11 Christian Women Who Shaped Church History

It’s women’s history month—and Sunday, March 8, was International Women’s Day. To celebrate, we’re highlighting 11 Christian women in  Church history who served God in both extraordinary and ordinary ways. 

Priscilla (first century AD)

Though the Bible doesn’t tell us much about Priscilla’s role in the church, it’s clear from Acts 18 she was a faithful minister for Christ alongside her husband, Aquila. They met Paul in Corinth, where they established the Corinthian Church—which eventually met in their home. They later left Corinth to plant another church with Paul in Ephesus, where they met a young preacher named Apollos. Apollos believed John the Baptist’s prophecies but didn’t understand the death and resurrection of Jesus. Acts 18:26 says Priscilla and Aquila “explained to him the way of God more adequately.” In Ephesus, the couple established another church in their home, exemplifying the importance of hospitality in the growth of the infant Church.

Phoebe (first century AD)

Though she’s found only once in the Bible, Phoebe was one of the earliest female believers mentioned in Scripture. Her life impacted many people—including Paul, who referred to her as “our sister” (Rom 16:1). Paul used two Greek words that shed light on who Phoebe was. Diakonos (“servant”) in Romans 16:1 suggests Phoebe may have held the office of deaconess in the church at Cenchrea,1and prostatis (“helper”) could mean Phoebe was a patron who supported Paul financially”2 or that she showed kindness to other believers. Regardless, Paul trusted Phoebe to deliver his letter to the Romans to Rome, and he charged the Romans to “help her in whatever she may need from you” (Rom 16:2).

Perpetua (c. AD 181–203)

Perpetua, one of the first female African martyrs of the early Church, was born around 181 in Carthage, North Africa (Tunisia). She lived during a time when Rome had been persecuting Christians all over the Empire, and accepting Jesus or becoming Jewish was punishable by death. Nonetheless, Perpetua (who at the time had a young child) was baptized. She was eventually arrested for her faith, refusing to be called anything other than a Christian.3

On the day of her trial, her father showed up with her infant son, pleading with her to recant her faith in Jesus for the sake of the child. She refused and was thrown in the arena to the wild animals. When the crowd grew impatient for her death, Perpetua and the other prisoners with her were lined up and killed by the sword.4

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Monica (c. 331–387) 

Monica was Augustine’s mother and considered by him to be the driving force in his salvation. She was born in a Christian family in Tagaste, North Africa. Her faith, prayers, and Christlike life influenced her entire family to become Christians—including her husband Patricius, a Roman pagan. Augustine is the best known of Monica’s children, converted in Milan in 384 just three years before Monica died. Her life has inspired many works of literature and art; a painting of her and Augustine hangs in the National Gallery of Art in London.5

Marie Dentiere (c. 1495–1561)

Though not much is known of her early life, we do know Marie Dentiere was born in Tournai (modern Belgium) to a wealthy family and that she entered an Augustinian nunnery in 1508. She converted to the Reformation and fled Tournnai to Strasbourg in 1524 to escape resulting persecution. There she met and married a young priest, and together they tirelessly preached in favor of the Reformation. She was also passionate about a larger role for women in the Church, which angered Genevan authorities. She is the only woman named on the Reformation Wall in Geneva, a 100-meter stone monument that honors people, events, and documents of the Protestant Reformation.

Margaret Fell Fox (1614–1702)

Margaret married Thomas Fell, a wealthy lawyer and eventual Justice of the Peace and member of England’s Parliament. She and her husband used their large estate (Swarthmoor Hall) for God’s service, often hosting traveling ministers. In 1652 she met George Fox, a preacher who had gained a following known as the Society of Friends—what we know today as Quakers—who had come to stay at the estate.6

His teaching impacted her so much that she became active in the Society, hosting meetings at Swarthmoor and fighting for religious freedom. She penned many religious pamphlets and letters, including her famous Women’s Speaking Justified by the Scriptures in which she unpacks passages from Genesis through Revelation that “promote women in ministry and the equality of the sexes in the power and authority of the Spirit.”7 After her husband passed in 1658, Margaret continued to host Society meetings in her home until she was arrested in 1664 and sentenced to life in prison. After her release four-and-a-half-years later, she married George Fox, and together they traveled and preached until his death in 1691. 

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Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680)

Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656, the daughter of a Mohawk chief. She lost both parents to a smallpox outbreak when she was four. When French missionaries arrived to convert the Native Americans, Kateri grew interested in the faith. She completed catechism classes and was baptized on Easter Sunday, 1676—only to be treated poorly by her tribe. She escaped from her village in 1677 with the help of other Native American Christians to Saint Francis Xavier Mission in Montreal, Canada. There she met Anastasie Tegonhatsiongo who would become her spiritual mentor. Kateri decided she should become a nun. She and two other women fought to start an all Native American convent but were denied. Still, she took monastic vows on March 25, 1679, and “dedicated the rest of her short life to prayer, penance, and care for the sick and elderly.”8

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Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)

Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797, Sojourner Truth was a slave in New York for the first 28 years of her life. She suffered from years of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her masters until she experienced a vision where God told her to walk away from slavery—which she did with her infant daughter, Sophia, one year before the New York Anti-Slavery Law of 1827.

In her dictated autobiography The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, she said God renamed her “Sojourner Truth” in 1843 because she was to “travel up an’ down the land, showin’ the people their sins, an’ bein’ a sign unto them” and to “declare the truth to the people.”9

Sojourner joined forces with abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison to give powerful speeches against slavery. An avid supporter of women’s rights, she delivered her speech “Ain’t I a Woman” at the 1851 Ohio Women’s Rights Convention, today considered to be “the most famous abolitionist and women’s rights speech in American history.”10 She spent the rest of her life speaking out against slavery and women’s rights, which brought vicious attacks, until her death in 1883.

Corrie ten Boom (1892–1983)

Born in Holland to a Christian family, Corrie ten Boom lived a quiet life until World War II broke out, and the ten Boom family became involved in resistance efforts. Her family’s home in Haarlem, the Netherlands, became a hiding place for six Jews—Corrie using her job as a watchmaker in her father’s shop as a cover.11

Nazi’s raided the house on February 28, 1944, and Corrie, her father, and her sister, Betsie, were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Despite her deplorable living situation, Corrie held Bible studies in Barracks 28, which “became known throughout the camp as ‘the crazy place, where they hope.’”12

Corrie survived the Holocaust, and her story and Christian witness resulted in a prolific writing and speaking ministry. Her book The Hiding Place told of her family’s wartime activities and became a bestseller. Before death in 1983, she had carried the gospel to more than sixty countries.  

Amy Carmichael (1867–1951)

Born in Ireland to devout Scottish Presbyterian parents, Amy Carmichael converted to Christianity when she was 14. Amy joined the Church Missionary Society and served in Japan for 15 months before heading to Bangalore, India in 1895, where she found her lifelong vocation. There she founded Dohnavur Fellowship, which provided a sanctuary for over 1,000 children whose parents had dedicated their children to the gods and lived in moral and spiritual danger. Two of her popular books include The Gold Cord and Things as They Are: Mission Work in Southern India. A fall left her bedridden for the final two decades of her life, yet she published 16 additional books before her death in India in 1951.

Bilquis Sheikh (1926–1997)

Bilquis Sheikh, the wife of a high-ranking government official in Pakistan, gave her life to Jesus Christ in 1966. Born in Punjab, Pakistan, to an elite Muslim family, she never fully embraced her family’s religion. Curious about the Jesus she read about in the Quran, she asked her Christian chauffeur to bring her a Bible—and Romans 9:25-26 caught her attention. She approached two local American missionaries who answered her questions and explained the gospel, and soon after, Sheikh experienced a series of dreams and visions that confirmed her decision to convert. News of her conversion reached her family who considered her a traitor and an infidel and shunned her. After she was threatened and her home torched, she fled to the United States where she began speaking about her experience and love for Jesus in churches. Years later her health declined and she returned to Pakistan, where she died in 1997.13

***

Learn more about prominent women in Church history in Carrying on the Great Tradition: Rediscovering Strong Christian Women of History by Jennifer Dunham. You can also study what life was like for women in ancient biblical times with the two-course Women in the Biblical World Bundle (2 courses).

  1. Barry, John D. Faithlife Study Bible, 16:1, “Phoebe,” (Lexham Press, Bellingham, WA) 2016.

  2. Barry, John D. “Phoebe.”
  3. Dunham, Jennifer. Carrying On the Great Tradition Rediscovering Strong Christian Women of History, “Perpetua,” (Christians for Biblical Equality, 2012), 4.

  4. Tucker, Ruth A. Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, “Perpetua” (Zondervan), 2010.
  5. Hammack, Mary L. A Dictionary of Women in Church History (Baker Publishing), 1997.
  6. Dunham, Jennifer. Carrying On the Great Tradition Rediscovering Strong Christian Women of History, “Margaret Fell Fox,” (Christians for Biblical Equality, 2012), 11.
  7. Dunham, Jennifer. “Margaret,” 11.
  8. Dunham, Jennifer. Carrying On the Great Tradition Rediscovering Strong Christian Women of History, “Kateri Tekakwitha,” (Christians for Biblical Equality, 2012), 15.

  9. Galli, Mark, and Ted Olsen. 131 Christians Everyone Should Know. (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman), 2000.
  10. “Sojourner Truth: “Ain’t I A Woman?” National Parks Service. US Department of the Interior. Accessed March 9, 2020. https://www.nps.gov/articles/sojourner-truth.htm.
  11. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC), Accessed March 3, 2020. https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/corrie-ten-boom.

  12. Tucker, Ruth A. Daughters of the Church: Women and Ministry from New Testament Times to the Present, “Corrie ten Boom” (Zondervan), 2010.
  13. Sheikh, Bilquis, and Dick Schneider. I Dared to Call Him Father: the Miraculous Story of a Muslim Womans Encounter with God. Vereeniging, South Africa: Christian Art Publishers, 2016.
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Written by
Karen Engle

Karen Engle is a copy editor for Faithlife. She has a master's in biblical studies and theology from Western Seminary and frequently takes groups to Israel.

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Written by Karen Engle