Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775by Rebecca Larson
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In this pathbreaking book, Rebecca Larson restores a group of remarkable women to the American historical landscape. From Ann Moore, whose religious vision impelled her to preach to the British military during the French and Indian War, advising them to rely not on physical weapons and warfare but upon God; to Mary Weston, whose visit in the 1750s to Charleston, South Carolina, prompted the colonial legislature to adjourn in order to attend the noted preacher's meeting; to the celebrated Rachel Wilson, whose eloquence and piety drew crowds during her ministerial tour of the colonies in 1768 to 1769, Larson broadens our conception of women's activities before the American Revolution.
More than a thousand Quaker women ministers were active in the Anglo-American world during this era, when Quakers formed the third-largest religious group in the colonies. Some circulated throughout British North America; others crossed the Atlantic to deliver their inspired messages. In this astonishing public role, they preached in courthouses, meeting-houses, and private homes to audiences of men and women, to those of other faiths as well as to Quakers, to Native Americans and to slaves. At times they crossed paths with prominent figures such as Patrick Henry and Henry Laurens.
Larson offers striking insights on the ways in which this public, authoritative role for women affected the formation of their identities, their families, and their society. How did these spiritual leaders negotiate the challenges of marriage and childbearing while travelling thousands of miles on religious journeys? Some even traveled during pregnancy, leaving small children at home to be cared for by theirhusbands or the Quaker community. Through their interweaving narratives we hear long-silenced, forgotten voices that deepen our understanding of the once thriving transatlantic Quaker culture that balanced mysticism with pragmatism, recognizing female as well as male spiritual leaders.
Daughters of Light is an important contribution to the history of women and religion in early America.
The Women's Review of Books
[Larson] has given us the stories of thousands of women whose words and courageous deportment forced large numbers of British North Americans to admit female competence. (Women's Review of Books)
Larson has written the first comprehensive account of the role of 18th-century Quaker women ministers. (Choice)
Daughters of Light should be required reading for everyone engaged by present-day debates about whether the clergy should be open to women. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
"Larson] provides a welcome corrective to popular historical accounts that underestimate the roles of women and religious diversity in early American history. (Booklist)
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Read an Excerpt
From Chapter One
You that cannot own [acknowledge] the prophesying of the daughters, the woman-labourers in the gospel, you are such as the apostle speaks of . . . which serves not the Lord," George Fox wrote in 1656, referring to the majority of his Christian contemporaries. The Quaker leader's inclusion of women in the ministry challenged fundamental assumptions of established Christianity. "Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy," according to the biblical verse Joel 2:28. But "that kind of prophesying which consists in interpreting Scripture . . . cannot bee meant in this place," argued a seventeenth-century Anglican priest, giving the traditional interpretation, "because in that kind of prophesying the daughters of God have no part nor fellowship with the sons of God; for God hath excluded them."
Origins of Quakerism
Quakerism emerged during a turbulent era in English history, when political, social, and religious upheaval created "a world turned upside down." "Bold impudent huswives" and uneducated laborers preached on stools, spreading "new and strange blasphemies." Civil war and regicide heightened the intensely apocalyptic atmosphere. Attacks on the authority of both church and state generated a creative ferment of ideas in mid-seventeenth-century England. Traditions were repudiated or reexamined. Conflicting biblical interpretations were fiercely debated in pamphlet wars. Diverse sects and movements arose in the absence of a controlling orthodoxy: including the Ranters, the Diggers, the Levellers, the Muggletonians, the Grindletonians, and the Fifth Monarchy Men. The Quakers were one of the few sectarian groups from thisheady period to survive the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
The Protestant Reformation, over a century earlier, initially had released forces of dissent. In accepting the Bible (the revealed Word of God) as a sufficient guide to salvation, Protestants promoted individual scriptural interpretation: "a priesthood of all believers." The Protestants' rejection of the Roman Catholic Church as mediator between God and humankind placed every man and woman in a direct relationship to the Divine Being. When Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg church in Germany in 1517, he stimulated a reforming zeal to purge Christianity of corruption and practices not based on Scriptures.
The Reformation had proceeded in a distinctive manner in sixteenth-century England, paving the way for future religious conflicts. King Henry VIII's desire to break with Rome had been fueled less by Protestant convictions than by his aim to establish the state's authority over the church, and his need for a divorce. Rejecting papal authority, the Church of England had retained most of the Catholic ecclesiastical organization and ceremonial forms. English Protestantism divided into two factions: Anglicans (those who supported the Church of England as established) and Puritans (those who wanted further reformation). Puritans sought to replace the bishops, whose authority, like that of the pope, supposedly derived from Saint Peter, with a presbyterial or congregational form of church government in which all clergymen were of equal rank. Many reformers wanted to purify the church of other vestiges of Catholicism, including priestly garments, statues, and elaborate rituals, construed as symbols of idolatry or superstition. They endeavored to recapture the simplicity of early Christian worship.
The cruel measures adopted by William Laud, King Charles I's archbishop of Canterbury, to enforce religious uniformity in the 1630s exacerbated these disputes within English Protestantism. Laud's persecution of Puritans angered those who perceived his exalted view of episcopal authority as crypto-Catholic. Popular fears that a design existed "to alter the kingdom both in religion and government" by returning it to Catholicism and erecting a despotism were stimulated by Charles I's ineptitude and his devotion to his Catholic queen. Alarmed Protestants viewed the pope as the Antichrist who had led believers astray and plunged the church into spiritual darkness with his deviations from God's Word.
Archbishop Laud, "that Arch-enemy of our Prosperity and Reformation," was impeached by the Long Parliament in December 1640 and sent to the Tower. Antiprelatical feeling was so widespread that even vendors in the streets of London "lock'd their Fish up, / And trudg'd away to cry No Bishop." The imprisonment of Laud led to the almost total collapse of ecclesiastical authority in England. Puritans in Parliament debated the proper form of church government, liturgy, and teachings, unable to settle the "Church Question." As John Milton wrote in "The Reason of Church Government Urged Against Prelaty" (1642), people were seeking "to inform their understanding in the reason of that government which the church claims to have over them." Milton lamented that "whether it ought to be presbyterial or prelatical [church government by bishops], such endless question, or rather uproar, is arisen in this land. . . ."
In the unaccustomed fluidity of national religious practice, sects representing a variety of theological opinions mushroomed. Disorder increased with the outbreak of civil war in 1642 between the parliamentary army and forces supporting Charles I. The catastrophic events convinced many that the Millennium, the thousand-year-period predicted in the Bible when Christ will reign on earth, was imminent. A "Babelish confusion" of contending voices proposed to redeem the nation from its spiritual and political ills during the revolutionary fervor surrounding the execution of the king in 1649.
What People are saying about this
A highly readable story of the remarkable lives of travelling Quaker women ministers whose faith and fortitude took them regularly throughout the American colonies and back and forth to England and beyond. If one marvels at the family management of soccer moms, this is an eye-opening account of how it all worked in the 1700s.Robert Lawrence Smith, author of A Quaker Book of Wisdom
Rebecca Larson offers a deeper and more daring probe into colonial religious life. To recover the long-obscured lives of Quaker women preachers, Larson ventures far beyond print sources into a diverse array of previously untapped manuscript letters, diaries, journals, and church records from many archives in both Great Britain and the United States. From new sources, she documents ordinary people with extraordinary experiences to reveal eighteenth-century spirituality from a provocative new angle.New Republic
A remarkable portrait. . . . This fascinating book will generate a new and more complex understanding of the place of women in colonial American history.Drew Gilpin Faust, author of Mothers of Invention
[Larson] provides a welcome corrective to popular historical accounts that underestimate the roles of women and religious diversity in early American history.Booklist
Larson has written the first comprehensive account of the role of 18th-century Quaker women ministers. . . . Daughters of Light will also be useful for scholars of women's history because it shows how itinerant women ministers created a visible public role, exercising authority within and outside the Quaker meeting.Choice
Daughters of Light is a sustained act of historical recovery. . . . [Larson] has given us the stories of thousands of women whose words and courageous deportment forced large numbers of British North Americans to admit female competence.Women's Review of Books
Wonderfully researched and written. . . . One of the best books ever on women and Quakerism.Kirkus Reviews
An exceptionally rewarding book . . . Rebecca Larson tells the story with insight, exemplary research, and vivid prose.Jon Butler, author of Awash In a Sea of Faith
With grace and insight . . . Larson brings to light a story too long left in the shadows of Colonial American and religious history. . . . [She] has resurrected these remarkable women and makes us rethink basic assumptions about women and religious tolerance in Colonial America. Larson is our own 'daughter of light' in giving us so rich a history.Library Journal
Meet the Author
Rebecca Larson is a historian who lives in Santa Barbara, California.
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