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A Discourse on Women Prophesying and Headcoverings.


A Discourse on Women Prophesying and Headcoverings.

James Dodson



1 Cor. 11. 5.

πᾶσα δὲ γυνὴ προσευχομένη ἢ προφητεύουσα ἀκατακαλύπτῳ τῇ κεφαλῇ καταισχύνει τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτῆς. Every woman praying or prophesying with her head uncovered, dishonoureth her head.

I have chosen this of the woman, rather then that of the man going before it, for the Theme of my Discourse, First, Because I conceive the Fault, at the reformation whereof the Apostle here aimeth, in the Church of Corinth, was the women’s only, not the men’s. That which the Apostle speaks of a man praying or prophesying, being by way of supposition, and for illustration of the unseemliness of that guise which the women used. Secondly, Because the condition of the Sex in the words read makes something for the better understanding of that which is spoke of both’s as we shall see presently.

To being with the First, and which I am like to dwell longest upon. Some take Prophesying here, in the stricter sense, to be foretelling of things to come, as that which in those Primitive times both men and women did, by the pouring out of the Holy Ghost upon them: according to that of the Prophet Joel, applied by S. Peter to the sending of the Holy Ghost at the first promulgation of the Gospel, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions. [Joel 2. 28. Acts 2. 17.] And that such Prophetesses as these were those four Daughters of Philip the Evangelist, whereof we read Acts 21. 9.

Others take Prophesying here in a more large notion, namely, for the gift of interpreting and opening Divine mysteries contained in Holy Scripture, for the instruction and edification of the Hearers; especially, as it was then inspired and suggested in extraordinary manner by the Holy Spirit, as Prophecy was given of old; according to that of S. Peter, Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man, but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. [2 Pet. 1. 21.] So because many in the beginning of the Gospel were guided by a like instinct in the interpretation and application of Scripture, they were said to Prophesy. Thus the Apostle useth it in the fourteenth Chapter of this Epistle, where he discourses of spiritual Gifts, and before all prefers that of Prophecy; because he that Prophesieth (saith he) speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. [1 Cor. 14. 3.]

But neither of these kinds of Prophecy suits with the person in my Text, which is a woman. For it is certain the Apostle speaks here of Prophesying in the Church or Congregation; but in the Church a woman might not speak, no not so much as ask a question for her better instruction, much less teach and instruct others, and those men. This the Apostle teacheth us in this very Epistle, Chapter the fourteenth [verse 34, 35.], even there where he discourseth so largely of those kings of Prophecy. Let your women (saith he) keep silence in the Churches: For it is not permitted unto them to speak, ἀλλ’ ὑποτασσέσθωσαν, but to be subject. And if they will learn, let them ask their husbands at home. Again in 1. Tim. 2. 11, 12. Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.

Note here, that to speak in a Church-Assembly, by way of teaching or instructing others, is an act of superiority, which therefore a woman might not doe; because her sex was to be in subjection, and so to appear before God in garb and posture which consisted therewith: that is, she might not speak to instruct men in the Church, but to God she might.

To avoid this difficulty, some would have the word προφητεύουσα, in my Text, to be taken passively, namely, for to hear or be present at Prophecy: which is an acception without example either in Scripture or any-where else. It is true, the Congregation is said to pray, when the Priest only speaks; but that they should be said to preach, who are present only at the hearing of a Sermon, is a Trope without example. For the reason is not alike. In Prayer the Priest in the mouth of the Congregation, and does what he does in their names, and they assent to it by saying Amen. But he that preaches or prophesies, is not the mouth of the Church, to speak ought in their names, that so they might be said to speak too; but he is the mouth of God speaking to them. It is not likely therefore that those who only hear another speaking or prophesying to them, should be said προφητεύειν, to prophesy; no more, as I said, then that all they should be said to preach, who were at the hearing of a Sermon.

What shall we do then? Is there any other acception of the word [Prophesying] left us, which may fit our turn? Yes, there is a Fourth acception, which, if it can be made good, will suit our Text better (I think) than any of the former; to wit, that Prophesying here should be taken for praising God in Hymns and Psalms: For so it is fitly coupled with praying; Praying and Praising being the parts of the Christian Liturgy. Besides, our Apostle also in the fourteenth Chapter of this Epistle [verse 15.] joins them both together; I will pray (saith he) with the spirit, and I will pray with understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing, that is, prophesy, with understanding also. For, because Prophets of old did Three things; first, foretell things to come; secondly, notify the will of God unto the People; and thirdly, utter themselves in Musical wise, and, as I may so speak, in a Poetical strain and composure: hence it comes to pass that to prophesy in Scripture signifies the doing of any of these Three things, and amongst the rest, to praise God in Verse or Musical composure.

This to be so as I say, I shall prove unto you out of two places of Scripture: and first out of the first of Chronicles, Chap. 25. where the word Prophesy is three several times thus used. I will allege the words of the Test at large, because I cannot well abbreviate them. Thus therefore it speaks; Verse 1. Moreover, David and the Captains of the Host separated to the service, of the sons of Asaph, and of Heman, and of Jeduthun, who should prophesy with Harps, with Psalteries, and with Cymbals: and the number of the men of Office, according to their service, was, 2. Of the sons of Asaph; Zaccur, and Joseph, and Nathaniah, and Asarelah, the sons of Asaph, under the hands of Asaph, which prophesied according to the order of the King. 3. Of Jeduthun; the sons of Jeduthun, Gedaliah, and Zeri, and Jeshaiah, Hashabiah, and Mattithiah, (and Schimei,) six, under the hands of their father Jeduthun, who prophesied with a Harp, to give thanks and to praise the Lord.[1] Lo here, to prophesy, and to give thanks (or confess) and to praise the Lord with the spiritual songs, made all one. Nor needs such a Notion seem strange, whenas even among the Latins the word Vates signifieth both him that foretells things to come, and a Poet; for that the Gentiles Oracles were given likewise in Verse. And S. Paul to Titus [1. 12.] calls the Cretian Poet, Epimenides, a Prophet; as one, saith he, of their own Prophets said,

Κρῆτες ἀεὶ ψεῦσται, κακὰ θηρία, γαστέρες ἀργαί.

And the Arabians (whose language comes the nearest both in words and notions to the Hebrew) call a chief Poet of theirs (Princeps omnium Poetarum (saith Erpenius) quos unquam vidit mundus) Muttenabbi, that is, Prophetizans, or the Prophet κατ’ ἐξοχὴν.

Now then if Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman prophesied, when they praised God in such Psalms as are entituled unto their several Quires, and as we find them in the Psalm-Book; (for know that all the Psalms entitled To the sons of Korah, belonged to the Quire of Heman who descended from Korah;) why may not we, when we sing the same Psalms, be said to prophesy likewise? namely, As he that useth a prayer composed by another, prayeth; and that according to the spirit of him that composed it: so he that praiseth God with these spiritual and prophetical composures, may be said to prophesie according to that spirit which speaketh in them.

And that Almighty God is well pleased with such Service as this, may appear by that one story of King Jehoshaphat, in the second of Chronicles, who when he marched forth against that great confederate Army of the children of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, the Text tells us, that having consulted with his people, he appointed Singers unto the Lord, that should praise the Beauty of holiness, as they went out before the Army; and to say, Praise the Lord, for his mercy endureth for ever. [2 Chron. 20. 21.] (That is, they should sing the one hundred and sixth Psalm, or one hundred and thirty sixth Psalm, which begin in this manner, and were both of them not unfit for such an occasion.) And when they began to sing and praise, (saith the Text) the Lord set ambushments against the children of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, which were come against Judah; and they were smitten.

A second place where such kind of Prophets and Prophesying as we speak of are mentioned, is that in the first of Samuel, in the story of Saul’s election, where we read, that when he came to a certain place called the Hill of God, he met a company of Prophets coming down from the High place, (or Oratory there,) with a Psaltery, and a Tabret, and a Pipe, and a Harp before them; and they prophesied, and he with them. [1 Sam. 10. 5, 10.]

Their Instruments argue what kind of Prophecy this was, namely, Praising of God with spiritual songs and melody: In what manner, is not so easy to define or specify; but with an extemporary rapture, I easily believe. And if we may conjecture by other examples, One of them should seem to have been the Præcentor, and to utter the Verse or Ditty; the rest to have answered τὰ ἀκροτελεύτια, the extremes or last words of the Verse. For after this manner we are told by Philo Judæus, that the Esseni (who were of the Jewish Nation) were wont to sing their Hymns in their Σεμνεῖα or worshipping-places. And after the self-same, manner, Eusebius tells us, did the Primitive Christians; having in all likelihood learnt it from the Jews, whose manner it was. The same is witnessed by the Author Constitutionum Apostolicarum, in his second Book and fifty seventh Chapter, where describing the manner of the Christian Service,[2] After the reading of the Lessons of the Old Testament, (saith he) ἕτερός τις τοὺς τοῦ Δαυὶδ ψαλλέτω ὕμνους, καὶ ὁ λαὸς τὰ ἀκροστίχια ὑποψαλλέτω. Let another sing the Psalms of David, and the people succinere, or answer, τὰ ἀκροστίχια, (i.e.,) τὰ ἀκροτελεύτια, the extremes of the verse. Some footsteps of which Custom remain still with us, (though perhaps in somewhat a different way) when in those short Versicles of Liturgy, being Sentences taken out of the Psalms, the Priest says or sings the first half, and the People answer the latter, quasi τὰ ἀκροτελεύτια.[3] As for example, in that taken out of Psalm 51. 15. the Priest says, O Lord, open thou our lips; the People or Chorus answers, And our mouth shall shew forth thy praise. But whatsoever the ancient manner of answering was, thus much we are sure of, That the Jews in their Divine Lauds were wont to praise God after this manner, in Antiphons or Responsories; as (to let pass other Testimonies, and the use of their Synagogues to this day derived from their Ancestors,) we may learn by two special Arguments. One from the Seraphims singing, Isa. 6. 3. where it is said that the Seraphims cried one unto another, saying, Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Hosts, the whole Earth is full of his Glory. Note, They cried one unto another. Secondly, from the use of the Hebrew verb עֲנָה, which in the proper and native signification thereof being to answer, is also used for to sing. As in Psalm 147. 7. where we translate, Sing unto the Lord with thanksgiving, sing praise upon the Harp unto our God: in the Hebrew, עֱנ֣וּ, Answer unto the Lord in thanksgiving, sing praise upon the Harp unto our God. And Esay. 27. 2. In that day sing ye unto her, A vineyard of red wine: in the Hebrew, עַנּוּ־לָֽהּ, Answer ye unto her. And Numbers 21. 17. In Israel’s song of the Well, Spring up, O Well, sing unto it: in the Hebrew it is, עֱנוּ־לָֽהּ, the voice of them that answer one another. And so in other places. But to put all out of doubt, look Ezra 3. 11. where it is expressly said, The Levites, the sons of Asaph, sung together by course, in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord, Because he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever. Hence was derived the manner of Praying and Praising God in the Christian Service, alternis, in a Musical way, and, as it were, by way of prophesying and versifying; even though we do but speak it only; as you know the Poet says,—Amant alterna Camænæ. Thus I have taken occasion somewhat to enlarge upon this particular; that we ourselves might the better understand the reason of what we do, and what precedents and whose example we follow therein. And thus much of Prophesying.

I COME now to the Second thing I propounded to speak of; namely, What was the Fault among the Corinthians which the Apostle here taxeth. For the right understanding whereof, I say two things. First, For the Offenders, that they were the women, and not the men: That which the Apostle speaketh concerning men, being by way of supposition only, and to illustrate his Argument against the uncomely guise of the woman, à pari. This appears, because his Conclusion speaks of women only, and nothing at all of men. Secondly, For the quality of the Fault, it was this; That the women at the time of praying and prophesying were unveiled in the Church; notwithstanding it was then[4] accounted an unseemly and immodest guise for women to appear open and bare-faced in public. How then, will you say, should it come to pass that Christian women should so much forget themselves, as to transgress this Decorum in God’s House and Service, which they observed otherwhere? I answer, From a phantastical imitation of the manner of the She-Priests and Prophetesses of the Gentiles, when they served their Idols; as their Pythiæ, Bacchae or Mænades, and the like; who used, when they uttered their Oracles, or celebrated rites and sacrifices to their gods, to put themselves into a wild and extatical guise, having their faces discovered, their hair disheveled and hanging about their ears. This these Corinthian women (conceiting themselves, when they prayed or prophesied in the Church, to be acting the parts of She-Priests, uttering Oracles like the Pythiæ or Sibyllæ, or celebrating sacrifice as the Mænades or Bacchæ,) were so fond as to imitate; (as that sex is prone to follow the fashion;) and accordingly cast off their veils, and discovered their faces immodestly in the Congregation, and thereby (as the Apostle speaks) dishonoured their heads, that is, were unseemly accoutered and dressed on their head.

Which he proveth by three Arguments. Partly from Nature, which having given women their Hair for a covering, taught them to be covered, as a Sign of subjection; the manner of this covering being to be measured by the custom of the Nation.[5] Partly by an Argument à pari, from men; for whom, even themselves being Judges, it would be an uncomely thing to wear a veil, that is, a woman’s habit: so, by the like reason, was it uncomely and absurd for a woman to be without a veil, that is, in the guise and dress of a man.[6] And howsoever the Devils of the Gentiles sometimes took pleasure in uncomeliness and absurd garbs and gestures; ye the God whom they worshipped, and his holy Angels who were present at their devotions, loved a comely accommodation, agreeable to Nature and Custom, in such as worshipped him. For this cause therefore (saith he [verse 10.]) ought a woman to have a covering on her Head, because of the Angels. Lastly, he concludes it from the Example and Custom both of the Jewish and Christian Churches; neither of which had any such use, for their women to be unveiled in their sacred assemblies: If any man (saith he [verse 16.]) be contentious, (that is, will not be satisfied with these reasons,) let him know that we (that is, we of the Circumcision) have no such custom, nor the Churches of God. For so, with S. Ambrose, Anselm, and some of the Ancients, I take the meaning of the Apostle to be in those words.

Thus you have heard briefly, What was the Fault of these Corinthian Dames, which the Apostle here taxeth. From which we ourselves may learn thus much, That God requires a decent and comely accommodation in his House in the act of his worship and service: For if in their habit and dress, surely much more in their gestures and deportment. He loves nothing that is unseemly in the one or in the other. Which I doubt some of us, at least of the younger sort, are not so observant of in this place as we should; and therefore wish those whom it concerns would amend it. And thus I conclude my Discourse.


[1] Expende etiam 2 Chron. 29. 30. & cap. 35. 15.

[2] Note, to sing ἀντιφώνως, i.e., alternis choris, and to answer ἀκροστίχια, are diverse.

[3] Vid. Hook[er], l[ib]. 5. p. 261.

[4] [The use of the word then is to establish the context of the time in which Paul spoke. In Mede’s day, modesty and decorum still maintained that women, particularly if they were married, going abroad should cover their heads. ED.]

[5] [This is the same distinction made by Mr. Gillespsie, English Popish Ceremonies, par. III, cap. 5. Nature, by giving a woman long hair (i.e., a natural covering, or veil), has taught her to don an artificial veil. The manner, or customary form, of this artificial veil is regulated by the society in which one lives. This second point, however, does not mean that women, or the societies in which they live, may discard the use of an artificial covering since it is taught by nature. ED.]

[6] [N.B. Mede asserts that wearing a veil is part of feminine attire; not wearing a veil is, therefore, is being attired like men. This is contrary to Deut. 22. 5. ED.]