Marcella: A rebel for the cause of Christ

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Refusing marriage to a man well-placed in Roman society. Turning away from family riches. Peppering a church leader with incessant questions. Being subtly deceitful so that she could stand as an authority on Scripture.

Marcella of Rome was a bit of a rebel for the cause of Christ.

She was born to a wealthy family, and experienced all that wealth could bring – fancy clothes, education and all forms of entertainment. Seven months after her marriage, her husband died instantly making her the most eligible widow in the city.

But, there was a different longing in her heart that had been shaped by the overheard conversations between her mother and the early church theologian Athanasius, who had come to stay at her home after he had been exiled from Alexandria.

Inspired by the stories of the desert monks, Marcella gave up her wealth to follow Jesus. She turned down a marriage offer from the consul of Rome, exchanged her fancy dresses for a simple brown dress, and entered into a life of poverty, chastity, and intellectual pursuits.

She was soon followed by other women who collectively became known as the Brown Dress Society.

What we know about her comes through the letters of Jerome, who translated the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into Latin. Marcella convinced Jerome to stay at her mansion on a hill which had become a refuge for the poor and for scholars. While there, she challenged Jerome. She asked questions in an effort to learn, and engaged him in debate. What she learned from Jerome she passed along to others.

After Jerome left Rome, Marcella continued to answer questions put to her concerning Scripture, even questions from priests. Yet, she always told them the answers came from Jerome or from another man. Jerome wrote that she did this “so that she did not seem to injure the male sex because the apostle did not permit women to teach.”

In 410, Visigoths attacked Rome, and refused to believe the woman in a hilltop mansion was truly poor. After assuring the safety of her young friend, Principia, the invaders beat her. She died from her injuries the next day.

In a letter to Principia following her death, Jerome wrote the following words about his lost colleague and friend:

How much virtue and intellect, how much holiness and purity I found in her I am afraid to say, both lest I may exceed the bounds of men’s belief and lest I may increase your sorrow by reminding you of the blessings you have lost. This only will I say, that whatever I had gathered together by long study, and by constant meditation made part of my nature, she tasted, she learned and made her own.

Marcella’s constant quest for knowledge reminds me how much I have yet to learn about the Lord, and about his word. It also reminds me that I have the privilege of sharing what I learn with someone else, and it’s too often a privilege I take for grant. Is there someone in your life who wants to know more about the Lord? How can you help them learn?


This is the third post in my Write 31 Days series for 2017 in which I am taking a devotional look at key women in Christian history. For more information, or to start the series from the beginning, visit the introductory post.

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