Elizabeth Ashbridge (1713-1755)
Contributing Editor: Liahna Babener
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Most students are unfamiliar with the doctrinal differences between the Anglican and Quaker faiths, upon which Ashbridge's Account hinges. They tend to be uncomfortable with early Quaker preaching practices, doctrinal assumptions, and social customs. This discomfort sometimes alienates students or prevents them from empathizing with Ashbridge's dilemma. Such anxieties, however, are almost always overcome by the power and poignancy of the text itself.
Providing background about religious and doctrinal tensions in the Great Awakening and gender patterns in colonial America is crucial, and the adoption of a feminist strategy of reading is particularly important. Comparing other accounts of those who have been impelled by spiritual conviction to act against convention and law is illuminating, as is reading personal narratives of women of the period who use the autobiographical text as a private means of self-vindication in a patriarchal culture.
Students enjoy discussing whether Ashbridge is heroic or perverse. They often identify with her independent spirit and even her proto-feminist rebellion, but lament her increasingly dour tone and her failed marriage. Some wonder whether she gave up too much for conscience's sake. Some students see the husband as abusive or imperious but cannot help sympathizing with his distress over losing a mirthful wife. Students also wonder if Quakers courted their social estrangement, contributing to their own victimization, and ask whether Quakers should be blamed or censured for their martyrdom.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
1. The expressly female dilemma of having to choose between conscience and husband, as well as the social stresses upon a woman who defies traditional and prescribed sex roles, threatening the stability of the patriarchal order.
2. The doctrinal and social conflicts between Anglicans and Quakers in early America; more broadly, the pressures from a predominantly Anglican, increasingly secularized culture to tame or compartmentalize religious fervor.
3. Ways in which women autobiographers use personal narrative for self-vindicating purposes, or for private rebellion against patriarchal norms.
4. The degree to which autobiography may be read as factual truth as opposed to an invention or reconstruction of reality; the reliability of the personal narrator as witness to and interpreter of events; the fictional elements of the genre.
5. Making a living (as a woman) in colonial America.
6. Marriage, husbands' prerogatives, men's and women's ways of coping with marital estrangement.
7. The nature of religious conviction; Quaker doctrine, patterns of worship, and social customs.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Study the document as an example of the genre of spiritual autobiography, of personal narrative, of female and feminist assertion, of social history, of eighteenth-century rationalism, and at the same time of revivalist ardor. Explore to what degree the document is confessional and to what degree it may be understood as contrivance or fiction. How is the author "inventing" herself as she writes? How does she turn her experience into a didactic instrument for the edification of her readers?
Social, historical, religious, and political contexts are primary issues. The composition and publication history of the text--penned just before Ashbridge's death-- are also illuminating, especially considering that no version of the document in Ashbridge's own hand survives, and scholars are not in consensus about which extant version of the autobiography may be considered authoritative or closest to the original. Consider the Great Awakening audience who may have read this account of religious conversion. Does the document create a sense of feminine solidarity? Can one theorize about the kind of audience to whom Ashbridge directed the Account?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Compare other Great Awakening spiritual autobiographies, such as Edwards's "Personal Narrative." Puritan introspective literature and conversion stories, particularly by women, are instructive (such as those by Elizabeth Mixer and Elizabeth White); chronicles of Quaker experience or persecution in colonial America (such as Jane Hoskin's Quaker autobiography or Hawthorne's tale, "The Gentle Boy") are revealing. Diaries, journals, and letters of early American women documenting romantic, religious, and social experiences (compare Sarah Kemble Knight, Jarena Lee, Sarah Osborne, Abigail Adams, and so forth) are useful. Benjamin Franklin's more cunning and more secular Autobiography makes an apt parallel.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. (a) Characterize Ashbridge's spiritual struggle(s) and marital dilemma(s). Does she resolve the former at the expense of the latter?
(b) In what ways do you empathize with Ashbridge in her conflict with her husband? Why or why not? How might you act differently from either or both of them in this situation?
(c) Does the community treat Ashbridge fairly following her conversion?
(d) What implicit moral and spiritual advice does the piece contain?
2. How does Ashbridge structure the narrative and construct herself as a character in her own story to win sympathy and intellectual support from readers? Is she successful?
3. (a) Write a counterpart narrative (or defense) from the husband's point of view.
(b) Write an Anglican's critique of or comment upon Ashbridge's behavior.
(c) Invent an imaginative dialogue between Ashbridge and Edwards (or any of the following) concerning religious or gender issues: Anne Hutchinson, Mary Rowlandson, Anne Bradstreet, Samuel Sewall, Knight, Benjamin Franklin, Abigail Adams, and so forth.
Two recent studies have provided important new information on Elizabeth Ashbridge. The most significant published source is Daniel Shea's new edition of Ashbridge's Some Account of the Fore Part of the Life of Elizabeth Ashbridge, available with his detailed introduction and textual notes, in Journeys in New Worlds: Early American Narratives, edited by William L. Andrews et. al. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990), from which this excerpt is drawn. Christine Levenduski's dissertation, "Elizabeth Ashbridge's `Remarkable Experiences': Creating the Self in a Quaker Personal Narrative" (University of Minnesota, 1989), is an invaluable book-length discussion of the text and its author. Carol Edkins's "Quest for Community: Spiritual Autobiographies of Eighteenth-Century Quaker and Puritan Women in America" in Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, edited by Estelle C. Jelinek (Blooming-ton: Indiana University Press, 1980), pp. 39-52, also discusses Ashbridge substantively. Shea and Levenduski contain useful bibliographies of further materials providing background to Ashbridge's life and narrative.