“When my husband and he used to be making their diversions and reviling, I sat in silence, though now and then an involuntary sigh broke from me; at which he would say, ‘There, did not I tell you your wife was a Quaker, and she will become a preacher.’”
Elizabeth Ashbridge’s work is a conversion narrative or spiritual autobiography, a common genre of early modern autobiographical writing in which an author recounts his or her process of conversion towards God. Quaker spiritual autobiographies adhered to a recognized set of conventions, which Ashbridge mostly followed. Her narrative differs from most Quaker autobiographies in that it focuses more on her life before her conversion than after it, and in that it is the story not only of her own soul but also of her second husband’s. Ashbridge wrote the narrative when she was an established member of the Quaker community, years after the events she recounts. It was written for an audience of fellow Quakers for whom the correctness of Quaker beliefs and practices was not an issue. Ashbridge’s account is also the major source for her life and one of the few remaining autobiographies by a colonial American woman.
Ashbridge was writing at a time when Quakerism, formerly illegal in England and many of its American colonies, had become legally tolerated while still suffering from a social stigma. Habits specifically associated with Quakerism, such as plain dress and the use of thee instead of you, were widely mocked. Elements of Quaker theology and religious practice, such as the emphasis on the “inner light” of the spirit, the rejection of material sacraments, and the use of silence in meetings, aroused more serious objections, and some doubted if Quakers could even be called Christians. This dislike was shared by a broad range of Christian communities, from the Church of England to the Puritan Congregationalists of Boston, but it was also somewhat meliorated by the growth of religious toleration in the early Enlightenment. Few advocated the actual execution of Quaker missionaries as had happened in the seventeenth century. The religious pluralism of the British American colonies allowed people to move relatively easily between denominations, as Ashbridge moved from Anglicanism to Quakerism.
In Pennsylvania, originally founded in the seventeenth century as a Quaker colony, Quakers themselves had given up the idea of establishing a utopian Quaker society and were living as a self-conscious minority, albeit a relatively wealthy and powerful one. Immigrants from a variety of religious and ethnic groups, such as the Dutch couple Ashbridge encounters, came to the area, making Pennsylvania one of the most religiously pluralistic colonies. Quakerism was also strong in East and West Jersey, the future state of New Jersey. Since its founding by George Fox in the seventeenth century, Quakerism was highly organized, and there was a sense of a Quaker community that transcended regional, natural, and socioeconomic barriers.
Although Quaker families were organized patriarchally, the Quaker tradition allowed more spiritual independence to women and had a greater degree of gender egalitarianism than did Anglicanism or Puritanism, the other dominant religious traditions of British America. Quakers were highly unusual among Christian sects in permitting women to preach publicly, which added to the scorn felt for them by members of other traditions. Spiritual autobiographies and journals like Ashbridge’s were widely circulated in the Quaker community and served as an important element in that community’s self-definition.
Elizabeth Ashbridge was born Elizabeth Sampson in the English town of Middlewich in 1713 to Thomas Sampson, a ship’s surgeon, and Mary Sampson. The Sampsons were members of the Church of England, in which Ashbridge was baptized. Her first exposure to Quakerism came when she was sent to the house of a Quaker relative of her mother’s in Ireland to recover from an unhappy marriage that left her a widow after five months. The gloom of the Quaker culture she encountered was unappealing, and during her stay in Ireland she came much closer to converting to Catholicism, drawing back at the last minute due to her horror at a priest’s insisting that all non-Catholics, including her own mother, would be damned.
Ashbridge’s failed marriage had also alienated her from her family, particularly her father, and in 1732, she took passage to America, hoping for a fresh start. She was required to sign a three-year indenture, during which she endured harsh conditions from a cruel master. After the indenture, she married a schoolteacher named Sullivan, the “husband” referred to in her autobiography. Sullivan was a heavy drinker and found it difficult to settle in one place. The tensions of the marriage soared even higher in 1738 when Ashbridge, who had previously explored numerous religious options, visited Quaker relatives in the colony of Pennsylvania. Impressed by their piety, she became a committed Quaker. Sullivan, who had initially been attracted to his wife’s singing and dancing, was disappointed with her new somber behavior after her conversion. He attempted to force her away from Quakerism through brutality but failed and eventually adopted some Quaker beliefs himself. He enlisted in the British army, but he refused to fight, claiming that his enlistment had been a drunken escapade. Sullivan eventually died from wounds he sustained during the beating he received for this insubordination. At this point Ashbridge’s account ends.
After Sullivan’s death in 1741, Ashbridge worked as a teacher and seamstress to support herself and pay off the debt left by her husband. In 1746, she married again, this time to a wealthy Quaker landowner of high social standing, Aaron Ashbridge. The marriage seems to have been happy and Ashbridge became a respected preacher and leader in the Quaker community. Ashbridge died in Ireland in 1755, while on a preaching tour of the British Isles. A manuscript of her autobiography circulated among Quakers but was not published until 1774, nearly two decades after her death.
This excerpt from Elizabeth Ashbridge’s autobiography recounts part of the story of her conversion to Quakerism and the beginnings of her struggle with her husband Sullivan over her new faith, the main subject of the work. Her conversion was not merely spiritual but social, cultural, and personal as well. It required Ashbridge, like other Quaker converts, to break with the society in which she had grown up and adopt new lifeways, extending to such fundamental aspects of the persona as speech and clothing. It also threatened her relationship with her non-Quaker husband, a volatile and angry man strongly opposed to Quakerism and intent on exerting his male authority over his wife. Her conversion was not the solution to the problems in her life but the opening of a new struggle in which she fought to establish her new religious identity in a community hostile to it. The story therefore is one of internal and external struggle, as Ashbridge tells how she grappled with her own hesitation and cowardice as well as the rules of her society and her husband’s authority within her own family. Like other spiritual autobiographies, her account is based on a view of an explicitly providential view of life, ascribing to God the credit for the actions and events that draw Ashbridge closer to him and incorporating direct addresses to God through prayer into the narrative. Although the idea of a direct relationship between the individual and God, not mediated through a hierarchical church, is found in many branches of Christianity, including the Protestant tradition, it was particularly characteristic of Quakerism. Words, whether written or spoken, also play a central role in the spiritual narrative.
Although Quakers were no longer executed for their faith as they had been in seventeenth-century Puritan Boston, they still faced a great deal of hostility in the mid-eighteenth century. Quakers were widely despised for their distinctive ways such as their plain dress and their use of thee and thou rather than the formal second person pronoun you used to address social superiors. Quakers also refused to participate in the rites of social subordination such as removing hats in the presence of a superior; their refusal was considered an assault on the hierarchical relations on which early modern society depended.
On a deeper level, the Quaker religion was considered dubiously Christian (a feeling Ashbridge initially shared), and Quakers were tarred with the same brush as the radical sects of the English Civil War. Ashbridge had been brought up in the Church of England by her parents, remained formally affiliated with it via the certificate she was given to allow her into Anglican congregations during her travels, and would have been exposed to the Church’s hostility to dissenters of all stripes. Earlier sections of the narrative discuss her quest for spiritual fulfillment, which the Church was unable to fill.
Ashbridge fully shared the anti-Quaker feelings common in other branches of Anglo-American Protestantism, referring to her dislike of Quakers while living in Ireland and her taunting of a “handmaid of the Lord,” presumably a woman Quaker preacher or activist, in Boston. She asserts that she despised the Quakers even more than the Roman Catholics, a strong insult common among eighteenth-century Protestants. She believed wrongly that Quakers did not read the Bible or hold it sacred. (Her recounting of these anti-Quaker sentiments, however, may have been affected by the standard trope of spiritual autobiography of exaggerating one’s own sinfulness and alienation from God before the moment of conversion in order to heighten the contrast between the old, sinful self and the new postconversion self.) She was surprised to hear that her relatives in Pennsylvania were Quakers.
Converting to Quakerism
Despite her initial shock, exposure to the Quaker community in Pennsylvania led to Ashbridge’s conversion. However, she downplayed the role of social contact with Quakers in bringing her to Quakerism. As was common in conversion narratives, God is the chief actor, bringing Ashbridge to the true faith out of love and concern for her soul. The role of the written word, the book she reads at her relative’s house in Pennsylvania and her intense response to it, is also important. This was another common theme in Protestant spiritual autobiographies and conversion narratives. Her initial disdain for Quakers is largely based on their verbal insufficiencies. She wonders when she picks up the Quaker book, “what can these people write about?” and suspects that they read little, including the Bible, outside of George Fox’s The Journal (1694). Her discovery that Quakers read and wrote books did much to erode her resistance to conversion.
The spoken word also plays a central role in Ashbridge’s conversion. A climactic experience in the document, after which her commitment to Quakerism becomes permanent, comes when she hears the preaching of a Quaker minister named William Hammans. (Quakers did not have a professional ministry per se as did Anglicans and Puritans, but some “Public Friends,” male and female, were licensed by their local Quaker meetings to preach.) Prior to that, she had wished to attend a Church of England service, but the nearest church was too far away for this to be practical, and she accompanied her aunt and uncle to a Quaker meeting instead. The silence at the Quaker meeting did not initially impress her nor did the Friends in attendance, and she fell asleep. Ashbridge reports that following the meeting, she was filled with “spiritual pride,” and thought herself better than the Quakers. Several weeks after, however, at a Quaker meeting at her uncle’s home, Hammans delivered a sermon that addressed the topic of baptism, which Ashbridge had recently disputed with her Quaker uncle. Quakers differed from other Christian denominations at the time in not practicing baptism with water, arguing that the only true baptism was the baptism of the spirit. This was a very important issue, and one reason why many did not consider Quakers to be true Christians. Water baptism was among the “shadows” that Quakers believed had faded with the coming of Christ.
Hammans discussed the very difficulties Ashbridge had with Quaker beliefs on baptism in a way that intellectually removed her doubts so appositely that at first she suspected her aunt and uncle of having prearranged the sermon topic with Hammans. When they denied this, she concluded that Hammans was “the messenger of God to me” and the sermon was a “divine revelation.”
Throughout Ashbridge’s conversion, language—written or spoken—is paramount; Quakerism fully shared and even extended Protestantism’s traditional distrust of images. It is her interest in reading that causes her to pick up the book and take the first tentative steps towards Quakerism. (She points out that while in Ireland, she had neither read Quaker books nor attended meetings, thus cutting herself off from the word.) Ashbridge writes about being haunted by Satan’s nighttime “insinuations” that her faith is weak because she has shown an interest in Quakerism and casts his attack in terms of “advancing several texts of scripture against [her].” When she then yields temporarily to these insinuations, she expresses her backsliding in terms of avoiding Quaker books. She is also concerned to establish that her relatives did not force her or even encourage her into Quakerism, including in her story of the first time she read a Quaker book the fact that her aunt discouraged her from reading it, thinking that she was opposed to Quakerism. When this issue comes up later in her conflict with Sullivan, she reasserts that her family had not made her a Quaker, and even claims that she had not told her relatives of her conversion. Credit must be given to God, not to any human agency.
Ashbridge’s realization that Hammans was the bearer of a message from God was followed by her “open[ing her] heart to receive the truth,” in effect accepting Quakerism. Having served his purpose, Hammans then disappears from the narrative rather than becoming a kind of spiritual teacher or exemplar, which would make him an intermediary between her and God. As in the case of the relatives, Ashbridge minimizes the role of individuals in her conversion. She viewed the conversion as a mutual act of love between her and God. She also considered it a contest between God and Satan for her soul, with Satan deceiving her into thinking he is “the right source,” or God. The intense emotionalism of Ashbridge’s conversion is manifested physically in tears and cries. The eighteenth century was an age of “sentiment” as expressed in novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, the British classic of the sentimental genre, which was first published in America in 1740, around the time of Ashbridge’s conversion. Tears and cries were considered signs of true, sincere emotion, not weakness.
After her conversion, Ashbridge remained constrained by society’s prejudices against Quakers. Her conversion became known in the area despite her attempts to conceal it and invited the taunts of her non-Quaker neighbors and acquaintances. She attempted to avoid this hostility by concealing her new beliefs and her visits to the meeting house and dressing in a more luxurious fashion than that of Quaker women, even dressing more luxuriously than she had before the conversion. Her tactics were ineffective, however, as her identification as a Quaker remained widely known. Furthermore, her attempts at subterfuge and concealment created a crisis of conscience, as she feared that God would punish her for hiding the truth—many believed that the denial of what one knew to be true about God was the “unforgiveable sin.”
Challenging patriarchal authority
The social stigma attached to Quakerism became a more serious problem on the return of Ashbridge’s husband Sullivan, who had already heard of her conversion and quickly verified his suspicions through observing her behavior, such as her use of thee rather than you. Sullivan’s role is particularly important since eighteenth-century households, including Quaker households, expected the husband to be the spiritual leader. Ashbridge’s temporary separation from her husband during her trip to Pennsylvania may have facilitated her conversion. By converting to Quakerism, Ashbridge was challenging her husband’s authority, and as a member of the Church of England, he undoubtedly held strong anti-Quaker sentiments.
Ashbridge’s use of the Quaker thee for her husband rather than the you with which one addressed a social superior was a particularly egregious attack on Sullivan’s leadership of the household and was essentially a rebellion against Sullivan’s patriarchal authority. Sullivan also seems to have regarded Quakerism as changing Ashbridge into a different woman from the one he married, complaining about the loss of her “natural liveliness of temper” in favor of her new Quaker sobriety. Sullivan had initially been attracted to Ashbridge at a time in her life when she was frequently singing and dancing and even thinking of a theatrical career. However, since by the end of the narrative Sullivan himself may have become a Quaker and even suffered martyrdom for Quaker nonviolence, Ashbridge’s emphasis of his hostility to Quakerism and resistance to her conversion could also be a literary device, rendering his final conversion more dramatic.
Ashbridge’s struggle with Sullivan occupies a central place in the narrative as the “trial” of her newfound Quaker faith. Now that she had become a Quaker, it was dramatically important that she suffer for her religion, with religious suffering being an important part of many spiritual autobiographies. The mere malicious gossip of neighbors was insufficient to fill this space, but given the commonness of domestic violence and the lack of recourse a wife had against a violent or otherwise abusive husband, a struggle between a wife and husband was indeed a trial or test of faith. As a memoirist, Ashbridge was walking a narrow path in treating her relations with her husband. Since Quakers, like other colonists, believed in a wife’s duty to submit to her husband, she had to be careful to show that any defiance was a result of her greater duty to God and not of putting her own will ahead of her husband’s. In discussing her decision to visit her relatives in Pennsylvania, she claims that Sullivan “gave me liberty,” acknowledging his authority in nonreligious decision making.
Sullivan’s angry reaction to his wife’s conversion is reminiscent of the reaction people have today when members of their family join fringe religious groups or “cults.” The local Church of England minister or “priest,” (a term always used in a negative sense in Ashbridge’s Account , which is full of criticism of male authority figures in religion) suggests that Sullivan “deprogram” his wife by removing her from Quaker-dominated Pennsylvania, in effect isolating her from other Quakers. Pennsylvania, the geographical location of Ashbridge’s conversion, functions in the narrative as a symbol of Quakerism, a place to which she journeys and from which her husband wishes to remove her. Sullivan relocated himself and Ashbridge to a house owned by an Anglican churchwarden and strong opponent of Quakerism, hoping in vain that immersing her in this anti-Quaker environment would change her beliefs. Isolation from the Quaker community was another test of Ashbridge’s faith.
Quakerism was often associated with female rebellion against male authority, and “mad” Quaker women were frequent targets of anti-Quaker polemic and satire. From the founding of Quakerism in the 1650s, Quakers were among the few denominations that allowed women to preach. By choosing a public career over their domestic duties to their husbands and families and presuming to expound religious truth to men as well as women, Quaker women preachers, as Ashbridge later became, were challenging the dominant gender ideology of the patriarchal subordination of women to men, both within in the family and the Anglican church. This idea was at first shocking to Ashbridge as well as to her husband and friends, as can be seen from her dismay to learn that her aunt was a Quaker preacher.
Although social and domestic struggles move to the center stage, Ashbridge’s spiritual struggles were by no means over. Doubts about one’s own salvation, inspired by the devil, were part of a conversion story, and Ashbridge’s story is no exception. Many of the symptoms she describes in the period when she and her husband were staying at the churchwarden’s house might now be diagnosed as clinical depression, but Ashbridge and many other people in her own time interpreted them spiritually rather than medically. At the end of the excerpted passage, she is in a state of hopelessness that she and her contemporaries would identify as “despair” and classify as a sin against God. Fear over one’s own salvation was a common experience in conversion narratives, and it was compounded in her case by the fear that by denying God—she does not specify what action she is referring to—she had committed an unforgivable sin and has doomed herself to hell. Her overcoming of despair, which occurs later in the narrative, was another sign that her faith had become deep and permanently rooted.
Ashbridge became a widely admired and influential figure in the Quaker community on both sides of the Atlantic, partly on the strength of her autobiography, which circulated as a manuscript and is the earliest evidence of the text, as Ashbridge’s original does not survive. Her account was not printed, however, until nearly two decades after her death and was accompanied by a statement from her surviving third husband, Aaron Ashbridge, describing her later career and death. It was frequently reprinted in the nineteenth century, although it was never as influential as John Woolman’s Journal, another Quaker text published posthumously in 1774. (Woolman shared many acquaintances with Ashbridge and may have been familiar with her work when preparing his own autobiographical writings, although his situation was very different, both as a man and as someone born into Quakerism rather than a convert like Ashbridge.) Ashbridge’s account also entered the Quaker canon by being included in an influential mid-nineteenth century collection of standard Quaker writings, The Friends’ Library. Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge would become a touchstone for Quakers, particularly for Quaker women, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The influence of Ashbridge’s Account on American culture was initially limited because it was little known outside the Quaker community. However, Quaker women like Ashbridge had a more diffuse impact on nineteenth-century thought about women, particularly as Quakers began to think of themselves less as a people apart and interacted more freely with the larger society around them. The image of the Quaker woman of the colonial era boldly confronting male authority contributed to nineteenth-century American feminism, and assertive, though meek, Quaker women frequently appeared in period novels aimed at social reform, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Ashbridge occupied a public role as a Quaker minister, Quaker women were generally more active in the public sphere than were women from other Christian traditions. Quaker women were leaders in a variety of nineteenth-century movements for social reforms such as abolition and suffrage. Four out of the five women who planned the 1848 Seneca Falls meeting that began the women’s suffrage movement in America were Quakers. In recent decades there has been a revival of interest in Ashbridge and her book, an interest that is inspired by feminism and the growing interest in women’s lives and documents.
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