Daughters of Light

Every once in a while, a book just seems to leap off the shelf and demand to be read. This was the case with Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775, by Rebecca Larson. Based on her Ph.D. dissertation completed at Harvard University, it was published in 1999 by the Knopf division of Random House. I found it last month on the shelf of adult books about Quakers at the San Francisco Friends School. I think I’d seen it before, but apparently I wasn’t ready until now to read it.

It was refreshing to read about Quakerism from a feminist, but not religious point of view. For example, I had not understood that London Yearly Meeting was originally composed only of male ministers and representatives of the men’s quarterly meetings. I didn’t realize that women were not allowed to attend the powerful Meeting for Sufferings in London. And that it was very questionable whether they should come to meetings of ministers and elders, but women prevailed in the end.

It was good for me to be reminded of how unusual it was for eighteenth century women to travel away from their homes, to be listened to in public, to be valued as instruments of the Lord, not just as domestic child-bearing resources. It matters a great deal to me that a Quaker can pursue a ministerial “calling” without renouncing marriage or motherhood.

It was inspiring to read about the sacrifices that women made, and their husbands and families so that they could follow the leadings of God. Larson describes some of the ways that families helped each other, caring for each other’s children and other household tasks in the absence of a mother/minister, for a few weeks to a few years. As I prepare to be gone from my household for a few days, traveling in the ministry, it is good to put this in a larger perspective.

I can hardly imagine the drama of Margaret Lewis, a 40 year old mother of nine from a farm in Pennsylvania, sailing away to England and discovering mid-Atlantic that she was pregnant. Lewis nonetheless continued to travel in the ministry through the mountains of Wales for the next six months. After lying-in at Bristol for two months before and after the baby was born, she then left the baby in the care of Friends and continued to travel for another two years before going home, having finally discharged her duty to God.

Being a minister allowed women to transcend ordinary categories of class as well as gender. When Jane Fenn first struggled with her gift for ministry, she was a 24 year old maidservant. However, when her employers hosted traveling ministers or she herself traveled in the ministry, she was expected to sit at the dinner table with the guests, rather than with the servants.

Larson illustrates the ways that Quaker men respected their wives and other women, in the social, political and domestic spheres. And how Quaker women came to be respected in the wider culture as well, although this declined after the American Revolution when Quakers became more inwardly focused.

Larson also points out the impact women ministers had on the renewed attention to discipline in the transatlantic Quaker community in the mid-1700’s. I first read about that time in The Reformation of American Quakerism, 1748-1783 by Jack D. Marietta. Marietta mentions the women ministers Mary Peisley and Catherine Payton in comparison to Samuel Fothergill. He describes that the women traveled earlier, farther, longer and promoted the reformation more “pugnaciously” (Marietta, p. 41), but still decides that they were less influential than the men. I have no way to judge the truth of this claim, but reading Larson’s book reminds me that the general invisibility of women in history is not over.


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Blogger Chris M. said...

I am commenting to let you know that you are not invisible, not to me nor to our children nor to our meeting, and to tell you we love you!

-- Chris M.

3/02/2007 1:26 AM  
Blogger anj said...

Thinking of leaving nine! children behind, and then a newborn with Friends for two years stretches me so much. The equality of women as ministers and people is a huge part of what drew me to Friends. I will be leaving in less than two weeks for 10 days away from home, I hear what you are saying here -"As I prepare to be gone from my household for a few days, traveling in the ministry, it is good to put this in a larger perspective." I also wish we were both traveling at different times,because then there might be a chance I could meet you. I would like to know you face-to-face very much. I hope your time away will be full.

3/02/2007 9:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this review. I too have seen this book but have never quite gotten around to reading it, for one reason or another. It sounds like a good book to read in community with others, and this review has perhaps started me down that path.

Blessings to you, and wishing you smooth travels on your upcoming journey!


3/02/2007 9:55 AM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Darling Chris, thank you. The stories of the husbands in the book only highlight how blessed I am with you as my partner.

Anj - good luck with your journey too. At least we didn't have to find anyone to milk the cows while we're gone. My spiritual itinerary will be quite full this year. Another opportunity will arise for us to meet, God willing and the creek don't rise, as my father says.

Mia, I think this would be a great book for a book club, especially one with other Quaker women.

3/02/2007 3:18 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

Wow. I become regularly reminded that I don't have as much guts as I think I do in following God's leading. Thanks for sharing these stories!

3/02/2007 4:55 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Even without being pregnant at the time, the idea of being away from home for three years is beyond my strength and light.

More stories are being written every day, though.

3/02/2007 8:51 PM  
Blogger Tmothy Travis said...

I appreciate your posting about the fact that the Society of Friends having a history of uneven performance in regard to what we Liberals now call the "equality testimony." This is stuff that we shold all know and appreciate, as the struggle is not over.

In North Pacific Yearly Meeting women occupy almost all of the principle positions of authority but there is still, at times, a tipping both ways that shows the limitations on our ability to see one another aside from gender.

Sexism is alive, despite the great progress we have made--despite the progress that we talk up, among ourselves. Racism, too, for that matter, although it's more structural within the Society and so has less opportunity to show ourselves to us.

We need constant reminders like yours that God is not finished with us and, therefore, we are not finished with God.

3/05/2007 8:36 AM  

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