, but she chose to not remarry—having decided, as a Christian, that she would devote herself to the Lord and her inheritance to helping the poor.
This decision aggravated Theodosius, who used his royal privilege to seize her fortune and place it in trust until she turned 30. Olympias wrote to thank the emperor for relieving her of the burden of all that money, and insisted that, as executor of the inheritance, he divide it between the church in Constantinople and the poor. Outfoxed by the plucky teenager, Theodosius restored the wealth to her prerogative … and she immediately began to give the money away again, to the sick, widows, prisoners, beggars, and slaves (she even bought hundreds of slaves and set them free).
She became a deaconess of the church at Constantinople, and a good friend of John Chrysostom, the local bishop, who once advised her to give less to the poor because she was making them lazy.
Her loyalty to Chrysostom eventually cost her much. He, a gifted preacher, spoke out against the wanton behavior of the Empress Eudoxia. Incensed at his impertinence, the empress pulled strings in the church hierarchy and, in 403, got John banished-for-life on trumped-up charges. Olympias and many other Christians in Constantinople protested this treatment of their beloved bishop, and hence were physically harassed. Then, when Olympias refused to recognize the new bishop who was appointed, she was banished as well. She was also tried for disrupting the church, and was heavily fined. Later, all her assets were seized and her charitable projects shut down.
Throughout all these troubles, Olympias and Chrysostom managed to maintain a correspondence. In his letters John encouraged her, praising her patience and dignity. He died in 407; within a year she also died, a pauper. But she was remembered as a devoted Christian who used her great wealth unselfishly for the Lord, as a regular student of the Bible, and as a faithful deaconess of the church.
Dr. Mary L. Hammack is a teacher with more than 29 years of experience at the elementary, high school and university levels. She currently works as a freelance writer and curriculum coordinator, and is the author of A Dictionary of Women in Church History (Moody Press, 1984). AND THE EDITORS
Copyright © 1988 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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