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BYU English Professor Shines Light on Little-Known Female Preacher

Professor Jason Kerr (English) dives into the work and career of 17th century English preacher.

Researchers often face challenges when trying to decipher the poorly recorded roles of important women throughout history. Often, these women are only mentioned in the peripheries and footnotes of surviving documents, leaving scholars with the difficult task of piecing together their stories.

Photo of Professor Jason Kerr
Photo by Claire Gentry

Professor Jason Kerr (English) first became interested in the 17th century public preacher Elizabeth Attaway when he was teaching an Early Modern literature course. The mention of her in writings by English clergyman Thomas Edwards piqued Kerr’s interest, and after doing some preliminary research, he discovered that “there is a lot more to her story than previous scholars have recognized.”

As Kerr continued his research, he said, “I'd dig through all these texts that people have been writing about women preachers thinking that there's this broader phenomenon that's already established, but none of that's right. Instead, it's all about this one woman who is bucking her community and bucking more conservative women to go out and preach publicly.”

Uncovering the specifics of Attaway’s career was a challenge because texts that mention Attaway also serve to veil the specifics of her work. “Edwards’s Gangraena remains very nearly the sole source of information about Attaway, but it also poses the greatest obstacle to understanding her career,” said Kerr. Using these texts, Kerr had to “learn to navigate the distortions arising from these unreliable narrators.”

He continued, “For modern scholars of the seventeenth century, understanding [Attaway’s] case requires turning to established feminist methodologies for countering these kinds of distortions while also inviting closer attention to women’s theology in the period, especially when that theology is not obviously political. As such, Elizabeth Attaway opens a window to a yet-broader account of the religious landscape of her time.”

As a literary researcher, Kerr is well-practiced in reading “the text very carefully to learn how to evaluate the nature of the evidence and with an eye to the conceptual implications of why things are framed the way they are.”

Kerr encourages students who are embarking on literary research to always read carefully and look beyond the conventions of the literary criticism genre in order to extract and convey the meaning they find in the text.

You can read Kerr's research article here.

—Heather Bergeson (English, ’22)