© Barbara F. Meyers 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Sermon delivered on May 26, 2002 at Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and
16 November 2003 at the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco

Sermon - Spinning Heresies

People who study history often find that particular happenings are the result of several interconnecting societal developments. Such is the case with the link between textile production and the heresies of the Reformation. Here the interconnecting developments in question were the beginning of the textile industry, the rise of modern commerce and capitalism, and the invention of the printing press. These all influenced the Reformation that was happening at the same time.

Thus, we see the following interrelated developments, happening in Europe around the same time:

Textile Industry's need of Spinners

One of the methods of textile production in early-modern Europe involved division of labor among various stages of production, finishing and merchandizing to separate communities each having specialized skills. In general, spinners in the country supplied weavers in urban centers. There were systems set up to distribute the intermediate products from one area to the next. In particular, there were people who brought raw fiber and gathered finished yarn from the spinners.

Early textile mercantilists quickly realized that the bottleneck in cloth industry was spinning; various accounts tell us that as many as 4 to 20 spinners were needed to supply a single weaver with thread. To help alleviate this bottleneck, mercantilists saw women and children as a vast labor pool waiting to be tapped. They encouraged spinning as a cottage industry to get cheap labor of women and children in their homes. They attached spinning rooms to orphanages, sometimes resulting in intolerable exploitation of children. Some communities even set up a "correctional training institution" called a spinhuis (which became tourist attractions in the 17th century) to encourage prostitutes to spin in "off hours" and thus allow them to become virtuous.

Textiles and Women's Growing Independence

Because women were able to earn wages by working in the textile industry, some unattached women began to pool economic resources, find mutual protection and gain a sense of identity. Such groups, who lived together in loosely structured, but not cloistered, religious communities, were often called Beguines. They supported themselves by weaving, spinning, sewing, other needlework or caring for the sick. These women were initially ignored by the church, but starting in the 14th century were increasingly regarded as suspect because they were not under male supervision. They were also regarded as cheap competition in the labor market by the craft guilds.

The reason many women chose spinning as a way to earn a wage was because sometimes, spinning was the only possible employment open to women. In fact, the word "spinster" came to mean a woman who was not married, and was independently self-providing. These women worked for lower wages than men did because they didn't have families to provide for.

We will now present an enactment that will show how an ordinary woman would participate in both the mercantile economy and the spread of heretical religious ideas from her chair at home.


As the scene begins, Barbara is spinning. There is a knock on the door. Barbara gets up and answers the door. It is Margot who is dropping by to deliver wool and pick up yarn.

Barbara: Margot! It is good to see you again.

Margot: I've come to pick up your spun yarn and to give you some more wool to spin next week.

Barbara: Thank you Margot. I found this week's wool to be particularly soft and easy to spin. You must have found a shepherd who has a good flock.

Margot: Yes. Mr. Johnson near Leicester has recently gotten some new sheep that give some very fine wool. Isn't that a new spinning wheel?

Barbara: Yes, it is a new spinning wheel. I got it from my late sister-in-law who died last month, God rest her soul. The new wheel makes spinning ever more easy for me. I can spin continuously without having to wind on thread, like this. [Demonstrates spinning]

Margot: That is a fine wheel, indeed.

Barbara: And it is sturdy and doesn't break down. When I think of what my mother used to have to do to spin! She could never have spun enough even for her own family. Being able to spin helps the family. I can contribute monetarily to the funds we need to survive. And, if, God forbid, I am widowed, it will allow me and my children to keep from starving. I am indeed lucky to live in such times.

Margot: Yes, a lot of women say things such as this.

Barbara: Enough about me. Tell me, have you heard of new happenings on the Continent? Please sit down.

Margot: I have news from abroad. I was at the tavern yesterday, having been there to find John. He was listening to this woman from abroad - Rotterdam, I think he said. He wouldn't leave, so I sat with him for a while. It wasn't long before I understood his interest in her. I didn't want to leave.

Barbara: So, what was she talking about?

Margot: She was taking about a glass painter - David Joris, she called him - who is angering the authorities in Haarlem by preaching against the church.

Barbara: What said she that made you stay and listen?

Margot: The stories she told were great. And she had poems and songs to share. She told of a performance that she was with David at a festival. In it a weaver bested a priest and a sexton in argument when they accused him of heresy. The best part was that at the end the Sexton admits that he has no skills to live in the world well enough to be saved, so the Weaver sets up to teach him how to weave. She quoted from the weaver. Listen to what he said about the Pope:

How can you undertake to blaspheme the Spirit of God?
And exalt the holiness of the pope?
Was he not also born in sin,
And conceived in sin, just like other men?
He seeks nothing but money and worldly honor.
He acts through the power of the great Antichrist,
Which he himself is and eternally remains. [Laughs.]

And there was a great thing about working on holy days. The weaver wants to work on holy days.

Barbara: Of course he does, he needs the money.

Margot: And, he is angry because the church lets cooks work on holy days but not weavers.

Barbara: So, what does he do?

Margot: Well, the priest says that cooks perform necessary work that cannot be stopped for a holy day. And the weaver says "Yes, it is in order to fill your mouths with sweets, therefore you say it is necessary, you cannons. For, it is truly food for priests and monks, and not for weavers, furriers or smiths, who are happy merely with a piece of cheese, and coarse bread and water, as is the rooster. Christ came to fulfill the Sabbath. Therefore all men, craftsmen and cooks, may work on all days. Clergy who claim feast days as holy days without work, run always with both hands open. It is only money that you seek, more than the spirit, and on the feast days you earn the most."

Barbara: That would have been a play worth watching!

Margot: It would.

Barbara: But, Margot, you started by saying that this woman was speaking of a David Joris in Haarlem.

Margot: I was. She told of how she met him when he was fleeing from persecutors in Delft. A man she had met through the man who re-baptized her asked her to give him shelter. She said he spoke often of Christ as the sole mediator between God and believers and the folly of believing that the sacraments of the church had any validity. She spoke of his commitment to the spiritual meaning of the Lord's Supper - and that if one understands and knows the spiritual meaning, one does not need to partake. In fact, she said he taught that the good works the church teaches are only good for the church and the good works that Christ taught are good for God and mankind. That Christ taught acts of love for us to follow and rejection of comfort and wealth for the exaltation of God and the care of mankind.

Barbara: How does he know what Christ taught?

Margot: He reads the Bible in his own language for himself and learns of it that way. Also, he knows God directly. God speaks to him. She said he is a prophet of God who receives guidance from God through visions and wisdom from scripture.

Barbara: And what does she say he knows about the world that God would have us work for?

Margot: He said that those who are reborn in Christ will gain the Kingdom. For victory over the earthly sinful flesh is achieved by Christ, the Word of God, who became flesh for us and suffered. Because his flesh came from heaven, we too must go through the oven of persecution and forsake our earthly flesh to reign with Christ in the Kingdom. We must speak against those who repress Christ's people in the name of God and Christ. We must protect the sick and weak. We must love as Christ loved.

Barbara: I have no desire to face those ovens of persecution, but we must live according to the word of God.

Margot: Yes. Just before I left, Anna sang a song that David Joris wrote. It was all about how God tells us to love through the Holy Spirit and scripture. I didn't get the tune, but the words started like this:

I heard the wind blowing,
The spirit breathed in my senses;
And I stopped sowing
My grain, to my loss;
I did not produce any fruit
Or blessings.
I must seek them in love,
For they are always gathered for my good.

Barbara: That is a beautiful song. The words have touched me deeply. I think that its sentiment may augment for me the Lollard faith that we are forced to keep underground. I know I can tell you I am a Lollard, because you are a friend who has come to talk to me about Holy things from the Continent - things that many say are heresies, but are really about the search for the true way of looking at God.

We Lollards got a start at the beginning of the 1400's with the Oxford scholar, John Wycliffe. In fact, we still use the Bible that Wycliffe translated into English for the first time. My great grandfather fought with Sir John Oldcastle to over throw King Henry V for the Lollard cause. Unfortunately, my great grandfather lost his life in that battle. We were then forced to become a secret society.

Margot: Indeed! I didn't know your great grandfather had been in that revolt. Tell me about what the Lollards believe.


Margot: That must be why I meet so many Lollards when gathering the wool.

Barbara: Undoubtedly so. I'd like to talk about David Joris' song you just spoke. The words in the song that reached me were "the Spirit breathed in my senses". I, too, have felt that the spirit has breathed to me and showed me things that no one else can see or hear, and given me great peace and understanding. Many people who see and hear such things are called "crazy", but I can see now that others know these things can be visits from God. Now that I can read, I have read such things in the Bible, too.

Margot: Yes. And have I.

Barbara: God values all people, and we are to do likewise if we are to achieve salvation. This is truly God's message. It has put into words many of my own true feelings. You have truly given me a gift. Thank you.

Margot: You are indeed welcome. Since you can read, I'll leave you with one of Joris' tracts. [Hands Barbara a tract] Spreading God's word is part of my life. It is so good that I can do it when gathering the wool. Well, I must be getting on to the next spinner.

Barbara: Thank you again and goodbye. [Margot leaves]


It has long been noted by a number of researchers that there was a correlation between textile areas and the progress of the Protestant Reformation in England. A recent researcher has remarked that the cottage clothing industry was a "breeding ground" for religious heresy in Essex County. The counties in England with large numbers of clothiers and tradesmen - Kent, Essex, Berkshire, and Yorkshire - were also very active in the spread of radical religious ideas. These areas saw the first religious uprisings, the first women preachers, and later, during the Industrial Revolution, the first weavers' revolts. The religious and social heresies they were exposed to included the Lollards, Familists, Anabaptists, Levelers, Quakers, Diggers, and the Brownists. Most of these radical religions supported strict adherence to the truth as expressed in the Bible. And, most believed that their version of the truth was the only one.

The golden age of spinning in Europe lasted from the 16th century when spinning wheels became commonplace until the 19th century when the machines of the Industrial Revolution automated spinning. It coincided with and contributed to social, political and religious movements that were happening during the same period. In England, we have seen that there were a wide variety of religious heresies that these grass roots textile workers were being exposed to. Thus, we see one thread of our religious heritage carried by ordinary folk in their daily lives.

I now invite you to examine ways that we as a denomination and a church, and you as an individual are contributing to the history and religion of our times in our own daily lives. And, the ways that you are not making contributions. And finally, whether you want to make any changes to this involvement, individually or collectively.

Examples that such involvement might take are:

I invite you to ask yourself whether you believe in any of these ideas to the extent that you would be willing to lay down your life for it, because this is the price that many of our forebears paid for their beliefs. The tradition that we share today would not be what it is were it not for the contributions of many such heretics, including the women who made their contributions from home at their spinning wheels.

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