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  • Protestants, Convents, and Seduction by Matthew 10:37
  • Miriam Elizabeth Burstein (bio)

He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.

kjv Matt. 10:37

Matthew 10:37 has always been a hard saying. But throughout modern history, Protestants and Catholics have turned to this verse to urge conversions, counsel strength under oppression, or motivate martyrdom. Catholics, though, have also found in it a call to leave the world for the cloister, and in the nineteenth century, Anglo-American Protestants found this represented a dangerous misreading of the verse indeed. It was all very well to justify leaving [End Page 16] convents with Matthew 10:37—one anti-Catholic polemicist assures us, for example, that Charlotte de Bourbon (later Princess of Orange) was “supported” by Matthew 10:37 when she decamped from her convent in 1572 (“Abbess” 40)1 —but what was wrong with the arguments for joining them? For Protestants on the anti-convent warpath, the dangerous allure of Matthew 10:37 emblematized all that was wrong with Roman Catholic (and, indeed, Anglo-Catholic) appeals to tradition and authority in the interpretation of scripture.

By the mid-Victorian period, this topic was on many Protestants’ minds. In his 1873 survey of the state of convents in the British Isles, Catholic author John Nicholas Murphy counted 258 convents in Britain (368); by 1880, the number exceeded three hundred (O’Brien 112). Even worse, from a Protestant point of view, the Oxford Movement’s call for the Church of England to abandon its post-Reformation “Protestantism” sparked not only multiple prominent conversions to Roman Catholicism in the 1840s—most famously that of John Henry Newman—but also a drive for Anglican religious communities, beginning with the Park Village Sisterhood of the Holy Cross in 1845. By century’s end, more than ninety communities had been founded, including Priscilla Lydia Sellon’s Ascot Priory (Mumm 3). Sellon’s use of Matthew 10:37 while corresponding with a would-be Sister of Mercy, Augusta Wale, was one of the many things that scandalized Protestant observers (Rodgers 38); the controversy over confession and other “popish” behaviours at Ascot Priory led to a full-fledged inquiry in 1852 (Hartman; Kollar). By the 1860s, the “ultra-Protestant” politician Charles Newdigate Newdegate began making a name for himself by reviving the stalled 1850s parliamentary initiatives for inspecting convents, introducing his first such bill in 1864 (Arnstein 63—64). Conveniently, just one year after Newdegate ramped up his anti-convent crusade, Georgiana Malcolm published her translation of Luther’s Letters to Women, in which Luther cites Matthew 10:37 to justify nuns leaving a convent against their parents’ wishes (11).

Traditionally, Matthew 10:37 did justify vocations, as in the case of St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090—1153). Nineteenth-century Protestants countered this tradition by asking when believers were obligated to reject those closest to their hearts. Classic commentators like John Calvin (whose Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists was newly translated in 1845) and the Puritan Matthew Henry glossed the verse by stipulating that Christ “assign[ed] the highest value to piety” (Calvin 471) and that “children must love their parents, and parents must love their children; but if they love them better than Christ, they are unworthy of him” (Henry 145). These commentaries try to reconcile the injunctions in Matthew 10:37 and, even more intimidatingly, Luke 14:26 (“If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” [kjv]) with other passages that enjoin love and duty to one’s family and conclude that a hierarchy of obligations is at work: love one’s family, yes, but love Christ more. But it took the influential evangelical commentator Thomas Scott to inadvertently solve the problem before it arose. He [End Page 17] explained that “when matters should come to such extremities … a man must lose the comfort and favour of his nearest relations, and incur their enmity, unless he renounced or disobeyed Christ...


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