*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 13th of January 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
I think the church has always been a diverse place- this is one of the things I appreciate about our Christian faith- it isn’t tied to a culture or language, and it is centered in the individual- indeed, these individuals make up the institutions. Still, the work of the Holy Spirit is, at first, a work of the individual heart.
But despite always being diverse, the church might *seem* more diverse since the 17th century because the institutions began to lose to modern, more efficient, and personal mediums. In simple terms: how do we answer the question, “how did we go from a handful of churches and denominations in the Western church to hundreds of thousands over the past few centuries?”
And now, if you know my personal academic interests, you may know the answer I’m getting at. Friends, never underestimate the power of personal correspondence and a functioning mail system. Letters aren’t a “silver bullet” at getting to the “real” so-and-so, but they connected people on a level probably not seen until the invention of email and online communities.
Today I want to tell you the very curious story of an early modern Flemish woman who created one of the first congregations of Christians who communicated by letters. She was the fascinating Antoinette De Bourignon- she was born on this day in 1616, so let’s tell her story and tease out some significance and questions.
Antoinette was born to a merchant-class Catholic family in Lille, France. She expressed interest in joining a religious community, but her parents arranged her marriage. So she ran away. She was caught and sent back home, where another wedding was arranged. She ran away again and eventually joined a small community of women until she received a call in 1653 to be the governess of a home for girls.
She believed herself to be called to form a new community of Christians. In 1663 she met the Catholic priest Christiaan de Cort who convinced her to create a community of “true believers” in the more permissive Netherlands.
He had suggested that she eventually form a community on the island of Norstrand where he had contacts. Unfortunately, he was arrested because of unpaid debts and died in prison. But once in the Netherlands, Antoinette would join what is sometimes referred to as “the Republic of Letters.”
But it wasn’t just that she developed an extensive network of fellow Christians who were looking for spiritual fulfillment beyond their confessional churches; it was that she acquired her printing press and would publish this correspondence. Beyond the reach of censors and with a public but deeply personal form, Antoinette created a kind of impersonal congregation. Pardon the parallel- but these letters were like the podcasts of her day- a unique medium not dependent on the big publishers.
There was little novelty in her theology- she stressed: “true Christianity” instead of the formal expression of faith that she thought could be dangerous. She was hailed as trustworthy by some because she was a woman with no training. (It’s a brilliant move). And her followers weren’t backwoods yokels- among them were the biologist Jan Swammerdam, the chemist Robert Boyle and philosopher Pierre Poiret.
Bourignon found supporters for her community on the island of Norstrand but traveling to the island off of Schleswig Holstein from the Netherlands proved impossible on account of rival religious authorities. Her printing press was confiscated, and she would die in 1680.
Her collection of over 1000 letters- often with translations and usually hand-copied- were collected by the Poiret above. He would attempt to keep her legacy alive, but an early Encyclopedist would be dashed. Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary would be the model for the first encyclopedias of the Enlightenment. In this publication which would shape the thoughts of so many, he wrote her off as an enthusiast and the antithesis of the new “enlightened modern age.”
It has only been in the past few decades that Antoinette’s work has been re-scrutinized and her letters digitized. Today, we remember the center of a network, or congregation, of letters in 17th century Europe: Antoinette Bourignon, born on this day in 1616.
The last word for today comes from the story of the Samaritan woman at the Well in John 4- we start with the dialogue already in progress
21 Jesus said to her, “Believe me, woman, the time is coming when you and your people will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You and your people worship what you don’t know; we worship what we know because salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the time is coming—and is here!—when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth. The Father looks for those who worship him this way. 24 God is spirit, and it is necessary to worship God in spirit and truth.”
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 13th of January 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite letters include R and W and T. He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who only knows 25 letters of the alphabet- I can’t tell Y. I’m Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.