Distinguished Women of Past and Present


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Antoinette Bourignon

From: Belgium
Fields: Religion
As a teenager in 17th-century Belgium, Antoinette Bourignon had deep spiritual longings her family and town priest could not satisfy. One night as she prayed, a voice spoke to her: Forsake all earthly things. Separate thyself from the love of the creatures. Deny thyself.

Antoinette took these intuitions earnestly. But her parents would not allow her to enter a convent. When they betrothed her to a wealthy merchant, she kept putting off the wedding date. One morning, dressed in a hermit's habit she had sewn herself, she stole into the pre-dawn darkness. She had stashed a penny in her pocket to buy bread, but the voice asked, "Where is thy faith...in a penny?" so she tossed it away. "Thus," a disciple would later write, "she went away wholly delivered from the heavy burden of the cares and good things of this world and found her soul so satisfied that she no longer wished for anything upon earth."

Later Antoinette served in a convent and supervised an orphanage. Meanwhile, she began formulating her own spiritual philosophy. A century after Martin Luther's reform movement, she began traveling throughout France, Belgium and Holland preaching her brand of Christian mysticism.

For the next four decades, Antoinette promoted quietism. She carried a wooden printing press with her. In each town she set it up and laboriously produced 250 pages an hour of pamphlets promoting direct, personal experience with God.

Antoinette's campaign was effective enough that she was eventually condemned by Protestants and her works were placed on Catholicism's index of forbidden books. In 1699, nineteen years after her death in Franeker, Holland, Antoinette's complete works were published in London. They still influenced some Protestants over a hundred years later.

William James, America's philosopher/psychologist, included Antoinette Bourignon in his list of saints because she literally accepted divine guidance as the only sure security in life. Her self-sacrifice, claimed James, constituted real humanity--which he simply defined as "the refusal to enjoy anything that others do not share."

Contributed by Rebecca Bartholomew, author of Lost Heroines: Little-Known Women Who Changed Their World, in 1997.


William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Collier Books, 1961). James cited "An Apology for M. Antonia Bourignon," (London, 1699, abridged).

Robert P. Burns, "Antoinette Bourignon," Funk & Wagnall's Encyclopedia (n.p., 1983), vol. 3.

Rebecca Bartholomew, Lost Heroines: Little-Known Women Who Changed Their World(Uintah Springs Press, 1997).


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