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Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies

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Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775

Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775, by Rebecca Larson

What role and influence did Christian women have in 17th and 18th century America? Most people’s answer to this question would be heavily colored by the image of Puritan women, who practiced a religion which idealized female submission to men in both this world and the next. These were not, however, the only Christian women in America — there were also many Quaker women, and they lead dramatically different lives.


Title: Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775
Author: Rebecca Larson
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0807848972

• Well-written, easy to read history Quaker women
• Examines little-known role women played in the spread of Quaker beliefs

• None

• History of the role of Quaker women in preaching and prophesying
• Provides a strong counterpoint to traditional model of a submissive Puritan woman
• Explains development of Quakerism in America

Book Review

Why would unbelievers and skeptics care about the sorts of lives lead by Quaker women several hundred years ago? Rebecca Larson offers readers a picture of how women can live in Christianity which, for some people, is disturbingly radical even today. At the time, it was often cause for scandal and legal action.

Although Quaker women, like Quaker men, had to live by strict rules regarding dress, language and conduct, they both also lived by a radical Protestant theology which taught that all believers had equal access to the Holy Spirit — and, therefore, to the ability to teach and preach God’s message. Because of this, Quaker women had unparalleled freedom and authority in their families, their church, and their own lives:

Although the Puritan model of female submission to male ministerial authority has shaped our views of women in early America, in 1700 Quakerism was one of several religious alternatives for colonial Americans and "possibly the most potent religious movement in the colonies outside Puritan New England." Women's participation in the ministry, traditionally a masculine prerogative, sprang from Quaker belief in both genders' capacity to be guided by the Holy Spirit in inspired preaching.

Larson begins by exploring the early history of Quakerism - George Fox had a revelation that a person could look inward for guidance to God's truth and did not have to rely upon a university or church education for it. According to Fox, the Christian reliance upon "hireling priests" resulted in people losing the gift of preaching through the Holy Spirit.

In theory, this was supposed to be the basis for the entire Protestant Reformation - a priesthood of all believers. In practice, however, professional priests remained the norm and most believers continued to defer to men for that role. Quakers, however, not only put that theory into practice, they also refused to recognize a gender distinction in whom the Holy Spirit might touch. Therefore, women were given the same chances to preach that men were given.

Did any of these women matter? They certainly did - their numbers helped ensure that, with between 1300 and 1500 Quaker women ministers being active in the Anglo-American world during this era. Quakers as a group constituted the third-largest religious denomination in the colonies, holding considerable political and economic power in many places. This was a time when few women wrote and even fewer were actually published — but despite this, these women saw their sermons and tracts reach an eager transatlantic audience.

As Larson shows, preaching women were not simply strange novelties. In fact, they exerted real power over the direction of mid-century Quaker reform efforts. For example, when it seemed that Quakerism might grow soft and complacent in the face of religious toleration and material prosperity, female worked to promote a return to the strict tenets of early Quakerism.

Because of the efforts of these ministers, Quakerism moved toward a commitment to pacifism and universal abolition when such opinions were unfashionable among successful Quakers. But the female reformers won. Thus, largely because of their persistent message, colonial Quakers renounced politics and slave-holding, and settled into their now familiar work for quiet activism and social justice.

Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775

Daughters of Light: Quaker Women Preaching and Prophesying in the Colonies and Abroad, 1700-1775, by Rebecca Larson

There was also a great deal of cultural cross-pollination resulting from their efforts — women ministers circulated throughout British North America, bringing their particular perspectives to new areas and they also traveled back and forth across the Atlantic. Some even traveled during pregnancy, leaving small children at home to be cared for by their husbands or the Quaker community:

Quakers created a unique transatlantic culture, embracing both mysticism and rational capitalism, female spiritual leaders and shrewd male merchants, as they attempted to balance, in historian Frederick Tolles' words, the cultivation of the outward plantation and the "inward plantation" of the spirit.

In their unprecedented public role, they reached diverse audiences in courthouses, meeting-houses, and private homes consisting of men and women, members of other faiths as well as to Quakers, Native Americans and even slaves. Over time, even female Quaker preachers became more and more welcome throughout the colonies. People grew accustomed to seeing them and hearing their message, leading to even greater influence in culture and politics.

The story of these women is very important and, unfortunately, it is largely unknown. We can be thankful that Rebecca Larson has brought it to us.

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